By Anna Averkiou
Leading faith and social action campaigners have broadly welcomed a government review into how best it should engage with faith groups in England.
The review, which is due to be published this summer, and the relationship between the government and faith groups, were the main focus of the keynote discussion at the 2021 Religion and Media Festival — Exploring Belief.
Hannah Scott Joynt, who chaired the panel, noted that while faith groups had always been involved in social action, their work in delivering frontline services during the pandemic was widely regarded, noticed and praised by politicians across the board.
“This kind of overt signalling, noticing and comment from central government does feel like a very interesting and rather novel shift,” she said.
Daniel Singleton, executive director of Faith Action, agreed. Over the past 12 months he had seen a growing interest from officials wanting to work with faith groups. Praising the initiative, he said the review was very broad but mainly focused on the place that faith groups played and their interaction back and forth with the public sector, as well as some work around terminology such as faith discrimination.
“We were concerned that only particular groups would respond, but I think we’ve seen a much broader response from women, black and minority ethnic groups and from some of the minority faith groups. It’s got out there and been quite well responded to.”
Laura Marks has founded and chaired a range of social and interfaith organisations, including Mitzvah Day. She explained how over the past 30 years a lot of people, particularly the young, have found their way into Judaism through social action.
“Look back to the South African anti-apartheid movement, or to the American Civil Rights Movement. All of those had Jewish people right at the heart of them. So, this is nothing new. Hands-on doing stuff is new. Mitzvah Day is born out of the belief that you can bring people together through Jewish-led social action.”
She pointed to the past few months where it had been possible to reach out to people of all faiths and backgrounds and make a difference not only to address the social justice or poverty and loneliness issues, but also to the massive knock-on problem of the pandemic: people being isolated and not coming together.
Julie Siddiqi, an activist with a focus on gender issues, Jewish-Muslim relations and social action, recounted how meeting Laura made her see how see how well the Jewish community did community organising and how that might look for Muslims or people from different faiths working together to change the world.
“There’s definitely something really powerful about those friendships or relationships which then become ways that people can do good stuff together,” she said, mentioning how Jewish and Muslim communities had been brought together through women to do things that the two groups had never done before, united in common purpose.
Sometimes, though, she said, faith communities could become a little territorial about what they did, especially if they had been doing work in an area for a long time and feared others stepping on their toes. She believed there was still more potential to be explored between faith groups to see how they could share resources.
Mr Singleton said the clap for the NHS was more than just applause for the health service and had highlighted that there were many people who were desperate for an opportunity to interact.
Ms Marks described faith groups as the “runt of the protected characteristics of society” and said there was an unhelpful tendency to forget that faith groups were an entity that played a huge part in society; instead, they could be stereotyped as being full of extremists who were very conservative and backwards in thinking.
“The government hasn’t until now recognised the value that the faith communities play in society or recognise why faith communities do it. We’re doing it mostly because that’s how we live our lives and it’s what we do. The challenge is to get us to do it more for the common good, and more collectively.”
Ms Siddiqi said: “I think it’s fair to say that Muslim communities and the way we are viewed by others, and also government, has been … problematic particularly over the last 10 years. If you’re always seeing community through the lens of terrorism or extremism, it makes people defensive, and you miss out a whole load of people that you’re not engaging with.”
She said the particular dynamic of the government’s effort of the last year to liaise properly with faith communities was really commendable and positive.
“I definitely was really very impressed and reassured by how the government consulted while also listening and we were able to genuinely give advice and somehow try to bring guidelines together that kept most people happy most of the time.”
All three were broadly in favour of a government faith department. Mr Singleton believed it would help as faith crossed and affected so many areas such as youth work. However, it needed an intelligent approach so that it did not become isolated within one department. Faith groups could also help with feeding back the different needs of their communities such as funeral arrangements, while also ensuring their members understood regulations.
Ms Marks said the government had made a good start and everybody was being heard. She stressed the importance of “intersectionality” because faith intersected with other issues, such as gender and online safety. She wanted the government to do more by bringing together groups for a wider public conversation around faith on different topics from Covid, disability, age and gender to some of the broader issues such as climate change, poverty and the treatment of Uyghur Muslims — and where God fits or doesn’t fit in our lives.
Ms Siddiqi said the government had a role to play but it was not just about top-level engagement. It was also about changing the dynamic around faith at a local level. She pointed out that funding was not an issue because faith groups were good value for money. Money was often wasted on people who knew how to write reports and say the right things, but it would be far smarter to invest in people who really cared and could pull everything together.
She hoped local and national government would not take what faith groups had done during the past year for granted, particularly as people often forgot or did not even realise that most of the work was voluntary.
She called on the government to counter the sometimes-negative narrative around faith groups and recognise that faith was a positive force for good for this country.
See a full recording of this festival session below: