Forward Thinking and the Swedish Institute Alexandria convened a roundtable in Byblos, Lebanon, 17th– 19th November, to explore the importance of religious literacy in diplomacy. Participants were drawn from across Europe and the Gulf-MENA region and included members of parliament, foreign policy officials, politicians, religious authorities, and academic experts. The impetus for the meeting developed out of a report produced in March 2017 by the Helsinki Policy Forum _ which compiled a series of essays on the interaction between religion and foreign affairs and which identified a pressing need for further discussion on these complex issues. A copy of this report is available on Forward Thinking’s website.

The meeting aimed to answer six questions: What space is there for religion in the public sphere? Is it possible for religious and secular worldviews to accommodate one another? Is there a difference between secularism and pluralism? What’s the relationship between religion and radicalism? What does greater religion in diplomacy entail? How can policy makers and foreign ministries incorporate religious literacy into their work?

Throughout the meeting widely divergent views on these questions were articulated. Questions were approached from a variety of philosophical and political positions, with disagreements expressed not only between European and regional participants but within these groups as well. Some understand religion as a force that can work to promote pluralism, co-existence and respect for the other. Others perceive it as a force that is exclusionary, and which creates divisions and violence if introduced to politics.

Yet, in spite of these legitimate differences, through discussions a consensus did emerge on the essential relationship between freedom and religion. While approaching the issue through different frameworks – including secularism; partial secularism; the civil state; or through referencing religious values – participants agreed that it was necessary and possible to promote and defend a vision of a state in which:

  • No group is privileged or disadvantaged on the basis of their faith;
  • There is freedom to practice freedom;
  • Citizens have the right to be free from religion;
  • Citizens have the right to choose their religion;
  • The state does not interfere or arbitrate in theological debates.

Participants also agreed on the necessity of allowing religious expression in the public sphere – including in a secular society. “Limiting religion to the private sphere is contrary to the spirit of secularism. Ultimately, you cannot do that except by denying freedom of expression.” Equally, participants espoused the view that “there can be no compulsion in religion.”

A key debate focused on the relationship between secularist and religious worldviews and their ability to accommodate one another. Some argued that not only did the state need to be protected from religion but that religion needs to be protected from state control and manipulation. However, it was also acknowledged that a total separation of religion and the state will never be possible – too many citizens’ lives, values and activism are shaped by their faith.

It should be recognised that secularism takes different forms in different contexts. For some, secularism should be thought of as an environment – not a creed – that acts as a neutral safeguard for all religions and in which no religion is privileged or disadvantaged, provided it respects the rights of others. In the Middle East, a secularism that could accommodate both the religious and secular worldviews into a system could be accepted by people of all faiths, or no faith. This could materialise if states and institutions, including political parties, put an end to using religion as a tool for either control or partisan advantage. However, for many, secularism remains a loaded term (not least due to association for many in the Gulf-MENA region with colonialism) and some felt the language of a “civil state” was more appropriate for the Middle East. Approaches towards secularism must therefore be flexible to allow for greater sensitivity to local contexts. Yet while the terminology is contested, all participants broadly accepted the core insight – that there is a need for the state to provide a “level playing field” for citizens of all faiths and none.

In spite of enduring challenges the Middle East does have examples, such as Lebanon and Tunisia, where religious and secular worldviews have found a way to reconcile and successfully established common grounds. These could provide valuable experiences for others in the region seeking to grapple with similar issues.

Political exclusion can be facilitated and promoted by advocates of secularism and religion alike. Exclusionary approaches used by “secular extremists” can also contribute to intolerance and violent extremism. Similarly, a growing trend of authoritarian populism uses religion in a way that deepens sectarianism and division.

Diplomatic efforts are needed to improve understanding of religious contexts, both by reaching out to religious constituencies and encouraging dialogue between faith leaders on key issues. Such dialogue and outreach efforts should aim to develop into practical initiatives that can build trust and understanding between communities. The Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process provides an example of how this can work in practice, where religious leaders have worked together to facilitate pilgrimages to Hala Sultan Tekke since 2014 and have co-operated to repair and clean historic religious monuments. Dialogue must also be fostered at multiple levels between communities, with a particular focus on historically marginalised groups such as youth and women.

Respect, rather than tolerance, is an essential concept that should guide diplomatic efforts to develop constructive policies aimed at supporting understanding of secularist and religious worldviews. Tolerance, which suggests a grudging acceptance of the other, may stop immediate violence but is not sufficient in the long-term. Sustainable societal cohesion and stability instead requires communities to see defending the right of others as a feature of their own values.