Participatory methodology is key to make visible the invisible survivors and victims of violence based on religion or belief. Here is why, writes CREID Director, Mariz Tadros.
This week on the 22 August, the UN commemorates the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. While individuals experience violence for all kinds of reasons, including political orientation, ethnic, linguistic and other, often intersecting affinities, it matters that there is a day to recognise that people are violently targeted on account of their beliefs (religious, indigenous, syncretic or non-belief). And the global situation for violence on this account seems to be worsening.
According to the recent Pew Research Centre survey, “as of 2020, 57 countries now have “very high” levels of government restrictions on religion, up from 40 in 2007, the baseline year of the study. These restrictions can take many forms, including efforts by governments to ban particular faiths, prohibit conversions, limit preaching or give preferential treatment to certain religious groups”.
Finding the individuals, groups and communities affected
Yet how do we know who these individuals, groups and communities are? How do we know how they are experiencing “religious otherisation” in their day to day lives and what forms do they take? This is something we’ve been struggling with at CREID for many years.
The advisory board member and pioneering author Professor Katherine Marshall’s CREID paper Towards Enriching Understandings of Freedom of Religion or Belief: Politics, Debates, Methodologies, and Practices shows, there is no universally agreed upon methodology for measuring freedom of religion or belief, and given the sensitivities in assessing violations and the sometimes necessary secrecy or discretion needed around data collection and verification, the subjects or survivors of religious otherisation are rarely the ones whose voices and perspectives are systematically documented.
We, at CREID believe it is not only imperative, but very much doable to make the realities of the religiously otherised count through the adaptation of participatory methodologies – as described in the just-released book Using Participatory Methods to Explore Freedom of Religion and Belief: Whose Reality Counts?
This open access book covers the experiences of 14 academics, practitioners and activists in India, Iraq, Nigeria and Pakistan in using participatory methods with people on the very margins of society on account of the intersection of their religious affiliation, class, caste, ethnicity, geography and gender. Thanks to the adaptation of participatory methods, each of the 12 empirical chapters (excluding introduction and conclusion) reveal new understandings of the scale and depth of religious otherisation, including exposure to violence.
10 key learnings from participatory methods for survivors of violence based on religion or belief
So, here are key learnings of how participatory methodology makes visible the invisible survivors of day-to-day encroachment and violence that are often missed out on other methods of data collection on freedom of religion or belief violations:
- The religiously otherised are often deeply mistrustful of outsiders as well as informants from within, and therefore rarely disclose their realities freely and openly. Participatory methods are successful where others are not insofar as they pay attention to the legitimacy of the facilitator of participatory processes in the eyes of the religiously otherised themselves – a key factor in ethical and reliable information gathering.
- Where local facilitators have built relationships of trust with those taking part in participatory processes, this allows for a regular pulse-checking on how they are experiencing the situation on the ground, thereby, generating valuable longitudinal data on encroachments and improvements. Rarely are observatories of religious-based violence able to gather such contextualised data that not only captures incidents of violence, but also when and why it subsides.
- Assumptions that one minority’s experience is the same as the other leads to flawed policy. Participatory methods capture the diversity of experience within and across religiously otherised groups in different contexts within the same country, so there are no assumptions that the experience of one religious minority is a replica of the other or the experiences of one religious group is the same across all settings.
- Leaders of religious communities who are the knowledge brokers on religious otherisation provide but one reading of the situation. Participatory methods allow for a granular understanding of intersectional inequalities experienced by the religiously otherised of different socio-economic, political and geographic backgrounds.
- Violence often counts when of an exceptional nature or on a large scale. Participatory methods allow us to capture the experiences of targeting of the religiously otherised that often go under the radar. The methods give us insights into everyday experiences of violent targeting at schools, health centres, marketplaces, transport, work, festivals, communications.
- Participatory methods allow us to understand that the experiences of the religiously otherised violence but also how they interpret the drivers and dynamics behind this violence and how they not only cope, but where they draw their strength and dignity from.
- Because participatory methods are premised on privileging the narratives of the religiously marginalised on their own terms, we gain insights into the material and transcendental aspects of their lives, in an interwoven manner without creating the artificial siloes of “secular” and “religious” aspects/features.
- Data gathered on religious otherisation rarely directly benefit those who contribute to its generation. Almost all data gathering methods are extractive, even if some are well intentioned and are used to advance social justice. Participatory methods directly benefits the local facilitators and the communities, when done right, because participants frame their own inquiries, thereby, collective learning, sharing and sometimes, collective consolation when dealing with painful and traumatic experiences.
- Participatory ranking exercises have enabled us to gather quantitative data on the scale of violence, its frequency and how deeply it affects the religiously marginalised. Where participatory ranking is undertaken across and within groups, we can develop comparative data on a local, national and global level.
- Where the political and social contexts allow (as in some cases it is too dangerous), the use of participatory methods generate ideas among participants about how to redress religious inequalities – and as equally important – how to think about them differently – a key lesson that all authors of our book highlight so poignantly.
As with the pursuit of any methodology, there are always trade-offs on scale, depth, generalisability, validity, and so forth and the use of participatory methodologies are no exception. However, we will leave it up to you to read the book and discover them for yourselves and weigh them against the benefits.
The book ‘Using Participatory Methods to Explore Freedom of Religion and Belief: Whose Reality Counts?’ was made possible through the generous support of UKAID via Aid Connect to CREID. The views expressed here represent that of the author only, and all disqualifiers apply.
This blog was originally published by the Institute of Development Studies.