FoRB and inequality on the grounds of religion or belief: practitioner dilemmas

March 30, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Cathy Shutt, with the second of her two posts (first one here)

In my first post I compared key elements of theories of action and change for the two main schools of thought on the links between faith and social change: faith in development and freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).  Here, I examine some of the dilemmas associated with operationalising FoRB, which highlights inequalities arising from discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief and non-belief. I conclude that we must focus on people and not beliefs if they are to be overcome.

FoRB and inequality due to discrimination on the grounds of religion,  belief or non-belief

During initial interviews I found it difficult to pose questions that clearly communicated the similarities and differences between ‘faith in development’ and FoRB that were outlined in the first blog.  Fortunately, one respondent working for a faith-based organization (FBO) soon put me right.  However, his response highlighted the tensions and dilemmas relating to FoRB and the central question of whether it is arguing for freedom of religion or of people.

My informant was a strong supporter of ‘faith in development’ and enabling those discriminated against on any grounds, to access services and enjoy full participation in society. However, he explained that such support would not necessarily go as far as pushing to protect the freedom to practice beliefs and have a religious identity. While some argue advocating for FoRB is effectively the same as campaigning against discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, his view, seemed to differ and it prompted me to reflect on my own position.

I find aspects of most faiths, including those I formerly identified with, extremely problematic.   While I accept most faiths allow great flexibility in how key texts are interpreted, patriarchal institutions that often set out the rules of the game when it comes to practice can undermine what I consider basic human rights. As a result, I would be reluctant to proactively advocate for freedom to practice a religion. Perhaps this is unsurprising given I am an atheist. However, I found it more surprising that several informants from FBOs felt similarly. One suggested that some FBOs would be reluctant to promote FoRB for fear this would be seen as tantamount to legitimising proselytization.

When it comes to discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief or non-belief, like many respondents I take quite a different position because it is not about freedom of belief but instead about freedom of people. I would therefore be prepared to take a strong stand against anyone being discriminated against on the grounds of their belief or non-belief (atheists like me are persecuted in many Muslim countries and discriminated against in several states in America). CREID’s research finds that such discrimination ranges from violent persecution to more subtle forms, such as being denied citizenship, access to basic services and rights to hold offices or other types of employment. Such discrimination can be intra faith as well as interfaith with one group Othering another group when they do not agree with the way that group chooses to practice the religion.

The question facing development organisations is where and whether such discrimination deserves special attention. Some of my respondents reported that their organisational approaches to intersectional analysis and ‘leaving no one behind’ would ensure that minority groups discriminated against on the grounds of religion or belief are identified and their needs catered for. Standard tools used for context or power analysis were assumed to be good enough to identify those who might be so scared of assault that they hide their religious identities.

Seasoned feminists and intersectionality experts, as well as some respondents employed by avowedly secular organisations, were less sure.  They provided examples of unconscious bias that suggest if staff in charge of context analysis for programmes are blind to how their own belief or non-belief influences their world view, they may overlook the identities, needs or potential of people and organisations associated with other religious groups. One example cited involved a gender analysis performed by someone belonging to a Pentecostal church that ignored the existence of other faiths and faith-based organisations. In this instance the bias was immediately recognised and remedied, but some of my other interviewees suggested this might not always be the case.

Several informants remarked that insufficient attention was paid to considering the various ways in which religious discrimination can play out in organisational life.  Examples included unkind jokes within office spaces, humanitarians being denied space for spiritual reflection, the prayer times and holidays of minority faiths being ignored and hiring policies and practices that may inadvertently favour those belonging to majority faiths.  Each highlighted the possibility that such conscious or unconscious bias could pervade organisational culture and thus feed through to programming.

Need this be the case?  Probably not. A couple of informants cited examples from Egypt and Myanmar where organisational leaders sensitive to the possibility of discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief made a real difference. In each instance they made efforts to focus on people and ensure organisational spaces were inclusive and sensitive to discrimination on the grounds of religion, ethnicity and other causes of discrimination.

Such examples are encouraging, but they do not appear to be widespread. My interviews with INGO staff mostly working in the Global North suggests inequality on the grounds of religion or belief needs more discussion.  There is no easy fix.  As wehave learned from work on gender mainstreaming, decolonising development and Me Too, complex challenges require uncomfortable conversations and self-aware reflexivity on the implications of our intentional or unintentional bias. When it comes to inequalities related to belief or non-belief, these discussions and reflections must be inclusive and be led by or at least involve staff from both majority and minority faiths in relevant countries of the Global South.

Most importantly, we must ensure our desire to support people who are targets of intersecting inequalities is not undermined by sloppy use and interpretations of terminology. FoRB and inequality on the grounds of religion and belief are both commensurate with the challenging discrimination in all forms agenda.  Both are first and foremost concerned with freedom and equality for people, and not religions, beliefs or non-beliefs.

For more information including on an accredited, practical action research course that addresses these issues being offered by CREID, please contact the CREID team at the International Institute of Development Studies.

March 30, 2022
Duncan Green