What to Avoid in Religious Engagement

By: Azza Karam

November 10, 2016

Diplomacy and Religion in a New Administration

Violent extremism, particularly the one cloaked in religious garb, dominates the news and headlines. Yet the war against those who commit atrocities in the name of religion is taking place against a backdrop where electoral rhetoric in one of the world’s most powerful countries is replete with hate speech (which is receiving some religious support) on one hand; and where countries with strong religious identities are violating the human rights of their citizens and neighboring ones, on the other.

But the approach of seeing religion solely through the prism of violence, radicalization, or terrorism is short-sighted. “Securitizing” the religious sphere is one end of a continuum of religious narratives. At the other end of this continuum is another approach which maintains that religions are the oldest social service providers known to humankind, the world’s first development actors, and even architects of domestic and foreign policy. 

Both approaches advocate for the importance of acknowledging that religion matters and for engaging with religious leaders and actors. Yet both can be reductionist and essentialist in terms of the understandings of religion, as well as the roles and actors involved. Neither approach takes into account some of the lessons learned regarding who to engage; at what points; for what specific reason; and how to do so in smart, learned, and principled ways. And yet the learning is not that complicated, and perhaps some salient elements of it can be summarized in what can be avoided.

Avoid overemphasizing religious leaders and religious leadership: 

There is no doubt that religious leadership is critical. But leaders do not exemplify all religious communities, actors, and organizations. The world of faith is vast, and even the processes of identifying and naming leadership differs from one faith community to another. To limit the outreach to religious leaders is to unfairly burden the very same leaders with the task of speaking for billions on all things. But it is also to over-represent and eschew the religious representation to Christian elements (given the relative ease of identifying those leaders). Moreover, religious leaders are largely men—there are relatively rare cases of women being assigned these traditional leadership roles. Reaching out to religious leaders only also risks a gender imbalanced representation of faith communities and human lives, effectively excluding and marginalizing gender equality. Because when religious leaders come together across diverse religious groups and countries, they rarely, if ever, agree to unabridged versions of gender equality.

Avoid “over-moralizing” the foreign policy, development, and/or international partnership agendas: 

Seeking to give the world of faith a role which is primarily "moral" in nature, reinforces the role of religious actors as a "moral compass" to all policies. While this may indeed be consonant with the role that some religious leaders apportion themselves, it rarely affirms the universality of human rights. Not all those who occupy the moral space agree with the value or relevance of human rights—even though they are based on the shared values among all religions. Given the serious threat posed by religious extremism and sectarianism increasing the contentious spaces in civil and political discourse, now is not a wise time to ignore or walk away from universal values, including justice, security, and equity for each and all.

Giving the religious a moral pedestal is not the same as ensuring inclusive and accountable civic and political dynamics and obligations. To name religious leaders, for instance, as the upholders of all that is moral, and assume that they may thus hold political and civic leaders accountable, is to elevate religion onto a pedestal. Some religious leaders, at some moments in time, certainly are one of the multiple means of counterbalancing abuses of power and seeking to broker peace and justice endeavors. But to take that as a given at all times is unwise. A case in point is the exceptional role being played by Pope Francis, a role that cannot be generalized—given the history and other challenges still plaguing the very same institution he heads—nor universalized, since he is but one leader of one faith community in the world.

Avoid assuming that working with religious organizations, leaders, or countries will lead to "them" changing to be more like "us":

Some of the attempts at outreach to faith-based communities tend to be informed by a vague notion that “we” (read: secular actors) will succeed, somehow, in changing “them” (read: religious institutions, leaders, or rhetoric). This approach misses an important point: It is not necessarily about changing or influencing another’s ways, beliefs, or even policies. It could be about strengthening critical introspection, through factoring in the religious with the political, social, cultural, economic, and financial of one’s own ways of making and implementing policy.

There is an urgent need to try to understand why there was so much appetite for hate speech right here on American soil during the more than 500 days of electoral politicking. In trying to grapple with that, the roles that religion and religious actors play need to be reevaluated—not because religion is the key to all ills, nor because religion is the doorway to all goodness and light. Rather, because in the realm where religious meets cultural, social, political, and economic dynamics, lie the complex of factors which have been systematically missing from the art of making policy and brokering power.

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