Merete Bilde, policy advisor at the European External Action Service (EEAS) of the European Union in Brussels, came to the University of Birmingham on 16 May 2017 to speak about the role of religion in EU foreign politics.

In her talk she focussed on the role of the EEAS inside the EU and programs she and her colleagues developed to foster religious literacy among EU officials, how they built capacity inside and outside of the European Union, and future challenges.

Merete Bilde, addressing the audience at the University of Birmingham on 16 May 2017

a female academic delivering a talk at the University of Birmingham

At the beginning of her talk, Merete Bilde shared four lessons that she had learned during her time at the EEAS. First, the European Union had been confronted with religious issues for a while, but was slow in recognizing these issues. For example, she referred to negotiations with Brunei for a political and co-operation agreement that were underway when the Sultan of Brunei suddenly introduced Sharia Law in his country. Second, Bilde maintained that EU diplomats, mediators and development officers are still in catch-up mode when it comes to understanding the role that religion plays in their work, and that their predominantly secular view gives rise to blind spots. Third, she stressed that religion is more than Islam. Too often, she said, people want to talk about religion only because of Islam. Fourth, while talking about religion is currently “cool” in Brussels, not everyone understands its complexity and how to translate it into good policymaking.

Over the last four years, Bilde and her colleagues at the EEAS have addressed these four lessons. They developed a general training model on religion and foreign politics and a more specific one on Islam and politics.  They want EU officials to develop a collective awareness and skill set around religion and its implications for their work. The training sessions are also intended to challenge people to think outside the box and inspire better policymaking. EEAS brought in colleagues from the US State Department to assist in the development of its training modules and it also works closely with Switzerland. Some training modules are being rolled out now in member states. The EEAS has also set up a task force on culture and religion where information is shared across different units within the EU “to connect the dots” and challenge conventional wisdom through outside experts. As far as external capacity building, the EEAS works with the United States, Canada, Switzerland and other countries on religious issues that matter globally, such as religious engagement with Iran, politics of Eastern Christianity, the promise of the Marrakesh declaration, Catholic responses to the migrant crisis and Vatican diplomacy. Bilde noted that the United States and Canada are very strong allies and stressed the inclusive approach of the EEAS. She also praised  EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, who always tries to meet with a broad range of people who represent civil society when she travels to other countries and is guided by the wider agenda of tolerance and respect for diversity (as is the EEAS and its partners), sometimes challenging senior officials within the EU with her ideas.

At the end of her talk, Bilde spoke of dangers and challenges, in particular a tendency to equate Islam directly with radicalization. Bilde often addresses this, pointing out that there are some structural drivers of radicalization, such as  poverty, repression and conflict. Individual pathways can also make people susceptible to radicalization. There is also a much smaller set of enabling factors, such as a charismatic imam or the influence of the internet. She stressed that it is very important to not overexaggerate the importance of any one of these factors and not to overemphasize the role of Islam and ideology.  

Finally, she said, there is a tendency to see religion as a problem. However, religion is also lived, and one can work with religious leaders, religious actors and faith-based organizations in the field to achieve sustainable development goals. These people and organizations have a lot to offer and the EU must do more to recognize their positive contributions.  

Merete Bilde and Dr Andrew Davies, Director of The Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion, listening to questions from the audience

Andrew Davies and a colleague deliver a talk at the University of Birmingham

The talk was followed by a Question and Answer session.

Merete Bilde was invited to the University of Birmingham by Professor Jorgen Nielsen, Department of Theology and Religion, who has worked with her in developing EEAS training modules. The evening was organized by The Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion