Soft power, Faith and Foreign Policy

Soft power, Faith and Foreign Policy

On Thursday 15th November the BFPG collaborated with the Faith and Belief Forum’s Youth Council to host an event on ‘Faith, Soft Power and foreign policy’. The panel discussion was part of the annual interfaith summit which takes place during National Interfaith week every year. The discussion raised valuable points about how policy makers can engage more effectively with faith communities to enhance the UK’s soft power capabilities post Brexit.

Panellists had extensive experience in organising interfaith activities within their respective communities. As such, the discussion provided rich and valuable insights into why improving community cohesion matters for the UK post Brexit. The discussion also revealed that the activities of faith groups can be useful mechanisms to tackle key social issues. The improvement of the relationship between faith communities and Whitehall could help the UK to increase its Soft power capabilities.

Our panellists for this discussion were:

Mehri Niknam
Founder and Executive Director The Joseph Interfaith Foundation

Omar Salha FRSA
Founder and CEO, Ramadan Tent Project (RTP), PhD Nohoudh Scholar, SOAS University of London and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA)

Dr Maryyum Mehmood
Teaching Fellow in Politics and International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies

Professor Mike Hardy CMG OBE FRSA 
Chair, Intercultural Relations and Founding Director, Centre for Trust, Peace, and Social Relations, Coventry University

Reverend Malcolm Brown
Director of Mission and Public Affairs at Church of England

Paul Brummell, 
Head of Soft Power and External Affairs, Foreign and Commonwealth Office


What is the connection between faith and UK Soft Power?

The work carried out by faith groups to bring different communities together to resolve key issues at an international and domestic level is a principal factor of its soft power value. Bringing faith communities who share similar values together has been useful in reducing conflict between groups. The practice of different faith communicating to work on an issue is known as interfaith dialogue.

The UK serves as an exemplary model of how interfaith activities can help to resolve key social and international issues. The work done by faith groups here in the UK has the potential to promote peace and reconciliation internationally through the sharing of some key values and promotion of community cohesion.

Why community cohesion?

This is a critical point in history for the UK. It would be naïve to assume that the referendum result didn’t shock the nation, whichever way the electorate decided to vote. Building positive connections between groups through various mediums allows the UK to project a more coherent image internationally. Omar Salha provided insights into why sport is a useful diplomatic tool to build bridges between groups. One of the ways that the UK does this effectively is through the Premier League, which hosts some of the most diverse teams of players in the world. The success of Liverpool FC’s Muslim football player Mohammed Salah has helped to counter Islamophobic narratives in the UK. This is an example of sport helping to counteract hatred towards a religious group. This example also highlights that the UK has the scope to enhance the capacity of its existing soft power assets such as the Premier League.

At an international level, the UK is often viewed as a tolerant society. However, there is room for improvement Reverend Malcolm Brown pointed out that the approach taken by faith communities to connect with those who do not belong to a particular faith needs to be revisited. He raised an important point about reviving methods of community engagement. He pointed out that for far too long the Church of England’s approach had not looked at engagement through a post-colonial lens.

There is scope for faith groups to adopt a modern approach to their engagement with non-faith groups. Such an approach would prioritise community cohesion as a primary objective and engagement between faith groups as a secondary objective. Brexit has highlighted the varying fragmentation that exist within British society, whilst simultaneously highlighting the vast diversity within our society. Therefore, the need for viewing community cohesion with a nuanced lens is key. Reverend Brown also stressed that those who do not belong to or identify with a specific faith should have their needs factored into any kind of engagement programme. An inclusive approach around community cohesion is important for domestic purposes and equally as valuable for the UK to project that it is an inclusive and tolerant society at an international level.

The quality of dialogue that government chooses to have with faith communities is important to building and sustaining good relations between groups at a domestic and international level. Professor Mike Hardy, who has decades of experience in fostering peace between communities at an international and national level made useful points about how we must seek to achieve greater community cohesion. In addition to this, he explained which methods faith and community leaders may choose to opt for in order to achieve their desired outcomes. Long term relationships that have been built between the government and faith communities could help the UK to gain long term success internationally. His work in Coventry through the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, has helped to raise Coventry’s International profile – which serves an example of the value of engagement between a cross section of groups within society including faith groups. Added to his point about relationships was his idea of increasing dialogue between and within faith communities to tackle the problem of rising populism and religious extremism. This point was particularly pertinent, given the rise of Islamophobia and antisemitism across the UK.

Women in faith communities

Women of different faiths should be encouraged to shape the dialogue between faith communities and policy makers. Issues around gender equality need to be addressed to make faith a more prominent and valuable soft power tool for the UK. This point was stressed by one our panellists, Mehri Niknam. The deficit of women in leadership positions within faith communities, including at an international level has allowed for a culture of patriarchy to persist unchallenged. Because of this, policy makers may want to consider how they choose to work with women make sure that their voices are heard. Such an approach could be useful, as it would help women from faith groups to deliver their views on why working with faith communities may be beneficial for the UK at an international level. Such insights would be particularly valuable for UK Aid departments and international bodies who seek to tackle gender inequality issues.

There is great value in working with women in faith communities at a domestic level in order to counteract threats of violent extremism in other parts of the world. Firstly, this would help the UK offer a diverse range of insights into key global issues and also help to change the existing mono culture produced by a male dominated environment which exists within some faith communities. If the representation of varying perspectives is facilitated at a domestic level, this may help to promote change at an international level. There is value in accommodating a diverse range of perspectives to allow for the development of better policy outcomes. This also has the potential to allow the UK to present itself as ‘attractive’.

One of the key points that panellists made regarding UK foreign policy was around the values driving UK foreign policy. Paul Brummell, Head of Soft Power and External Engagement at the FCO noted that there is strategic value in building stronger links with faith communities. The type of partnership that policy makers want to have with faith groups requires further dialogue between faith communities and policy makers. Such a partnership could help to promote a greater understanding of the UK’s foreign policy objectives within faith communities across the UK.

At an International level, by projecting the UK as a socially cohesive society, could help to increase the UK’s attractiveness. Such an approach would also celebrate the diverse range of communities that represent British identity. In helping government to understand religion, faith groups could potentially aid with building better quality transnational links with regions across the world. If these links are to be established, then the soft power value that faith communities have must also be recognised. Acknowledging the value of strategic engagement with faith communities at a domestic level, could help UK foreign policy to become more nuanced.

The value of trust

Faith as a soft power tool has restrictions. This is owed to the media misrepresentation of faith groups which has caused mistrust between faith groups and UK government. Without greater avenues for dialogue between policy makers and faith groups, community cohesion can be restricted. This makes it difficult to promote a nuanced understanding of faith groups at an international level. The value of dialogue between policy makers and faith groups could help to promote a more positive understanding of the Soft Power value of faith groups.

All panellists agreed that in order for the UK to succeed internationally, building trust between groups at a domestic level must be prioritised. Policy makers in Whitehall must make a conscious effort to be willing to listen to the concerns of faith groups to foster greater dialogue between policy makers and faith communities. This kind of bottom up approach with a genuine desire to listen to the views of marginalised groups could help to foster greater community cohesion at a grass roots level.

Policy makers should try to adopt a better sense of humility when conversing with faith communities about how they can help the UK to increase its soft power capabilities. The UK is home to a rich array of faiths, beliefs and ethnic communities. One of the ways in which the quality of dialogue between faith groups and policy makers may be improved is through policy makers working to improve their cultural intelligence. This may result in productive outcomes for both groups.

How government bodies such as the FCO choose to engage with minority groups such as faith communities will determine the success of the UK in the years to come. The session showed that not only is there a desire for members of the public to engage with the FCO, but that there was a willingness to develop greater avenues for such engagement. There is value in dialogue if there is transparency between policy makers and minority groups. If the UK is to increase its soft power capabilities and heighten its ‘attractiveness’ over years, engaging with minority groups could be a valuable part of this agenda. Currently, one of the key obstacles is the lack of trust between groups and government. If any kind of engagement with various groups is to be successful, building trust should be seen as a primary objective in boosting public participation on foreign policy matters.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Nadia Khan

Nadia is a Researcher at the British Foreign Policy Group. Nadia is a graduate in International Relations from Queen Mary University of London. Prior to joining BFPG Nadia worked in Vienna and Kosovo on Human Rights issues around post-conflict state resolutions. She has a keen interest in British foreign policy, in particular the role played by international Space programmes in fostering cooperation between states to achieve the UN sustainable development goals. Nadia is fluent in Hindi, Urdu, and Gujarati.