Interview: On religion and development

Niveen Wahish , Thursday 5 Sep 2019

New Secretary-General of the peace coalition Religions for Peace Azza Karam explains that religion can be an integral part of development in an interview with Niveen Wahish

Azza Karam
New Secretary-General of the peace coalition Religions for Peace Azza Karam (Photo: Ahram)

Azza Karam, an Egyptian national, was recently chosen as the new secretary-general of Religions for Peace (RfP), an international coalition of representatives from the world’s religions dedicated to promoting peace headquartered in New York. 

Officially founded in 1970, RfP works on encouraging common action among the world’s religious communities for peace, human development, shared well-being, and the protection of the Earth. 

Over the years, the organisation has played a role in assisting social reconstruction and healing post-conflict societies, confronting social and cultural violence, and promoting peace education. It enjoys consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and the UN cultural and children’s agencies UNESCO and UNICEF.

Karam is a professor of religion and development at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Before her election as RfP secretary-general, she was senior advisor for culture at the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), a post she will continue to hold until her appointment to her new position is complete. 

At UNFPA she coordinates Fund-wide activities on culture and religion. She has also served as a senior policy and programme advisor at the UN Development Programme (UNDP). She was previously at RfP from 2000 to 2004 as director of a Global Women of Faith Network and advisor on Middle East interreligious dynamics. Before that she held various positions including senior programme officer at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) in Sweden.

Karam has authored and edited several books and numerous articles on issues including democratisation, human rights, peace and security, gender, religious engagement and sustainable development. She has also lectured in various academic institutions in Europe, North America, Africa and the Middle East. 

She explained her new role and the lessons she had learned in her career in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.


What does your new position entail? Do you have targets that you want to achieve as the new secretary-general of the RfP?

My role will be to convene religious leaders, institutions and communities to enthuse them to continue to work together and to collaborate around issues critical to shared well-being. Specifically, I will seek to build on the already existing achievements of these communities around dynamics such as the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, but also broaden them to include other environmentally related concerns. 

My conviction is that when religious leaders and their institutions get behind certain issues and advocate for them, they can move mountains. Our planet is facing an existential crisis, and we need to ensure that all religious institutions around the world, which together target 80 per cent of the world’s people, can be active in saving this planet.

Not only this, however. We are living in a global context where freedoms, all freedoms, but especially the freedom of thought, religion and belief, are seriously under attack. If religious leaders are not part and parcel of protecting these freedoms for all people of all faiths all over the world, then who is or will be?

Moreover, we are living in times when conflicts are erupting all around us, many either with a religious tinge, or where religious reasons are being used to justify atrocities. Again, if religious leaders and their institutions, from all over the world and representing all faiths, are not part of confronting the fallacies of belief and actively advocating for coming together in peace and justice, then who will do so?


How are development and religion connected? How do you see the role of religion in influencing development issues, such as birth control and others, changing across the years?

First, over 80 per cent of the world’s people claim a religious affiliation, according to the US Pew Research Centre, and the language of faith is the one that speaks to over 80 per cent of the world’s people.

Second, in the reasoning of Amartya Sen, the Indian economist who was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to welfare economics and social choice theory, the process of development is best understood as an expansion of the freedoms people enjoy in five spheres: political, economic, social, and transparency and personal security. These are precisely the spheres of development that require transformation.

Therefore, if we put the two together, we can understand that those with the most capacity to influence development processes are religious actors. If we are seeking the expansion of the freedoms that people enjoy, we must engage and situate those who can influence the processes as central parts of the equation.

To date, we, development practitioners, researchers and policy-makers, have focused the responsibility for development action rightly mostly on governments. More recently, we began to pay attention to the private sector and to assess corporate social responsibility. When we finally woke up to the role of civil society, we focused almost entirely on secular members of civil society, however. It is time that we integrate the religious sectors into the fabric of civil society, not by arguing that religious leaders and institutions are unique and special species, but by using a “whole of society” lens to appreciate that social transformation, as part of the long arc of history which bends towards justice, as Martin Luther King Jr once said, requires engaging the religious, or the faithful parts of the civic infrastructure.

We know for a fact that behavioural change in most parts of the world in which religion remains deeply rooted in people’s consciousness is rendered possible when religious leaders start speaking to the necessity of that change as part of what makes a person more faithful. Indeed, secular human-rights actors complain of the negative influence of religion. So why not harness the positive, transformative influence of religion that can help societies overcome harmful social norms and practices? 


How do you see the RfP making a real difference on issues that touch the daily lives of people across the globe and not just be a platform for slogans?

Next year is the RfP’s 50th anniversary. This is an organisation that was convened when religious leaders from each religious tradition from around the world came together for peace against nuclear armament and all forms of conflict and whose first World Assembly had three themes: human rights, development and disarmament. This is an organisation that has never been a platform for empty slogans. 

Instead, over the years the RfP has supported, facilitated and guided the establishment of 70 national Interreligious Councils and five regional Interreligious Councils from around the world. Each council brings together the leadership of the various religions in a manner reflective of the local religious demography, and they act as entities which create an inter-religious space within each nation’s civic infrastructure. 

This is a convening place in which those who speak in the name of people’s religions come together regularly to assess issues of national concern and to rally and mobilise around shared well-being. This is, especially in today’s contexts, a space of light. We need these Interreligious Councils to be strengthened so they can serve the shared well-being of their nations effectively and in a timely manner. We need these spaces of light to radiate the language of peace, and for those religious leaders and institutions that convene together to symbolise and realise a precious reality: when faiths come together for the common good, then the common good wins against all odds. 


What is your role as coordinator of the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Religion and Development? Will you continue in this capacity, and what have been the challenges you have faced?

My role as coordinator is to convene the 20 UN system focal points working on, with, or about religion and religious engagement for the sake of realising the UN system’s three pillars of sustainable development, peace and security, and human rights. 

Since 2015, the 193 UN member states have agreed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs or Agenda 2030), which elucidate 17 global goals meant to be realised by 2030. These SDGs are in many ways the practical translation of the three pillars of the UN system’s raison d’être. The Task Force is an inter-agency mechanism that came together first in 2010 to help the focal points on religion understand what religion has to do with the UN’s commitments and to be more effective and strategic in how and whom we engage with in the realms of religious spaces in order to better serve the purposes of the UN system.

In 2018, the Task Force convened 40 CEOs of the UN system’s top faith-based NGO partners in development, human rights and peace-building work. These also represent organisations that work in different parts of the world and whose mission statements derive from its main religions. Together, the CEOs now form a multi-faith Advisory Council that the UN Task Force launched in 2018.

Once I take up my position in the RfP, I will have to leave the UN and will therefore no longer be able to serve inside the UN system. However, since the RfP has traditionally partnered with the UN for most of its existence, I look forward to continuing and deepening partnerships with diverse UN system organisations on the shared goals of peace-making, education, environmental stewardship and freedom of religion, belief and conscience.


The idea of keeping government secular and distant from religion has been the norm for years. How do you see that changing? Do you believe it is changing for better or worse?

I believe that there has been a re-awakening of a sort of “religious” consciousness and emergence in public life all over the world. As a scholar of these trends, I have written elsewhere that this has had a great deal to do with the loss of the traditional meta-narratives we were familiar with, such as liberalism, socialism, and communism. I believe that some have sought recourse in religion partly because political spaces offered an ideological vacuum. Moreover, we are living in times when traditional institutions of all types are fast losing their legitimacy and their public support. Indeed, we are facing a crisis of all things institutional. 

As such, faith in its myriad formats, languages, institutional set-ups and outreach, appears attractive, all the more so when you realise that many social services around the world, especially in the realms of health and education and certainly in humanitarian crisis contexts, are still being offered through religious institutions. So “religion”, whether in terms of faith or in terms of social service, is pervasive.

I think that some of the reappraisal of the religious social-service sector is sensible and timely — after all, hands-on innovative partnerships are required for us to target some very basic humanitarian and social needs. But I also see a huge challenge in having some religious actors and some religious institutions becoming too closely aligned, some even vested, with political spaces and actors. History has taught us that when political and religious institutions collude, human welfare often suffers, and tragically so.

There is a massive difference between strengthening social services by engaging with all service-providers inclusively and working with religious actors to change harmful practices as part of building a stronger civic consciousness around social justice on the one hand, and between religious actors seeking political power, or political actors seeking religious cover, on the other. It is the latter that I believe we need to be vigilant about.


What are the risks that religion could be misused to manipulate or interfere in the affairs of other countries or that it could create animosity towards minorities?

Religion is, or should be, primarily about faith and not about political power. But when religion is used as a tool for those in power to influence politics, then religion can become a tool for harm, whether in the short term or long term. That is why it is important not to use religion, as belief, as actors, or as institutions, in the business of politics. We need to remember that colonialism began with a missionary zeal to “civilise” the other — the “civilising mission” was a feature of the 19th and 20th centuries in much of the world, in other words not so long ago.

The instrumentalisation of religion is as old as religion itself. So it behoves us to be alert to both the goodness and the harm which “using religion” can cause.


How can such risks be avoided?

By understanding or appreciating the religious as part of the civic, and thus “right-sizing” the role of religion rather than assuming it is the answer to all things, whether good or evil. 

Equally unwise is ignoring the reality of the religious presence, belief, and service in most communities, or seeking to use religion to serve a political purpose, no matter how noble it may seem. 

No one religion on its own is “the answer” or the solution to all of society’s ills, and thus it is imperative that all religions, whether majority or minority in size, are consulted and engaged as part of a nation’s social infrastructure and by extension part of a global civic community. 


What are the reasons that keep religions from playing a greater role in promoting peace?

Ignorance about the role of religion in people’s lives, or a secular fundamentalist attitude which essentialises religion, seeing all religions as the same and all as being largely harmful, are major hindrances to those of us urging a better understanding of the role of the religious in civil society. 

For religions to be about peace requires many things: we need to appreciate that religious consciousness, spirituality, or belief is a force for good in most people’s lives, and we need to appreciate that religious institutions suffer from some of the same ills as all other institutions populated by humans, but that this is no cause to dismiss all the institutions. We need to appreciate that just as the Divine created us as different and diverse so that we may know one another, we also need to honour the purpose of that creation by appreciating that no one religion trumps all or can be all things for all people. Instead, all religions need to work together so that we may know one another, or in other words, know peace.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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