Tunisia: Islamic Law, Women’s Rights, and the Perils of Protection 

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images News / Getty Images
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images News / Getty Images

* By Dr Charis Boutieri, King's College London.  All views expressed are that of the author, not of the CRGA. 

For those of us who have been closely following regional and Tunisia-specific developments since 2011, there has been a sense of holding our breath to see how ostensibly drastic institutional transformation would translate into socio-cultural shifts that would support and enhance democratization inside the realm of social relations, namely the space where democracy becomes a way of life and the object of assessment by Tunisian citizens. 

In fact, Tunisian women have been assessing the affordances of democracy on a number of fronts: 

1) Women parliamentarians from a range of political fractions rigorously debated constitutional wording around the gendering of civic and economic rights, a domain in which the religious positioning of the sexes in relation to each other was one of many patriarchal paradigms to probe.

2) Seasoned feminist activists affiliated to the labor rights movements and surviving (secularist) NGOs from the pre-revolutionary period, along with their emerging interlocutors from the assumed to be more conservative religious sphere pushed their adversarial agendas on family matters and women’s experience of the public sphere

3) Non affiliated but exceptionally dynamic women activists continue to campaign tirelessly both online and offline for the defense of female sexuality and of diverse sexualities as well as for a range of intellectual, affective, and physical positions that fall outside the normative binarism of secularism vs political Islam (including advocacy for the legal and public acceptance of non-religious subjectivities). In this more under the radar activism, they are joined by informally organized campaigns to improve the conditions of rural women or protect the livelihoods of female factory workers from the ever increasing deregulation of labor. 

The fact that only the first two arenas of gender related pursuits have and continue to receive national and international attention is strong indication of what scholar Wendy Brown has called the risks of “institutionalized protection”, namely protection that entails accepting “the protector’s rules” (Brown 2006:189). I argue that we should be acutely aware of how state patronage of women’s matters regulates and controls the domain of visible and voiced debate on women’s issues. This dimension helps us complicate the much discussed but in my opinion reductive culturalist axis of religion vs secularism. 

I will briefly address the reform of elements of the Personal Status Code (1956-1957) in Tunisia through a recent draft bill submitted to President Beji Caid Essebsi by the government- appointed Committee for Individual Liberties and Equality (2017). The bill should be presented to Parliament in the coming months. Building on a number of promising steps to redress imbalances in areas of Islamic family law, such as the Basic Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women that establishes harsher sentences for domestic violence and sexual harassment (July 2018) and the presidential lifting the ban of Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men (August 2018), the new draft bill pushes for further reconfiguration of the guardianship of women by men. It does this by asking for the abolition of dowry (mahr) in the marital contract and the re-positioning of both man and women as heads of household. Inheritance distribution – rooted in some of the most specific injunctions of the Qur’an (Charrad 2001) that confirm the economically and socially subordinate position of women – will soon become the object of re-assessment. These latter measures are bound to have significant material implications for women both within and outside of marriage. 

All the above are welcome advances but not necessarily for the reasons highlighted in mainstream Tunisian and/or international media as well as in many pundit opinions. In short, it is not the “democratizing state” that needs to be applauded for these announced transformations, but instead the tenacity of the thousands of female actors who have been negotiating patriarchy within state institutions, legal documents, work environments and the private sphere. In fact, the state as a conduit for women’s emancipation has at best been an ambiguous, contradictory, and partial conduit of change. Female scholars from Muslim societies have long propagated the idea even if the Qur’anic text is held to be infallible and immutable, the science of jurisprudence (fiqh) remains the domain of human-positioned patriarchal reasoning and therefore subject to intervention (Mir-Hosseini 2006). Yet we should not forget that in both illiberal states and in the modern state more generally, law is de facto imbricated with state institutions.

Hence, the state becomes the main addressee and final arbiter of women’s rights – as would be the case rom Morocco to Saudi Arabia. It has long been apparent that notwithstanding the leanings of political elites (reductively classified as either secularist or religious), women remain the object of patriarchal patronage by states that have made strategic use of women’s bodies, desires, and ideas for the accomplishment of domestic and transnational goals (al-Rasheed 2013). Similarly in the Tunisian case, the long-term deployment of women’s emancipation from the establishment of the more progressive Personal Status Code (1956) and the endorsement of few feminist associations during the authoritarian regimes of Bourguiba (1956-1987) and Ben Ali (1987-2011) is a memory of caution against a simplistic association of women’s rights with progressive politics and democratization. This association becomes even more problematic if we connect this institutional history with contemporary concerns about economic redistribution and the welfare state, whose respective crises and retreat affect women disproportionally across class boundaries while also exacerbating these boundaries. 

In short, I invite us to see that state-sanctioned patriarchy is much more entrenched and expanded than the domain of Islamic law for family matters. The reform of law as the field of struggle is, in fact, a disciplining act that assumes that the fulfillment of women’s rights can be fully realized through the reform of legal institutions. For one, it is ironic that law would be the focus of a struggle for rights at the same time as the government repeatedly renews a state of emergency, which essentially confirms the now regularized suspension of law and its concomitant vulnerability to the overreach of sovereign power. Secondly, the pursuit of equality, respect, and empowerment will critically be judged by its performance at home, in the street, out of the fields, in schools and offices, and in cyberspace. It will be experienced in the less tangible but crucial domains in which relations between genders play out: rhetoric, physical contact, affect. These confrontations will be – and need to be – agonistic as they involve not only rational deliberation but also the imaginative realm of women as dangers to the social order (alluding here to the religious concept of fitna) as well as their crucial position in circuits of prestige (material and symbolic) controlled by men. 

This brings me to the third domain of women’s activities that is rarely advertised and therefore less known in relation to the broader landscape of Tunisian democratization. Female activists are pushing for a plethora of matters that are dear to them from the trafficking of women across the region, to extracting the female body from conversations on identity politics (public religion versus its containment), to the possibilities of non-heteronormative sexualities and the public display of affection between genders. Through their sit-in action and demonstrations, they seek to influence policies around the economic position of female unemployed graduates and the fragrant disparities female mobility and possibility in urban environments versus rural areas. Even though their desires and activities are not regulated and perhaps are not even visible by the state yet, these agendas should not be separated from theological and legal deliberations regarding family affairs, parliamentary activities around the abolishment of polygamy, the punishment of violence against women, and the balancing out of inheritance rights. 

They should, I argue, be given more attention as crucial dimensions of finding and displacing the ‘Man from the State’, that is relativizing the potential of the masculinist State to authorize and spearhead the socio-cultural transformations conducive to gender equality.  In sum, religion – in this case Islam – is one of the experiential repertoires through which this re-negotiation of rights will take place. Yet it is neither the only nor the definitive one. To assume that it is risks obscuring the plethora of patriarchal scaffolds that sustain gender inequality as well as other types of inequality (regional, class, generational), both of which inhere in the very set up of the modern state in the period of advanced capitalism. 


Works Cited

Brown, W., 1992. Finding the Man in the State. Feminist studies, 18(1), pp.7-34.

Charrad, M., 2001. States and women's rights: The making of postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. University of California Press.

Mir-Hosseini, Z., 2006. Muslim women’s quest for equality: Between Islamic law and feminism. Critical inquiry, 32(4), pp.629-645.

Al-Rasheed, M., 2013. A most masculine state: Gender, politics and religion in Saudi Arabia (Vol. 43). Cambridge University Press.

The Spectacle of Buddhist Political Activism in Sri Lanka

Article by Michael Hertzberg* 

Ven. Gnanasara Thero of the Bodu Bala Sena, a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organisation in Sri Lanka.  Picture via Colombo Telegraph . 

Ven. Gnanasara Thero of the Bodu Bala Sena, a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organisation in Sri Lanka. Picture via Colombo Telegraph

The anti-Muslim riots in the Kandy District, Sri Lanka have once again raised questions over the involvement of particularly Buddhist clergy in attacks, protests and campaigns against ethnic and religious minorities in South Asia. There is a lot to explore on the intersection of Buddhism with politics, nationalism and mass mobilization. This article focuses on one aspect of these, seeking to offer insights on how Buddhist-political mobilization draws upon cultural anxieties and rhetorical repertoires.

Buddhist-political groups emerge in contexts of national political instability, and beckons us to re-think the relations between Buddhism and politics. This is particularly visible in the case of Sri Lanka, which has faced tumultuous political instability the last decade, with the devastating tsunami in 2004 and the long-ranging civil war (1983 – 2009). These events have not only beckoned substantial international attention, involving both political and humanitarian interventions, but also intensified political engagement among Buddhist nationalist groups.

Buddhist marches and demonstrations are public displays of power and demonstrate how political monks are important agents in transforming local level incidents into high-profile national issues. Examples of this can be seen in the burning of Norwegian flags in opposition to the peace facilitation in 2003; the fast-unto-death campaigns to oppose the P-TOMS (a joint mechanism to disburse aid after the tsunami, but which was perceived as a peace agreement in disguise); the rallies and demonstrations in opposition to the UN-ordered Darusman report in 2011 (which demanded greater accountability of the last stages of the civil war).

Monks have also played an important role in rising anti-Muslim attitudes and incidents in the country. Bodu Bala Sena, led by the charismatic Buddhist monk Ven. Gnanasara Thero, has spearheaded the new anti-Muslim stance in Sri Lanka from 2012, which has led to violent outcomes. They have been able to garner support by tapping into a variety of cultural anxieties, such as; ‘unethical’ conversions, interfaith marriages, halal certification, and contestation over sacred sites.

The very concept ‘political monk’ in Sri Lanka can be seen as a contradiction: per definition monks should be apolitical. However, despite the fact that monks and politics in principle should be separate, political engagement among the monks have an important place in Sri Lanka’s history. On several occasions, Buddhist monks have arisen to ‘the needs of the hour’ to ‘rescue’ their country and Buddhist values from dangers they perceive. A given crisis, a potent ‘enemy’, beckons them to act.

Buddhist monks usually mobilize through temporary political formations. The official hierarchy of the monkhood, the sangha, very seldom comments on political issues directly. However, monks have involved themselves in various activist and pressure groups, staged huge demonstrations and conducted political marches. These groups are often “loosely structured, ad hoc in nature and highly personalized in character”. Buddhist monks hold a unique position in the society, their spiritual and moral capital, their social prestige and network capabilities make them ideal actors to create public spectacles.

It is, therefore, not surprising to their presence in anti-Muslim riots in the country. Muslim sites of religious worship have been increasingly contested in recent years and are often subject to both political and legal dispute in Sri Lanka. Several high-profile cases in recent years have formed around mosques in Dambulla, Dighavapi and Kuragala. The Aluthgama riots in 2014 against Muslims ended with 4 killed, 80 injured and thousands of displaced people. With the latest trouble in Kandy district, Buddhist monks once again spearhead hostilities as agitators.

The success of their political acts is clear. There are able to provide a rhetoric that both provokes but also attracts wide audiences. The religious language utilized by the monks provide a clear boundary in narratives of ‘us versus them’. Yet, the boundaries are not simply drawn by Buddhists and Muslims, but also among Buddhists themselves, effectively pitting multiple groups against each other. Their messages of Buddhist indignation draw wide public attention, but also make it hard for the public to stay indifferent to the calls to act and respond to declared threats. These point out the unparalleled political power and influence monks can exercise in transforming local incidents into nationwide issues.

The recent trouble in Kandy district follows this pattern of Buddhist political activism; they arise in the needs of the hour, where the political involvement of monks indicate that the Buddhist heritage itself is under threat,  this time allegedly from Muslims.

* Michael Hertzberg is an associate professor at University of Bergen, Norway. He defended his PhD The Anti-Conversion Bill: Political Buddhism, ‘Unethical Conversions’ and Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka in 2016. He has published articles on law, religion and rhetoric, and his latest piece is “The Audience and the Spectacle: Bodu Bala Sena and the Controversy of Buddhist Political Activism in Sri Lanka” in Jens Kjeldsen (ed.) Rhetorical Audience Studies and Reception of Rhetoric: Exploring Audiences Empirically (2018).  All views expressed are that of the author, not of the CRGA.

Faith and Human Rights: Time To Restore Diplomatic Relations

By David Griffiths*

"From a Christian perspective, there is a significant relation between the Gospel message and the recognition of human rights in the spirit of those who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Pope Francis

As tens of thousands of young people took to the streets in cities across the USA to call for an end to gun violence in the historic “March for Our Lives”, @Pontifex tweeted, “Dear young people, never get tired of being instruments of peace and joy among your peers”. The same Pope has regularly used his Twitter voice to encourage generosity towards refugees and migrants, and call for an end to exploitation.

At a time when vanishingly few world leaders are willing to speak out for human rights, Pope Francis’ voice has taken on great importance. His moral clarity and the simplicity of his exhortations have won him friends from across religious divides.

Pope Francis is not only the leader of one of the largest religious movements in the world, but arguably the pre-eminent champion of human rights in the world today. Yet, in general terms the relationship between religious faith and human rights – inasmuch as it exists at all – has over decades become almost totally estranged.

This is a great shame, and it impoverishes both human rights and religion. It is also historically aberrant, since human rights has drawn substantially from the moral reasoning of a variety of religious traditions, and has enjoyed the active support of religious communities throughout much of its short history.

Maybe this estrangement is partly explained by the fact that human rights looks like religion for a secularist era. Human rights is a value system with a vision for a healthy society – some of which is at odds with the traditional order associated with dominant religions. Much of its potency and relevance depends on being championed by people committed to its values, like any faith community. And similarly, it has built up an infrastructure of laws and institutions which, while creaky and often dysfunctional, provide a solidity and sense of permanence.

But mutual estrangement is depriving all sides of an important partner in confronting questions of human values which have taken on new urgency. In these strange and uncertain times, identity politics and protectionism are growing as the world shrinks, and politicians and the media prey on people’s anxieties about a future which is globalised, ecologically damaged, churned by a shifting world order, and upended by disruptive technology. For many populist leaders, religion and ethnicity are sources of group identity which can be readily tapped. This fragmentation and zero-sum view of relations between groups accompanies a palpable surge of attacks on human rights across the world. And both faith groups and the human rights movement are left asking, what kinds of societies do we want to live in, and how do we build them from here?

This seems like a good time to build new bridges between faith and human rights. But what would be the terms of engagement for a renewed dialogue between them? I would like to suggest three areas.

Firstly, we need a sophisticated approach to human rights abuses committed in the name of religion, or with religious endorsement. In a world of heightened identity politics and cultural protectionism, many leaders court the patronage of majority religious communities. Evangelical conservatives in the USA have sanctioned many of President Trump’s worst instincts. In India, Hindu nationalist narratives have driven rising hate crimes against minorities. The leaders of so-called Islamic State claimed they were creating an authentically Muslim society. And so on.

Facing this reality, human rights groups have too often overlooked the religion factor. But it is not enough simply to appeal to the better nature of governments who stand on majoritarian support. Violence against minorities is part of the logic of identity politics and a proven political strategy. It is the almost inevitable long-term consequence of long-term narratives of “us versus them”. Real redress is not only about accountability and non-discrimination, it is also about governments deliberately creating an environment for pluralism to thrive. Human rights groups and religious leaders should work together to this end. Faith leaders need to call out the instrumentalisation of religion for political gain, while human rights groups should push for the protection of freedom of religion for all.

Secondly, there is plenty of unexplored potential for the human rights movement and faith communities to make common cause on wider societal challenges. Both speak about values, and both draw on the engagement of people who want to realise those values in the world. Human rights organisations should not try to teach religion to religious people, but there is potential for them to build on religious and cultural values. For example, in promoting welcoming attitudes towards refugees or minorities, human rights groups already tap into the moral resources that are often provided by religious faith. This could be developed into deeper partnerships, for example by placing refugee families in the care of welcoming communities, which can set a positive example to others.

Thirdly, we are reaching a point in history when exponential technologies are raising new questions about what it means to be human. In Noah Yuval Harari’s analysis, religious faith is a pre-modern survival mechanism, while the idea of autonomous individual agency (in which human rights is rooted) has now reached its twilight. In the merging of humans and machines which we now confront, in the new social contracts mediated by algorithms, we are entering uncharted territory when it comes to questions of what it means to be human.

If we reach a situation in which a supreme caste of humankind is enhanced by machine while other humans are pre-emptively removed from society because they are judged likely to commit certain crimes, will we still even pay lip service to an ideal of human equality? This is the kind of existential question which concerns faith communities, and which has profound implications for human rights.

As the negative implications of powerful exponential technologies become ever clearer, the need for an ethical framework for technologies such as artificial intelligence is abundantly clear. As to the question of whose ethics, that will be largely determined by whoever turns up to have the discussion. Faith communities and the human rights community should both be paying attention.

I have suggested three areas to help us build a constructive engagement between faith and human rights. None of this precludes mutual critique, and both faith communities and the human rights movement will rightly continue to make criticisms of each other. But as @Pontifex has seen clearly, the bigger need today is for voices of moral clarity to speak out against forces of injustice and division in these turbulent times. Can we start to end the estrangement?

* David Griffiths is Head of the Secretary General’s Office at Amnesty International. He holds degrees from Oxford University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, and has previously specialised in freedom of religion and the rights of minorities in Asia. All opinions expressed in this article are that of the author, not that of the CRGA or any other institution. 

An Interview with Professor Peter Mandaville on Religion and US foreign policy

With the new administration in place in the US, the issues surrounding religion, identity and security have once again became 'hot topics' in the media. Beyond headlines and breaking news, however, the US foreign policy structures have been utilising academic and diplomatic expertise to address these complex issues. We talked to Professor Peter Mandaville , who engaged with these issues both as a respected scholar and as a US diplomat that served at the Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the US State Department. 


Peter Mandaville is a Professor of International Affairs in Schar School of Policy & Government at George Mason University and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. During the Obama administration, he served in government at the U.S. Department of State on two occasions: first as a member of Hillary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff during the Arab Uprisings of 2010-11, and then later as part of John Kerry’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs (2015-16) where his portfolio focused on ISIS and sectarian conflict in the Middle East. He is the author of the books Islam and Politics (2nd edition, 2014) and Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma (2001) as well as numerous edited co-edited volumes, journal articles, and media commentary pieces.

1.You are an internationally renowned scholar who served at the State Department. Can you tell us how that shift happened, and how the scholarly and diplomatic worlds may differ?

As a scholar of contemporary Islamic social and political movements based in Washington DC, I became increasingly active as an advisor and consultant to policymakers in the years immediately following 9/11. Given my own intellectual and ethical formation, I was initially very wary of becoming too closely involved with the national security apparatus of the United States for fear of how my expertise and input might be misused—particularly by a U.S. administration that I disagreed with in very fundamental ways. However, when I saw some of the other people who were coming forward at that time as supposed experts on, for example, European Muslims, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamism—figures, by the way, who had little in the way of academic training on these topics but a clear political agenda to advance—I came to feel that it was actually my professional responsibility to be present and engaged in such discussions. The United States is perhaps unique in terms of the range of pathways and fellowship programs available that permit academic specialists to spend a period of time working directly for government. So once there was a U.S. administration in place in which I felt comfortable serving—and, I should add, with the generous support of George Mason University, who allowed me a leave of absence, I availed myself of the opportunity to spend a year working full time as a member of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff during the Arab Uprisings. Later, after going back to my academic endeavors for a few years, I was asked to come back to the State Department to work on the challenge posed by ISIS while based out of the new Office of Religion and Global Affairs established by John Kerry in 2013. I’m now making the transition back to university life.

How do the worlds of diplomacy and scholarship differ? Well, other than the obvious fact that the core functions of the two spaces are quite different, one thing I had to adjust to was the fact that each of them values something different when it comes to writing. Where scholars are rewarded for continually generating new, original content—meaning that reusing or recycling previous work is generally frowned upon—I learned in my State Department work that verbatim repetition between memos is regarded as a sign of policy consistency! You also have to develop a thick skin in terms of watching potentially dozens of different people wordsmithing your text as a policy document moves through the bureaucracy. The idea of authorship seems to disappear entirely.

2.The United States’ Office of Religion and Global Affairs has been a fascinating acknowledgment that religion matters, and that United State’s foreign policy should engage with the topic. Do you think the office fulfilled its mandate and helped wider foreign policy machinery engage with religion? 

The Office of Religion and Global Affairs has been a tremendously important experiment on multiple levels. On the one hand, its work focuses on a topic—religion—that most policymakers tend to shy away from because of the inherent sensitivities that accompany it. I think religion is often viewed as something strange and categorically unamenable to rational policy discourse—an effect compounded by the U.S. legal requirement for separating church and state, a statute frequently (but incorrectly) read as forbidding interaction and partnership between the federal government and religious actors. Second, the work of the office is about trying to add a new resource to the diplomatic toolkit, and it’s always a tricky proposition when you ask large bureaucratic organizations such as the Department of State to alter standard operating procedures to accommodate new approaches—all the more so when the subject matter involved is one that makes many uncomfortable!

The work of the office is not and never has been—or, legally speaking, ever could be—about pushing any particular normative approach to religion. Our work never departed from the assumption that religion was an inherently positive or negative force in society. Rather, it began from the recognition that religion is a very influential factor shaping social attitudes, political processes, and institutional landscapes in many societies around the world. It therefore stands to reason that it would be important for diplomats to be aware of these dynamics and to have the capacity to engage with religious actors in order to advance the full range of U.S. policy priorities. In the nearly four years the office has been in existence, I think it has had a significant albeit uneven impact on policy. By this, I just mean that there are certain bureaus and offices at the State Department that quickly recognized how partnership with the office could help them to do their jobs more effectively, while others have remained somewhat more skeptical.

3. What are some of the opportunities and challenges in engaging with religious actors for United States diplomats? Can you share a success story, as well as examples of counterproductive approaches?

We’ve already touched on some of the challenges: general wariness of religion, concern that such engagement is legally prohibited by U.S. law (it isn’t), a sense that religious actors are somehow “different” and unamenable or unable to discuss political affairs or worldly issues (sometimes correct with respect to the former assumption, hardly ever on the latter). A large proportion of the work of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs has therefore focused on training and capacity-building, and on helping the various regional and functional bureaus within the State Department to develop initiatives involving religious actors that can help to support things they already care about. Using this kind of approach the office has made very tangible progress with respect to issues such as controlling corruption, combatting climate change, and public health.

4. There is a tendency for the topic of religion to be only seen through the lens of a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) focus. Does such a starting point help, or should governments take religion seriously beyond CVE? 

Well this question takes us directly into an area that has been more challenging. With respect to groups such as ISIS, I think the default assumption of many national security policymakers is that the U.S. government should be partnering with religious leaders who can create and disseminate something like “theological antidotes” designed to discredit Salafi-jihadi interpretations of Islam. I think this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding both of how religious authority works in Islam and also a faulty analysis of the extent to which the “correctness” of how ISIS interprets Islamic teachings bear on the calculus of those looking to join or support such groups. There’s also just a basic credibility problem here insofar as I suspect that a religious scholar whose views are supported or promoted by the U.S. Government would have close to zero legitimacy in the eyes of many young and politically conscious Muslims. The Office of Religion and Global Affairs has therefore tried to emphasize instead the idea that religious actors who want to play a role in countering violent extremism are likely to be more effective by making their voices heard in the context of initiatives that deal with some of the underlying societal causes of terrorism – such as localized violence and conflict, corruption and other deficits in governance, and certain forms of socioeconomic deprivation and societal alienation.

5. What are some trends you see globally on both religion and global affairs, and how do Western governments understand and respond to these?

One policy development that really worries is the fact there are some rather powerful figures within the new U.S. administration—people very close to the President himself—who view Islam in categorically negative terms. This is more than just worrying disproportionately about Islamically-inspired terrorism. It’s about the return of civilizational grand strategy and the idea that Islam, by virtue of its teachings, somehow poses an existential threat to the United States. I worry not only that this will lead to misguided and ineffective national security policy (as already seems to be the case with respect to the recent Executive Orders restricting immigration and refugees) but that it will lend credence to the narrative of groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS who posit an inherent conflict between Islam and the West. By mirroring their discourse, I fear we will only assist such groups in their recruitment efforts.

If I wanted to emphasize something positive—and who doesn’t right now—I would point to the idea that in many settings religion is increasingly becoming a space (and sometimes the only space) that stands apart from the prevailing global political and economic order, and demands that we hold the agents and institutions of that order to account for the moral failings of their conduct. In this sense, I dare say there are functional symmetries with the role traditionally played by scholars and universities, even though the two—religion and the liberal academy—often depart from rather different epistemological foundations. The person and style of Pope Francis has, I think, been of enormous importance in this regard. While his positions on many issues important to progressives and advocates of social justice are doctrinally constrained (e.g. reproductive health), I think it is fair to say he has managed to transcend the boundaries of Catholicism and establish himself as an extremely important catholic (in the small ‘c’ sense of that term) leader by embodying and speaking to the near-universal experience—particularly in the developing world—of powerlessness and disenfranchisement. With respect to Western policymaking, I think this means we should expect to find religion more present in the public sphere and more influential with respect to shaping and informing the socio-political worldviews of many communities around the world.

Interview: British Foreign Office and Religion

Sue Breeze,  Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Sue Breeze, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Religion has often been an ignored topic in British diplomacy. Some of this has been due to complexities and sensitivities of the topic and fear of getting it wrong and offending religious people, some due to a lack of recognition and appreciation that religion is one of the most powerful forces in today's world thus cannot be ignored in both how we understand and engage with other countries where religion plays a major role. However, things have changed slowly but surely over the last few years. As persecution on the basis of religion and belief emerged to be a major human rights concern in today's world, freedom of religion and belief was included in key areas of focus in promotion of human rights by the FCO. Religious literacy was increased through seminars, study days and workshops for diplomats. We talked to Sue Breeze, a career British diplomat that played a central role in FCO's improvement on engagement with the topic on where things are and why it matters for British diplomacy to take religion seriously. 

Why does it matter that the FCO take religion seriously?

In a world where over 80% of the population say that religion is important to them, if British diplomats fail to take into account the influence of religion in seeking to understand the perspectives of their international contacts, then we are missing a significant part of the picture.

In what ways have the FCO been doing so?

We have put together a short basic religious literacy course, which is part of our online Diplomatic Academy Foundation Level. This is training which every member of staff, including the locally engaged staff at our Embassies around the world, is expected to take. It has recently been made mandatory for promotion for our junior staff. We also run a regular two-day course for staff who need more in-depth knowledge. This examines in more detail at some of the world’s major religions and the way that they shape their followers’ understanding of the world. It considers contemporary controversies, looks at some case studies drawn from real world examples and concludes by considering what all this means for a diplomat in his/her day to day work.

What are the challenges of this?

The risk in running these courses is that we are “preaching to the converted”. Those who voluntarily sign up to attend a course on religion and diplomacy probably already appreciate that the two are linked and that understanding religion is important. It is probably those who really need the training who do not sign up to attend. The answer would clearly be to make the training compulsory, but then this risks a room full of unwilling participants who may pay very little attention to what is being taught.

Is religion a missing element in practice of diplomacy?

The picture is variable. Some diplomatic missions have an excellent understanding of the way that religion influences the thinking of the population of their host countries. Others miss the link completely. Clearly if you are operating in a country that is profoundly religious then the risk of not considering the religious influence is that you make faulty judgements. There is a tendency to assume that others think as we do and so, for example, to assume that they are driven by a desire to see, above all, a more materially comfortable life for their families; or to believe that those in a host country want peace and may be willing to negotiate and compromise to achieve it. Or for us to believe that if only they implemented a Western style democracy then all would be well. My advice to my colleagues is always that if a position taken by your host government doesn’t seem to make sense, then you should consider whether there might be a religious perspective driving it.

Can you tell us about the recent conference on religious freedom and religious extremism?

The conference, which was entitled: ‘Preventing Violent Extremism by building inclusive and plural societies: How Freedom of Religion or Belief can help’, drew its inspiration from the following statement by the UN Secretary General:

Violent extremism undermines peace and security, human rights and sustainable development... I am convinced that the creation of open, equitable, inclusive and pluralist societies, based on the full respect of human rights...represents the most tangible and meaningful alternative to violent extremism and the most promising strategy for rendering it unattractive” UN Secretary General, 24 December 2015

It examined the idea that a key part of the answer to preventing extremism is to build open, equitable, inclusive and plural societies in which fundamental rights are respected, including freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression and freedom of association. Where people are free to follow their chosen religion or belief, to share it with others and to worship in the company of others, then extremist ideologies are seen in sharp relief as dangerous, anti-social counter-currents to the public good. Conversely, where governments and societies promote or condone discrimination on the basis of religion or belief they create fertile ground which violent extremists can exploit. This can include the development of deep-seated prejudice within society which sets individuals and groups against each other. This mindset leads to individuals abusing the human rights of others on the basis of their religion or belief, and is threatening the extinction of Christians in the Middle East in particular.

The conference was groundbreaking in that it brought together experts on FoRB with those working on preventing violent extremism, and it sought to promote dialogue between these two previously separate worlds. We had over 190 participants from at least 38 different countries. We are now working to turn some of the conference recommendations into action, both in the UK government policy and action, but also through working with civil society and the international community.

How does the FCO work on freedom of religion and religious persecution?

We work in four main areas – multilateral work, bilateral contacts, project work and religious literacy. Through both our multilateral and bilateral work, we seek to work with other states to promote and protect the right to freedom of religion or belief. On a multilateral level, we are working through the UN to ensure that states implement Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, which focuses the international community on combating religious intolerance, protecting the human rights of minorities and promoting pluralism in society.  We work to ensure this resolution, along with the EU’s more comprehensive resolution on the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), are adopted by consensus each year as it gives us some agreed language to use when raising FoRB with other governments.

Through our bilateral engagements, we lobby for changes in laws and practices that discriminate against individuals on the basis of their religion or belief. We also raise individual cases of persecution at Ministerial and official level. We also carry out project work in a range of countries, working with non-governmental organisations on issues such as promoting education about freedom of religion or belief, supporting civil society and youth networks, bridging sectarian divides, promoting dialogue between faith groups and government and offering technical advice on laws that need amendment.  We also meet regularly with leaders of different religious groups from around the world, UK faith groups and civil society organisations, to understand their current concerns, and to examine how we can better work together to promote a universal commitment to religious freedom.