Intra-Community Dialogue: A Challenge to Racism and Faith Based Prejudice?

This paper arises from action research exploring the extent to which secular and religious peacebuilding may prove to be a resource for contemporary UK community cohesion. The research was centred on an interfaith community dialogue project set up to counter the divisive narratives of the British National Party (BNP), an extreme right wing group postulating the defence of white working class Christians against threats posed by immigrants and Muslims.


As part of its work the community dialogue project developed an innovative process of ‘in-group’ or intra-community dialogue which may be transferrable to environments where tensions exist between groups but where it is neither feasible nor sensible to bring them together in inter-community dialogue. Drawing on peacebuilding and community cohesion strategies, this paper sets out to illustrate these dialogue processes in two ways. Firstly by exploring aspects of the development of right wing extremism that precipitated the project’s development and the consequent practical learning that helped develop intra-community processes. Secondly through an illustration of the methodological dialogue framework arising from the research which may be of interest if the approach is to be replicated elsewhere. Generally speaking any transferable learning arising from this research for interventions within the field of human security lies in the concept of prevention: in checking the development of tensions that might otherwise precipitate a crisis.

  •  Methodology
The findings discussed in this paper arise from action research carried out between October 2010 and December 2011. A range of literature and theoretical knowledge guiding those involved in action research has proved relevant to this study.  Gustaven’s exploration of the relationship between theory and action research findings, together with Mcniff et al., and Mcniff’s and Whitehead’s guidance regarding the conceptual and practical management of complex action research projects have proved useful. Montero’s exploration of the participatory nature of action research illustrates aspects of the researcher’s cooperative engagement with the community dialogue project. However, Stringer’s description of community based action research as “…a collaborative approach to enquiry or investigation that provides people with the means to take systematic action to resolve specific problems.” most concisely expresses the fieldwork method employed. Building on this position the researcher’s key role was agreed as one focused on capturing relevant learning so as to support the project’s development of a dialogue framework. This learning forms the basis of the research outcomes presented in this paper.
Action research focused on the community dialogue project’s involvement with nine dialogue groups that met during 2010 and 2011. The research method comprised three elements. Firstly, semi-structured interviews with members of the project management committee that explored a range of issues including the rationale for embarking upon the uncharted territory of intra–community dialogue. Secondly, the researcher became an observer and participant of a consortium providing supervision, critical peer reflection and oversight of the work of those facilitating dialogue. This provided an overview of the strategic development of the dialogue method and a detailed understanding of how learning was arising from and being applied to individual dialogue groups. Thirdly, the researcher undertook individual and group interviews with participants of dialogue session. During these interviews participants were encouraged to reflect critically on their experience of dialogue. Interview outcomes were fed into the reflective learning of consortium meetings, creating a contemporaneous link between the work of facilitators, participant experience and developing learning.
An important aspect of the researcher’s engagement was agreement that all individuals and groups would be strictly anonymous. Because of this the research project is not named since its unique activities would enable localities and groups to be identified. This would undermine both the confidential nature of discussion and might create a risk of groups and individuals being vulnerable to harassment from extremists.
Intra-community dialogue
Before proceeding further it may be helpful at this early stage to summarise some key differences, identified by this research, between inter and intra-community dialogue.  Where communities face each other with hostility and belligerence, community cohesion and peacebuilding strategies commonly advocate dialogue between groups as essential in generating a climate disposed towards peaceful coexistence. Such processes are generally referred to as inter-community dialogue and have the usual aim of exploring difference between groups, identifying common ground and in doing so reducing tensions that could be exploited to generate inter-group hostility. However the paper argues that this approach is not the only way forward and that in some circumstances contact between groups is neither possible nor is it the most effective way forward. This may be because a group is neither ready nor willing to meet members of other groups, or there is no opportunity to do so. Given such a situation how are hostile prejudices and stereotypes towards an out-group to be addressed? The paper argues that the way forward may lie withinintra-community dialogue. This involves people talking with each other in a non-judgemental environment, inside their groups, and with the aim of exploring the difficult feelings on which extremists feed but without the expectation of participants meeting another group.
  • The Community Dialogue Project
Established in March 2010, the community dialogue project’s inception and implementation built on a stand taken by local faith leaders during election periods in opposing the extreme right. Employing both public and charitable funding, the project describes its vision as: “…a resilient, interconnected society which embraces diversity as normal, positive and enriching, and in which we share a real commitment to justice and equality for all”. The project’s key outcome is to work in such ways that: “Communities in South Yorkshire are more resilient to racist politics and divisive ideologies and feel empowered to challenge racism and faith-based prejudice in themselves and others.” The project was developed and managed by people with a spectrum of religious belief and led by a management committee with responsibility to oversee achievement of three core activities. Firstly, supporting and encouraging interaction between groups and communities that do not ordinarily mix. Secondly, developing a communications strategy to counter the effect of divisive reporting in the media. Thirdly, the provision of ‘safe spaces’ dialogue sessions within which difficult conversations around the causes and implications of racism and faith-based prejudice could take place. This third activity is the central feature of the paper’s discussion and involves dialogue facilitators meeting with groups from across the locality prepared to become engaged with the project.
At commencement the community dialogue project prioritised working with Christian congregations, reflecting a concern that BNP support was growing within such groups. All dialogue groups were set in communities where the BNP had made political headway or were looking to increase their support. However it should be noted that the BNP was not the only form of extremism operating in the research locality. Other right wing extremist groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) were similarly active: furthermore, three of the four bombers responsible for the atrocities perpetrated in London during 2005 had their homes in adjacent districts. However whilst these other forms of extremism are equally corrosive for community cohesion, only the BNP had begun to successfully cross a threshold which spanned their organisational history of racism, street disorder and direct violence and a post- millennium modernised image of respectability and their defence of national values. In doing so the BNP had made significant progress in gaining support in local authority, parliamentary and European elections.
From the outset, the project utilised a concept of non-judgmental dialogue in its work with communities. This is not to deny the importance of mainstream anti-racist and anti-prejudice strategies and campaigns. Rather it reflected a belief amongst project founders that whilst vociferously challenging racism may prevent the expression of hostile behaviours and rhetoric, and is rightly targeted on extremist groups such as the BNP, such strategies do not reach far into the lives of individuals and their communities. Indeed a significant factor behind establishing the project was the view that people felt there was little time to talk about fears and experiences leading to prejudice, felt inhibited in doing so, and feared opening themselves up to accusations of racism. By contrast groups such as the BNP have had no compunction in encouraging such discussion, as the following section of the paper illustrates.

*Published in Journal of Conflict Transformation & Security (JCTS) Vol. 2 | No. 1
© Copyright 2012 by CESRAN
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