Commonwealth campaign sees universities as peace-builders

As places where ideas can be advanced and challenged in an atmosphere of tolerance and objectivity, universities play a critical role in promoting mutual respect and understanding between people of different faiths and beliefs.

Recognition of this role is the foundation of a campaign driven by the Association of Commonwealth Universities, or ACU, to promote the values of mutual respect and understanding between people of different faiths, beliefs, and cultures in universities across the world.

The campaign, which began in July and ends in December, has so far resulted in the collection of more than 23 case studies. It is being run in the context of the 2017 theme of “A Peace-building Commonwealth”.

The power to transform lives

Dr Joanna Newman, ACU chief executive and secretary general, said with more than 500 member institutions in over 50 countries, the organisation’s membership was very diverse but what unites all these universities, and what the ACU ultimately represents, is the shared values of the Commonwealth – including the principles of tolerance, respect and understanding – combined with a belief in the power of higher education to transform lives.

“This campaign comes at a time when the need for proactive mutual understanding and respect between people of different faiths, beliefs and cultures has, arguably, never been greater. Universities are based on the principles of free and open debate and have a vital role to play in helping to meet this need,” she told University World News.

The first phase of the campaign has seen the collection of examples of how institutions across the Commonwealth are already involved in innovative programmes and initiatives that promote and nurture values of respect, tolerance and openness among staff, students and their local communities.

According to ACU, these examples are meant to teach members and inspire one another.

The plan is to have an ACU residential school in Asia in December 2017 on the theme of respect and understanding where students from across the Commonwealth will be invited to come together to discuss practical ways of nurturing mutual understanding at the university level. Applications for the residential school opened in September.

Shared case studies

Several institutions from Africa, Asia, Australasia, North America and Europe have already shared their experiences.

At the State University of Zanzibar, Tanzania, Dr Issa Ziddy, dean of the School of Kiswahili and Foreign Languages, is leading a programme to dispel myths in the community through education and counselling.

A mandatory course for all students called ‘Developmental Studies’ touches on different humanitarian issues and aims to build the foundations of respect.

Ziddy said the institution has developed a curriculum that offers students another interpretation of issues such as gender, human rights and health, which many students have been taught to perceive only through the lens of their religions and cultures.

For instance, working in collaboration with some interfaith-based organisations and NGOs, the university tackles misconceptions around HIV/AIDS which stem from the belief that the illness is a punishment from God.

"We are starting to see a positive change,” said Ziddy.

Dispelling myths

The university sends groups of trained staff and students to visit the local community to raise awareness of the illness and dispel myths with the aim of educating the population about prevention and medication, but also to mediate perceptions of society towards the disease and affected people.

“We carry out what we call ‘spiritual counselling’ in local hospitals for families affected by the illness, with a sensitivity towards the individual families’ needs and personal religious beliefs."

Dr Annette Kezaabu Kasimbazi, deputy vice-chancellor for academic affairs at the Kampala International University in Uganda, said her institution carries out all-inclusive and non-denominational prayers for all.

When Kampala International University staff attend internal administrative meetings, or meetings at the Uganda National Council for Higher Education, they start proceedings with an all-inclusive prayer.

“Universal prayers are widely used in Uganda at the start of meetings as a way to bring together participants without discriminating against followers of the country’s two predominant faiths, Islam and Christianity,” said Kasimbazi.

Professor Emmanuel Mbennah, vice-chancellor of St John’s University of Tanzania, said the institution has a compulsory comparative religions course for all students in graduate programmes.

‘Introduction to World Religion’ is a cross-cutting course which exposes students to the beliefs, historical backgrounds and tenets of the major religions of the world, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and African traditional religions. The course aims to enable students, a majority of whom are Christians, to gain an understanding of different religions, and dispel myths and misconceptions which are prevalent in society.

Positive feedback

“Feedback on the course from both students and parents has been very positive. There is a clear appreciation for the exposure to other religions and the understanding gained through enhanced knowledge,” Mbennah said.

Dr Ahmed Kawesa Sengendo, rector of the Islamic University in Uganda, said the institution was mainstreaming international humanitarian law, a set of rules which seek to limit the effects of armed conflict, across various programmes in the university.

Done in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Islamic Committee of the International Crescent, Sengendo said the aim is to raise awareness of the existence of a set of rules that hold people accountable for their actions in the hope that they can make their students better citizens of the world.

ACU members are also encouraged to the endorse a statement of shared values which encourages individuals at Commonwealth universities to commit to efforts in nurturing respect. The statement has around 70 endorsements so far.