A Discussion with Azza Karam, Senior Advisor on Culture, UNFPA

With: Azza Karam

October 28, 2011

Background: This discussion between Azza Karam (in New York) and Katherine Marshall and Michael Bodakowski in October 2011 builds on an earlier exchange on April 29, 2010. The context was the Berkley Center reflection on its five-year research and policy work on development and religion. Dr. Karam highlights the complex evolution of thinking and approach within the United Nations system in relation to religion, seen from the vantage point of UNFPA. This has involved specifically intensive work to establish a network of faith-based organizations working especially on population issues; and simultaneously to set up an interagency task force within the UN system that addresses faith-based partnerships on an ongoing basis. She comments (as an Egyptian) on her perspectives on religious dimensions of the Arab Spring.

Could you describe the efforts within the United Nations system, under UNFPA leadership, to build up the network of institutions linked to faith? It is quite unique. Where do you see it going today?

The Global Interfaith Network for Population and Development is a unique mechanism in many ways. I say that not only because it is a UNFPA effort, or because I speak from within UNFPA, but also more generally, looking from the outside into the workings of the UN, and looking at the interfaith work that is going on more generally.

This type of conglomerate has several aspects that set it apart. Number one is the idea that you could actually pull together, from around the world, partner faith-based organizations. For these are not your average religious institutions, but are the groups that are legally registered in their own countries, that have been active in their own countries, and sometimes regionally, with a human rights mentality. They are dedicated to human rights actions, orientations, perspectives, etc. In that respect, it is not just an interfaith network but a group of organizations that are prepared to come together across their religious and geographic and sometimes dogmatic divides. Many have, for many years, been seen to be the radical fringes of their own communities simply because they will pioneer and champion answers based on human rights, which may well be—and sometimes are—in direct confrontation with their own religious hierarchy. We are talking about Catholic organizations that are working to support women’s right to choose their own destiny over their own number of children, their bodies, and their families. We are talking about Muslim organizations that are venturing into other taboo territories, for example urging equality of men and women in rights and access to resources in their own communities. We are talking about a range of organizations that are prepared basically to go against the general taboos that have been justified through religion, and sometimes are still articulated by religious leaders; and that work to provide needed services to their religious communities, with an understanding and an appreciation that this is about human rights, and—as many would put it in their own idiom—human dignity, first and foremost.

What UNFPA has done in bringing this network together has been a non-traditional approach. When we set out, we wanted above all to be sure that we did not create anything new, but instead built on real interests and institutions.

We relied in an essential way on the United Nations offices within the countries themselves. The UN is not just a headquarters presence; its strength really comes from the field office presence, and UNFPA has over 120 country offices. What we did, way back in 2007, was to communicate with our country offices and ask them to let us know whom in the faith-based world they partnered with and on what issues, and how they would assess that kind of partnership experience.

This survey confirmed that almost all UNFPA country offices had actually partnered, at some point or other, either with a religious leader, several religious leaders, or faith-based and faith-inspired organizations. This, however, was not explicitly spelled out, because the traditional UN system way of recording does not allow much room to be very specific about what and which civil societies they are partnering with. It is already a big deal for the UN to partner with civil society, but often we put all of civil society in one basket and do not necessarily distinguish between the different elements or members of these societies. Many of our country offices just subsumed partnerships with faith communities under the broad category of outreach to and engagement with civil society.

Once we asked country offices to single out specifically faith-based or faith-inspired partnerships, we realized that they had all worked with them. Reaching that point was a learning process. About 25 percent of UNFPA country offices came back to us saying, “We have partnered with religious leaders and/or with faith-based or faith-inspired organizations specifically around the issues of sexual and reproductive health and family planning issues, which are quite contentious. We have had to, but we would really rather not have this reported on or spoken of in public, because the strength of this engagement has been a long-term process of building trust with these individuals and/or with these organizations, and a great deal of the positive aspect of this engagement is that we keep this relationship discrete.” In sum, the effort clearly had not to be about publicizing the work or putting the dialogue in the limelight. The lesson was that we had to make sure that some of the faith groups are in sync with UNFPA objectives. It may not necessarily be helpful for some faith leaders or faith-inspired organizations to actually be known to be cooperating with UNFPA on sensitive issues, and they deem it best to attempt to change certain ways of thinking from within their own communities and without being seen to be affiliated with any international entity, for whatever reason. Discretion in this case was literally the best part of valor.

We understood this situation completely at headquarters once it was explained. The experience resonated, not just in one region of the world but in many of the country offices. This 25 percent of responses came from Latin America, the Arab region, some African countries, and some East and Southeast Asian countries. It was clearly an experience that was shared—to work to gain the trust of the particular religious leader and/or organizations to make sure that at the very least they were not condemning the work of UNFPA in public, or not condemning it at all if possible, and/or do referral services when, and if, possible. That’s the kind of work that they would rather not have publicity about, whereas in the first instance we had wanted to make public this engagement.

In other offices, there were less sensitive relationships, and only in a handful of cases, was there little to no contact.

Once we appreciated this reaction among some of the UNFPA offices, we proceeded to bring groups of like-minded faith-inspired and faith-based organizations together within a single geographic region. We then worked slowly to build up towards bringing many of them together at the global level. The objective here was in a way to help local groups to report on their own capacities as faith-inspired organizations by letting them see that they were not alone; that indeed there was a tremendous synchronicity and agreement on principles among them. So the Catholic organizations, whether it was in Venezuela or Chile, were quite impressed to realize that their counterparts in Zimbabwe or Zambia were actually working very much along the same lines intellectually, and so on. That was a remarkable process of strengthening for them, and it really built up a fantastic momentum. When we convened them, many participants actually said, “We would like to be convened like this more regularly. We would like to have the opportunity to share and to learn from each other’s experience more frequently.” This fit brilliantly with the philosophy that the UN has in terms of South-South exchange of experiences and building of capacity. Thus we used the UN’s mode of operation and UN language to convene effectively a global interfaith networking process.

When, in the next phase, we brought the regional groups together at the global level, they themselves said that they did not want another organization that would be yet another NGO, called The Global Interfaith Network. They were much more comfortable working within their own areas, and having UNFPA and other UN agencies (because we involved other UN agencies with us at that point e.g. UNAIDS, UNDESA, UNDP, UNESCO) support a loosely knit network that would not have to be regularly convened all the time at the global level. They preferred to further their convening and joint programming at the regional level. That was a much more empowering strategy for many of them. So that is how it is actually operating.

Today we have a global interfaith network that is a tremendous resource for our partners in the developing world. It is of use to other faith-based organizations, researchers, other UN agencies, international development partners, and so on. This network is available as a directory for those who are interested in seeking like-minded development organizations that work in the faith field. They seek each other out too. It remains a loosely formed, global interfaith network. Many of the activities that are going on in terms of partnerships, building of capacities, and advocacy strategies, etc. are happening at the regional level.

Each of our regions has carried out a set of different initiatives. In each region, they determine among themselves their priorities and where, how, and with whom, they reach out. The regional offices and some country offices work regularly with partners on a range of issues, mostly around sexual and reproductive health issues, but also increasingly on issues of immigration, youth welfare, the challenges of urbanization, and climate change. This latter issue is invariably being put on the agenda in several regions, notably sub-Saharan Africa as well as Asia. Asia and the Pacific members are moving forward with partnerships with faith-based organizations and secular organizations on climate and environmental issues as well as reproductive health and women’s empowerment.

In sum, it is a vibrant network that it is not controlled by anyone. Members determine their own agenda, plans of action, with the country offices or regional offices, and move ahead. We realize that by making this remarkable resource available for other faith-based partners, that also is an opportunity for many of them to support each other. It is not something that is an expectation of UNFPA, exclusively, but it is a broader set of engagements on the international development level.

Can you give some examples of the kinds of activities that have emerged?

Our Eastern Europe and Central Asia partnership just met together and developed a set of priorities for what they want to work on in 2012. One priority is a set of trainings for religious leaders and other faith-inspired organizations across the Eastern Europe and other Central Asian areas on human rights. They want to understand the modalities that this whole human rights discourse actually entails. They want to try to come up with generic conversations that link the secular discourse on human rights – particularly intersections with family planning and gender-based violence - with their own religious discourses. So they are organizing training on human rights, and developing, together with some of the dioceses, a faith-based reference on reproductive health especially rooted in Eastern Orthodoxy.

This year, there was a strong sense of achievement about a program that raised awareness among Armenian clergy from all the Dioceses of the Armenian Apostolic Churches, and, interestingly enough, Georgia, on domestic violence which involved different ethnic and religious groups. The process involves the UN team presenting the data, the statistics, or evidence-base—medical, scientific, and otherwise—to these faith community representatives so that they can then develop their own ways and discourse to try to counsel their own members of their churches and parishes and to counsel against that kind of domestic abuse and other forms of gender-based violence that were taking place. This also allowed them to be more adept at counseling women who are rape victims, etc. This has gone on over the past year and they intend to continue, taking some examples of what seems to work in addressing the clergy to neighboring countries. Similarly, Tajikistan has established a good training of trainers program linking Islamic precepts with ongoing health priorities. This is now being adopted by other international agencies as a good practice. There are ongoing discussions with the government and faith leaders to establish a specialized institute which can offer training for religious leaders around reproductive health sexually transmitted infections, and HIV and AIDS. Both the Armenian and Tajik examples are being looked at by neighboring UNFPA country offices who are themselves pioneering some of their own engagements with religious communities and leaders.

This is just in one region and there is far too much going on to be captured in such a conversation. There has been a plethora of these types of initiatives in sub-Saharan African countries. In the Arab region, UNFPA has long supported training through and with Al-Azhar University on issues related to FGM/C, violence against women, family planning, among other issues.

What is being done to capture the full range of such work? Do the secretary general’s reports on culture and religion tell the full story?

Several of these activities are noted or described in UNFPA’s own reports, as well as in recent reports of the secretary general—notably on ‘Culture and Development’ as well as on ‘Intercultural, Interreligious and Intercivilizational Dialogue,’ each of which corresponds to different resolutions by the United Nations General Assembly. But we found, as we prepared our contributions to the reports, that UNFPA had way too much, something like four times the number of words that was appropriate, as the reports must be inclusive of other UN agencies and other activities. We were allowed space to report on only one-tenth of what UNFPA actually did, in order to ensure space for reporting by other sister agencies. One thing came out clearly, and that is that a great deal of engagements are taking place. Once we realized that we had a lot more to contribute than we were allowed to report on, we prepared our own separate report which has either just gone up on the website or will be going up for those who want to get access to some of this work.

Can you give a short background on what the reports of the secretary general were and what the impetus was for them?

We contribute to two reports to the secretary-general. Most such reports are based on General Assembly resolutions that come out, which mandate the UN system—agencies, funds, and mechanisms—to report to the secretary general, so it becomes his report to share back with the General Assembly. These reports cover a whole range of issues: several of which are sent each year to the SG’s office for his presentation at the General Assembly. The two reports I have in mind, to which we have contributed and which are relevant for this discussion are: the report on Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue and the report on Culture and Development. These are the reports to which UNFPA always has much more to contribute than we actually end up able to share. The two reports, especially on Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, give specific space to the faith-based dimension. Because UNFPA has been very diligent in making sure that it is part of the overall cultural dynamic, it covers a lot of the work that we do.

UNESCO and the Division for Economic and Social Affairs collate these two reports, as one of the key agents of that process of gathering information and reporting back to General Assembly. UNESCO, the UN Alliance of Civilizations, and the Division of Economic and Social Affairs are the agencies specifically mandated to report back on these topics. In the beginning when they first did these, it was limited to reports about UNESCO and the UN Alliance of Civilizations. When I came on board, I made a case that the process had to bring on board other UN agencies, like UNFPA, UNDP, and UNICEF, that also had important activities to share. The idea was to make sure that we were reporting on a whole range of issues. Another forum in the United Nations that enables highlights of such work is the newly declared—by the General Assembly—week of Interfaith Harmony. This shows that we have come a long way within the UN system, in acknowledging the importance of religion.

Through the Inter-Agency Task Force modality and these mechanisms of reporting, knowledge about each other’s work has been enriched, and many across the UN system have become aware of how much is going on related to intercultural and interreligious dialogue and programming. This has been instrumental in ensuring that senior UN management are relatively more comfortable referring to engagements on interreligious issues, and just bringing the notion of “faith” into the conversation more. The work and activity is not new; what is new is that we’re attempting to systematize the engagement and recognize it more explicitly.

You have been much involved in moving the idea that training of UN staff and partners about religion is an important priority: this centers on heightening "religious literacy” for the secular agencies but, related, is a parallel concern about enhancing development and rights literacy for more religiously grounded organizations. Where is this effort going? What to your mind are the highlights?

When I first suggested the idea of a training session about religion to the UN System Staff College (UNSSC), I was fairly surely that they would shoot it down immediately. I was pleasantly surprised to find there a real willingness to consider the proposal. Thus we recently (end September 2011) ran the second event at the UNSSC in Turin (you [KM] were part of both). The program is referred to as a “strategic learning exchange” for UN staff by UN staff.

The ideas behind the exchange are to mainstream and ‘normalize’ the engagement with faith organizations, at the same time as we also try to be more studied and learned in our approach towards the topic. My experience has been that civil society is not the first port of call for much of the UN, as it is primarily an intergovernmental body. Because a large part of our focus has been on governments, understandably we have not necessarily spent enough time appreciating broader civil society dynamics. My sense is that we cannot afford to take for granted civil society positions and attitudes, and we certainly cannot do that with FBOs.

I shared with [Dr.] Thoraya [Obaid] the firm belief that we must work to this end. It is one thing to champion a cause with the UN leadership, but quite another thing for her to be seen to be trying to rally the rest of the UN staff around this sensitive constituency. She was particularly concerned that we must not force something down the throats of those who did not want to be part of the effort, and it would be inappropriate to be seen to be trying to preach the importance of religion to UN staff. We had heated conversations and debates at UNFPA, she and I, and she was broad-minded and foresighted enough to appreciate that many UN agencies were coming on board—the interagency taskforce on partnerships with religious organizations, for example. She then felt much more comfortable about reaching out to her UN peers to suggest the strategic learning exchange for UN staff. At that time, around 2007-2008, there was nothing published about systematic outreach towards FBOs across the UN system, so UNFPA began the ‘mapping’ of its work, which has now been taken up and done with aplomb by UNICEF and UNDP.

Dr. Obaid strongly supported the idea of exchanging experiences as a form of peer-to-peer learning exchange, drawing especially on UN system-wide engagement with FBOs, to learn from respective approaches and experience.

All in all, the preparations took a tremendous amount of maneuvering, but the strategic learning exchange idea was finally accepted within several of the UN networks. Because the UNSSC is exposed to so many UN agencies all the time through the various programs they design, they had the foresight to know that this was something that would be important to others and they came on board immediately. We then basically started soliciting the rest of the UN agencies—UNAIDS, UNICEF, UNDP, UNESCO—to come and share their ideas. Their initial reactions were that they “did not have funds for… people to go to Italy [where the UN System Staff College is located]... especially not on this issue,” etc. So there was much skepticism in the beginning. But I think Dr. Obaid’s magic worked, in saying, “I know we can do this, let’s do this, come on.” My colleagues were surprised to realize that their own bosses were supporting the idea and encouraging participation. That was a tipping point because once we convened them, the energy and interest in these issues flourished. The strategic learning exchange forum is basically an opportunity for the UN staff to learn from each other. It also struck me strongly that for many among UN staff the idea of engaging FBOs is incredibly straightforward, simple, and logical. But still, the culture of development that pervades the UN system and other institutions is one that frowns upon religion in general (but that is another conversation entirely).

The strategic learning exchange is a process of overcoming and changing the culture within the UN, breaking down barriers of skepticism and fear that many in the UN have - not fear of religion as such, but fear of the expected skepticism about religion from the hierarchy and leadership within the UN system, which is—rightly—secular. This is remarkable and suggests a dimension to the process of learning. We have such strong, secular development cultures that even those who are committed to their own faith, have gone to religions schools, whose families are treated in religious hospitals, still fear that this religious development realm goes against the inner, core UN culture. Through the strategic learning exchange, we created a crescendo of hunger for knowledge. Most of the evaluations we received highlighted: “we want more, we want to talk more about this, we want to learn more, we want to do more partnerships, and we want to come together every year and review how much further we have come in these partnerships with FBOs.” Not only have we had no questions at all about why are we engaging; we are way beyond that, into “how we can we leverage the realm of faith into our work to strengthen the work we do?” To me, this is a huge cultural shift in the organization itself, and I feel we have done it.

So there is confidence that this will become a regular feature of the UN System Staff College?

Yes. Last year UNFPA subsidized the training for ten UN agencies, including the World Bank. This year, I asked UN colleagues to become real co-sponsoring partners, i.e. to pay their part of the fees. The fees aren’t cheap, but this year I threw down that gauntlet, knowing that I was risking not having the training. But I am glad I took the risk because ultimately UNDP and UNAIDS came on board handsomely, co-sponsored the training, and became co-champions.

What about the Inter-Agency Task Force? How is that progressing?

The Task Force emerged out of one of the meetings of the Tripartite Forum that came into existence around 2007. It was a forum that involved a coming together of UN member states (led particularly by the Philippines and Pakistan), of religious NGOs represented at the UN, and UN agencies (those three groups make up the “tripartite”). After a couple of the early meetings, I approached several UN colleagues who were at the Forum, suggesting that we come together and do an internal and frank discussion around partnerships with faith organizations.

We facilitated the organization by several religious NGOs accredited to the United Nations, of a side event during the 2007 High-Level meetings, on engaging with religion and civil society, bringing together faith communities with member states, to showcase the critical role played by religious organizations. We anticipated that UN agencies would be interested, but a large number of member states turned up—the auditorium was packed—to hear from religious NGOs what they felt their value-added was to the development process. This inspired our internal UN reflection on FBO engagement.

The Task Force began from there. UNFPA subsequently convened the group at fairly regular intervals. The objective are to share information on what we are all doing with FBOs, what are some of the challenges of this work within our respective organizations’ programming, and what are the political and economic implications that emerge from our partnerships. From this informal exchange the Inter-Agency Task Force emerged. We made sure that several of them were part of the formal launching of the Global Interfaith Network at Istanbul. Agency representatives presented the work of their agencies. Thus they were very much part of that whole process of convening the Interfaith Network on population and global development.

After the Istanbul event, I suggested to Dr. Obaid that we follow up on the UN colleague’s consensus that we formalize the Task Force, so that it goes beyond a well-meaning group of individuals who are taking time out of their ordinary schedules to come together, and that the work become part of their terms of reference, their formal engagements, and so on. She suggested this in a letter to all the agencies, and many of her peers agreed. Today, the Inter-Agency Task Force on FBOs is a ‘legitimate’ UN inter-agency network with diverse forms of UN representation. It was through this modality that we discussed the trainings/strategic learning exchanges, with the UN System Staff College. It is a committed group of individuals that now addresses issues of religion and development in a practical way. We have been able to work with UNDP to refine their terms of reference for mapping; UNICEF used it as an opportunity to get various UN organizations to comment on their draft manual. It has been a forum to exchange insights, experiences, and also to learn from and about intergovernmental processes so we can anticipate and better support system-wide engagements.

One issue that comes up frequently is how to address concerns around proselytizing and evangelizing, and its relation to the rights to religious freedom. What is your view on what is a practical and useful next step to ease tensions?

I have found that each agency tends to address the question separately, in other words, depending on how and whether the issue is proving to be significant for a specific organization. Thus, is this really a concern for UNFPA, for example, and if so, what are the implications? Then we can seek to support our colleagues to give suggestions based on the various experiences that different UN agencies have encountered. This is the classical example where those who are working in intergovernmental agencies can give their own input: what are the UN resolutions on this issue? What are the intergovernmental concerns? And the negotiating processes are different. We each bring our strengths to the table to inform each other. However, I can also comment that it has not been something that seems to have confronted different UN agencies in a common way. Therefore, it is really up to each individual agency to handle the challenge if and when it arises. When we have discussed this topic a few times during taskforce deliberations, it did not warrant a special conversation or a specific assessment. Thus it has not really risen up on the agenda. As of now, though, there are passing references but no specific position.

Interestingly, the topic has come up during each of the regional workshops we have organized, though in different ways. It is a particularly sensitive issue in India, Malaysia, Cambodia, and in some countries in Latin America. The WCC and the Vatican have come together to prepare a Code of Conduct. And in humanitarian work it seems to be a perennial subject of discussion. It is significant that it has emerged less in the UN agency context.

Yes, those working on humanitarian relief are probably the most likely to confront the issue, but OCHA is not on the Task Force, which could explain why it hasn’t come up on the agenda. Again, so much of this is relative to the organizations and agencies that are members of the Task Force. My sense is that even if it becomes a particular concern, it will take a while until it is a concern that they are comfortable enough to raise at an inter-agency level. To date, it is specific country offices that have raised the topic within UNFPA. For something to come to the inter-agency level, that takes a lot of internal processes within the agency and takes a certain political commitment to then put it formally on the Task Force agenda.

As a passionate Egyptian, are you willing to comment on how you see the emerging role of religion and the Arab Spring?

This is a question I love, though it is hard to answer briefly.

First, the events are calling into question accepted political theologies that have colored much of the UN. We, as an international community which is very dominated by the Western ethos and is very ethnocentric, are beginning to appreciate that the engagement and connections between religion and politics does not only result in one kind of engagement or one uniform way of representation. There are multiple representations that make up the nexus of politics and religion. Especially with regard to Islam, there was a tendency to try to essentialize the interaction between Islam and politics. And it was very ignorantly essentialized.

Now, this entire wall is crumbling, this way of seeing the relationship between Islam and politics. We see that played out in multiple pronouncements about and by Islamic activists, organizations, discourses, engagements, and practices. We see that through the Arab Spring very visibly. The biggest cultural shock I have had in a long time has been listening to some of the rhetoric here in the United States and some foreign policy circles on the developments in the Middle East, particularly about political Islam and Islamist parties. I have never been so taken aback as I have listening to these conversations and so-called policy analysis. It has been largely built on a politics of fear, rather than reality.

What the Arab Spring is showing us are truths that were there for a long time, but were concealed by fear, in the Western context. The old regimes fed into that fear and solidified the myth that Islam is a negative enterprise, all about Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, anti-democratic and anti-everything good. Many Arab regimes fed this myth because it was a foundational basis for the support they received from Western regimes over many years.

This myth has crumbled, broadening the range of political discourses that are now emerging in the region. The lines between secular and religious are, on the one hand, blurring because some of the Islamists are adopting very secular policies and discourses, and at the same time some of the secular liberals are trying to come to terms with much of the underlying religious conversations and discourse. We see the blurring of those lines that we thought were almost sacred for so long. Now this blurring has led to new, emerging forms of political discourse. I think we are going to see much more of that in the days ahead.

When I started talking about the continuums of political Islam in the mid-1990s, I was lynched by my fellow political colleagues in Western academia; some of the secular leftists in the Arab world were also extremely angry that I tried to portray that diversity and reveal differences, through their articulations on women and the positions and roles that women could and did play in these groups. Now this is a mundane and everyday reality; we know that women are active, that Muslim brotherhoods are diverse, and the discourse of some religious parties is attempting to come closer to secular parties.

Suddenly, the Arab Spring is revealing and enabling a panorama of political discourse. Many within the Arab region are pleasantly surprised by this diversity of new ways of thinking, now articulated much more openly than they were allowed to be before. There is obviously a concern that religion could become a key focus of this conversation; some are still quite uncomfortable at that prospect. In some respects that is not unlike what has been going on everywhere else for a long time. Religion is playing a much bigger role in political discourse everywhere, though there are different ways in which that articulation is taking place. The large majority of Arabs are very keen to live the novelties of new forms of political discourses and heterogeneous manifestations of religion and politics that are emerging around them. This is contributing to a much needed sharpening of the secular leftist discourse, because now they have to distinguish themselves, perhaps nuance their secular nature in different ways than they needed to before, because before everything was much more black and white. You were either secular or Islamist, and there was no in between, or so people thought. Now they are looking at all these shades of grey, and realizing that if they want to remain pure white or pure black, they have to articulate their discourses in a much more mature way.

What is happening is exciting and I am not afraid. I learned those words from a young woman in her early 20s, who was in Tahrir Square. She was asked if she was afraid of Islamists coming to power; she said, “I stood shoulder to shoulder with them and they protected me during the worst days of those demonstrations when the violence was at its peak. I am not afraid, none of us are afraid.”

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