On Violence and Religion

A Discussion with World Fellows Arshi Hashmi and Steven Shashoua

By Leila Murphy

“It’s a timely discussion, alas,” said Steven Shahshoua, a Yale World Fellow, at a Pierson Master’s Tea on Wednesday afternoon. “It seems it’s always a timely discussion, alas.”

A sense of timeliness inevitably set the tone for the event, which focused on issues of violence and religion. Over the course of an hour, two Yale World Fellows ― Steven Shahshoua, from the UK, and Arshi Hashmi, from Pakistan ― shared perspectives on religion, radicalization, and resolution. Shahshoua brought experience working with interfaith youth, while Hashmi contributed expertise on national defense and the politics of jihad.

Born in Canada, Shahshoua is of Iraq-Jewish descent. He originally worked in international education, but after moving to the UK, he got involved with the Three Faiths Forum, an organization working to promote dialogue across Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities. Shahshoua immediately realized how the interfaith approach fit in with his own complex, multicultural identity. “I had a foot in a lot of worlds,” he said.

Yet after some time, he became disillusioned with the organization’s approach. The Three Faiths Forum created a space of interfaith dialogue between religious and communal leaders, but the leaders didn’t bring their communities to that space, and they didn’t bring that space back to their communities. Against this issue, Shahshoua decided to put his knowledge and experience in developing education programs into practice with a new youth and education department. His aim was to create sustained dialogue among interfaith youth ― people who usually don’t have the opportunity to interact on a deep and nuanced level.

Geographically speaking, Hashmi, brought an entirely different perspective to the issues of violence and religion. However, as an academician and defense specialist she touched upon similar themes. Hashmi began to write about radicalization in Pakistan in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when, she says, “you were not supposed to discuss the role of religion.” But Hashmi persisted in an effort to determine the roots of radicalization ― whether it resulted from policies within Pakistan, or from forces outside. At the same time, she was working with Women without Borders, and its leading campaign, Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE). On behalf of the organization, Hashmi traveled to the Swat Valley of Pakistan, famous as Malala Yousafazi’s hometown. There, she interviewed the mothers of young boys who joined extremist groups. She examined the extent to which these mothers knew what their kids were doing. This experience was eye-opening for Hashmi, as she had rarely met people from that area before. She also related the challenges of being a woman and working in such a traditional area: Hashmi had to go everywhere with her husband to show the women she encountered that she was a “respectable married woman.”

After the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, issues surrounding the India-Pakistan understandably came to the forefront. This facilitated a turning point in Hashmi’s life where she became involved in a program which facilitated contact between university students in Pakistan and India. The program gained widespread attention, as it put a spotlight on the thoughts of young people who were born after independence and had never been to each other’s countries.

Most of audience members’ questions dealt with the obstacles that Shahshoua and Hashmi face in their work, and the challenges surrounding broader issues of extremism and radicalization. Hashmi discussed the relationship of the United States with parts of the Middle East, explaining how a one-sided narrative is constructed and politicized by local governments. Shahshoua considered why youth in the UK might join ISIS (it has to do with “the pursuit of power from a powerless position”), and addressed challenges in thinking about interfaith dialogue and tolerance (media influence often leads students to ignore the complexity of issues).

But, in spite of these many challenges, the event ended on a hopeful note. One audience member asked Hashmi and Shahshoua about the most inspiring moments they’d witnessed through their careers. Hashmi described India’s surprisingly non-violent response to the Mumbai attacks, and the relative absence of destructive sentiment among the Indian people. Shahshoua spoke on a broader level, mentioning the possibility in “those little moments you see where (people are coming together.”

Professor Stephen Davis, the Master of Pierson College, ended the event, aptly stating, “despite all the challenges, to conclude on a note of hope is a hopeful gesture itself.”

Leila Murphy is a freshman at Morse College. She can be contacted at leila.murphy@yale.edu.