Ziya Meral is a researcher and academic focusing on religion, violence and human rights issues. He is a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Centre and a PhD candidate in Politics at the University of Cambridge.
The developments in the Middle East over the last three years have brought home the points which many experts and practitioners have been making: persecution on the basis of religious belief and affiliation is increasing in the world. It is affecting every faith community and those with no faith, fuelling a wide range of interrelated problems from radicalisation to violent conflict, with direct impact on UK domestic concerns such as increasing numbers of asylum applications and faith community relations.
Now, articles calling for an immediate UK response to religious freedom can be seen emerging from all corners of the political and social spectrum. Whilst these articles stem from good intentions, they suffer similar shortcomings.
Often they start from domestic political and religious positions with a wide range of unspoken anxieties about particular religions or the overall place of religion in today’s world. Most of the time they lack a grounded understanding of local contexts in which religious persecution happens, and lapse into reductionism, seeing a particular religion as the root cause of all that we see unfolding before us.
They also lack awareness of global trends and mirror-image developments in Africa, Asia, and even Europe, that make such reductions of the issue down to a single religion rather shallow. Most worryingly, such articles often ascribe no agency whatsoever to persecuted communities themselves and what they can do and how they can respond in the short and long term to address factors leading to persecution.
One can easily list the causes behind these failures; very few academics actually study religious freedom and religious persecution in the UK, let alone teach it as a course. Hardly any British think-tank has ever conducted a proper study and developed a thought-through policy proposal for the Government besides the myopia of countering violent extremism.
Religious freedom advocacy groups also play their part in this failure: the vast majority are mono-faith organisations, primarily working to advance the rights of their own co-religionists, which is ultimately counter-productive and fraught with ethical shortcomings.
Most importantly, their work is primarily reactionary. They document, lobby and raise the profile of cases of persecution with little reflection provided on the very modus operandi of religious freedom advocacy and its future. One can forgive this shortcoming due to the simple fact of limited resources, and, most importantly, chronic ignorance over these issues for decades by mainstream human rights groups, with notable exceptions such as the Minority Rights Group.
The truth is, long before ISIS brought the conversation onto centre stage, increased attention was already being given to the topic within the FCO and British Parliament. The FCO’s human rights team has increased its reporting on these issues and provided training opportunities to British diplomats on religious freedom. At the parliamentary level, the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom has silently achieved what has never before happened in the UK: it brought a wide range of political figures from different faith and belief backgrounds to raise the issue within the UK political establishment.
Yet this is not enough. While there is merit in the calls for the appointment of an Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, inspired by the US model, experience from that same model shows how ineffectual this can be. Similarly, given that the US diplomatic machinery produces two sets of excellent reports every year on the situation of religious freedom in most countries in the world, there is no reason for the UK to re-invent the wheel and increase its own reporting.
What the UK government can do, and must do, is to carry the religious freedom conversation forward at home, in the EU and the wider international community. The unique contribution the UK government can make to this end is to focus its attention on the proactive aspects of religious freedom advocacy.
First of all, the religious freedom issue must be taken together with all of its interrelated aspects, from conflict to stabilization, good governance, human rights and humanitarian crises and public diplomacy. This would mean that religious freedom would not continue to be simply a conversation between the FCO and concerned Members of Parliament, but it would directly involve DFID, the Home Office and the Prime Minister’s office.
Secondly, this is a truly complicated issue that demands a wide range of expertise, ranging from specific country and issue experts, to human rights advocates, programming and foreign policy specialists. This is not simply an issue of gathering faith-based NGOs and clergymen to express goodwill. The UK must have its own mechanism in which ongoing issues are analysed and pro-active policy proposals are developed and synchronised across UK government structures.
Thirdly, the UK government must genuinely put its weight behind such a mechanism by directly allocating funds that can be deployed for strategic programmes across the world, and to enable direct access to high-level policy makers across UK state structures. Otherwise, sadly, all these well-intentioned calls for a response, and the clearly-expressed desire of the Government to increase its attention to this issue will be included in the increasingly long list of superficial conversations, when the stakes have never been higher.