UCSB South/Southeast Workshop

Question 3: What is the role of religion to Civil Society organizations?

William Headley

Do religious institutions play a positive role in supporting humanitarian activities? 


I write as a Catholic, sociologist and humanitarian practitioner/theoretician, who has been serving within his faith’s religious institutions for better than 45 years. My working assumption is: religion – and many of its institutions – should not be viewed only as a problem, but also as a source of encouragement and commitment to humanitarian activities. Restricting my remarks to that sliver of humanitarian service called peacebuilding, I will define the term and briefly show how one faith community expresses it in a positive way. Then, I will briefly discuss two initiatives which give new and wider hope for peace in the global civil society: 1) a new Catholic-Islamic détente; 2) and a new challenge to the U.S. government to engage religious communities abroad.

Barbara Metcalf

It might useful in this first session to come to a working agreement on “global civil society,” but let me suggest that the key institutions that we might characterize as “religious institutions” are, today, in fact ones that are active at the level of the state, i.e. in shaping the stance of individual citizens in relation to the state and state policy. At the same time, those institutions invariably have a global presence that enhances their legitimacy, and, to different degrees, their material resources and their modus operandi. Secondly, the institutions, I would suggest, are not the classic institutions of the historic transcendent religious traditions: e.g. for Muslims, Islamic scholarly circles, Sufi tariqas and shrine-based cults; for Hindus and Buddhists, e.g. Sanskrit ritual teaching, maths, bhakti lineages, temple devotion, sanghas, stupas.  Today, voluntary organizations evoke and continue selected dimensions of these earlier traditions, but use new media and new institutional skills. The Hindu nationalist RSS uses the networks of classic civil society from speeches, social service, publication, and extensive school/college organization. I’ve for short hand compared the Tablighi Jama`at (the organization I know most about, usually deemed the world’s largest Islamic organization and one originating in South Asia) to Alcoholics Anonymous. A colleague points out that it is a (sustainable) “pyramid scheme,” (arguably true for the RSS too in its emphasis e.g. on each reader of a pamphlet or message reproducing it for 10 other readers, etc.). A key transformative role of these organizations is their extensive reach into society and their tightening of communitarian boundaries.  In the case of the RSS, they treat minority citizens as excluded from (though instrumentally essential to) the nation; in the case of the  Tablighi Jamaat, they in principle direct participants’ energies away from civil society in favor of pious self-fashioning.

Caroline Meyer White

Experiences from Pakistan, Caroline Meyer White

I am a builder, with a strong passion for environmental sustainability and improving living conditions for people, be it in Denmark or Pakistan. The information I have to offer is based on my observations and experiences in Pakistan and my interactions and conversations with local people on various topics. I have worked for 4 years solely in the province now called Khyber Pakhtunwha Province. I worked in a local NGO in 2006 and I have subsequently returned over the years for shorter periods of time working with different groups. It is from this experience that I offer the following presentation.

My very first experiences in Pakistan as a young woman from Denmark was right after the “Muhammad Cartoons” had been at their heights. I had decided to go and introduce strawbale construction as a respond to the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake.
I came to teach two workshops with a total of 53 male students of ages between 18 and 55 years, over 4 weeks in the summer of 2006, in Manserha and Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunwha Pronvince. I was the only non-Pakistani working in the organisation Dosti Development Foundation (DDF) at the time.

The background of the students in my workshops was anything from unskilled to university degrees.
I wanted to dress in a manner that would not seem offensive to my students, but at the same time I was not accustomed to the Pakistani clothing, so in order to feel that I had some “authority” on a building site, I chose to wear my jeans and working shirt from home the first days. I acted with my usual direct way of responding to anybody and I was fully accepted by all my students. I told them in the end, how a great experience of tolerance this had been, as they would sometimes act inappropriate to me according to the norms of my culture, and I knew that I did so to them as well, but we all just wanted to reach our goals and that had made a great atmosphere amongst us.


The experience became one of great curiosity from mine as well as my students side. At lunch I would sit with the 10 teachers and chat about anything that had our interest, we discussed politics, religion, cultures. development etc.
Amongst my students in the second workshop, were a handful of young men from a village named Banna in Allai valley, a very remote area around 12 hours drive North west of Islamabad, where the culture has not changed much in a very long time.

To travel in Pakistan is like traveling in time. In the large cities one can find all the elements of modern urban life. In the villages in the mountains of the Himalayas, as for example Banna in Allai valley, where most residents will not travel further then where their donkey can take them and interaction with other groups are not common, the culture changes extremely slowly and life can in many ways be compared to life in Europe 7-800 years ago. A man will typically never keep company with any women other than his mother and sister, not even female cousins. This does not apply to all country villages in Pakistan, but it can be found and it was the case with my students from Allai. I experienced how it was mutual when we where in the teaching situation, to be curios but with great respect investigate, “how do I interact with this person in front of me”. These guys were very polite and kind to me, but mostly very shy. At the same time as being polite and keeping the codes of conduct that I found appropriate, I would look them straight in their eyes when talking to them as I normally do, that is not considered appropriate by a Pakistani woman, but they understood who I was and seemed to find it natural.


There was one man from the organisation who never would look me in the eyes when talking to me. At first I thought that he was rather arrogant and as time passed I really came to dis-like him, until I one day learnt! That he was performing the highest degree of politeness towards me, we were both unmarried and he would be insulting me, if he looked straight at me!
I am often asked about my experiences of working in Pakistan, if it is not difficult being a woman and the answer is no. I am culture sensitive and do adapt my self, but the different cultural and religious rules put on women do not apply on a foreign woman when she is not connected with a Pakistani family, as these rules have mostly to do with the honor of the family.

To me it is always difficult to distinct whether a behaviour should be categorized as being based on religion, culture, tradition or security issues. E.g. Are restrictions put on women interpretations of the religion by illiterate priests, based on 1000-years old traditions, not relating to any particular religion, the way for simple people to try to protect them selves, their wives and daughters in a lawless society? Or is it social control, as much implemented by women themselves as by their husbands and fathers? Or a mix?


The few times I went up to Banna in Allai to view how the project was running, I wore a scarf as I had taught my self to wear it, so that only the eyes can be seen. This was a security issue, as foreigners are not welcomed by all in these regions as well as a way to not act disrespectfully to any of our beneficiaries which had otherwise no interaction with me.

Still above 30% of the population are tenants to landlords, owning the land that they work. These people are not free to move, not free to choose whether their children should be put to school or not. Not free to build up money to buy their own land or house. The landlords are the powerful people, politicians at national and regional/district level. There is a Tenant’s act, which should provide basic rights for tenants, but as there is no one to enforce it, it is not necessarily followed. I have found this important to understand when wanting to work with shelter and livelihood issues, landownership is an important issue to be aware of.

Religious institutions

The Madrassas

An example of an extended religious institution are the madrassas. Madrassa means school. Madrassas in Pakistan are religious schools. The average madrassa is based on teaching Islam, but it also teaches a general curriculum to poor children, which would otherwise not get any teaching at all. A campaign was carried out in the previous five years, where all madrassas had to register. This campaign was enforced by the US government. After having mapped around 80% of all madrassas it was enforced that they have to teach BOTH a religious and common curriculum.

As when I hear the term madrassa, I still today have to remember how infected my mind is with negativity, related to certain terms because of influence from mainstream media. And that when understood by a Pakistani, these terms are not negative. An example is, when I asked my friend and strawbalehouse builder colleague in Pakistan, Saleem, to hear his understanding of the Talebans in Pakistan, and he said to me: “Caroline, you and me are Talebans”. We both believe in that we can create a better world, to have such idealistic believe, and to study how to reach it, is to be a Taleban. Saleem is fully aware that there are terrorist groups calling them selves Talebans, and that they are bombing away his fellow country men, even in Mosques on Fridays, but he wanted to make the point clear to me, that in Pakistan, the term does not only apply on these criminal organisations, it is a term that applies also on non criminal people and it means to be an idealistic student. Similarly, madrassas in my mind had become only associated with extremists brainwashing children into hating westerners through their teachings which they hide behind calling it Islam, but a madrassa by a Pakistani is mostly conceived as a positive thing.

Other religious based institutions are both political parties, religious organisations carrying out humanitarian work, both on a regular basis as well as after the disasters of the 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods.

An example of a Non-Islamic, greatly appreciated, religious, humanitarian institution. The Bach hospital.

In Qualandarabad, a village on the Kharakuram Highway between Abbottabad and Mansehra, the Bach Christian hospital is found. It has been working their since 1935, by missionaries. The work of this Christian hospital is greatly accepted and appreciated by the population. They house 80 families inside the hospital, and have started more then 40 village schools.

It is considered, that being Christian, is a good part of the way, and certainly much better then being non-religious. I experience that it is fully accepted and respected. I have only met the statement: To be Muslim, you must also be Christian! Because, to be Muslim you must accept the teachings of both the Bible, the Torah and the Quran.

Victoria Riskin

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his [or her] religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public and private, to manifest his [or her] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Article 18 -- Universal Declaration of Human Rights


While most countries across Asia and Southeast Asia have language incorporated into their constitutions modeled on western democratic principles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirming the right to free speech, assembly, and freedom of religion, many governments continue to assert severe and repressive controls over religious communities who they perceive to be a direct threat to the power of the state:  China, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, to name a few.  Governments routinely protect one religious group at the expense of another, tightly regulate activities of faith-based organizations, and imprison and torture those who have alternate religious views or those who peacefully protest government policies.  In various communities, local judiciary support extremist interpretations of religious laws that are abusive, especially towards women, without intervention from the central government.   In addition, in the wake of 9/11, counter-terrorist campaigns have become the rationale for repressive governments to arrest and torture members of religious communities.


Human Rights Watch has found that its research and advocacy in the Asia and Southeast Asia often revolves around the abusive treat of religious groups including Buddhist monks, Muslim minorities, Christian groups or alternately, and around extreme interpretations of Sharia law and abusive religious practices.  The changing political climate has a critical impact on the freedom, safety and wellbeing of individuals depending on their religious tradition.


Without an independent judiciary, respect for rule of law, acceptance of religious differences, adherence to human rights, accountability for abusers, and the separation of church and state, constitutional guarantees provide no meaningful protections. They have no teeth. Religious freedoms are tied to robust human rights in general and can only take root across the Asian region, or anywhere, where there are basic political freedoms and viable democratic institutions to protect individuals.  


Should nations with a strong tradition of rule of law seek to advance human rights and bring their influence to bear in Asia?  And if so, how?  Or would this merely be political imperialism?   Does China’s ascendency as an economic power, its continued crack down on religious minorities, put at risk efforts to fortify human rights regionally and globally?     


The goal, of course, is to move the family of nations towards behaviors that support freedom for the world’s citizens and protecting against abuses on all levels.  The freedom to worship without fear and to enjoy the benefits of joining a religious community is paramount to establishing human rights and a vital tent-pole toward building a stable world.

Ria Shibata

My research considered the role of religion in an emerging global civil society through examining the activities of two Japanese Buddhist NGOs: Soka Gakkai (International) and Rissho Kosei-kai. Both of these Japanese new religious movements have become active players in global civil society, mobilizing public opinion on a range of issues broadly related to the question of “human security.” Both in terms of their membership size and the scope of their civil society activities, Soka Gakkai International and Rissho Kosei-kai are the two most prominent Japanese religious NGOs officially registered as having consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.


Soka Gakkai was founded in 1930 by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, a reform-minded educator, as a group of like-minded teachers in an attempt to infuse humanistic ideals into the Japanese educational system. The group was suppressed during World War II, but then rapidly as a mass religious movement in the post-war. Today Soka Gakkai International is a worldwide association of 82 constituent organizations with memberships in 192 countries and territories; it claims a membership of some ten million in Japan, and 12 million worldwide. One notable feature of Soka Gakkai’s civil society activities is found in its emphasis on grassroots public education, carried out through a global network of believers using such educational tools as exhibits and publications. Its issues of particular focus are nuclear disarmament, human rights and sustainability education. 


Founded in 1938 by Niwano Nikkyo and Naganuma Miyoko, Rissho Kosei-kai today claims a membership of six million and rivals Soka Gakkai as a Japanese mass religious movement rooted in Buddhist tradition. In contrast to the Soka Gakkai, Rissho Kosei-kai has from an early stage pursued a policy of collaboration with other religious groups; its civil society activities place emphasis on interfaith engagement and cooperation. Niwano founded The World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP a.k.a. Religions for Peace) in 1970 as an international forum for inter-religious cooperation. Today the WCRP has become the largest global coalition of religions and an influential lobbying body within UN processes on issues of peace, sustainability, poverty alleviation and human rights.


Both Soka Gakkai and Rissho Kosei-kai identify the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, in particular the Lotus Sutra, as a constitutive for the worldview supporting their civil society engagements. The strategies and processes by which the two groups pursue their goals, however, differ: Rissho Kosei-kai works through the formation of inter-religious coalitions (WCRP) and places emphasis on advocacy and lobbying methods to shape discourse and decision-making about global issues. Soka Gakkai, on the other hand, focuses on the educational and informational component, as it leverages its vast global human network to raise awareness and mobilize international public opinion around specific issues.
In this research, I examine the two religious NGOs’ organizational, strategic and service dimensions with a particular focus on the groups’ activities in the area of peace and nuclear disarmament. Through analysis of the two organizations’ history, spiritual foundation and outreach activities, this study will explore how two groups motivated by the same religious text—Lotus Sutra teachings of Mahayana Buddhist tradition—have chosen different approaches and strategies for social and political engagement in global civil society.

Mark Woodward

Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population and has a substantial Christian minority and smaller numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucianists. These are the only officially recognized religions. Others, especially adherents of traditional indigenous religions have limited civil rights. Throughout the “New Order” regime of the country’s second President Suharto the state employed a combination of coercion and persuasion to encourage religious harmony. One of the consequences of these policies was that underlying problems and tensions were not addressed.


One of the unintended consequences of the democratic transition of 1998 and the opening of Indonesian society that accompanied it was the emergence exclusivist Islamist social movements and political parties. These range from political parties committed to both democracy and an Islamist social agenda, including the implementation of some aspects of Shari’ah to domestic and international terrorist organizations. Of these, the Front for the Defense of Islam (FPI) poses the most serious threat to human rights and religious pluralism. FPI is the self appointed guardian of its own version of Muslim morality. It has a decade long history of intimidation of and violence against Christians, Muslim sects it deems “deviant,” purveyors of “sin” including nightclubs and pool halls, as well as against people engaging in “sinful” activities. The Indonesian government has proven to be effective in containing international terrorist organizations but lacks the political resolve to take firm measures against FPI and similar organizations with ties to elite factions.


On the other end of the religious continuum are mainstream organizations including the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah are committed to tolerance and pluralism and to a social and political order in which Shari’ah is subordinate to normative law. They work closely with Christian and other non-Muslim religious organizations on peace building and pluralism agendas. Both strongly oppose all forms of religiously inspired or justified violence. Their combined membership is more than 100 million.

Indonesian Civil Society is overwhelmingly religious. Secular NGOs represent a small but politically significant element of national and local elites. They have little grass roots support. International NGOs must be cognizant  of the fundamentally religious character of Indonesia society and willing to adjust their agendas and operations accordingly if they are to work effectively with local counterparts.