RELIGIOUS groups attended a Foreign Office conference this week on preventing violent extremism: a phenomenon described as “the biggest challenge of our generation” by the Minister for Human Rights, Baroness Anelay.
“I have seen allegations that religion can cause violence,” she said on Tuesday. “I would say it is politicians that use religion as an excuse.” She spoke of a desire to use the “expertise and experience” of faith leaders to “find ways to work together to ensure that young people grow up tolerant of each other . . . and be in a strong position to resist the siren call of extremists, who have a very perverted view of what religion comprises”.
More than 50 speakers were scheduled to speak at the conference, to more than 170 participants. They were given the task, Baroness Anelay said, of producing “practical ideas” on how to tackle extremism. The event was “not intended to be something to reach out to people, but us to then go out and put our ideas into practice”.
When asked about concerns about the Government’s Prevent programme, she suggested that working with faith groups meant that “one can prove that one is trying to support and assist, and not target”.
In an online message released before the conference, Baroness Anelay made a link between freedom of religion, or a lack of it, and extremism.
“Extremism does not thrive in societies where everyone is free to follow their own religion or belief, to change their religion, or live without a religion at all,” she said. “If you are free to do those things, then you value choice, you value difference, and you are not taken in by hateful ideology that propagates violence against those who follow a different religion or a different version of your religion.”
Some groups that are campaigning against religious persecution have called on the Government to take this into consideration when determining the distribution of foreign aid.
“One of the main principles I adopt is how do we get aid to those most in need, and, if a government is restricting freedom of religion and belief, I do not want to starve those who are starving, but to change the approach of the Government,” she said on Tuesday. The Foreign Office was supporting projects designed to do just that, she said.
In April, Baroness Anelay spoke at a UN conference on the prevention of violent extremism, in Geneva. It followed the presentation, by the former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, of a “plan of action to prevent violent extremism”.
“Short-sighted policies, failed leadership, heavy-handed approaches, a single-minded focus only on security measures, and an utter disregard for human rights have often made things worse,” he warned in January. “We all lose by responding to ruthless terror with mindless policy — policies that turn people against each another, alienate already marginalised groups, and play into the hands of the enemy. We need cool heads and common sense.”
The plan focused on prevention (including education and jobs); better leadership, that responded to citizens’ grievances; and maintaining human rights rather than using counter-terrorism as a cover for a crackdown. A subsequent UN debate focused on the links between violent extremism and extreme poverty.
It also gave rise to a debate about causes. The Saudi representative pointed to colonialism and the denial of self-determination — an analysis shared by the Pakistani representative, who also complained of negative stereotyping and Islamophobia.
Speaking at the House of Lords at an event hosted by Aid to the Church in Need on Monday, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Lahore, the Most Revd Sebastian Shaw, described the impact of blasphemy laws on Christians in Pakistan, and highlighted “hate” references in the country’s school textbooks. A study by the National Commission for Justice and Peace, established by the Roman Catholic Church, found that “biased material” was a “major cause of growing religious intolerance and extremism”.
Among those speaking at the Foreign Office conference was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Adviser for Reconciliation, Dr Sarah Snyder, who said that the involvement of religious leaders was "vital".
"We sometimes forget here in the West that many of the states troubled by violent extremism are deeply religious societies," she said. "The co-operation of religious leaders is vital to the building of inclusive, plural — and peaceful — societies.
"While religion is rarely the foundational cause of violence, our sacred texts and traditions can be, and are, hijacked to promote extremist agendas. Religion — all religions — must be recognised overwhelmingly as a source of peace, not violence. And religious leaders play a critical role in drawing their communities back to these foundational principles."
Religious leaders were not immune to corruption and even violence, she said, but these were a small minority. They enjoyed an authority that could be harnessed: "It is they who set the parameters of acceptable behaviour, who can initiate the transition from conflict to cooperation." They must be "empowered as agents of change, not instrumentalised by politicians but motivated to act with conscience".
Dr Snyder stressed that peace-building without women was "impossible" and argued that, at the grassroots, faith communities were "largely driven" by their efforts. The largest single Mothes' Union group was in Baghdad, she said, working to "build hope and stability".