A lesson on active coexistence: introducing the young people the world needs

It was a cold March morning when the French police started throwing grenades towards the apartment where Mohamed Merah, a French jihadist, was hidden as a fugitive. With a gun in hand and while riding a motorcycle, he had injured five people and killed seven in a violent shooting days before. His target had been French soldiers and members of a Jewish school in Toulouse. After the grenades proved useless, the French police managed to get into the apartment and minutes later Mohamed was shot in the head while trying to escape by jumping out the window.

Headlines of the catastrophe in the newspaper Elpais.es

This was 2012, and Ismael Medjdoub, a 19-year-old young Muslim boy living in Paris, saw a disrupted country on his TV, and walked through the streets of a city that showed violent signs of prejudice and disdain towards people like him. “As a young Muslim I thought that the best response to all this hatred was to find a way to go to meet others, to see what our differences were and how we can use those differences to make something useful for our society”, he recalls — now a 22-year-old young man — about this turning point in his life. Right then, a friend told him about an organization that pursued exactly what he was looking forward to do.

This organization was called Coexister, and had been founded by Samuel Grzybowski back in 2009, when he was only 16. Samuel, catholic and always full of energy, started the initiative by connecting with young Muslims and Jewish people from his neighborhood.

Coexister guides itself by something they call “active coexistence”: meaning that it is not enough to be able to live next to those who are different — it is necessary to work together towards more integrated and caring societies.

Coexister meeting. Source: Facebook

The association has now hundreds of members all over France and it focuses on dialogue and solidarity among religions, raising awareness and educating about interfaith issues and life in community. “Honestly, before joining Coexister I was sensitive towards interfaith dialogue but it also seemed to me like something a little too idealistic. But when you see so many people working towards a common goal, it makes you want to get more and more involved”, says a now very hopeful Ismael when talking about the organization that changed his life.

Activity organized by Coexister. Source: Facebook

Coexister members organize several encounters under the motto “diversity in faith, unity in action” and have big initiatives like the “Nuit des Religions” (night of religions), where they visit different cult places in the city; the “Festiv’All Together”, a music festival that had 20.000 participants in its last edition; and the “Interfaith Tour”, maybe the most ambitious of their projects.

“While doing the Interfaith Tour I realized the power that we had when we wanted to create more social cohesion and I saw men and women from all over the world working every day to improve the society in which they lived”.

Through this initiative, five young men with different religious convictions (an atheist, an agnostic, a Muslim, a Jew and a Catholic) joined together for a trip that lasted almost a year, with the goal of meeting and joining forces with other interfaith initiatives or religious organizations in different parts of the world. On top of this, they organized encounters in universities, civil associations and governments in the 50 countries they visited. The goal of this great feat was to raise awareness about the importance of interfaith pluralism, provide colleges with the information that will allow them to carry on research and connect the different actors for them to exchange their knowledge and experience.

The Interfaith Tour team: Ilan Scialom, Samuel Grzybowski, Josselin Rieth, Victor Grezes and Ismael Medjdoub (left to right). Source: Coexister.fr

“It was just incredible” — said Josselin Rieth (a 21-year-old agnostic and future diplomat) while talking about the experience in the Interfaith Tour — “It is hard to pick something, among all the generosity from the people we met in Asia, Africa, South America…Maybe one of the things that surprised me the most was visiting Burkina Faso, a small country in west-Africa: Muslims and Catholics there are really close. It was very different from the image we generally have of African countries.”

The travelers gathered together the chronicles of their trip in a book called book called “All roads lead to the other”, where they tell the story of how they set out to change the world, only to find that the world changed them too.

Ismael (left) and Josselin (right). Source: Facebook.com

When asked which was the most important teaching that he took home from the Interfaith Tour experience, Josselin reflects and comments: “Much more humbleness about the different situations in the world. We are just Europeans, French guys, and there are so many other realities in the world that it’s hard to acknowledge everything. And there is hope when it comes to interfaith issues. We met more than 350 organizations or individuals linked to interfaith activities so we have to keep trying to make the world a better place.”

Running the risk of being cliché, I decided to ask him what he would say to those young people who are also interested in working towards tolerance and cohesion of different beliefs. “First thing: don’t mix what happens [acts of terrorism] with Muslim people. Second: try to be united in hard moments like this, try to bring discussions and understanding in different communities. Go ahead and face otherness. Don’t be afraid of the other. Build bridges, in fact — honestly.”

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