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Bridging politics and religion

Reviewing the Religion and Foreign Policy conference

On the afternoon of June 22, three different speakers offered their thoughts on religious minorities. From June 22-23, the inaugural “Religion and Foreign Policy” conference took place at McGill in the Birks building. The conference focused on “the challenges of religious pluralism” and offered numerous speakers and panels. Throughout the weekend, certain hours were devoted to specific lectures.

Nazila Ghanea, a lecturer in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford, gave a talk on “International Perspectives on Religious Minorities.” Throughout this lecture, Ghanea attempted to define what characterizes religious minorities, citing the lack of power as one important factor. She rendered Bashar al-Assad and the Alawites in Syria as a non-minority regardless of the quantitative validity of this characterization on the basis of population, since they aren’t a minority in terms of power.

Ghanea went on to discuss the specific challenge facing religious minorities in the Middle East, highlighting a general unwillingness among members of groups in the region to identify themselves as religious minorities. “In the Middle East, at the point of death, you’re not going to get any religious minority to declare themselves as a religious minority,” Ghanea stated. “It is absolutely rejected because the implication of saying…you’re a minority is saying that you’re not loyal, that you’re a security risk, that you’re not really Egyptian, or you’re not really Lebanese, but that you’re foreign.” Yet unless one declares themselves as a religious minority, Ghanea claimed, the affirmative action type benefits and protections offered to religious minorities cannot be applied, and thus the problematic treatment of religious minorities continues.

Lamia Mekhemar, Egypt’s ambassador to the Vatican, also spoke at the conference in regards to minorities, centering her talk on religious minorities in Muslim states. Mekhemar focused on the potential of the Arab spring to bring greater rights and living conditions for religious minorities throughout the Middle East. In response to doubts brought up regarding some of the failures of the Arab Spring, Mekhemar claimed that “We are not watching the final episode [of the Arab Spring] yet.” This point was well received, as Mekhemar offered numerous examples of continuing unrest in Arab Spring countries. For example, although she did not refer to the matter directly, she gave hints to the unrest currently building in Egypt.

On June 23, the talks quickly turned into a lively discussion touching on human rights, minority status, and what the panelists deemed the ‘problem of religion’: the “artificiality and superficiality surrounding religious discourse.”

Religion, and in particular Islam, is as relevant as ever. Each of the panelists – speaking on the topic of Middle East and Asia – emphasized this fact. Religious rhetoric is a powerful emotional tool used for political mobilization, and is often at the root of sectarian violence, religious persecution, and other human rights violations. “The state has a responsibility to intervene in such cases,” Mekhemar stated, “and in this case its role must be unlimited.” Indeed it seems logical that with globalization being the mark of our century, governments will move towards a singular ideal of religious expression and religious pluralism. But as the panel concluded, existing discourse seems instead to be stagnant and steeped in political agenda. As such, Professor of Political Science at the University of Western Australia Samina Yasmeen’s chide still rings true: “ The state does have [that] duty … but not an unlimited one. It is after all comprised of ordinary people, ordinary values, ordinary beliefs.”

Each of these lectures were followed by an allotted time for questions from the crowd, which was made up of an even mix of older academics and students, most of whom were enrolled in the McGill seminar “Comparative Religion” taking place this summer which focuses on the connection between foreign policy and religion.

This summer is the second time the seminar, taught by Religious Studies professor Daniel Cere and Dean of Religious Studies Ellen Aitken, has been held. Last summer, the course focused on the link between religion and human rights. It is an intensive two-week course, advertised to many international students from schools within the Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s Faith & Globalisation Initiative. The foundation’s main component is made up of a chain of research universities that help analyze the “role of religion in a globalized world,” a characteristic which this conference, and course, neatly fit into. It is made up of a variety of talks and panels given by different academic figures from around the world. The conference on the weekend served as a component of the course, as well as a way of introducing a broader range of students to the course’s offerings.

Although the content of the conference was interesting, and some of the figures brought in to speak were intriguing, it appeared as though the conference did little to reach beyond a core of students and academics already immersed in the content being presented, although the talks given on both days seemed intriguing and stimulating. However, little advertisement, as well as a hefty $40 registration fee for non-McGill participants, presented major obstacles to broader attendance. If this conference is to continue, these issues should be addressed so as to better serve the purpose of McGill students.

The first day of events was covered by Davide Mastracci. The second day was covered by Nusra Khan

The article previously mistakenly stated that the registration fee for the conference was $40 for all participants. In fact, it is only $40 for non-McGill participants. The Daily regrets this error.