Johnny Monro is a Parliamentary researcher and speechwriter.
The unexpected US election result last week was undoubtedly a vote for change. It will take some time to see exactly what sort of change Donald Trump will bring, whether he will deliver on all of his platform, what his priorities will be, and how he will respond to various domestic and international crises as they arise. However, there are some things that have already changed simply by virtue of his election, and the campaign it followed.
One potential serious international impact is the effect this could have on American efforts to promote religious freedom and tolerance around the world. The election of a man who called for a ban on Muslims coming into his country, in response to ISIS’s actions in France, emboldens those voices — not least in the Middle East and North Africa — who accuse the American Government of Islamophobia, or worse.
The policy Trump espoused is precisely the kind of policy that America — both its Government and its human rights organisations and NGOs — opposes around the world. It is enough of a challenge to go to a Muslim country and argue for religious freedom for religious minorities when there is a distrust of your country owing to wars provoked by international terrorism. It is almost impossible to argue against policies that specifically target a certain religion(s) when your own President promotes the exact same type of policy, and was elected off the back of it.
When the US Ambassador, or US-based human rights groups, next goes to lobby the Burmese Government to prevent discrimination by local government against Muslims of Bangladeshi origin in the west of the country, can they really expect to be taken as seriously as before? Or, when representatives seek to work with Saudi leaders to move away from laws that criminalise those who convert from Islam to other religions, how will those leaders now respond to people from a country that has elected a man who demonised Muslims? Even if the Trump administration goes on to prioritise religious freedom around the world as much as previous administrations, the various comments from his campaign may undermine those efforts, to a greater or lesser extent.
If that does happen, it will become imperative that the UK increases its own efforts. The UK Government, through its diplomacy and aid work, already substantially and effectively promotes freedom of religion and thought around the world. More, though, must be done, especially in the areas of aid work, civil society, and local government or community-level discrimination.
According to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, ‘there has been a dramatic increase in religious persecution worldwide in the past six years. 5.3 billion people (76 per cent of the world’s population) live in countries with a high or very high level of restrictions on religion’. A significant part of that is due to crackdowns in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, in North Africa and the Middle East. Research done on worldwide religious freedom in 2007-2012 by the Pew Research Centre found that 29 per cent of countries currently have a high level of government restrictions on religious minorities, and that Christians face harassment for their faith in 110 countries worldwide, with Muslims facing that in 109.
This is a growing problem that not only expresses itself in more explicit ways — 25 per cent of countries witnessed mob violence related to religion between 2007 and 2012 — but also in more subtle, but equally pernicious, forms of discrimination. Often this can be systematic and institutional, whether in education, the justice system, local planning, or welfare. Sometimes it is caused by government, such as with northern Nigerian churches that have been denied planning permission to rebuild their church buildings, after they were destroyed by militias. Sometimes it is caused by a failure to address persecution and discrimination within the population, as was seen when some religious minorities who had fled Syria felt unable to go into UN camps, for fear of being attacked for their faith by other refugees.
Under William Hague, addressing religious discrimination became an important priority for the Foreign Office. This must continue so that we can ensure that religious freedom continues to be promoted around the world by the UK and her allies. But, in addition, a greater emphasis needs to be placed on this by DFID. Increasingly, the Government’s aid budget is going towards more sustainable structural and systematic reform. For example, this includes not just sending vaccinations, but also helping to build healthcare infrastructure. This is welcome, but, as part of this, DFID must recognise that issues of structural and systematic inequality are often bound up with prejudice and discrimination — and that religious discrimination is very often a key part of this.
Last year, the UN General Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals. Many of the goals are contingent on promoting religious freedom — such as Goal 4 on quality education, and Goal 10 on reducing inequality. Perhaps the most direct, however, is Goal 16: ‘Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all level’. This can only be achieved if religious freedom is front and centre of international efforts to achieve the goals. If DFID is serious about the Sustainable Development Goals, then it must make religious freedom an explicit priority — now more than ever.