Held in the intimate atmosphere of Parliament Hall, this year’s St Andrews Coexistence Initiative Conference showcased a variety of speakers, all contributing different perspectives on the conference’s overarching theme of interfaith relations. From St Andrews’ very own International Relations lecturers and professors, to activists, to diplomatic journalists, the Coexistence Initiative impressed their audience with an ideal combination of speakers, the presentations resonating both on a familiar level, as well as on one much broader scale.
Quite fittingly, the conference took place during Passover and Easter weekend. This amalgamation of religious holidays not only generated an atmosphere of community, but also appropriately reflected the conference’s function as a dialogue for the promotion of greater coexistence. Indeed, the conference began with the Coexistence Initiative’s statement that – contrary to the supposed divide religion has embedded amongst people – peaceful coexist- ence is in fact possible.
The morning lectures mainly focused on the concept of “conflict” within the context of the main theme, began with St Andrews’ very own principal and vice-chancellor, Louise Richardson. With the title “Terrorism in the name of God”, Richardson’s presentation explored the relationship between religious fragmentation and terrorism. Arguing that religion is not a cause of terrorism and that no religion has a particular claim to terrorism, she explored the issue’s history, providing case studies of more recent acts of terrorism as well.
Dr Jeggrey Murer, a lecturer on collective violence here at St Andrews, moved the conference to an examination of the deeper philosophical issues of large group identity in times of conflict. With his energetic attitude and vibrant presence as a speaker, Murer captivated the audience with his assertion that the categorizing of people into groups is used as a tool for gaining political power.
The morning’s last speaker, Dr Jasmine Gani, – also a lecturer in the International Relations department – used Syria as the framework for her lecture on “empathy, dialogue and disagreement as foundations for coexistence”. Painting a vivid picture of Syria before the war, Gani explained the deep-rooted issues present within the strikingly multi-faith society, as well as the conflict’s “frightening dehumanization of ‘the other'”. Yet, more than simply demonstrating the ways in which religious differences lead to divisions within nations, she eloquently explained the constructive nature of these difference: that sometimes “it is through differences that we are encouraged to know one another”.
Following the conference’s initial focus on conflict – with all the brutality and terror which has plagued many of the world’s interfaith relations – the remaining speakers brought attention to coexistence: the ability for peaceful relations amongst seemingly fragmented and diverging faiths. This portion of the conference was presented largely by guest-speakers, demonstrating the organizers of the conference’s skill in allowing speakers from outside the St Andrews bubble to promote the idea of community in spite of perceived differences.
From foreign correspondent, Shyam Bhatia, to interfaith activist, Najib Bajali, to social anthropologist, Jonathan Spencer, each speaker provided personalized examples as frameworks for their arguments. Leaders in the Middle East, the Sri Lankan Civil War, as well as the conflict in Syria, were the main case studies examined, generating a balanced impression of interfaith relations around the world.
The conference ended with a panel discussion appropriately showcasing the University’s religious side, with Chaplain Dr Donald MacEwan leading the discourse. This interactive session added to the conference’s over-arching inclusive atmosphere, as there was a steady dialogue between the audience and speakers. Ultimately, the Coexistence Initiative delivered a perfectly organized conference, with an impressive array of speakers, all presented within an atmosphere of open-mindedness: both participants, organizers and guests contributed to reflecting the very best of the St Andrean community.
Editor’s note: The print edition of this article was incorrectly titled ‘Coexistence conflict a hit’. The title of this online version, ‘Coexistence conference a hit’ is the correct title for this article.