As a Jew born in a Muslim country, I have always had a personal interest in interfaith understanding. In 1995, I founded the Maimonides Foundation, one of the first interfaith organizations, with the express desire of fostering understanding and co-operation between Jews, Christians and Muslims through cultural and academic programmes.
The three Abrahamic faiths, which represent the beliefs of over half the world, share more commonality than differences. For example, they all believe in the same God and yet in a recent survey only 29% of young adults were aware of this.
I have come to realize that the only way we can tackle misinformation and misunderstandings between and about the three Abrahamic faiths is by approaching it at grass roots level. When it rains, water does not gather on the top of the mountain; you find it at the foot of the mountain.
It has always been my belief that the real weapon of mass destruction is ignorance, and if ignorance is the problem, then surely education must be the solution.
So I commissioned the Maimonides Foundation Interfaith Explorer project: I asked one of the most celebrated writers of curricula for schools to write a curriculum for children aged between 10 and 11 for 18,500 UK schools; to teach them, while they were young, with open minds, that there is far more that unites the world’s faiths than divides them.
The writer’s challenge was how to capture the imagination of a child for three/four weeks (the duration of the programme) about their faith. I asked them how big the classes were and they answered about 20 – 25 children. I told them to go out and buy 25 lemons, put them in a basket and ask each child to come up and take a lemon and go and sit down. The children should make that lemon their own, look at it, examine it, and see how it looks. When they had finished, the children put the lemons back in the basket, then the lemons were mixed up and each child was asked to go and find their own lemon. Out of 25, there were 24 of them who found their lemon, only one didn’t. I told them, children, even though you have found a few differences on the outside of the lemon; you have to understand that the core of the lemon is exactly the same. The core of the religions of the world is exactly the same.
We have to follow the triangle of harmony through dialogue, culture, and interfaith. The Maimonides Interfaith Explorers website, contains 400 video clips: interviews with dignitaries, royalty, ordinary people, religious leaders, teachers and students. We realised that if we reach children while they are young, they are all singing the same tune. It is the only chance we have to transmit ideas of harmony through dialogue to schools and children before they are negatively influenced and misinformed by others. This is a very important issue that we have to somehow address.
As I was talking with the children about the video on the website, one of them asked me “You have travelled around to lots of different countries – can you tell me, how many gods have you seen?” I looked at him and his teacher and I answered him, “For your information and for your teacher’s information there is only one Creator, and we are all his creations.” The trouble we have today in society is that ignorance cannot be diluted without education and if we don’t dilute that ignorance, we are going to have a problem.
Culture is a huge bridge builder because people who produce Works of Art come from different parts of the world: they are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or of no faith at all, but what they produce gives a lot of joy and brings people together. I hold exhibitions around the world and people tell me what a big contribution I have made as a Collector. I tell them to reserve their praises for the soul of the artist that produced these beautiful and magnificent objects. Politics and religion have their own language but the language of Art is universal. This universality is desperately needed today.
I was in Dubai at a seminar and thinkers and I was sitting to a Nobel Prize winner for physics. He was talking about the laws of physics and his experience. He told us that his 6 year old son came to him and said “Dad you are always talking about the speed of light, how about the speed of dark!.” I want to tell you, even if you are working in the darkest tunnel in the world, with the flick of one match you can defeat the darkness and this is the light that we need.
As an Iranian who loves poetry and philosophy, allow me to end with a very beautiful poem which talks about light from a famous Persian poet, Jami, who said:
Each tinted fragment sparkles in the sun
A thousand colours but the light is one
Let’s follow that light because that’s the only way we can get out of trouble.
I consider this poem to be a guiding message for humanity and it is fitting that I have been privileged to recite it in the United Nations.
Thank you very much.