[This is the introduction to a special edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]
Those who believe religion and politics aren’t connected don’t understand either. (Mahatma Gandhi)
It is hard even for the most dedicated secularist to deny that communities of faith are the most durable contexts for relationships and habits that exist at right angles to functional and individualist models of human society. (Rowan Williams)
It is nearly 20 years since the The Round Table last published a special issue on religion in/and the Commonwealth. In the editorial introduction to that issue, I argued for greater attention to religion in the literature of international relations, Commonwealth Studies and the internal affairs of Commonwealth countries, and for a greater degree of religious literacy.
Preet Gill, Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston wrote an article for the Huffington Post before the London Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) of 2018 headed Why religion is the solution to the Commonwealth’s problems. He called on the Commonwealth to ‘confront the demons of religious intolerance’ and so strengthen both the Commonwealth and society in general. Gill pointed out that eight Commonwealth countries featured on the Open Doors 2018 World Watch list of 50 countries where it was most dangerous to be a Christian. He also pointed to Commonwealth examples of good practice in multi-cultural societies and inter-religious dialogue. There is little evidence that this article – more nuanced, than the headline suggests – stimulated debate or action.
Special edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs
Has anything changed in the years since the previous Round Table special issue devoted to religion and the Commonwealth? I would argue that the issues are even more important and the need for religious literacy even more urgent. The case studies in 2005 were drawn from Sierra Leone, Uganda, Malawi, India, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan and Malaysia. India and Pakistan are still prominent, but the current issue has less of an African focus with just one article, that of Patrick Afamefune Ikem and Confidence Nwachinemere commenting from that continent. Then I regretted the dominance in the literature of the Abrahamic religions and the concentration on the Christian/Muslim dichotomy. This issue does something to remedy that with more on Hindu and Buddhist perspectives and fundamentalisms. This issue also features perspectives from the post-Christian(?)/secular societies of Australia and New Zealand.
Some perspectives are still missing. It would have been good to have something from Canada where the continuing debate and revelations over residential schools draw attention to some murky Christian and missionary legacies. Suppressed atheist and humanist worldviews from Africa also deserve more of a hearing. Another gap in the literature is the study of the overlap and interplay between the Commonwealth and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC), which describes itself as ‘the collective voice of the Muslim world, ensuring to safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony among various people of the world’. Among Commonwealth countries, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Gabon, The Gambia, Malaysia, Maldives and Pakistan are members of OIC.
Meanwhile, identity and culture wars and debates in which religion(s) are inevitably implicated intensify, and religious fundamentalisms (in all the world religions represented in the Commonwealth) have the potential for inciting even more violence and conflict. In Pakistan, as Farah Nazir shows in her article, blasphemy laws, with a toxic colonial and post- independence history, continue to feed internal divisions and provoke international outrage. In Nigeria, 12 out of 36 states have adopted sharia law. A 2022 report from Humanists UK emphasises that Blasphemy Laws are both a legacy of British rule and a current Commonwealth issue:
Commonwealth countries are much more likely than other countries to have laws against blasphemy or apostasy … Humanists UK has called for Commonwealth countries to repeal their blasphemy laws, as has happened over the last decade in Jamaica, Malta, New Zealand, Canada, and Scotland … 45% of countries in the world criminalise blasphemy, with 7% having the death penalty and a further 27% having prison sentences. But among Commonwealth countries, those figures are 59%, 9%, and 38%, respectively.
Meanwhile, the Commonwealth, through its Charter and publicity promotes itself as a ‘Values Based’ organisation:
Affirming that the special strength of the Commonwealth lies in the combination of our diversity and our shared inheritance in language, culture and the rule of law; and bound together by shared history and tradition; by respect for all states and peoples; by shared values and principles and by concern for the vulnerable.
Martyn Percy in a trenchant article that touches on several relevant themes, albeit only from a UK perspective, suggests that ‘Values may well be the new religion of the 21st century. They are formed out of a simple equation: ideologies + passions = values’.
There is not much explicitly about religion in the Commonwealth Charter although it is surely impossible to discuss and promote ‘Commonwealth values’ without taking the religious background of the great majority of Commonwealth citizens seriously. Arguably, official Commonwealth discourse pussy foots around religion just as it pussy foots around LGBT+ rights.
These topics abound with complexities and ironies, not least in the UK, where the UK’s heritage is mainly Christian but attitudes and organisations are predominantly secular amid increasing religious diversity with significant Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and other smaller religious populations. The UK is the only country in the world apart from Iran to have clerics in its legislature (bishops in the House of Lords), but the media and surveys of public opinion manifest mistrust of religiously committed politicians, 20 years after Alastair Campbell notoriously said, ‘We don’t do God’. In UK politics Tim Farron (of the Liberal Democrats) and Kate Forbes (of the Scottish National Party) have experienced the difficulty of squaring the circle of political leadership, on the one hand, and strong, personal beliefs, on the other. It may have cost both those politicians the leadership of their respective parties. The ironies are compounded now that the United Kingdom has a Hindu Prime Minister and Scotland a Muslim First Minister. Scott Morrison’s Pentecostal identity attracted scrutiny when he was Prime Minister of Australia. The President of The Seychelles from 2020, Wavel Ramkalawan, is an Anglican priest, photographed praying alongside Justin Welby at the COP conference. In some Commonwealth countries, as Ikem and Nwachinemere’s article shows a political leader who doesn’t ‘do God’ would be unthinkable.
This special issue attempts to explore the issues and extend the debate.
Terry Barringer is the Assistant Editor and Book Reviews Editor of the Round Table Journal.