Engaging Religious Entities on Global Agendas in the COVID-19 Era

By: Mohammed Abu-Nimer Katherine Marshall

August 7, 2020

Engaging Religious Entities on Global Agendas in the COVID-19 Era

Voices of religious leaders and other religious actors are getting louder in policy circles. This contrasts with a time not long ago when religious perspectives were almost entirely ignored and absent, even in areas with both long histories and present engagement (health care, education) and keen interest (protection of the environment, care of the most vulnerable). Today many religious actors are “pushing with our elbows," insistent that their practical and ethical perspectives and voices be heard. The voices are far from consistent or even coherent. Some have a prophetic quality, focusing on deep injustices such as inequality. Others focus on what many term “culture wars,” especially around sexuality and relationships between women and men. The voices are not necessarily heard or agreed to in the policy circles where they make themselves known. But their volume and frequency is rising.

For better or for worse—in many senses both—the leading reason is keen interest throughout the policy community in the rise of violent extremism, often couched in religious terms. Efforts to address recruitment of extremists, to gather intelligence, and to draw on community support in identifying extremists have opened opportunities for a broader engagement with many religious communities, especially Muslims but also Buddhists, Hindus, and to a lesser extent Christians. 

Nevertheless, there is increasing interest in enlisting religious communities, from clerics to grandmothers and young leaders, to understand grievances and the appeal of both religious and non-religious pull factors towards extremist tendencies. Many governments seek the help of religious leaders to counter extremism, especially in South Asia but also in other regions. There are risks associated with this development: both from working with governments (repression, distortions) and accentuating problems of stigmatizing some faith groups. Issues at the intersection of secularization trends and religious identities include both tighter relationships between religious institutions and governments and increasing hostilities among them. The negative consequences of this instrumentalization approach have also been detected by many communities of faith. 

Though some do, it is important not to harbor illusions around the roles of religious leaders. There are factions that see religion as the primary solution to today’s flawed governance and to society’s ills of greed and selfishness. Others see retrograde religious beliefs as the central problem, irretrievably tainted against human rights. But the truth is that religion or religious agencies alone, with their roaring diversity, won't solve any national or global problems. Religious entities have certain functional roles and can contribute to the whole, but they should not be held solely responsible for societal ills, such as inequalities between women and men or violence and societal tensions, and it is a grave error to pursue that line of argument. Rather, they should be part of the larger collaborations that are part of the interconnected world, one of the stakeholders, alongside at least eight or nine others (media, civil society, donors, business, education, governments, etc.). In contrast, they can contribute to any matter and should be excluded nowhere.

There is much well-warranted attention to religious literacy, which essentially points to the need for policymakers to understand, engage, and feel more comfortable with religious approaches and actors. But there is also, in all regions, a need for better policy literacy among religious actors. We see many religious actors who seek to avoid the perceived contamination of engagement with policymakers, or when they are invited to the table use faith language alone—a common turnoff. There is thus a need to build this literacy. We should not only blame policymakers for religious illiteracy, but also build the capacity and look for policy literacy among religious communities. 

One place where these issues emerge starkly is the G20 Interfaith Forum. It reflects an effort to bring together networks of religious communities: clerics, academics, and entities operating to advance development and meet humanitarian needs. Annual forums, along with regional and other events leading up to them, draw on the rich array of analysis, dialogue, and action to formulate proposals and priority recommendations, to the G20 sherpas and leaders. Contrary to the misunderstanding that engaging religious agencies with policymakers will lead to mixing faith and theology too much with governance, this G20 interfaith process and recommendations represents a process, a contribution to the ideal forms of participatory, multi-stakeholder processes we aspire to for global governance. The process aims to build across years with different contributions to the process and collection of evidence with the goal of bringing the rich experience of religious communities more actively into global policy processes. 

The intent of the G20 interfaith partners is to bang and knock on the doors of policymakers, but the spirit of engagement is not to pit us versus them. It is and needs to be a dance of engagement, as opposed to a dance of confrontation, blaming, and shaming. The G20 Interfaith Forum is one step in the process, coming alongside others. It deserves a high priority, demanding standards, and sustained support. 

Editor’s Note: A regional consultation for East and South Asia, leading towards the G20 Interfaith Forum in October, took place August 5-6 online. These comments reflect on the process.

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