A Critical Time for Recognising the Role of Religion

Foundation Update

A Critical Time for Recognising the Role of Religion

01 May 2015

The resurgence of religion has transformed the international sphere. Across the globe, religious extremism is feeding conflicts and perpetrating acts of horrific violence in the name of faith. In illustrating key policy concerns and their implications, the contents of this volume can help policy makers to map their path forwards. This will not be an easy journey and will require long-term commitment, but it has never been more urgent that we embark sooner rather than later, writes Charlotte Keenan for our Global Perspectives Series.

A Critical Time for Recognising the Role of Religion

By Charlotte Keenan

In the last two decades we have witnessed great atrocities carried out in the name of religion. From isolated but horrific attacks carried out on Western soil, to almost weekly if not daily waves of violence, religious extremism has claimed thousands of lives in conflict torn countries across the world. Religion is undoubtedly a major factor of conflicts globally. Institute for Economics and Peace, 'Five Key Questions Answered on the Link between Peace and Religion', 21 October 2014, [ http://www.visionofhumanity.org/#/page/news/1085]. In 2014 alone we have seen the unprecedented rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the surge of fighters flooding to their cause from across the world. Estimates indicate that in the last year over 15,000 people from over 80 nations, more than 1000 people per month, have entered Syria, many, it is thought, to join ISIS, swelling their ranks. For an excellent infographic demonstrating the flow of foreign fighters, see Washington Post, 'Foreign fighters flow to Syria', 11 October 2014, [ http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/foreign-fighters-flow-to-syria/2014/....

Across the Middle East and North Africa, Islamist extremists are making headlines and increasingly groups are turning away from al-Qaeda's central leadership and towards ISIS's newly claimed caliphate for direction. Beyond this region, religious extremism has also dominated headlines. Whether it is Boko Haram in Nigeria, Hindu Nationalists in India, the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan or Buddhist extremists in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand, this is just the tip of the iceberg. An arc of religiously motivated violent extremism exists from Indonesia and the Philippines, through Asia, the Middle East and Africa, to Europe and the Americas.

The 'resurgence' of religion explored in this volume has transformed the international sphere. Of course, whether religion had ever disappeared is a debatable point and the evidence that faith is as important as it has ever been is as clear in polling evidence from Pew Research Center and others, as it is to those on the ground working closely with religious organisations. Pew Forum, 'The Global Religious Landscape', 18 December 2012, [ http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/]. Across the world much healthcare, care of the elderly, community support and renewal, social care and youth work is provided by religious groups, often more effectively than by governments. Yet for many, religion has increasingly become a pariah, too complex and untrustworthy to be taken seriously as a significant factor in the international sphere, let alone as a partner.

Over the last five years the Tony Blair Faith Foundation has built a range of programmatic responses to the challenges we have identified globally. These include developing educational and social action projects that engage directly with reconciliation efforts to help to build respect and tolerance within faiths and between those of different faiths and of none. We have worked in some of the most troubled locations in the world including northern Nigeria, Pakistan and the Balkans and have accrued a vast range of experience from this. I am immensely proud of the contribution that we make to this volume. The practical, policy orientated and experience driven additions that our staff are able to make to those positions outlined by the experts here are proof of our pioneering work in this field.

The purpose of this volume is not, however, to laud our work and discuss its details. We are constantly aware that engaging with issues of religion and conflict is not without its challenges. The difficult questions that this volume highlights from current debates within the spheres of policy and the academy demonstrate this. It is vitally important to move these debates forward, to map a pathway that can help address policy gaps and obstacles. That is what this volume seeks to do. It is, of course, always necessary to engage with counter-perspectives, as these ensure critical assessment and evaluation of methodology and approach. But we must also recognise what works; where there is positive impact we must seek to analyse, foster and replicate it. This is where our experience of applying these debates and addressing these questions in the field can help.

There is much that we can all learn from the contributions in this volume. In particular, several key themes emerge that can help us to map a path forward. Firstly, as Philpott, Ahmed, Rumi and Marshall in particular highlight, an international, multi-faith and multilateral response to violent extremism is needed. This is a problem that affects us all and political manoeuvring plays purely into the hands of the extremists, giving them time and space to embed and grow. As Juergensmeyer, Ghanea, Campbell and Marshall show, religious actors are critical to this process. As Linden states, for under-resourced governments, and to this we can add international programmes and efforts, religious communities are a source of social capital and civic activism that can contribute immeasurably to solving domestic problems. "Governments," as Juergensmeyer writes, "would be wise to engage this evolution."

This leads to a second theme, that, while an international approach is necessary, we must not lose sight of local contexts. As Beaman, Cere, Ghanea and Campbell illustrate, global responses need to be locally applied. No two situations are the same or will necessarily benefit from exactly the same approach. We must not simply seek to duplicate success, but to extract the best practice from one situation and replicate it, adapting it to the new environment to suit the needs of the community and the problem. We must appreciate local narratives and practice, seeking always, as Campbell puts it, to "first, do no harm". We must recognise where religion is and importantly is not a problem. Where different religious communities are working together well, even in the face of extremism, we must reinforce and support them to increase their resilience to divisive hate narratives, being careful in this process not to propagate victim narratives that may actually lead to divisions. As Rider outlines, we must work against the polarisation of identities to reinforce inclusivity and 'us' identities.

This means that we must listen. There is no point claiming that religion is or is not a factor if that claim is contrary to what is being said by those on the ground. Where religion is a problem we need to provide immediate help to solve injustices that might be feeding this narrative; but we also need to think long-term, even generationally. This therefore frames a third theme. Military power may not always be the answer; indeed it may even be harmful over time. There can be no doubt that it may be necessary to limit and push back those groups that are proving an immediate threat, violating human rights and taking lives. But education that can provide nuanced and experiential learning, which can give people skills, as set out by Jamison, to interact and engage with those of other faiths and of none, is essential.

While, as Gearon argues, we must not lose sight of the exact nature of what we are teaching, we must, as Jackson describes, provide education that informs about, and builds understanding of, religion. This is a critical element in both of the above themes. Education that deconstructs and removes fear of the 'Other' is vital to help people dealing with these issues in their communities and daily lives to build resilience to extremist narratives. It will not only equip them to resist these narratives, but also to argue with and counter them. Furthermore, as Marshall and Lawrence and Neal point out, nuanced and experiential religious literacy is fundamental to policy makers, governmental and non-governmental staff understanding and appreciating religious organisations and communities. Only by building education in these ways can we help current leaders and young people, the next generation of political, business, religious and community leaders, to create a world where faith can be reconciled with a modern civic state.

For governments and the international community, this means engaging with, and developing, long-term strategies in addition to short-term responses: policies and programmes that are not undermined by changes of government or immediate distractions. These strategies need sustained funding. If these strategies and funding are to be maintained and strengthened, then cross-government consensus on the importance of the issue must be built. On top of a better understanding of the role of religion and of the dangers of religious extremism now, international and regional collaboration is required to build the resilience of the next generation in order to ensure these narratives are countered indigenously, as well as within broader global contexts. Governments need to be bold and commit even though the end may seem uncertain. As Husain outlines, they need to partner with those who provide a model for the future, even where those partnerships may be frustrating, expensive and fragile. Moreover, they need to work extensively on building a multilateral consensus on the importance of the critical issues at the intersections of religion and the global world.

The ideas and experiences that are set out in this volume can form the basis of a pathway for policy-makers in navigating these issues. Our work and advocacy proves that this pathway is viable and engagement with our work demonstrates that consensus is building behind this vision. Governments need to act quickly to ensure a more peaceful, respectful and tolerant future. As Tony Blair rightly states, there is no cause more urgent. I would only add that, in confronting the urgent, there is no better time to act than the present.

This article is taken from the Global Perspectives Series (Volume I): Religion and Conflict: Responding to the Challenges. Find all the articles from the volume here.




Copyright © December 2014 by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Edited by Daniel Cere and Thomas Thorp.
All rights reserved. Citation, reproduction and or translation of this publication, in whole or in part, for educational or other non-commercial purposes is authorised provided the source is fully acknowledged.