Time to Defund The InterFaith Network ?

Dear Friend of InterFaith Dialogue,

"SERIOUS CONCERNS" WITHIN THE UK GOVERNMENT ABOUT THE INTER FAITH NETWORK FOR THE UNITED KINGDOM

I am writing  as Chair of the Interfaith Alliance UK, a national interfaith Member Body of the Inter Faith Network for the United Kingdom (IFN).  I am also a former Trustee of the Inter Faith Network, and can comment from my own close personal experience of dealing with IFN officials.  I am writing about the future of the IFN in the hope that we can continue to have a national linking body for local and national interfaith organisations to connect and support each other in our work of inter-religious dialogue.

 

SUNDAY TELEGRAPH ARTICLES ON GOVERNMENT CONCERNS ABOUT THE INTER FAITH NETWORK

You may have read the articles in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper on 2 December and 31 December 2023, which highlight the fact that the UK Government has expressed "serious concerns" about the Inter Faith Network and its operation.  The articles which were investigated and written by Senior Political Correspondents of the newspaper are under the titles:

* "Gove told to stop funding interfaith charity that failed to condemn Hamas attack"

* "Interfaith charity’s silence on Hamas attack ‘causing concern’"

The IFN, as you know, has been facing a financial crisis due to the reluctance of the UK Government to continue to fund it with taxpayers' money at previous levels, and a question mark hangs over its long-term survival.

Over a number of years, my organisation along with a large number of faith leaders of different churches and religions, university academics and government officials, whom I have met, have raised strong concerns about the Inter Faith Network, its governance and the conduct of its Executive Director, Co-Chairs and other officers.

These concerns range from issues of power, governance and accountability in the IFN, to very serious concerns of alleged bullying, discrimination and safeguarding matters, where some colleagues have suffered varying degrees of severe harassment to their professional and personal lives outside the IFN as a result of our having raised complaints and concerns about the behaviour of IFN officials.

Over the years, there have been peer-reviewed academic papers and publications by university professors and academics, as well as newspaper articles, addressing some of these concerns about the Inter Faith Network, and the actions and behaviour of IFN officials.  These issues have been discussed in meetings with government officers some of which I have attended, and in conferences in the UK and overseas.

In response, most extraordinarily for an organisation whose ostensible purpose is "dialogue" and the "ethical values" of faith, the behaviour of the IFN Executive Director, Co-Chairs and officials has been flatly to refuse to meet or dialogue with critics, and refuse to allow open meetings where these concerns can be discussed.  Instead, those of us who have raised criticisms or concerns have been subjected to bullying and victimisation by the Interfaith Industry.

Instead of interfaith "dialogue", "engagement" and an open space for frank discussion and raising honest debate about the way the Inter Faith Network is run, both I and my colleagues have personally experienced obstruction to our questions, which extend into our lives outside the IFN as interference and bullying in other areas of our interfaith work.

As readers of the Sunday Telegraph have angrily commented online, in the middle of a cost of living crisis, millions of pounds of taxpayers' money has been given to the Inter Faith Network in the face of "serious concerns" about the charity.  This is another national, public funded charity in crisis.

THE IFN EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AND CO-CHAIRS

At the very heart of the problem with the Inter Faith Network is the issue of power and coercive control, and how over the span of several decades, only a single IFN Executive Director in Dr Harriet Crabtree has exercised an unchanged and disproportionate influence over the charity.  That one individual would hold that office over that length of time and with that level of control over any government funded charity is an extraordinary anomaly, one which has been maintained by design. The other glaring anomaly, especially for an organisation funded by that most secular of institutions, the Treasury, relates to the so-called "Christian Co-Chair" who is in reality a Church of England Bishop/Cleric Chair who holds power unchanged in office for a much longer period than the more frequently changing non-Christian Co-Chair - hardly "co-equal".

In the midst of the current scandals of sexual abuse and racism in the declining Church of England, and at a time when both Catholic and Muslim congregational attendance at services is higher than Anglican attendance, the question of the influence of the CofE in the Inter Faith Network is a long overdue public conversation.

A fundamental issue which has contributed to the lack of accountability is the total control of the IFN Executive Director and IFN Co-Chairs over complaints procedures against the Inter Faith Network and its officials, in essence they mark their own homework.  In the midst of this crisis, at a time when inter religious conflict is escalating on our streets a fully accountable, fully functioning contemporary InterFaith Network could make a desperately needed contribution, a contribution totally lacking in an entity determined to maintain the status quo whilst ignoring the herd of elephants in the room.

PROPOSED REFORMS

The UK Government Bloom Report into faith and interfaith issues states:

"The government could be wise and discerning in who it engaged with, without relying on a few organisations or individuals who claim to be spokespeople for their communities, but who in reality act more as self-appointed ‘gatekeepers’...'go-to' community leaders...While there are prominent voices who claim to speak on behalf of their whole faith community, sadly, very often they do not".

Over four decades, the Inter Faith Network has done some good work which we acknowledge and commend.  At the same time, the IFN Executive Director and other IFN officials have at times set themselves up as "self-appointed gatekeepers" for interfaith work, and tried to promote "go-to" faith community leaders - with sometimes disastrous results for the country.  The abuses of power have exponentiated over the four IFN decades of this coercive control, gaslighting and bullying of critics.

My experience of IFN National Meetings and AGMs, which are to some extent highly curated and controlled exercises in mutual self-congratulation and nice speeches and sandwiches, concealing the behind-the-scenes bullying of myself and my colleagues of diverse faiths who have raised valid concerns.

Colleagues will appreciate that this follows the exact pattern of abuse, bullying and discrimination which takes place within churches and other religious institutions, where attendees at happy religious events delight in the good and holy work of these organisations (and nice speeches and sandwiches), while behind the shiny image, hidden from public view, terrible crimes are perpetrated against victims and whistleblowers.

We therefore request the Government for the following:

 

  1. a) INDEPENDENT INQUIRY: A wholly independent inquiry into the Inter Faith Network, which takes the testimonies of those making allegations of wrongdoing, that investigates the way that power and coercive control culture has operated through the history of the IFN, and investigates the IFN's use of taxpayers' money. The Inquiry would be led by an independent barrister KC or equivalent person of standing who is entirely unconnected to any IFN officials nor any church or religious group, and who has the agreement and trust of complainants and critics of the IFN.

 

  1. b) WHOLLY INDEPENDENT BODY TO TAKE OVER INVESTIGATION OF COMPLAINTS: The history has shown that Executive Directors, Co-Chairs, lawyers and officers cannot be trusted to mark their own homework. There must be an entirely independent body to investigate and arbitrate on complaints against the Inter Faith Network officers and members, which is not in any way connected to any IFN officials nor any church or religious group, and which body has the agreement and trust of complainants and critics of the IFN.

 

  1. c) A NEW IFN EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: We are very grateful to Dr Harriet Crabtree for those things she has done in her position as IFN Executive Director which were moral and good. We are not grateful for those things she has done which were not.  After an unprecedented four decades in this position of control over the Inter Faith Network, a completely fresh unbiased person is needed to fulfil the role of Executive Director of a leaner, cost-effective IFN which would aim purely to be the "network" it claims to be for interfaith work, without the power and gatekeeper agendas which have been so problematic.  We ourselves believe that a younger candidate, of BAME ie non-white background, who is not Christian and who is willing before seeking office to have spoken and listened to critics of the IFN would be the best kind of candidate to take the organisation forward.

 

  1. d) GOVERNANCE REFORMS AND OPEN CONSULTATIVE MEETINGS: The piles and piles of paper and bureaucratic language sent out by Inter Faith Network officials deliberately conceal the reality that over decades, power has to some significant degree been concentrated and controlled in the hands of a nepotistic few - and regardless of the endless tinkering with the makeup of the Board, that this never changes. The Interfaith Industry, as many have remarked, seems to be the same old faces on the same old committees at the same old meetings.  In building from scratch a brand new governance model for the IFN which puts ordinary people and ordinary Member Bodies and their voices at the centre, that welcomes criticism instead of suppressing it, and is a smaller IFN to facilitate communication rather than try to "control" interfaith - in all of this, the first stage is open consultation meetings with free discussions and constructive disagreements.  The Consultative Process must be developed in engagement with those who have raised concerns about the IFN, and work to maximise transparency and space for views to be aired publicly.

 

  1. e) IMMEDIATE END TO CHARITY LEGAL EXPENDITURE TO DEAL WITH CRITICS: A charitable interfaith "dialogue" organisation which continues to pay out taxpayers' money and members' subscription money to its lawyer, so that the lawyer can disparage or attack its critics, is a "dialogue" charity that has failed. Instead of bullying critics, it is time for the IFN to welcome them, to listen, debate and engage the issues raised.  In these matters, absolutely no more of the charity's PUBLIC money should disappear into the pockets of the lawyer, and that must cease immediately.

I and my many colleagues wish for a continued Inter Faith Network which is reformed, less controlling, more open and transparent - and is leaner and more cost-effective.  There must be engagement and apology to those whistleblowers who have suffered for speaking out. After too many scandals, the British public have a low tolerance for churches and religious institutions who abuse power.  No more public money should be paid to the Inter Faith Network until it's officials agree to reform. It is my and my colleagues earnest hope that colleagues will reflect, engage and disagree with me on the points raised here, and please feel free to be in touch with me, and I am always happy to talk - we are after all supposed to be people of dialogue.

I wish all a Happy New Year and good health and prosperity in 2024.

Namaste, Shalom, Salam

 

Pandit Satish K Sharma MBCS, FRSA,

Chair of the Interfaith Alliance UK

Director Global Hindu Federation Ltd

 

 

 

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