01/23/2012 07:51 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2012

Confronting Neo-Nazi and Skinhead Fanaticism in Northern Europe?

After Mr. Anders Brevik's murderous rampage last year against innocent civilians in Norway, many are concerned about different types of extremism, especially about any more of these so called "lone-wolf" extremists. Others may also be wondering if there is anything that can be done to confront these and other concerns of the citizenry about fanaticism and radicalization. There are options available from organized religion.

When I was living in Finland, I had my first real hand at successful interfaith work and saw it produce results that successfully confronted the fanaticism of local Neo-Nazis, Skinheads and some rather nasty individuals. It should be mentioned that the Finnish Lutheran societal norm is noticeably one of decency, ethical behavior and respectability and the vast majority of Finns do fit that description. Much in contrast to this highly civilized Lutheran decency and respectability were the actions of some local extremists who succeeded in harassing (if not downright terrorizing) the remaining Finnish Jews. Some local punks desecrated the Jewish cemetery by smashing Jewish gravestones. The efficient and orderly Finnish police did excellent work and caught a few rascals but effective law enforcement could not reasonably be expected to heal all the hurt from this and other psychological terror.

The local Jews were not the only ones being psychologically terrorized. After these and other distressing events, the last straw for many foreigners came with rumors of a Muslim refugee who was knifed in front of a discotheque, dying some days later in the hospital. In response to talk of this incident, some foreigners arranged an anti-racism demonstration in the main market square of the city. Unfortunately, this event was poorly organized and was a fiasco. Crowds of taciturn Finnish citizens were watching the whole affair and were obviously not impressed either by the fanaticism or the violence, or by any of the demonstration proceedings.

Amidst the mess of the demonstration, I got the notion of doing an interfaith event against racism and violence. I suggested this idea to a local scholar of comparative religion who agreed to promote the idea and he contacted an able minister in the Finnish Lutheran Church as well as the Iraqi Shii Muslim refugee community. They also liked the idea and very quickly, with the help of the Lutheran scholar, we had a general assembly of representatives from the Lutheran Church, the local Jewish Congregation, the Shii Muslims, the Finnish Orthodox Church, the Finnish Quakers and the Catholic mission in the city. Understanding and cooperation amongst all was surprisingly rapid.

That interfaith assembly agreed upon having an interfaith event that would borrow its format from an old Quaker sharing format, allowing time for every religious representative to speak. (That format worked quite well.) They also drafted and agreed upon a written appeal that the Lutheran minister edited and this was read aloud publicly. We all agreed beforehand that we would voice our opposition to racism and violence but there was to be absolutely no direct confrontation with any named groups or individuals in any community.

The event itself was arranged on a Sunday in the grand hall of the Lutheran Church. As representative of the largest church in the country, the Vicar of the Lutheran Church spoke first. The Vicar's talk provided a civilized Lutheran perspective, setting the stage for others' contributions. After the Vicar, I talked very briefly. Then the representative of the local Jewish congregation spoke, expressing hurt over the recent events and other poor treatment. He wisely drew from the Old Testament to find common ground. The Shii Muslim representative spoke about the requirement in Islam of being a good neighbor, drawing on Qur'anic quotations. Next the Orthodox priest sang a biblical epistle emphasizing love. Finally the Catholic priest read the appeal document which we all signed and copies of the appeal were distributed. All of this was described in the local papers and the wording of the appeal for building better relations was reproduced in the press. The simple message went far and wide.

What were the real end results of this activity? On the day of the event it became very clear that the local Christians, Jews and Muslims were treating each other with respect and listening to each other, speaking with a common voice in favor of a civilized coexistence. In aspects of that and later interfaith encounters, involved parties did foster a noticeable qualitative change in attitudes, this meaning that more familiarity was established and respect was made more obvious. Surprisingly, the biggest impact of the whole interfaith event and its associated encounter would appear to have been on the local Shii Muslims. After the event, we saw the Shii Muslims much more intent on participating in local society generally, overcoming their prior isolation and defensiveness. The Christians and Jews stated that they were satisfied with the proceedings and returned to their communal activities.

Over the next few months after the event, I and others personally did notice something else. Despite the fact that nobody ever accused or mentioned any one of them once at the event, there appeared to be a noticeable reduction in harsh disrespectful talk coming from the local Neo-Nazis and Skinheads. In retrospect, we all made an important and right choice to criticize hatred and violence generally, actually not confronting any named individuals or groups directly and not engaging in any persecution. It would appear that the psychological terror and aftereffects against one or more minorities were reduced by nonviolent action and relations improved.

That is also my recommendation of how this work should be done generally. Overall this approach is proactive, not reacting to anybody else's bizarre thinking or radicalization, wherever that might come from, and not engaging in persecution. This kind of interfaith work might be compared to throwing a small stone into a pond: there is usually not a big splash but the ripples slowly proceed everywhere, bringing their important message.