As one of the three SOAS students selected to take part in the Emerging International Leaders: Freedom of Religion and Belief programme at the Cumberland Lodge, I decided to write about my experience. Monika Gupta from India (Visiting Research Student, PhD) and Taibat Hussain from Nigeria (MSc Development Economics) were the other two SOAS students selected for the program, and I include an interview with them in this article. Every year, 50 high-potential candidates, from universities across the UK, are selected to participate in three residential study retreats at Cumberland Lodge and to join the growing network of the programme alumni.
The Emerging International Leaders programme aims to equip international students with the skills and insight necessary to drive debate, influence policy and build a powerful global network around Freedom of Religion or Belief. About three-quarters of the world’s population live in countries that restrict these freedoms or fail to protect them. The aim of the program is to empower international postgraduate students to become advocates of human rights in their universities and home countries. The programme was launched in 2016, with support from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Today, it is supported by charitable funds and run in partnership with the Chevening and Commonwealth Scholarship schemes.
The programme required the students to gain permission from their academic supervisors to attend, as it is quite demanding, but the supervisors of all three students were more than happy to support them in this endeavour.
The plan was for the participants to attend three fully-funded residential retreats in Windsor: 13-15 December 2019, 24-26 January and 3-5 April 2020, but the last one retreat moved to an online session due to COVID-19. The program included interdisciplinary discussions with academics, advocates, policymakers and activists, an exploration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the role and position of religion in the public sphere, religious literacy, and inter-faith dialogue, as well as critical analysis and creative thinking about practical responses to violations of the state of Freedom of religion and belief around the world. The programme further addressed questions such as; why is freedom of religion and belief important? How does it intersect with other freedoms? What are the strengths and weaknesses of existing national and international policies on the issue?
Each retreat focused on different parts of ‘Freedom of Religion and Belief’, as well as each retreat got a close-up to a specific religion.
The first retreat was on the importance of the concept. Emphasis was put on the fact that holding religious or non-religious beliefs and worldviews is a fundamental part of human nature, as is having no belief or worldview. When the freedom to hold – or not hold – belief is absent, either through suppression or the enforced domination of a particular religion or belief-system, then this aspect of human nature is violated, which can cause personal or communal suffering and be a source of division and conflict.
In the first retreat we visited a synagogue and spoke to the rabbi of the synagogue. The majority of the students had never been to a synagogue before so it was an eye opening experience for many.
The second retreat focused on ‘Freedom of Religion or Belief in Conflict’. It looked at what constitutes a violation of freedom of religion or belief. It can be a complex and frequently contested topic for discussion as violations range from the explicit (including persecution and violence) to the more subtle (including the denial of access to public services and civic life). There is an ongoing debate over whether there are legitimate limits to freedom of religion and belief and, if so, what would constitute such a limit. It offered an overview of global violations of freedom of religion and belief, including conversion and apostasy laws; the disclosure of religion (for example on identity documents); the denial of education; and religiously motivated conflict and violence.
In the second retreat we visited a mosque and attended a panel discussion with Muslim scholars and practitioners to learn more about the religion and it’s practices.
The final retreat was about ‘Freedom of Religion or Belief in Action’. Unfortunately, it was not possible to hold the final retreat in person at the Windsor location, so it was moved to an online format. It explored practical responses to protecting and promoting the right to freedom of religion or belief, from local, national and international perspectives. Each participant received a 23-page briefing with a summary of the human rights framework for the right, difficulties in interpreting it, core legal principles, and the role of the state in enforcing it. It covered blasphemy laws, religious discrimination in the workplace, the religious and moral education of children and limitations to freedom of religion or belief.
In the final retreat the plan was to visit the Royal Chapel of All Saints church, where the royal family regularly attends services, but due to COVID19 that was not possible. The last session also included an opportunity for students to propose their projects regarding variety of topics connected with freedom of religion and belief.
In order to gain a wider overview of the program, I decided to interview the other two SOAS students that attended with me; Monika and Taibat.
What is your study programme?
Monika: Visiting Research Student (PhD)
Taibat: MSc Development Economics
Why did you choose to apply for this programme at SOAS?
Monika: I am a Commonwealth Scholar already enrolled for PhD in my home country and in order to get the exposure of studying at a UK university, I applied to SOAS, which I think is one of the amazing places in terms of academics and research environment.
Taibat: I chose development economics because it fit into my life goals and purpose. I want to contribute to improving the lives of people and communities, especially girls and women in Sub Saharan Africa. To achieve this, I needed to acquire more theoretical and practical knowledge.
What did you do in the retreats at the Cumberland Lodge?
Monika: The retreats on Freedom of Religion and Belief was one of the eye opening event as we discussed some very crucial aspects and learnt how to respect each other’s faith without being judgemental about these issues.
Taibat: We had several stimulating sessions with experts on religion matters, beliefs and leadership. I particularly liked the self- reflection moments and bonding times with other fellow leaders.
How did you find the experience?
Monika: The experience was really amazing as we witnessed the coming together of diverse number of participants from different countries, faiths and beliefs. We all mutually learnt and understood some very important concepts about religion and belief.
Taibat: Attending the retreat made me confront my inner self. I have always stay cleared of religious issues. I believed they were controversial and often leads to undue enormity. The retreats showed me how different people from different religions and belief can coexist peacefully, if they set their minds to listen, dialogue and respect one another.
Was it what you expected?
Monika: Yes, it was much more than what I expected.
Taibat: It’s safe to say the retreats surpassed my expectations. I was expecting to be uncomfortable, but found myself looking forward to subsequent ones. I will forever appreciate the friendships I made from the retreats.
What were the main lessons you learned from it?
Monika: The most important thing that I learnt from these retreats is how every religion in the world promotes peace and also came across some unique characteristics about those religions about which I had no idea before attending this.
Taibat: Lessons that stuck with me;
- Not to engage people about my religion or beliefs in a condescending tone.
- To respect other people’s religions and beliefs, eventhough I don’t agree or accept them.
- Tolerance, respect and dialogues are key ingredients to peaceful coexistence.
- Friendship knows no religion or belief.
Were you able to use what you‘ve learned at SOAS in the retreats?
Monika: Yes of course, SOAS has played a very important role in shaping my analytical skills, thanks to which I am able to analyse and understand concepts from wider perspectives.
Taibat: Yes! My course of study requires critical analyses of orthodox and heterodox views and theories. This made it easy for me to relate with the different religious, personal views and beliefs, without bias.
What moment stands out for you?
Monika: That amazing feeling of knowing, growing and understanding together
Taibat: That will be the visit to the mosque. First, I haven’t been to a proper mosque since I came to the UK. Second,it reminded me of home and what I know Islam to be – peace, love and sharing.
The programme focused on developing communication, advocacy and intellectual leadership skills in the participants, working collaboratively and building new networks with peers, senior academics and people in public life and it provided a unique opportunity for intercultural exchange as students from all over the world lived together for the duration of the program.
I am really grateful that I had a chance to be a part of this prestigious and unique programme and met amazing and inspiring people. I definitely learned a great deal both from the programme, and the people attending it.
Rut Einarsdóttir is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and Operations Manager for SCRAP Weapons, a project for global disarmament in the CISD Department at SOAS, currently pursuing a MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development.
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