Boris Johnson visited the Husseini Mosque in Northholt during his mayoral campaign in 2008. Photo: Getty
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Should religion ever play a role in policy-making?

As market and utilitarian analyses increasingly dominate our public discourse, religious voices could offer fresh insights.

This week Faith Minister Baroness Warsi resigned from Government. She was a keen advocate for David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ initiative and in particular played an impressive role in encouraging faith communities to be more involved in the policy making process.  These days there is, quite understandably, a surge of interest in religion when those purporting to act in its name do bad things. Much of the criticism of religion’s role in society derives from unfamiliar tenets, the real or imagined divisions it creates in society, and abuses carried out in its name. Indeed, for many it is regarded as an outdated and even dangerous impediment to the advancement of a civilised and mature society, replaced and made redundant by science and a secular humanism.

But this tells only one side of a very complex story, since huge swathes of the world's population hold religious belief as a powerful source of motivation and moral vision, and answers to the basic questions of human existence. Generations have passed on wisdom, justified values, and binded society through religion, creating harmonious and vibrant communities (if politicised variants of religion are avoided).

Indeed, as our public discourse becomes increasingly narrowed by strictly market or utilitarian analysis, it’s worth considering religious voices for fresh insights on the moral, ethical and spiritual dimensions of a wide variety of public issues ranging from climate change and education to poverty and urban violence.

You will find that religious actors are not reticent in coming forward with ideas, resources and proposals aimed at public policy change. Citizens of a religious background not only have a right to participate in the policy-making process but have valuable contributions to make to the common good when they do so. In recent years has been a surge in interfaith policy activism on both sides of the Atlantic across diverse policy domains, influencing visionary decisions by urban policymakers.

In the US, interfaith groups in states including Georgia, Hawaii, and Massachusetts have already made impactful contributions to the policy process. For example, in the most populous Hawaiian island of Oahu, Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE) has worked hard since its creation in 1996 to improve access to public services. FACE, a non-profit interfaith group that includes 38 churches, a Buddhist temple, and two Jewish congregations, helped end discrimination against non-English speakers who were unable to sit the driver's licence exam. The exam is now offered in 12 languages in addition to English, a welcome development that will help counter reduced access to employment and an increase in uninsured drivers.

In Europe, the traditionally Catholic Nordrhein Westfalia region of Germany has seen faith based social service agencies grow into a national advisory council that advises the government on social service policies. Interfaith activists in London have joined with community leaders, social activists and businesses to alleviate poverty by campaigning for a more equitable living wage. Since its inauguration in 2001, the Living Wage Campaign has boosted the wages of tens of thousands of low-income employees by over £210 million.

These examples contradict the view of religious actors as merely promoting forums for bland conversational niceties while ignoring the more difficult aspects civic life. Indeed, the process of arriving at a shared understanding of the common good and the approaches, methods and instruments by which this can be realised may contribute to greater levels of mutual trust and collective action among a diverse citizenry, a vital pre-requisite for a more cohesive, flourishing society.

Interfaith leaders engaged in this process deserve credit for their persistent and results-oriented work in the policy field and their capacity for innovative solutions. In spite of this, engagement with religious actors remains contentious among those who fear the illiberal consequences of a resurgent religion in the public square.

There are conceptual and practical challenges as well. There is no common denominator about the nature of religion and its potentially transformative role in the life of society. Policymakers need to set aside the common assumption that any role for religion in society is a Trojan Horse for conversion. Similarly, religious actors will need to reassure their secular partners that their efforts to contribute to the social good are free from any hidden agenda to coerce their views on others.

If this engagement between religious actors and policy makers can be optimised, the benefit to wider society, particularly in urban and deprived areas, would be enormous. It will require courage and tolerance from all of us.

Muddassar Ahmed is a Patron of the Faiths Forum for London and Kishan Manocha is a Vice-Chair of the Inter Faith for the UK.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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