I have learnt in life that problems are like one's shadow. Run away from it, and it will get bigger. Walk towards it, and it becomes smaller.

This was on my mind as I looked at the terrible events in Paris last week, and the French people's and government's extraordinary response of unity and dignity. Thanks to this reaction, and the worldwide wave of sympathy that has followed, a miracle has been born out of an appalling disaster.

We now have an opportunity to close ranks and finally challenge those who try to monopolise and distort the great faiths and other ways of life – the common heritage of all humanity.

The three Abrahamic faiths, embraced by over half of the seven billion people in the world, pray to the same God and teach the same key messages of love, compassion, peace, harmony, unity and respect. As the fifteenth-century Persian poet and philosopher Jami wrote: "Each tinted fragment sparkles in the sun, a thousand colours but the Light is one."

Yet such is the lack of knowledge and understanding that, according to a recent survey in Britain, one in three young adults does not recognise this is the case.

As a Jew who grew up in a Muslim country, I realised from an early age that there is far more that unites religions and faiths than divides them. This theme has been central to my life and to my work with UNESCO. It has always been my belief that our cultural diversity should be seen as strength: a force for progress, not as a weakness or a reason for prejudice or fear of the other.

My experience has shown me, on countless occasions, that whenever we make the effort to learn about other cultures we discover untold wonders.

Having spent the greater part of my years collecting Islamic art, I have found great joy and satisfaction in being able to promote the huge contribution that Islam has made to the world. I am equally proud to be considered an ambassador for the extraordinary art and culture of Islam.

Reach for the younger generation

It is this kind of education, aimed at dispelling the many misconceptions that lead to fear and mistrust among people of different faiths, that has never been more necessary. But this critical task must start with our children.

The younger generation should be reached before their minds are warped by prejudice and misinformation. They are our best hope for transforming misguided attitudes.

This is why my charity, the Maimonides Interfaith Foundation, has focused on connecting young people from diverse backgrounds.

Our flagship education programme, Interfaith Explorers, has been helping many thousands of children in primary school in Britain to learn about each other's religions and cultures. I hope, with the help of the United Nations and UNESCO, we can extend this initiative to other parts of the world.

The programme plants a healthier seed in the ground for an even healthier harvest in later life. It gives the next generation the information and tools they need to better embrace our differences as well as our similarities, no matter what their faith or cultural background. They learn, as one ten-year-old said, that, "Everyone is different, but we are all the same on the inside."

We seek to promote mutual respect, by spreading knowledge and understanding. It is only through respect that a new generation can live peacefully together in harmony. Events in Paris last week have yet again shown us that ignorance is the biggest weapon of mass destruction - and, if ignorance is the problem, education is the only solution. We can no longer afford to run away from this challenge.

Professor Nasser David Khaliliis founder of the Khalili Collections, a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and founder and chairman of the Maimonides Interfaith Foundation. Visit www.maimonides-foundation.org or www.interfaith-explorers.com for more details.