Foreign & Commonwealth Office 19-20 October 2016

Preventing Violent Extremism by building inclusive and plural societies:

How Freedom of Religion or Belief can help

Preventing Violent Extremism

On 19-20 October 2016 the UK government hosted the conference ‘Preventing Violent Extremism by building inclusive and plural societies: How Freedom of Religion or Belief can help’ at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. The event was inspired by the UN Secretary General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism. Aimed at those working on human rights it provided best practice examples of how to contribute to creating open, equitable, inclusive and plural societies that are more resilient to violent extremism. A range of new ideas transferable to different countries were also explored.


High level opening sessions – Setting the Scene

Why Open, Equitable, Inclusive and Pluralist Societies help guard against extremism
Panel Summary

The conference began with high level context-setting presentations.  The UK government’s Minister for Human Rights, the Right Honourable Baroness Anelay, opened the event by setting out the idea behind it and underlining Britain’s unshakeable commitment to the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief.  After a video message of support from the Commonwealth Secretary General, Rt Hon Baroness Scotland, the conference then heard from Helen Berhane, a gospel singer who had been imprisoned in a shipping container in Eritrea for almost two years for sharing her faith.  Helen’s impassioned presentation reminded her listeners of the grim reality of persecution.


Why Freedom of Religion or Belief is Particularly Relevant
Panel Summary

Tom Farr, Director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center set out the particular value of freedom of religion or belief.  He pointed out that a religiously-literate approach to the issue is more likely to resonate with socially conservative societies, and that a purely secular answer to extremism will inevitably be inadequate.   Lord David Alton called for the bringing to justice of those who have carried out atrocities in the name of religion and spoke of the need for a persuasive new narrative for the internet.  Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association explained how the right to freedom of belief protects the rights of those with a secular or humanistic belief too.  If we champion religious freedom alone, that can sometimes amount to seeking additional rights and privileges for one group in society.  David Saperstein, US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, suggested that the relationship between freedom of religion or belief and combating violent extremism was absolutely key.  The biggest current foreign policy challenge for governments was to amplify moderate religious voices without disempowering them.


  • Tom Farr, Director, Religious Freedom Project, Berkley Center, Georgetown University
  • Lord David Alton, House of Lords 
  • Andrew Copson, British Humanist Association 
  • Ambassador David Saperstein, US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom
How can open and plural societies help in peace-building? Why do we see extremist groups emerge in failed states?
Panel Summary

Raffaelo Pantucci of the Royal United Services Institute explained how there is no one single cause of radicalisation, that drivers are context-specific and so there can be no single answer to the question of how to combat it.  The role of religion in radicalisation varies according to context.  But open and accountable government helps to give people a stake in their own communities. Sarah Snyder, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Director of Reconciliation, took a different view.  She and colleagues assessed that most societies are infused with a religious framework, so it simply didn’t work to say that religion is just one force among others.  Religious leaders can also be a pivotal influence on opinion in their societies as they set the parameters of acceptable behaviour for their congregations.  If we try to affect societal change without them we are excluding a key catalyst for change.  Ben Kwashi, Archbishop of Jos, Nigeria, echoed this view.  It was vital for faith leaders to come together to solve problems governments couldn’t solve.  More attention should be paid to young people, who were in critical need of positive narratives.  The role of the media, who often fuel conflict, was also crucial.  And it was important to led local partners lead.  Too often donors had come to Africa with pre-packaged solutions and then blamed their local implementers when they didn’t work.


  • Raffaello Pantucci, Royal United Services Institute
  • Sarah Snyder, Archbishop of Canterbury Advisor for Reconciliation
  • Archbishop Ben Kwashi, Archbishop of Jos, Nigeria 
What is the evidence?  How are open, equitable societies better economically?
Panel Summary

Brian Grim of the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation opened this panel by explaining the value of working with business to create demand for more open and plural societies.  His research into the value of faith to the US economy had been shared 17,000 times on social media, demonstrating the impact that an economic focus can have.  The Chinese state news agency had reported on his Foundation’s Global Business and Peace Awards because one winner had targeted the China market.  He described his work to develop a corporate diversity index for faith, and to get businesses mentoring young people.    Philip Booth of St Mary’s University, Twickenham, noted that business was a powerful force bringing people together and could help promote harmony.  Farad Azima of CentroMed Group noted that religion, by its very nature, is in some senses divisive, as a strong belief in one truth excludes all others.  Kamran Malik from Ernst & Young highlighted how his company’s clients were increasingly focusing on inclusivity, which meant ensuring that their staff were comfortable bringing their whole selves, including their religion, to work.  Investing in religious literacy in organisations paid dividends in terms of staff well-being, but also because religiously literate staff can help bridge the gap between cultures.  True religious literacy means moving from tolerance of other religions, through acceptance, to respect.  Senior leaders needed to promote custodial care and ensure that no group felt excluded.


  • Brian Grim, Religious Freedom & Business Foundation
  • Prof Philip Booth, St Mary’s University, Twickenham
  • Farad Azima, CetroMed Group
  • Kamran Malik, Ernst & Young

Putting Ideas into Action: What can we do about it? What tools are available? Who can we work with?

Working with civil society and faith leaders
Panel Summary

Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah of the Forum for Promoting Peace explained that his organisation, which had been the driving force behind the Marrakech Declaration on minorities in Muslim societies, sought to use the power of religion to cure religion.  Religion was a powerful force which could be used for either good or evil.  The only way forward was a proper understanding of religion – using religious texts to refute misguided interpretations. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue demonstrated that freedom of religion or belief is not a new concept, but is grounded in key historical texts such as the Cylinder of Cyrus, the Pillars of Ashoka and the Constitution of Medina.  It was important to raise awareness of these traditions.  Interfaith dialogue was a useful tool, but needed to tackle difficult issues.  There needed to be greater respect for freedom of conscience, especially in the workplace.  Yusuf Al-Khoei of the Al-Khoei Foundation stressed the role faith leaders have to play in building real links with people of other faiths by working together on practical projects.  It was important to break down psychological barriers.  Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK commented that the world no longer allowed religious leaders, governments and NGOs to function in silos.  We needed to work together.  But if tolerance was our benchmark, it was no wonder we fell short of our goal.  We needed to promote true acceptance, and equal citizenship for all, rather than a special (but still lesser) status for religious minorities.  Speaking of ideals was a powerful way of building unity rather than tribalism. And if all faith groups spoke together the message was more powerful.

How faith and civil society leaders can change the narrative about the role of religion in sanctioning violence and foster cohesive and diverse communities which reject extremism


  • Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, Forum for Promoting Peace, UAE
  • Bishop Michael Nazir Ali, Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy & Dialogue
  • Yousif Al-Khoei, Al Khoei Foundation 
  • Bishop Angaelos, Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK
Working with parliamentarians and international parliamentary networks
Panel Summary

Gavin Shuker MP, Co-Chair of the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Religious Freedom or Belief, described the valuable role that parliamentarians can play, working together to raise awareness of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, and the tools available for them to do this.  He called for different faith groups to work together, as well as groups representing the non-religious, as this demonstrates the value of freedom of religion or belief not just for one group but for society as a whole.  Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, representing the International Panel of Parliamentarians on FoRB, explained how the network had grown rapidly from small beginnings to the point where nearly 100 parliamentarians had attended a recent capacity-building training course in Berlin.  The group existed to provide a powerful international voice in support of FoRB, through joint letters, lobbying and solidarity visits to support colleagues in societies where the right to freedom of religion or belief is under threat.  Luke Waggoner of the International Republican Institute described the work that IRI does to assess local drivers of extremism and to share them with members of parliament to help guide their crafting of policy and their development of messages that seek to shift societal dynamics in such a way that the avenues of VE are devoid of incentive. It is working in places like Tunisia, Tanzania, and Burma.  Mervyn Thomas of Christian Solidarity Worldwide explained the value to an advocacy organisation of working with parliamentarians.  If an issue was raised in parliament in the UK it would appear on live television, and might well receive publicity on other channels too.  International networks were extremely effective as one country’s voice might carry more weight in a particular situation than another’s.  Lisa Pearce of Open Doors described how her organisation galvanises public support to raise awareness of the persecution of Christians.  People from over 55 countries had signed a recent petition in support of Christians in the Middle East.  They brought the authentic voices of people suffering for their faith into the campaigns championed by parliamentarians.

How parliamentary networks can help to raise awareness of the way that open, plural societies serve as a valuable alternative to extremism


  • Gavin Shuker MP, Co-Chair, UK All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief
  • Abid Raja, Norwegian Parliament – International Panel of Parliamentarians on FoRB
  • Luke Waggoner, International Republican Institute
  • Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive Officer, CSW 
  • Lisa Pearce, Chief Executive Officer, Open Doors
Working through the Commonwealth
Panel Summary

Josephine Ojiambo, Deputy Secretary General of the Commonwealth, spoke of the way that the Commonwealth is working to build capacity in its member countries, and bridging the walls between freedom of religion or belief and countering extremism.  Harriet Hoffler of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Initiative explained the work being undertaken to provide training, resources and events to build the capacity of Commonwealth parliamentarians to lobby on FoRB.  They were currently mapping how FoRB is being raised in parliaments, and working to set up a Commission of Experts and Regional Centres of Excellence to support parliamentarians.  Virginia McVea, Chair of the Commonwealth Forum of National Human Rights Institutions described the role of National Independent Human Rights Institutions in advising their governments on their obligations under the treaties they have ratified.  All NIHRIs should be encouraging the implementation of the UN Secretary General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism.  Embassies might encourage them to put this in their business plans.  NIHRIs should also make sure the voice of faith-based organisations is heard.

How the Commonwealth can support its members to build open, plural societies which help render extremism unattractive


  • Josephine Ojiambo, Deputy Secretary General of the Commonwealth
  • Baroness Elizabeth Berridge – Commonwealth Parliamentary Initiative
  • Virginia McVea, Chair, Commonwealth Forum of National Human Rights Institutions
Implementing the UN Secretary General’s Action Plan on Preventing Violent Extremism
Panel Summary

Mona Rishmawi of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stressed the importance of putting young people right at the centre of any response to extremism as young people often only listen to what their peers tell them.  She stressed the need to focus on changing behaviour, not belief, and the importance of investing more widely in the communities where we are working as it is impossible to prevent extremism without fully understanding the drivers.  Martin Kimani, Kenya’s Special Representative for Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE), noted that Kenya’s newly-agreed PVE Action Plan specifically focuses on religious freedom.  He described how its launch had deliberately been delayed in order to ensure it would be launched by the President, which would get it into the social, political and cultural spheres.  Khalid Koser of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF) described how this new global fund is working to support small community-level projects to counter violent extremism in a number of pilot countries.  The GCERF had added value by encouraging a multi-sectoral approach to countering extremism, and by operating at local level rather than regional level.

How UN action and national action plans on PVE can promote full respect for human rights. How national PVE action plans can deliver human rights objectives. How the international community can support.


  • Mona Rishmawi, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
  • Ambassador Dr Martin Kimani, Kenya
  • Khalid Koser, Chief Executive, Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund

Day 2

Expert Level Solutions Workshop

Interfaith relations – What works?
Panel Summary

Sebastian Shaw, Archbishop of Lahore (Pakistan) set out the importance of interfaith work, particularly when one section of society is under attack, as had happened in Lahore last Easter.  Josh Cass of the Three Faiths Forum noted that, to be successful, interfaith dialogue had to be an active process.  It involved deeply attentive listening, and needed to be part of a process that began long before the actual meetings.  Skills development and a focus on action were important factors.  The most successful inter-faith dialogues involved getting to a place where the participants could engage on difficult questions.  Ed Kessler of the Woolf Institute added that successful interfaith work needs intentionality, sensitivity and nuance.  He pointed out the importance of working through diaspora communities, for example the Russian diaspora in the UK.

How do we ensure that interfaith initiatives are not simply a gathering of like-minded individuals discussing the points on which they can agree? How can they be designed to deliver a real change in relations between groups and to make a positive contribution to wider society?


  • Archbishop Sebastian Shaw, Catholic Archbishop of Lahore
  • Josh Cass, Three Faiths Forum 
  • Dr Ed Kessler, Founder Director, Woolf Institute 
Working through the UN (Special Rapporteur, UPRs, NGO committee, HRC interactive dialogues etc)
Panel Summary

Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur (designate) on FoRB, explained how the mandate of Special Rapporteur functioned.   He pointed out that lobbying a country to issue an invitation to the Special Rapporteur to visit was most effective if done by a group of countries.  It was often better to focus on individual cases rather than wider issues, as governments were more likely to seek to resolve the former.   He called on the NGO community to engage with the Special Rapporteur’s mandate and support his work.   Professor Sir Malcolm Evans of Bristol University suggested that it might be useful to establish a preventative approach to FoRB, on the model of the UN’s Sub-Committee on the Preventon of Torture (SPT), which can visit any country where individuals are deemed to be at risk of torture without the need for an invitation from the government concerned.  This mechanism is less condemnatory than responding to violations and creates space for dialogue.  It creates an ongoing contact to discuss issues with the authorities in a given country.  Elizabeth O’Casey of the International Humanist and Ethical Union talked about the valuable role freedom of expression played as a component of FoRB.   She drew attention to the Rabat Plan of Action, which covers the intersection between the two rights, and encouraged practical action to deliver the action points in UN Resolution 16/18 and its successor resolutions. Diane Ala’i of the Bahai International Office in Geneva stressed the importance of all faith groups working together to promote FoRB.  She focussed on the valuable role the Universal Periodic Review can play in holding states to account for their performance on human rights.  It was helpful to encourage states to consult civil society, including faith groups, in the run up to their review.  All recommendations should be as precise as possible.

How UN mechanisms can be used to raise awareness of the way that open, equitable, inclusive and pluralist societies help build resilience against extremism. What lessons can be learnt from the way that the UN has galvanised action against torture and the death penalty?


  • Dr Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB
  • Prof Sir Malcolm Evans, Bristol University
  • Elizabeth O’Casey, IHEU, Vice Chair, FoRB Working Group, Geneva
  • Diane Ala’i, Bahai International Office, Geneva 
The role of Education
Panel Summary

Professor Cole Durham of Brigham Young University noted that it was important to communicate FoRB in a way that others did not see as an attack on their beliefs.  So concrete narratives were more effective than abstract appeals.  It was important to consider peer groups as most so-called “lone wolves” did not act completely alone.  Tina Ramirez of Hardwired Global shared the programme that her organisation has been implementing to give indigenous leaders the tools to advance human dignity.  They had discovered the importance of getting people to a place where there is dissonance or friction, and the realisation that others have suffered too.  This helps aid conceptual change.  She noted that the Yazidi community in northern Iraq helped illustrate the consequences of eliminating a minority community from society by planting a garden of flowers and then removing all the flowers of a single colour.  Milo Comerford of the Centre for Religion and Geopolitics pointed out that the importance of education is evidenced by the fact that it is a huge target for extremists’ attacks.  His Centre’s research demonstrated that jihadis are often well educated and that there is no demonstrable link between poverty and extremism.  Many have however studied subjects that involve a high degree of rote learning and which do not teach critical thinking skills, or the ability to challenge.  It was important to inspire the reform of curricula and teacher training to teach these skills, along with the ability to deal with nuance and subjectivity. Sheelagh Stewart and Amina El-Abed of the British Council spoke about the work they had done to help students develop skills such as listening to others and valuing their views.  They assessed that resilience is a product of confidence, adaptability, purposefulness, comfort with difference and building a social support network – all of which are skills that can be learnt. They shared lessons from a programme “We are Tunisian” to build national pride among young Tunisians.

How building acceptance of different faiths or beliefs among children can act as a defence against extremism. What is the role of governments in ensuring education is not used to propagate hatred and extremist views?


  • Prof Cole Durham, Brigham Young University
  • Tina Ramirez, CEO, Hardwired Global 
  • Emman El-Badawy, Tony Blair Faith Foundation
  • Sheelagh Stewart & Amina El-Abed, British Council
Working with the Legal Profession
Panel Summary

Nazila Ghanea of Oxford University explained the legal framework that surrounds the right to freedom of religion or belief. Brett Scharffs of Brigham Young University described the way that his university has been running courses on religion and the rule of law in various countries in South East Asia and Africa.  The courses have a strong academic character and include relevant experts from a range of countries.  This enables them to focus on the law and on practical issues such as regulation and problem-solving and so reduce the temperature of the debate around religion.

What is best practice in international human rights law in providing the legislative framework for open and plural societies? How can such a legal basis limit the space for extremism?


  • Brett Scharffs, Brigham Young University
  • Nazila Ghanea, Oxford University
Working with Youth
Panel Summary

Ian Jamison of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation shared the lessons of the Generation Global programme, which has helped young people to get to know “the other”, which in some cases may be the person sitting next to them.  Students learn skills which they then practice through video conferences, and in a safe, moderated online space.  Huda Nassar of the Awareness Foundation talked about her Foundation’s programme to empower Christians as Ambassadors for Peace and a counter-force to intolerance.  In 2017 this programme will be expanded to train young Christians and Muslims together.   Kelsey Bjornsgaard of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue described the YouthCAN global network of young grassroots activists.  The Institute support the network through capacity building by means of online toolkits and offline youth innovation workshops to develop online content targeted at specific audiences.  The key to success is to involve young people in a meaningful way; to give them ownership and to ensure follow up.

How can young people proactively help combat extremism? How does bringing young people of different faiths together help? What best practice is there?


  • Ian Jamison, Tony Blair Faith Foundation 
  • Huda Nassar, Awareness Foundation Middle East
  • Erin Saltman, Institute for Strategic Dialogue

Regional Case Studies (parallel sessions)

Each regional session will consider to what extent open and plural societies currently exist and look at some of the problems faced in building these as well as some of the approaches being taken to tackle these. Participants will then consider which of the possible approaches presented in the above conference sessions might be applicable in each region.

Panel Summary

A key issue in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region is the treatment of minority religions.  There is a need for religious minorities to be accorded the same rights as the remainder of the population.  The panel noted that education is a vital tool to ensure that children understand the need to respect everyone equally, regardless of their religion.  There is also a need for legal systems not to discriminate against individuals on the basis of their religion.  It was noted that solutions need to be found in Islamic religious traditions, not imposed from the outside.


  • Knox Thames, US State Department


  • Daniel Hoffman, Middle East Concern 
  • Camille Melki, Heart for Lebanon
  • Mehrézia Labidi-Maiza, Member of Assembly of Representatives of People, Tunisia
Sub-Saharan Africa
Panel Summary

The panellists identified an inconsistency between the constitution and criminal laws in many countries.  They commented that co-ordinated action is key to achieving change.  Different faith communities need to rebuild trust, for example by inviting other communities to services and meals.  Advocacy training and mentoring is needed for human rights defenders, as is wider training in citizenship/civic awareness. Judges and prosecutors also need training.  Programmes need to be adapted to suit the communities they seek to target.


  • Cynthia Tai, The Law Offices of Cynthia T. Tai


  • Mohaned Mustafa and Osman Mobarak, Sudan
  • Dr Mohamed Elsanousi, Network of Religious and Traditional Peacemakers
  • Rev Yunusa Nmadu, CSW Nigeria
South Asia
Panel Summary

The panellists noted the need to find Islamic arguments against blasphemy laws, and to be aware of the Hindu nationalist agenda. Biases in textbooks and teachers’ methodologies also need to be corrected.


  • Julia Bicknell, World Watch Monitor


  • Tehmina Arora, Alliance Defending Freedom, India 
  • Azhar Hussain, Peace and Education Foundation, Pakistan
South-East Asia
Panel Summary

The panellists noted the important role social media can play in countering extremist messaging.  They commented on the increase in religious-based enthno-nationalism in the region.  Religious and political leaders should join forces to defend FoRB.  In an entrepreneurial culture it was worth making the case that for economic growth to be sustainable a culture of non-discrimination was necessary.  They noted that the Indonesian tradition of Islam was often a valuable counter-balance to more extremist traditions.  They recommended supporting initiatives at grassroots level.


  • Knox Thames, US State Department


  • Benedict Rogers, CSW
  • Bob Fu, China Aid
  • Ahmad Suadi, Abdurrahman Wahid Centre for Inter-faith Dialogue
  • Kyaw Win, Burmese Muslim Association

Speakers and Delegates

Conference speakers bios

Media Coverage