Mariz Tadros, Director of the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID) shares her response and reflections to the recently published independent review on the persecution of Christians.
On Boxing Day last year, the UK Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, announced that he was commissioning an independent review which would establish the extent of the persecution of Christians around the world, and assess the quality of his department’s response to this. It followed (and might have been linked to) a number of reports which describe a deterioration of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) globally, and, more specifically, significant levels of discrimination and violence against Christians.
The review, led by the Bishop of Truro, was published earlier this week, and its recommendations set out three key policy areas for action:
- streamlining FoRB in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)
- education and engagement
- consistency and coordination across government and departments.
As Director of the recently established Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID), which is funded by UK aid, I welcome the recommendations set out in the report for debating and championing freedom of religion or belief for all, not just for Christians.
They highlight issues which CREID is pursuing through its own particular approach which begins with recognising and engaging with some of the deep fault lines that undermine the West’s approach to western programming for the promotion of FoRB.
Intersectionality is fluid and can change according to context and time
One key recommendation is to “Bolster research into the critical intersection of FoRB and minority rights with both broader human rights issues (such as people trafficking, gender equality, gender based violence especially kidnapping, forced conversion and forced marriage) and other critical concerns for FCO such as security, economic activity, etc. recognising the potential for religious identity to be a key marker of vulnerability.”
In the report, the term “intersectionality” is used to suggest the links between different kinds of vulnerability or violation of rights. The examples cited are mostly to do the convergence of gender inequalities with belonging to a vulnerable religious minority, which leads to particular kinds of violations.
In the CREID programme, we will be exploring intersectionality by examining how gender, religious affiliation, geographic location, class, and other context specific identifiers intersect to influence the positioning of different groups in their contexts.
However, we think intersectionality is also fluid and can change according to context and time.
In some cases, being a woman and a member of a religious minority can mean vulnerability to assault. In other cases, these same intersecting identities can be a source of strength and empowerment within one’s own community. For example, educated women may be recognised as community leaders in their own right, playing a particularly important role in intergenerational transfer of knowledge.
What is critically important here is to recognise the power dynamics that create patterns of vulnerability without increasing their vulnerability.
For example, in a context where religious affiliation and poverty intersect, the utmost caution is needed to address that without incurring a backlash on local actors.
A report from a Wilton Park event on vulnerable religious minorities shared an example where an international development (multilateral) programme targeted Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State as the most needy without providing programming for the broader Buddhist community.
The (unpublished) report notes “The focused programmes communicated the idea that development actors were there to support only one group which increased the tensions between these communities, further fuelling an atmosphere in which mass atrocities were committed against the Muslim community in Rakhine State. Since the programme evaluations did not include mechanisms to measure the perceptions of the surrounding communities, humanitarian workers failed to consider the ways in which the programme increased resentment between Buddhist and Muslim communities.”
Information gathering is a deeply political act and needs to be approached with care and caution
The Bishop of Truro’s report encourages “the development of appropriate mechanisms, with international partners, using external sources as required, to gather reliable information and data on FoRB to better inform the development of international policy.”
In CREID, we are taking a very cautious approach to who is gathering information and what is considered reliable. We are aware that gathering of information is ultimately a deeply political act. International actors come with their own agendas about which minorities’ suffering they want to amplify or downplay. Even if some international actors have the desire to be inclusive, the perceptions of local communities of who they are and what they stand for (even if it is different than what they claim to be) often comes in the way of producing reliable information.
There are also ethics about extracting information in ways that jeopardise people’s safety if they are regarded as collaborating with suspicious international actors. To address this, we are developing participatory methodologies that will be locally owned and led where the processes of capture, analysis, validation and research uptake are done first and foremost with local partners.
Beyond “add FoRB and stir”
Under the recommendation of “Education and Engagement: Develop a religiously-literate local operational approach”, the report recommends that FoRB be promoted “in the broader context of developing strategies for democratisation, development, and peace building”.
CREID is very much about the incorporation of ForB in development but we believe that to do that, we need to avoid at all costs approaches that are premised on “add FoRB and stir”.
We know from the work in the area of gender equality that sometimes the best of intentions – such as redressing the gender political gap – can go wrong.
Hence, questions of the legitimacy of the local actors, the manner in which FoRB is embedded, the intended results and the measures to mitigate against unintended negative outcomes are critical. It is on the basis of such levels of complexity that CREID is represented by a consortium of partners with multiple areas of expertise, spheres of influences, spaces where legitimacy and credibility are highest and leveraging different kinds of local partnerships.
Consistency across the foreign policy portfolio will be essential if we really want to achieve FoRB
Finally, the Bishop of Truro report makes a number of recommendations to achieve consistency and “strengthen joined-up thinking” as key for the promotion of FoRB is spot on. These represent perhaps one of the deepest fault lines between aspirations and realities on the ground.
For example, the sale of arms by Western governments to governments whose domestic or international policies actively empower groups that violate FoRB and promote ideologies of supremacy and hate is inconsistent with governance and democratisation projects that promote inclusive societies and politics in-country.
The UK’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia has come under scrutiny recently for its impact on the humanitarian disaster in Yemen. But there is another reason to rethink such arms sales. In terms of its potential contribution to the enabling of the export of Wahhabism globally, an ideology that is known to encourage the preaching of one particular highly exclusionary interpretation of Islam.
Addressing religious exclusion and inequalities touches from the most subtle of micro-politics to the highest level of geo-strategic wars, making it part of the British government’s agenda will need a lot more than simply adding FoRB to business as usual “and stirring”, hoping that this alone bring about the necessary change.