Religious leaders and religious institutions play a role in resolving challenges such as children’s rights. Pix by Sairien Nafis

IN 1994, Dr David R. Hawkins wrote a book positing the difference between power and force (Power vs. Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behaviour — the latest revised version came out in 2014).

Basing his hypothesis on the science of kinetics, Hawkins made a case of how human consciousness — and the physical body — can tell the difference between power, which is positive, and force, which is not. An example of power over force is illustrated as Gandhi’s non-violent resistance to the force of British colonialism.

Power is slow, steady and long lasting, whereas force is moving, fast and tends to create counter-force, and eventually exhausts itself. Hawkins’ argument, often labelled as “spiritual”, lays the groundwork for how faith or belief is a source of power, and, to coin a phrase, it’s all good.

Historically, from the first century’s Lucretius, to 16th century Machiavelli, to 18th century’s Voltaire and David Hume, through to modern day Richard Dawkins and others among the New Atheists, it has long been argued that religion — particularly as manifested through religious institutions — is, in Hawkins’ terms, more pertinent to the realm of “force”.

And yet, it is still largely towards these religious leaders, and religious institutions, that the international community is looking, as a means to (re)solve a myriad human development and humanitarian challenges.

These challenges include poverty, migration, environmental degradation, children’s rights, harmful social practices, “violent extremism” and even armed conflict.

Religious leaders and occasionally faith-based organisations are posited as the panacea to all these, and more.

The notion of partnering with religious actors as one of the means to mobilise communities (socially, economically and even politically) to seek to (re)solve longstanding human development challenges has evolved significantly inside the United Nations (UN) system over the last decade. But, the intent of the outreach from largely secular institutions towards religious ones, has changed in the last couple of years.

The rationale for partnership, as argued by the diverse members of the UN Interagency Task Force on Partnership with Religious Actors for Sustainable Development in 2009, was based on certain facts: that religious non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are part of the fabric of each civil society, and, therefore, bridging between the secular and religious civic space is key to strong advocacy and action for human rights; that religious institutions are the oldest and most long-standing mechanisms of social service provision; and, that some religious leaders are strong influencers (if not gatekeepers) of certain social norms, especially some of the harmful social practices that hurt girls and women.

Thus, the UN task force developed guidelines for engagement with religious actors based on a decade of learning, consultations and actual engagement among 17 diverse UN entities and almost 500 faith-based NGOs. These guidelines stipulate, among other aspects, engagement with those who are committed to all human rights. Thus, there is to be no room for cherry-picking, or “strategic” selectivity about which rights to honour, and which to conveniently turn a blind eye to.

When the specific religious actors who are committed to all human rights, are convened, even around one development or humanitarian issue, the “power” in the convening space is palpable, and the discourse can — and does — move hearts and minds. This was evident as far back as 2005 when the UNDP (United Nations Developement Progamme) started convening Arab faith leaders over the spread of HIV.

Some of the very same religious leaders who held that HIV was a “just punishment for sexual promiscuity”, when confronted with the scientific realities of the spread of the disease, and its consequences on all ages and all social strata, signed on to a statement which remains one of the most “progressive” in religious discourse of the time.

The “power” of religious actors who are systematically convened together for the human rights of all, at all times, was repeatedly witnessed over the course of several UN initiatives over the years, in different countries, and at the global level.

Notably, UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) and UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) convened religious leaders with other human rights actors, to effect a social transformation, as witnessed in a number of communities committed to stopping the practice of female genital mutilation in several sub-Saharan African countries.

The latest event took place as 2017 wound to an end, in December, when the UN Office for the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, after two years of convening religious actors— using the UN systems — vetted partners and its guidelines — as gatekeepers against hate speech, responded to a request from some of the religious leaders themselves, to come together from several South Asian countries (including Myanmar, Thailand, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka).

Sharing respective experiences of protecting religious minorities and standing in solidarity with the rights of all, across religions and national boundaries, created a sense of shared purpose, and above all, of possibility, hope — and yes, of power. Not a minor achievement in a time of a great deal of general confusion and sense of instability around, and with, religion.

Can the same be said of convening religious actors who are prepared to uphold a particular set of rights, even at the expense of ignoring other rights, ostensibly for the “greater good”? Or are we, inadvertently, mobilising the “force” of religion?


Azza Karam is UNFPA senior adviser and UN Interagency Task Force on Religion coordinator

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