Working with religion and religious actors of various hues and shapes is meant to be a humbling experience. At best, an opportunity to learn how those entities and bodies which have long predated secular establishments, served countless people, and continue to do so. At worst, it is meant to be a means of questioning assumptions about all worldviews, and the actions taken based on them.
In most parts of the world, including the most ‘developed’ (where Covid-19 has wreaked havoc with the notion of medical care in the developed world anyway), the clinic (and school/counsellor/ food and fresh water depot in emergencies) is where most go. That is the developmental and humanitarian reality – in most parts of the world.
Long before there was a government, there have been – and will always be – places of worship. In many countries, in times of ‘normalcy’, government services rarely reach all. So, in times of humanitarian crisis (whether man-made or climate related), government services, per definition, simply cannot cope. Religious Institutions are the oldest social service providers known to humankind. In fact, religious institutions are the oldest political, social, medical, economic, and financial establishments created by humankind.
Yet it was not until the mid 1990s, that we begin to see a proliferation of literature – and academic and policy fora – where religion and development/democracy/human rights/etc. are the staple. By 2015, there were at least three global initiatives – all located in the western hemisphere – claiming to be the space for ‘religion and development’.
Why did it take so long to see the obvious? Perhaps it had to do with two trends we still see today. On the one hand, international development and humanitarian praxis is the preserve of institutions operating with a European-inspired secular worldview – where religion is, at best, deemed ‘private’.
On the other hand, the wounds of religious transgressions in political spaces, and religious discourse against human rights, are part of the geopolitical map of today. Whether we speak of atrocities perpetrated in the name of Islam, or of exclusivist nationalism of some Evangelical or Buddhist or Hindu groups, ‘religion’ is present in the public domain – in an uncomfortable marriage with the political.
So now that those interested in the public domains have seen the light – so to speak – religion is everyone’s business, from development to foreign policy, from education to peace building, from humanitarianism and localization to freedom of religion and belief. Policy level interest has jumped from one side of the balance scale to the other – with a thud.
I would contend that many policy makers have moved from being overly fearful of religion, to being overly hopeful – and instrumental -thereof.
For those, like me, with a passion for anything faith, this feels like an unwanted, disrespectful and ignorant intrusion. Because the interest in all things religion does not acknowledge the fact that while religions are institutions, service providers, political actors and sometimes intellectual bastions, they are above all, about our deepest inner sites of the sacred.
My faith is not – nor should it be – a policy instrument.
Nor should it be a tool in the developmental box. Neither should my faith be a methodology or approach to inform a worldview which can be neatly categorized into boxes, and/or packaged into proposals, based on which the business of international development – and its persistent insensitivities – proceed as usual.
My faith is my inner sanctum. Not your body politic.
Working with religion and religious actors of various hues and shapes is meant to be a humbling experience. At best, an opportunity to learn how those entities and bodies which have long predated secular establishments, served countless people, and continue to do so. At worst, it is meant to be a means of questioning assumptions about all worldviews, and the actions taken based on them. Yet, the same old worldviews have learned little and questioned themselves even less – whether they are secular or religious.
The money-making business of international development roars ahead with moneyed (and still largely Christian) organizations attracting more millions, and speaking with certainty about all religions and on all their behalf, while the multi-religious initiatives struggle from project to project. Why blame policy makers with a secular worldview when the faith-inspired actors themselves have a role to play in how they sell – excuse me, communicate – their own missions?
In times of Covid-19 we are learning many lessons. Some of which are that our vulnerabilities as human beings are shared regardless of our creed or race or gender or ethnicity or nation; our institutions are suffering from a crisis of legitimacy; and leadership is increasingly rare and precious.
Those making policies designed to touch human lives – anywhere in the world with whatever secular or religious orientation – need to appreciate that faith is not for sale, nor for (ab)use. All religions need to be right-sized in our shared civic spaces. Which means that all religions need to be seen as part of a whole of body politic. But that appreciation of human endeavor will not happen if we use religion, or seek its exclusive influence or affluence.
To see the tapestry of creation – human and planetary – we must be aware of our own humanity. In my faith, Islam, I was taught that my learning of the Divine must involve the rest of [His] creation. And that to learn, I must serve. And to serve, I have to know that I do not know.
So for me, Descartes was a believer. His idiom was “I think therefore I am”. Thus, it is for me: I have faith, therefore I am. So, render unto Caesar what you deem his (hers?) in acknowledging the value of religion and its myriad institutions by all means. But do not seek to instrumentalize my sense of faith.
Prof. Azza Karam was elected the first female Secretary General of Religions for Peace International in New York in August 2019. She serves as Professor of Religion and Development at the Free University of Amsterdam. Prior to that, she spent more than 15 years at the UN advocating for the insight that religiously motivated organizations need their own place at the table of multilateral organizations and that they are an independent voice. She established and led the UN-interagency task force on religion and development UNIATF, which today comprises 20 UN organizations. Prof Karam is internationally regarded as one of the most influential voices in the debate on religion, development and foreign policy and observes institutional cooperation critically.