How do you create a more tolerant society? Can education prevent extremism? Can openness trump radicalisation? These were the big questions tackled by senior European and Gulf politicians at a recent forum organised and hosted by the Bussola Institute, a newly established Brussels think tank.

As one strand of its early research work, Bussola has been exploring matters of faith from the point of view of the ‘Values that Bind Us’, rather than religious differences that too often divide societies.

At the start of the year, one Arab state, the United Arab Emirates declared 2019 ‘The Year of Tolerance’, and in February Pope Francis made a historic first visit to the Arab Gulf by any pontiff.

Meeting in Abu Dhabi, the pope and the grand imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, signed a historic declaration of fraternity, calling for peace between nations, religions and races, in front of a global audience of religious leaders from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and other faiths.

At Bussola’s Brussels headquarters, United Arab Emirates Minister Zaki Nusseibeh, one of his country’s founding fathers and a key participant in Pope Francis; visit, surprised his European audience by citing the Holy Father’s namesake, St Francis of Assisi, and recalling his doctrine of tolerance and forgiveness.

In a passionate call for greater tolerance and openness, he declared: “We must stop using religion to incite violence.  We have to use our different faiths to encourage tolerance, not division.”

In the ensuing forum discussion with the former President of Ireland, Dr Mary McAleese, Minister Zaki insisted that the ‘pursuit of tolerance’ must not be dismissed as PR gimmick.  “Tolerance” he declared, “takes hard work over a long time.  It is no small thing to talk of building a more tolerant society.”

Both Zaki and McAleese also agreed that the place to start is with the very young.

“You need to build empathy in tiny children.  Empathy is difficult to develop after two-years-old,” McAleese suggested.  One seasoned participant from Northern Ireland, Maureen Hetherington, agreed from her experience of 25 years of pursuing peace, that it is indeed the small but long-term steps, taken at all levels of society, that often prove to be most effective.

Greece’s former Minister of Education and EU Commissioner, Anna Diamantopoulou, agreed that building tolerant societies is an oft-stated political goal but that in her experience there is neither the patience nor the will to build more tolerant societies from the ground up.

“Delivering and maintaining tolerant societies is a constant challenge, even in the most democratic societies.  Sometimes we in Europe forget this and take the very notion of tolerance for granted.”

Wrapping up the forum, France’s former prime minister, François Fillon, reminded the Bussola audience of Europe’s history.  He observed: “We have no lessons in tolerance to give to the rest of the world. Our history has too often been of complete intolerance; imposing our faith on our colonial empires and even burning people to death for their religious beliefs.”

The message from Bussola’s forum was that building tolerance and combating religious extremism is a long-term process that must put early years’ education at its heart.  Children are “blank sheets” McAleese suggested.  “They learn intolerance.”

One Bussola contributor also reminded the audience that these are age-old truths, quoting Aristotle’s famous maxim: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.”