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UK Government inadequate in engaging with faith: Independent review by Colin Bloom

WorldUK Government inadequate in engaging with faith: Independent review by Colin Bloom

An independent review by Colin Bloom and a team of civil servants titled “Does Government ‘do God?’” was published on Wednesday. The launch in the Thatcher Room in Parliament was attended by faith leaders and MPs. The review was commissioned by Boris Johnson in 2019, and Bloom, the government’s Independent Faith Engagement Advisor, offers thanks to many ministers for enabling its completion.
The review involved 21,000 responses that overwhelmingly demonstrated faith is alive and making an extraordinary and valuable contribution to society. The UK is a successful multi-faith country with strong protections for people to practise their religion, faith, or belief. As that landscape continues to develop, so must the collective understanding. However, what Bloom calls “faith literacy” amongst public servants is not comprehensive or current, which makes policy creation difficult. Bloom argues that government engagement with faith would be better if it was not tacit. He is recommending a new cross-departmental role of an Independent Faith Champion and Office to improve understanding, communication, and education in public service (NHS, police, schools, councils, and Whitehall).
Beyond full-time education, Bloom suggests that “out-of-school settings such as yeshivas, madrassahs or Sunday schools” should be formally registered and regulated to safeguard the mental and physical safety of children.
The review finds that regardless of changing religious demographics in England and Wales, faith provides a positive framework for society and helps address some of the most pressing social challenges such as loneliness, poverty, and mental health.
Bloom divides believers into three types: ‘true believers’, ‘non-believers’, and ‘make-believers.’ The first two are the constructive harmonious majority. “The make-believers are often motivated by money, ego, prestige, or power and abuse their position to promote themselves or their causes, clothing them with religion to give them divine legitimacy. Make-believers are a problem both for the government and for the communities they claim to represent.”
There is a strong focus on education in prisons, where forced conversion and radicalization occur. UK Armed Forces are recommended to improve proportional representation of minority faiths during recruitment.
There is acceptance and importance given to freedom to campaign for belief and share religious or nationalistic beliefs publicly. However, in British democracy, “there is no legal definition for extremism,” and the review finds that faith-based extremism is existential. Bloom offers his definition of when political ideology becomes unacceptable and urges the government to formally tackle the issues in the many faith-based groups highlighted. This does not necessarily mean proscribing groups, as not all groups demonstrate terrorist behaviour.
The review recommends reinforcing the distinctions between extremist Islamism and Islam and between Islamist extremist and Muslims. Thus, the rest of British Muslims do not feel unfairly associated with violent, threatening, or coercive tactics. The review recommends the government take action against supremacist and nationalist groups that use religion or religious imagery to promote their extreme hateful ideology. The review recommends improved faith literacy and discernment within Sikh identity. Bloom urges investigation and clear definition of any subversive, extremist, or illegal activity within certain groups. “Government should ensure that unacceptable and extremist behaviours are not inadvertently legitimised by government or parliamentary engagement.”
There are further recommendations to avoid faith-based exploitation, particularly financial exploitation. These require awareness, scrutiny, and policy reform. People vulnerable to the coercion of cults and honour-based abuse need specific support.
Marriage transcends faiths, but not all marriages are willingly undertaken. Bloom posits, “If government genuinely values the role of marriage in building a stable and prosperous society, it must be willing to shift its approach and commit the resources to ensure that the freedom to choose and the right to enter marriage without coercion is protected in minority faith communities to the same extent as in wider society.” In the UK in 2023, forced, underage, coercive, or manipulative marriage is not acceptable. Unfortunately, it is thought that there are between 5-8000 such marriages a year as they are underreported across all communities. “Recent cases have shown that the issue can span across various regions, including the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and North America. False preconceptions can mean that potential pockets of victims within other groups, such as Charedi Jewish communities and Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities, who can have strong religious convictions, have not received enough attention.” The review suggests faith leaders be accountable for ensuring both parties are willing to enter into a marriage, and the FCDO Forced Marriage Unit “should be led at the political level by one secretary of state to ensure ownership of this important issue, and it should be adequately resourced within one department to house both the operational delivery and policy work. Additionally, the government should record more quantitative and qualitative data on forced and coercive marriage, including working more closely with social services and local councils. The Forced Marriage Unit specifically should record further data – especially the religious or ethnic backgrounds of both victims and perpetrators – to identify trends and effectively target campaign materials.”
Despite the harrowing revelations in his review, Bloom remains optimistic and confident that sincere and peaceful faith is thriving in the UK, that faith remains a force for good, and interfaith understanding has improved over the years. But the subject is “undeveloped and unloved,” and in government, it is inclined to go into the “too difficult to do box.” He contends that “faith literacy is woefully inadequate, particularly among civic leaders and policymakers. Much more needs to be done to ensure that those who seek to govern our country are both cerebrally equipped and intellectually curious about the subject so they can understand the people they hope to lead.” Bloom believes that every single recommendation is in reach of this government and of future governments. He hopes that an honest response will be forthcoming, even if the responses are selective and the other recommendations postponed.
There is no doubt that a brave review deserves a brave response.

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