Emerging Trends in Religion and Foreign Policy


Emerging Trends in Religion and Foreign Policy

Charlotte Keenan and Ian Linden

26 Jun 2014

As a Foundation we believe it is vital to gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between religion and conflict. Whether it is dealing with the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq or stopping the attacks on the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, there will be no lasting solution to many conflicts across the globe without understanding religion's place within them.

It is encouraging that at a global level there is increasing recognition that foreign policy has to take more account of religion and all its complexities. This is why we provide knowledge, analysis and perspective to help individuals understand and tackle this phenomenon. Across our programmes we promote religious literacy, enabling current and future generations to understand, be exposed to and manage religion's impact in local, regional and global contexts.

This week the Oxford Journal of Law and Religion Summer Academy is taking place at St Hugh's College, Oxford, with participants drawn from an international field of experts including regional policy specialists, diplomats, government ministers and policy makers. The Foundation's Chief Executive, Charlotte Keenan, chaired a session on emerging trends in Religion and Foreign Policy, with the Foundation's Senior Advisor Ian Linden also a panellist. International religious freedom was a focus of the discussion.

Governments should look beyond our current human rights framework and appeal to the foundational levels of human dignity inherent in all main religious and ethical traditions.

In his presentation, Ian Linden focused on the comparable rights understanding of religious freedom. He talked specifically about the tensions in reconciling the nature of divine authority with secular rights, a phenomenon drawn out by some interpretations of Sharia law and extreme Islamism. One of his recommendations was that governments should look beyond our current human rights framework and appeal to the foundational levels of human dignity inherent in all main religious and ethical traditions.

He also used Egypt as a case study to argue for a new approach to the promotion of religious freedom amid the rise of religious intolerance in government.

In a time in which the human rights discourse in the west is often given over to a fundamentalist secularism, and religion is often seen as part of the problem as much as something to be protected, western admonitions in favour of religious freedom are unlikely to be heeded. Considering the place of religious freedom among the other rights of the UN's Universal Declaration, Ian Linden points out the questions that arise when a group, such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, seeks to implement Islamic norms through the means of democratic processes. But if religious freedom is going to be promoted effectively in a time of religious extremism, there needs to be an understanding of the internal dynamics of other religions in their local contexts, and this will require widespread religious literacy.

You can read the report below or download it here.  

Ian Linden: Global Challenges to Religious Freedom

There are good reasons for insisting on the foundational quality of the UN Declaration as a seamless package, not to be unpicked, or served a la carte. Not least the intentions of those who wish to unpick it in order to derogate from certain provisions. Yet it has not become easier to get the full package accepted in a world of contrasting and diverse cultures, least of all in a world where some states champion the secular nature of the state and others have their governance shaped by religious principles.

There is also the problem of a popular and irenic view of human rights discourse that can take on a secular fundamentalist slant, unhappy with any reference to the growing number of legal judgments that involve juggling incompatibilities of its individual provisions. An increasing number of these involve the right to religious freedom. This is perhaps one reason, alongside the growth of a programmatic secularism, that often makes religious freedom an unwelcome contender for recognition in such cases in Europe and North America.

The contemporary domestic legal debate about Religious Freedom contains a certain historical irony.

The contemporary domestic legal debate about Religious Freedom contains a certain historical irony. It was the experience of totalitarian secular regimes in the 20th century that pushed post-war American Jews and the British Council of Churches to seek a formal international endorsement of a right to religious freedom. They were rightly told by Eleanor Roosevelt, amongst others, that the new UN body could not proclaim this right unless it was set in a wider check-list of other fundamental rights. And as a practical matter of fact, it is very unusual for states to abuse religious freedom without violating a number of other freedoms at the same time.

Thus the price for recognising the right to religious freedom was its association with a number of other rights with which it could potentially clash. It was a price willingly paid. Potential ambiguities and oppositions were not as obvious as today. Yet, at the time, two of the world's major faith communities, Roman Catholic and Muslim, were far from sure that religion freedom should be seen simply as a right rather also as primarily a set of duties to truth and God. Most notably several Muslim states argued against, and continue to behave as if an inviolable right to change religion, or at least abjure Islam, was a huge cultural challenge.

Nor did the Catholic Church swiftly proclaim an anathema sit to the idea that "error has no rights". It was only in the 1960s, at the Second Vatican Council, and thanks to the Jesuit John Courtney Murray, allied with the US episcopate and several prominent bishops from communist eastern Europe – such as Karol Wojtyla - that the Roman Catholic Church made the UN Declaration broadly its own. For many of the Spanish and Italian episcopates it was a duty of the state to privilege the Church, enabling it to be what it saw itself as, a societas perfecta, i.e. a body that possessed all that it needed to perform its divinely given duties and role. In the context of secular extremisms, total war, and the Holocaust, it was not likely that religion itself would be prominently factored in as part of the problem, rather than its innocent victim. Atheistic communism remained the sole clear and present danger globally until the Iranian revolution and the storming of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, framing Islamic extremism as a unifying enemy bringing together religious leaders and statesmen in liberal democracies.

The present context is significantly different from the post-war dispensation. On the one hand there are contending forces for economic dominance between geo-political blocks committed to a model of liberal democracy and the secular state - for export as well as domestically - and a variety of authoritarian capitalist and Muslim states strongly challenging this dominance. In most of the liberal democracies there are strong egalitarian pressures that insist that religion is no more "special" than any other set of subjective ideas conveying a moral identity, and no particular religion should be thought of as "special". So religious identity should be placed in the context of a variety of contending moral identities of equal weight. The operative category then becomes a right to freedom of conscience (left vacuously empty of content or related more clearly to a relationship with ultimate questions about the meaning of life).

In a Muslim context, though, a traditional definition of humanity as a "vice-regency" of God persists so that secular laws are by definition subordinate and subservient to Shari'a, divine law/and code of right living. This permits Muslims to live in secular jurisdictions by the far from simple expedient of a making a prudential judgment about the compatibility between state laws and provisions of Shari'a. Civil law provisions of Shari'a, when applied within an agreed coterminous "private sphere" of life, can be resolved by "private arrangements"; more public sphere require different and greater degrees of state accommodation (as with the other major monotheistic law-based faith, Orthodox Judaism).

"Accommodation" thus becomes the touchstone procedural issue. This in turn is determined both by the content of the liberalism adopted in the politics of democratic states and by public sentiment. The latter, as far as accommodation with Islam is concerned, has been influenced strongly by fear of terrorism - justified by its perpetrators in the name of Allah, though manifestly in a perversion of mainstream Islamic discourse and practice. State reaction in the form of anti-terrorism laws and surveillance of Muslim communities has the opposite effect to secularism: it makes religion "special" again as a unique potential threat to good order and the state. A troublesome ambiguity, creating performative contradictions, thus lies at the heart of contemporary approaches to freedom of religion.

In the midst of these challenges, a rise in different forms of violent extremism using religious language, and with an imaginary divine mandate constructed to justify acts of violence, provides a new global threat resulting in curtailment of religious freedom and new illiberal measures to protect society and the state. "Religious extremism" appears as a perverse bi-product of a resurgence of religious identity as resistance to the pressures of globalisation, and in reaction to indigenous or exported secularism, its values and discontents. It takes on the connotations of the global menace of communism during the Cold War.

But in this context, promotion of religious freedom begins to assume the nature of a key feature of successful democratic governance and foreign policy. This immediately raises the question of how liberal democracies should relate to situations in which Parties wishing to see a particular set of religious values prevail in governance and society are elected in relatively free and fair elections. Or more precisely how should states handle Islamism?

People of all faiths and none want to see their values inform, and transform, the societies in which they live. Wars and political upheavals have in the past tragically accompanied this quest or, at least, accentuated its importance. There is here a perception that Christian Democracy and the assumption of power by Islamic Parties is different, related to suspicions about commitment to normative democratic conduct and intentions. Christian democracy in Europe, for example, came as a reaction to the dual totalitarianisms of Communism and National Socialism. It proved remarkably successful in Germany, significantly flawed in Italy. The nature and implementation of democratic politics has determined the dynamics and weaknesses of the European Union, and Christian social and political thought has played a significant part in its origins. Islamic Parties have undergone a very different trajectory.

And, of course, anxieties about the religious colonisation of political space are heightened if violence has featured historically in the early stages of a ruling Party doing the colonisation. These are added to, if the violence was legitimated primarily by religious ideology - unlike for example the case of Sinn Fein.

The legacy of Hobbes and Pufendorf lingers on in the idea of the state as a moral person set apart with a unique popular mandate to control conflict and religious passions, a very different entity to what was later to be described as civil society. The shift from social to political organisation by popular movements thus becomes a critical one. Contemporary Egypt provides a case study of the interaction between state and civil society and the application of ideas about the limits of democracy and religious freedom that is worth briefly exploring.


The Egyptian Experience

Recently, and in a brief period of time, Egyptians produced two new constitutions and passed from a form dictatorship to a democratically elected Islamist government and then to another form authoritarian government redolent of dictatorship, largely by means of "people power". But throughout this time, to all intents and purposes, military power prevailed either overtly, or covertly. Or put in another way the Muslim Brotherhood never achieved full control of the state.

Muhammad Mursi was elected President after winning Egypt's first free and fair democratic elections as leader of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), formed on 21 February 2011. For a brief while a modus vivendi prevailed between him and key elements in the military. He is now detained, charged with terrorism and the Muslim Brotherhood, which formed the Party, has been declared a terrorist organisation. Most of its first tier leadership are in prison, others in exile. Many members have been killed or arrested and charged; over five hundred are in jail facing the death penalty.

There was widespread hope that the Arab Spring might be a historic turning point, mid-wife to political reforms and new forms of engagement with politics within Islam. A dialogue between a secular vision of the role of the state and a commitment to Islamic values in society seemed possible, as once Christian democrats imagined a future in a democratic post-war Europe purged of ideology. But in Egypt this proved a vain hope. It neglected the different contexts of the events in the Middle East and North Africa, out of which progressive change was expected to happen: polarised societies, social turmoil, revolutionary mobilisation and upheavals, sectarianism, military interventions, and the allure of religious extremism for unemployed and marginalised youth.

The political dimension of any religion can be discussed as a theoretical debate about religion's rightful place in the public square.

The political dimension of Islam, or of any other religion come to that, can be discussed as a theoretical debate about religion's rightful place in the public square, in state and civil society. But analysis of how particular religions have manifested themselves in the public square in particular historical contexts is no less revealing. There are big differences between faiths and within faiths. Moreover, public space is far from homogeneous as far as the institutions it contains. Particular social and political hostilities and histories evoke different sensibilities and stimulate different interlocutors and reactions. Religious freedom is honoured best in particular political dispensations, in pluralist democracies where the rights of minorities have become entrenched both in law and in a wider human rights culture.

As a terrain of political activity, there is the state and there is civil society. Different rules apply in defining the limits of religious freedom within each. Much of the discussion today amongst Muslims, as indeed amongst Christians, works within this dual framework, debating appropriate ways of introducing a religiously motivated agenda about family life, social and economic justice, nationally and internationally. Religious people in civil society behaving in – what might be deemed - a political way appear to others in a different light once they have formed a government based on religious principles. Different rules and expectations apply. Moreover, the Christian Democracy of post-war Germany was religion-lite in comparison with the religious engagement of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Though both were attempts to bring a religious heritage and values into governance by democratic means.

Context and history cannot be neglected in making such comparisons. The Muslim Brotherhood inherited an authoritarian structure and a discreditable early period of takfiri, jihadi thinking. Its leadership turned to social mobilisation and action, closed ranks after repeated periods of repression, and brought to government a commitment to din wa dawla, a comprehensive system of Islamic values within the state. They were predominantly social conservatives, inveterately cautious for survival, had spent periods in prison, and had very limited experience of national government.

But there were also the Muslim Brothers who had learnt their Islamic politics in engagement in civil society rather than in the state's prisons: Egypt's student and professional associations, doctors, engineers, lawyers, in dialogue with secular students outside the Brotherhood, more pragmatic, moving with the times. Finally there were reformists who had a new vision of political Islam, more inclusive of women and Copts, pluralist beyond the confines of different prescribed Islamic laws. Breathing down their necks was a Salafi Party, with, in the parliamentary elections, 27.8 per cent of the popular vote, claiming in sectarian fashion a monopoly of religious truth, accusing the Brotherhood of diluting the purity of Islamic teaching by dialogue with kufr, unbelief, ready for a sectarian alliance with the military if it promoted their cause.

So, as the uprising began in Tahrir Square on 25 January 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood's politics were committed to working within the framework of Islamic principles, mabadi wa qiyam al-Islam. Authoritarian decision-making had alienated most of its reformist leaders who found themselves marginalised. But, in terms of narrow electoral democracy, or at least the formation of a government representing majority opinion, their politics reflected popular views. The urban poor and Egyptians living in poor rural areas were, in the main, comfortable with a patriarchal, socially conservative agenda in the name of Islam. According to an authoritative Pew Foundation survey, 85% of the population saw Islam as a positive force in politics.

Pressure from the military persistently narrowed the Brotherhood's options. Khayrat al-Shatir, a multi-millionaire and an outstanding, popular and flexible deputy to the Brotherhood's Supreme Guide, was debarred from standing for the Presidency. Abu al-Futouh, another outstanding and reformist figure, had left earlier and sought presidential nomination, defying the leadership – which was vacillating at this point. Mursi, conservative at heart and constrained by the Brotherhood's cautious leadership, but with parliamentary experience of government, was given the Presidential nomination by default. The Party's "spare tyre", as he was caricatured, won.

In just a few days over one year of Mursi's winning 13.2 million votes, 51.7%, of the total, the percentage of the vote that gave Francois Mitterrand fourteen years of socialist government in France - he was overthrown by the military with widespread popular support. The failure of his Presidency has been attributed to a number of different factors, only one or two of which might be linked directly to his religious convictions: the opposition of the military because economic reform was a danger to their considerable commercial interests, lack of conciliatory gestures to opinion that would not accept what they saw as an ideological distortion of Islam, and a failure to deliver on the high socio-economic expectations of a country on the verge of bankruptcy – Mursi had been handed a poison chalice.

His undercutting the authority of the judiciary became the symbol of his growing authoritarianism. The religious aspirations of the Brotherhood could not be squared with the demand to provide jobs and put bread on the table, and the passion of the many Egyptians seeking a pluralist and prosperous society. For a short while, for the Egyptian public supporting him, he had been worth a try, in many cases seen as the lesser of two evils.

The politics of the Muslim Brotherhood proved to be neither a monolithic bloc forcing conservative Islamic values on an unwilling majority, nor an effective carrier of a new Islamic democracy modelled on Christian democracy. Unlike Tunisia's Ennahda Party, the strategy of Mursi's government failed to confront by dialogue a binary opposition between an Islamic openness to secular views and ideologically conservative religious world-views. It was several years from evolving the practices of modern party politics with their timely compromises and careful crafting of public statements. Though it had moved on from its ideological origins: Hassan al-Banna's thought turned into the radicalism of Sayeed Qutb's assertion of a binary opposition between Islam and the West.

Whilst erratically undertaking change, it retained some damaging features from the past, notably attitudes to women and Jews. Caught between the supposed "puritan purity" of Al-Nour, the rival Salafist Party, legitimate demands for a pluralist society and a secular State, it meandered between withdrawal from a gradualist Islamist agenda and bombastic assertion, between caution and hasty misjudgment. It contained definable strands of wider Muslim thinking, some merely strategic, some substantive.

The question was gradualism towards what? Above all it was impossible to know whether the commitment of individual leaders to democracy was merely tactical –- or represented a serious evolution in Islamic political thought. Most likely, irrespective of intentions, the former was planting the seeds of the latter. Since Egypt's secular parties were made up in the main of Muslims, it was clear that the opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood was more about the brand of Islam they were thought to be promoting – feared to be like that of Hamas - rather than their Muslim piety.

Cultural differences and ideological flexibility seem critical here. Rashid Al-Ghannushi, intellectual leader of the Ennahda Party in Tunisia, and, ironically a hero of the loose-knit global Muslim Brotherhood, encountered and engaged with secular thinking in the UK and Turkey. Fragile and still polarised, Tunisia has so far moved forward. Ennahda, like the Egyptian FJP, emerged from the same strand of Muslim Brotherhood thinking influenced by Sayeed Qutb. But Ghannushi, and Tunisia's army, unique history and culture, meant a different journey for political Islam. Ennahda, probably reacting to Egypt's travails, was able to negotiate a compromise constitution. An open mind led to an open politics in which the Party could step aside in the interests of the nation. And the army stayed in its barracks.

Democracy & Religious Freedom

The sorry story of Egypt's last few years raises some important questions about democracy and religious freedom. Religious affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood was afforded temporary accommodation by the country's military power brokers then rejected to the point of branding the organisation as terrorist. Foreign policy positions in relation to these changes had little to do directly with the pursuit of religious freedom globally and a great deal to do with the calculus of whether Egypt was drifting into disintegration and civil war on the model of Syria. The military appeared be, and assumed the role of, the only available anchor and agent of a superficial national unity.

Large religious minorities, the Copts, fared better under authoritarian rule than under inept Brotherhood government unable or unwilling to curb social hostility towards Christians. Mubarak had kept discrimination against religious minorities within bounds that he calculated would not evoke strong international reactions. The same was expected of the new President, the former Field Marshall, Sisi.

The question remained: what of the religious freedom of the 51.7 percent of voters (only 13.2 million people in a country of some 90 million so also in this sense a minority) who brought in an Islamist Party only to be informed, after some serious clashes by crowds trying to protect Mursi that caused casualties and deaths, that this qualified them for the label of terrorists? They could argue that their commitment to the Brotherhood was a matter of religious belief and practice, that they could not even assemble and protest as members without fear of massacre or imprisonment.

Yet there is really no easy answer to that question. The reason is that it depends entirely on a prudential judgment: either the Muslim Brotherhood government was a bungled step towards a form of "Islamic democracy" or it was a conspiracy to take Egypt in a theocratic direction that placed gender, minority rights and governance progressively, more firmly, under a conservative version of Shari'a and Muslim principles. Only the latter might be deemed a form of extremism endangering the Common Good. In the end judiciaries are de facto put in the position of deciding such questions and the Egyptian judiciary was not disinterested and clearly on one side of this argument. In the short term the military answered the question with lethal force.

That the Egyptian conflict came to a head at the same time as the USA, Canada, German and UK, to name the most prominent, were making religious freedom a major plank in their foreign policy is regrettable. Because few of the BRICS, the old non-aligned nations descended from the 1955 Bandung Conference, China and the Muslim states, are in a mood to give "the West" the benefit of the doubt. If human rights during the Cold War had been politicised by western governments, then there was no reason to think the same was not happening again, and that a selective approach was the order of the day. Whether this was reality hardly matters; it was the perception.

An insistence on placing the issue firmly within human rights discourse does not make winning hearts and minds in different cultures any easier.

The promotion of religious freedom thus labours against a considerable head wind. An insistence on placing the issue firmly within human rights discourse does not make winning hearts and minds in different cultures any easier. This is particularly the case where the application of human rights criteria is seen as selective or an essentially programmatic secular pretension that places sexual identity above religious identity and in no way appears to privilege religious consciousness as a unique aspect of being human.

The Pew Foundation's monitoring of the current decline in honouring of religious freedom both directly by governments, and indirectly in their inability or unwillingness to curb social hostility towards minorities, would indicate that the western approach to promoting religious freedom is not cutting much ice where it matters. I would suggest that this is partly due to a lack of understanding of how people in the different faith traditions conceptualise and deal with the issues on which promotion of religious freedom focuses, the intra-faith dynamics and debates.

For example there is a significant body of scholarly opinion in Islam willing to contextualise apostasy provisions as a punishment for treason in the beleaguered early Medina community, rather than incorrectly applied today to changing religion as such. Likewise there may be a more fruitful dialogue about religious freedom within a discourse of Islamic values and principles, maqasids rather than the assertion of particular rights. Exploring the foundational roots of human dignity rather than human rights may also take interlocutors onto a ground of possible agreement.

A sociological approach to religion that deals in a distinction between beliefs and "embedded practices", instead of engaging with what people think they are doing when they do religious things, obscures more than it illuminates. When a Filipino maid in a Gulf state is not allowed by her employer to attend the Easter liturgy, she is not simply being deprived of a key "habitual practice" in Catholicism, but is kept from the celebration of the foundational event of her faith and belief containing a set of symbolic meanings that make up part of her identity. Such a prohibition might easily be compared with being forbidden to go on the hajj for a Muslim. Is talking about her right to religious freedom going to convince? I doubt it - unless the right is safeguarded in the constitution and brought before well-trained and impartial judges with empathy and understanding of different religions.

In short secular liberal democracies need to understand the internal dynamics of the different religions much better if their approach is trying to convince rather than assert and cajole. This can require a degree of empathy with those holding views that are easily dismissed as pre-modern, unjust and patriarchal but not irremediably threatening to good order and social harmony. In addition it requires a clearer account of the limits of democracy and the limits of religious freedom. And this can only take place in a discourse about values that might be able escape the impasse of contending rights and world-views.

It also requires a degree of self-awareness. The mix of modernist and post-modernist thought that informs the conduct of liberal democracies is structured around five principal and distinct categories: state, civil society, politics, culture and religion (with the emphasis on the individual and private sphere). None are entirely well defined. But the principle of procedural secularism is that the state must remain equidistant from religions and that politics may be informed by philosophy, loosely and arguably derived from a particular religious heritage, but not closely shaped by religion. The question of religion and culture remains highly contested, from French laicite, with its quest for a centralised religion-free national culture, to British and Canadian multiculturalism and inter-culturalism open to religious diversity. But all are in striking contrast to Islamic societies where all five categories overlap in an all-embracing and detailed discourse about everyday life. This state of affairs results in conceptual confusions and misunderstandings such as a western aversion to "political Islam", in many cases to Muslim ears a tautology, and a struggle to define a universally accepted description of religious extremism.

The question then is what part of the liberal democratic system should be charged with sorting out this tangle and how might this be expressed in a foreign policy set on advocating democratic values and a human rights culture. The promotion of religious freedom in a time of religious extremism cannot be left to, dumped on, the good offices of a judiciary, magically transformed into Platonic Guardians, but surely must be primarily the responsibility of democratically elected parliaments and an education system embedded in the practice of pluralism. The law interprets legislation and should not create it, by inadvertence or default, as government and public opinion is confused and incoherent about what it considers to be religious extremism.

The domestic practice of religious freedom must also be consistent with a country's international relations. Are we aiming to export a human rights culture or a programmatic secularism? And without the right religious formation, Bildung, and widespread religious literacy, a society reared on hostility to immigrant religious minorities, and nudged towards xenophobia, will wag the tail of Parliament and the state with predictable consequences.



Sign up to receive the Roundup

Sign up to the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' Roundup to receive weekly updates with the latest commentary, analysis and news on the role of religion in conflict zones. Sign up here.