New York – A “Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, issued on February 4, 2020, on International Relations Entering a New Era and Global Sustainable Development”, contains commendable and strong language on the commitment to democracy and human rights:
“The sides [the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China] call on all States to seek the well-being of all and, to these ends, to establish dialogue and mutual trust, to strengthen mutual understanding, to uphold the universal human values of peace, development, equality , justice, democracy and freedom, to respect the rights of peoples to independently determine the development paths of their countries and the sovereignty and security and development interests of States, to protect the international architecture driven by United Nations and the world order based on international law, to seek genuine multipolarity with the United Nations and its Security Council playing a central and coordinating role, to promote more democratic international relations and to ensure peace, stability and development throughout the world… The parties share the understanding that democracy is a universal human value, rather than a privilege of one limited number of States, and that its promotion and protection are the common responsibility of the entire world community. »
The fact that these are the words of a country gathering thousands of troops on the borders of a sovereign nation (threatening to enter and “protect” its people at any time as of this writing), as well as another country that denies the existence of camps housing more than a million people of a particular religion and ethnicity, within its borders, is interesting – strangely.
And yet, not so long ago, “the nobility obliges”, “the civilizing mission” and “the white man’s burden” were articulated as pretexts for territorial takeover, oppression and the subordination of people, land and dignity.
Colonial missions (mandates, protectorates, etc.) created a fundamental imbalance between the power of man over the resources (of others) and the power of some (men) over others, as well as a lingering legacy of interference in the affairs of others, ostensibly for assistance (hence presumably the reference to sovereignty in the statement above), and generally – and this is part of the vexing reality – at the request of nationals who request ” assistance”.
And it is always the case that the very ideologies of the supremacy of one people over another, including one race and/or sex or religion over another, the refusal to be held responsible for centuries of discrimination are now part of the DNA of nearly every establishment; the insistence on the subjection of nature to man; and the perpetuation of misogyny – all continue to define our current broken world.
But today we have a realization among esteemed politicians, scholars and several governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental institutions that religion matters. Indeed, that in various forms of “engagement” with religious institutions (usually specific and selective), religious NGOs and/or religious leaders, good things happen.
Salvation may be imminent. “Faith for [insert the wording here]” or ” religion and [insert appropriate term here] is the new formula for overcoming most challenges, from vaccine hesitancy to gender discrimination, from electoral gerrymandering to racism, and everything in between.
And why not? After all, religious institutions (churches, mosques, temples, etc.) are in fact the primary actors in development and humanitarian aid, and are still essential service providers in countries where governments have increasingly struggling to meet the basic needs of many of their populations.
The very first schools and hospitals known to societies around the world originated in and through religious bodies. Today, the Catholic Churches alone manage important public health infrastructures from North America to sub-Saharan Africa. Caritas Internationalis, for example, is one of the largest (Catholic) humanitarian and development NGOs in the world.
If we begin to examine other faith-based NGOs, we will find that a significant number of them provide much-needed shelter and support to the largest populations of refugees and displaced persons ever recorded in the history of the United States. humanity, as well as health, education, sanitation, nutrition and humanitarian services. emergency services to hundreds of millions of people around the world.
In addition, “Islamic finance” is a source of funding for the development and relief efforts of major UN entities (e.g. UNHCR, UNDP, UNICEF) around the world – and more of that. is wanted, with various Muslim entities rushing to provide fatwas. (religious edicts) and the justifications why it is good Islamic practice.
Increasing ‘religious investments’ in and for sustainable development is strongly advocated by some, with new initiatives emerging in this advocacy space to ‘assist and encourage…ethical religious investments’. Private sector interest focuses on how “faith-based players” are emerging market enablers – and possibly profit multipliers, for some pharmaceuticals, among other companies.
Just like in the 1990s, we began to realize how investing in women’s rights made economic sense. Today we hear how investing in religious actors also has this meaning. In fact, some religious humanitarian and development NGOs (mostly Christian in origin, many of them evangelical) are actively mobilized to carry out initiatives aimed at defending freedom of religion and belief and/or facilitating strategic “advocacy”. for mainstream faith-based NGOs – ostensibly as part of their learning and wisdom gained from advocating for other human rights (albeit sometimes with an underdeveloped track record).
Yet, while they touched on almost every aspect in their forceful statement, neither the Russian Federation nor China refer to “faith” or “religion” in their joint statement. Indeed, not once is “civil society” mentioned. For these powerful states, as for others like them, religions and any aspect of civic engagement are either non-existent or totally subject to their own will, to the point of being unworthy of distinction.
Instead, an appropriation of the language of human rights, democracy, “cultural diversity”, “balance, harmony and inclusiveness” and even “moral principles” is rigorous. But you see, that’s the other side of using religion. You can overestimate its value, or you can overshadow it.
Religious institutions, religious leaders and faith-based NGOs have a responsibility to protect civil society. Instead of seeking to gain celebrity status with certain governments or political parties, or trying to leverage their own influence as Catholics/Protestants/Orthodox/Evangelicals/Jews/Muslims/Hindus/Buddhists/etc. , all religious actors must learn to come together as a collective power that is part of their lay civil brothers.
In doing so, their combined moral, economic, financial, political, cultural and social weight will eclipse the most authoritarian structures. At the very least, by coming together to serve all, faith communities can hold all decision makers accountable to collective justice – of gender, environment, voice, representation, and ultimately dignity.
Civil societies are the barometers of collective planetary well-being. As we dismember and silence civil societies, using/focusing on (certain) religions at a time, and serving selective interests piecemeal, we ensure that the arc of history remains mired in the abuse of indivisible and interdependent human rights, which are at the heart of vibrant and healthy democracies.
To the tyranny of states and religious institutions, I would say: stop using your power for political and financial gain. Instead, work with all religions on an equal footing, with the rest of civil society, to hold each other accountable and, therefore, to secure peace and security forever.
Professor Azza Karam, PhD, is Secretary General of Religions for Peace International.