Donate to RNS

Stopping sexual harassment where religious communities meet

The interfaith movement will become irrelevant if it does more to protect reputations than keep leaders accountable.

Image by Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay/Creative Commons

(RNS) — In interfaith work, participants from diverse faith traditions bring their beliefs and principles, seeking common ground, often to address common problems. Some interfaith meetings are sparked by a crisis or conflict; others confront longer-term ills like discrimination or violent conflicts. But whether it’s a global initiative or a local effort, interreligious activists share an idealism and a commitment to learn, hear and work together in a safe space open to exploration and vulnerability.

But for all its idealism, interfaith gatherings and institutions can suffer the same troubling behaviors that perturb any community — sexual harassment, bullying, racism and other forms of abuse. These behaviors leave people with all too familiar feelings of hurt and anger. They tend to be met with blind eyes and deaf ears. Misconduct tarnishes the openness interfaith work demands.

While abuse within denominations often makes national headlines, the large majority of abuse and harassment in the interfaith sphere goes unreported. This is in part because many faith-based organizations have long worked to ensure proper reporting and investigation of abusive behavior, while in the interfaith sphere, such basic steps often take a distant second place to the goal of cooperation.


RELATED: Interfaith campus partnerships are building bridges to overcome our divisions


The definition of sexual harassment can also be amorphous in interfaith spaces due to cultural differences and differing relationships to power. A man touching a female colleague’s shoulder or arm to gain her attention can be acceptable in some faith contexts but crosses a line in others. A woman leaning over a male Buddhist leader to speak in his ear may seem innocuous to her but be bothersome to him. A hug or kiss on the cheek in greeting is common in several Western contexts; does that make it acceptable? 

Does a woman looking straight into a man’s eyes during a conversation and/or smiling indicate that she is “easy”? Conversely, does a man refusing to shake hands with a woman imply that he thinks himself more pious than her or thinks less of her intellect or humanity?

Even these examples presume that all misunderstandings result from crossing religious and cultural lines. But no faith tradition offers justification for any misconduct. There are clear violations of dignity and power that need to be addressed and are not. Well-established ideals of different religious traditions affirm equality, respect and accountability for behavior. Decent human behavior should be nonnegotiable.

Precisely because understanding cultural nuances is absolutely necessary for interfaith engagement, we cannot and should not leave them to chance.

In mid-March (during Women’s History Month), a group gathered (virtually) to discuss sexual harassment in multireligious spaces and organizations. The invitation-only meeting was convened by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, the FaithTrust Institute, the International Academy for Multicultural Cooperation, Religions for Peace International and World Faiths Development Dialogue.

The meeting brought together officials from several national denominations, academics, directors of interfaith organizations, interfaith activists and religious leaders from Christian, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and other traditions.

No specific cases were cited, but the religious leaders present acknowledged that incidents of sexual harassment occur across a broad spectrum in interfaith spaces, by ordained clergy and by others working in interfaith engagement.

They also owned that addressing the problem in interfaith organizations involves the same challenges as in other institutions. Patterns of solidarity by some men and institutions toward those accused also occur in interreligious spaces. Non-disclosure agreements and “amicable” resolutions damage the interfaith movement and the common ground we seek to create. These dynamics leave women who come forward silenced, ignored and often repeatedly shamed.

The root of the problem is often a tenuous respect for women in religious traditions enshrined in institutionalized patriarchy. It can be seen in the paucity of women serving in leadership positions and dismissive attitudes to those few women leaders we do see. It also contributes to the silence about sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is rarely a single, unexpected slip. It is frequently perpetrated by those who commit other acts of violation or offense. Organizations investigating these incidents, however, commonly fail to treat harassment cases as anything more than a stand-alone incident. The phrase “it was only an allegation of sexual misconduct” should not be accepted in interfaith spaces. 

Interreligious leaders need to go beyond statements, policies and due process that have become a sine qua non of any workplace. At a minimum, we should challenge non-disclosure agreements and cover-ups where sexual harassment is concerned. They negate the heart of interfaith engagement and its clear ideal: to create protected spaces where religious and non-religious communities confront and address the most challenging facets of human dynamics.

Any industry built on trust must balance privacy with the need for added levels of responsibility. Codes of conduct should identify sexual harassment as egregious misconduct on a par with any other form of misconduct, including financial misconduct. Those involved need to sign a pledge to honor them.


RELATED: Dream of 3 faiths worshipping in one building meets reality in Berlin


When we hold our leaders accountable, we create narratives that show that abuse will not be tolerated at any level, creating space for people to act in solidarity with each other. The interfaith movement will become irrelevant if it cares more about protecting individual reputations and institutions than working toward accountability. If we remain resolute in our solidarity to build cultures of accountability, we will build resilience that manifests justice and joy on the path toward peace.

There are no human rights without equality, no progress without the full engagement of girls and women, and no healing without the courage to face real problems.

(Azza Karam, is the secretary general for Religions for Peace. Audrey E. Kitagawa is president and founder of the International Academy for Multicultural Cooperation and president of the Light of Awareness International Spiritual Family. Cassandra Lawrence, an interfaith and racial justice organizer, is currently working with the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign. Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs and executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)