“Don’t mention politics or religion.” This familiar warning was often sounded in pubs and around dinner tables in the days when meeting people socially was still a normal occurrence. Discussions on politics or religion were felt to be high risk, leading to potential conflict. Combining the two could be explosive, as we have learned to our cost in the international arena. Everyone knows of the horrific conflicts which rage periodically around the world and the frequent atrocities that always accompany them and can be laid fairly and squarely at the door of the abusive mixing of religion and politics. Now, the horror of these conflicts has motivated an extraordinary movement to create an international treaty aimed at introducing clear rules to ban all political uses of religion that undermine human equality, all religious exclusion and all restrictions to freedom of belief and worship. 

The idea for a treaty was the brainchild of Salam Sarhan, an Iraqi poet, journalist and TV broadcaster. Salam has lived in London since 1991, moving to the UK from Iraq, where his family still live in the crossfire of  the abusive mixing of religion and politics in Al Anbar Governorate. Salam watched in dismay as ISIS seized control of more than a third of the country in 2014 and their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared an Islamic caliphate in a sermon from the central mosque in Mosul, claiming to revive the Muslim theocracy that ended with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Al-Baghdadi transformed the flagging Sunni insurgency into a black-clad global terrorist network that drew recruits from more than 100 countries. His followers quickly overran vast areas of Syria and Iraq, imposing their barbaric interpretation of Sharia law on the beleaguered population. The defeat of ISIS left in its wake the almost total destruction of Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi and many of Iraq’s age-old settlements. Tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis lost their lives. It was a turning point for Salam Sarhan. After several attempts to mobilise a solution, he realised that the problem cannot be resolved on any local or national stage and concentrated instead on persuading the United Nations on the absolute necessity for an international treaty to ban the political use of religion.

It is a gross understatement to say that mixing politics and religion has had a destructive influence throughout human history. It lies at the heart of the most intractable conflicts worldwide. Sadly, some of the worst political abuses of religion today are carried out in the name of Islam. But you don’t have to turn the pages of history very far to find similar conflicts involving almost every religion on earth. Mixing politics and religion will always lead to the same disastrous results.

When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini hi-jacked the 1979 revolution in Iran, he gave birth to Islamic fundamentalism, declaring that anyone who challenged his authority would be guilty of ‘moharebeh’ or waging war against God. This fictitious edict has been used ruthlessly for the past 41 years to systematically murder tens of thousands of the regime’s opponents. The theocratic revolution in Iran  and the mullahs’ policy of aggressive expansionism in the Middle East has had a seriously destabilizing impact, only made worse by the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent uprisings and insurgencies which have blighted many countries ever since. The relentless slide towards theocracy has taken hold in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, the Caucasus and Nigeria. Its influence has been felt by minority communities and ethnic groups in countries around the world, including many western nations. There has always been the temptation to focus all the blame on sectarian and intolerant regimes, but that is a fatal distraction from the grave mistakes the leading powers of the world often make in trying to deal with these ideological conflicts, playing right into the hands of the extremists.

Salam Sarhan says: “Year after year, the international community has to dedicate enormous efforts and resources to handling the consequences of the political abuse of religion. Instead of always trying to resolve these conflicts that cost the lives of millions, it is surely time to establish a meaningful, global response to the root causes? That is why the programme has begun to create an international consensus to prevent any invocation of religion, from mainstream as well as extremist religious groups, in support of national and political agendas. The campaign to create an international treaty to ban the political use of religion, BPUR International, has been born.”

The campaign has accelerated exponentially since its launch two years ago, with the creation of a not-for-profit limited company, headquartered in London, together with a board of trustees and a sizable advisory council and supporters list, involving senior political figures and legislative sponsors from countries around the world. Salam Sarhan, as founder of BPUR International, is Secretary General of a management team that operates from London, Geneva and Brussels. Chair of the Trustees and main financial sponsor of the initiative is Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian billionaire businessman. Mr Sawiris says: “In my opinion, this initiative will certainly make the world a better place and serve all international humanitarian objectives by tackling the root causes of many of the most intractable conflicts, terrorism, extremism and a long list of abuses of human rights inflicted on minorities, women, children and vulnerable people.”

BPUR International’s advisory council now boasts prominent elected parliamentarians, ministers, senior politicians and religious figures, as well as key decision-makers and business people from countries that range from Bangladesh to Ecuador. All are determined to achieve a UN treaty that bans all political uses of religion. But they also want a treaty that bans all restrictions to freedom of belief and worship, to ensure that the rules will apply to all violations and will bypass any clashes with the deeply engraved religious teachings that many people have. BPUR International believes that their non-confrontational approach, grounded in the utmost respect for all religions, will build a global consensus to help the international community disarm extremism and deal with current and future conflicts. The BPUR International treaty is long overdue.