Redressing religious inequalities: development’s glaring blind spot

Published on 9 November 2018

Mariz Tadros

Director (CREID)

Religious inequalities is a term that refers to the way in which individuals and groups suffer from systemic marginalization, exclusion and, in extreme cases, genocide on account of their religious beliefs and affiliation. When it comes to being committed to challenging power relations of privilege and subordination in development studies and practice, many have laboriously studied the drivers, nature and impact of inequalities along the lines of gender, ethnicity, race and geography. But when it comes to inequalities on account of religion, these are either merely given passing acknowledgement, presented as a by-product of other inequalities or sometimes ignored altogether.

It is time we make visible the inequalities which underpin by individual belief (including non-belief) and religious affiliation to a community.The 21st century has already witnessed two instances of violent and systematic communal targeting, one in Iraq and another in Myanmar linked to religious inequalities. While the conflict in both contexts cannot be reduced to religious inequality alone, we cannot ignore either that particular groups were targeted en masse for systematic elimination on the basis of their religious affiliation, even when it intersected with other identifiers.

We need to find the moral fabric, the vision, and a concerted and organized collective in order to bring religious-based exclusions into our visions and implementation of inclusive development.

The Coalition on Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID) is a newly established consortium of organisations committed to making poverty-reducing efforts more inclusive by highlighting and redressing- religious inequalities, with a particular focus on highly volatile contexts. The consortium, funded by UK aid from the UK Government and convened by IDS, includes (in alphabetical order), al Khoei Foundation, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Minority Rights Group and the World Organization for Al-Azhar Graduates (WOAG), affiliated to the Grand Al-Azhar University.

The consortium draws together a formidable wealth of expertise and experience in understanding the way in which individuals and groups’ right to belief (or non-belief) is upheld or violated, in poverty reduction and pathways of empowerment and in informing policy and challenging practice. We hope that this experience, together with our positioning and legitimacy amongst different stakeholder networks (faith-based groups, rights campaigners, aid agencies, humanitarian organisations, academics), our track record in developing robust and evidence-based research and our collective ability to mobilise interest and action will bring to the fore why addressing religious inequalities matter for inclusive change, and what we can do to make this effective.

Candles at the Yezidi festival at Lalish celebrating the start of the new year.
Candles at the Yezidi festival at Lalish celebrating the start of the new year which begins the following day. Credit: Levi Clancy (Wikimedia)

Why we need to look at diversity AND inclusion AND interdependence as interconnected

We believe that recognising diversity as a fundamental facet of governance and social relations is critical but not enough.

Undoubtedly, in many contexts, it is a struggle to even have people’s religious’ identities recognized by power-holders, be they state or non-state actors. In Myanmar, the recognition that Muslims from the Rohingya region are citizens is contested while in the Kachin and Chan regions, Christians are considered a threat to the national order. The recognition of one’s identity in many contexts is not a given, and even a lip service recognition of the reality of a religiously plural society is conspicuously absent in many power-holders’ proclaimed public agenda.

Making societies inclusive – by challenging power relations of exclusion and marginality is imperative and recognising people’s multiple identities, redistributing resources (not just material) and allowing for appropriate representation can go a long way in establishing rights – but again, is not enough.

We can have inclusive societies where communities enjoy freedoms and rights but are ghettoized. We can have societies that respect religious community rights but withhold individual rights, such as those associated with gender equality.

The challenge is: how do we build societies that are not only diverse and inclusive, but interdependent, as Karin Eyben et al (PDF) point out, in their framework, with reference to the context of organizations working in Northern Ireland.  Interdependence means we need to build (not force) relations across divides.

Creating or rather, acknowledging such interdependence means religious differences are neither denied in favour of a common “citizen identity” nor conveniently relegated to the private sphere nor inordinately romanticized as unequivocally always enriching (discernment may be helpful here). This does not suggest a linear pathway moving from one milestone to another: recognition of religious diversity to inclusivity of those on the margins to interdependence between groups. However, the relationship between the three – diversity, inclusivity and interdependence – is so key for any endeavours to bring about inclusive, peaceful, cohesive societies- and given the state of the world we are in- we can no longer afford to ignore it.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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