In a guest post, Professor Satvinder S Juss of the Dickson Poon Law School at King’s College London looks at the recent report on “Doing God” – and is not impressed.
Back in October 2019, the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, appointed an Independent Faith Engagement Adviser, Mr Colin Bloom, to make recommendations to the Secretary of State for Communities, for Levelling Up Housing and Communities on faith engagement. The intention was to recognise the contribution of faith communities, ensuring fair treatment in public service, and in addressing harmful practices linked to faith.
The Bloom Review was published on 26 April 2023 and enterprisingly entitled Does government do God? An independent review into how government engages with faith. It consumed over 60,000 words, ran to 159 pages and had 22 recommendations. Sadly, it is a blueprint for how Government should not do God.
The Government website, nevertheless, immediately proclaimed it as “a landmark review into faith engagement. Religion was a “force for good” and “a better understanding of faith would also equip government to tackle issues such as forced marriage…radicalisation in prison; and faith-based extremism, including the ongoing challenge of Islamist extremism and the small but growing trends of Sikh extremism and Hindu nationalism.” It is, however, precisely in the troubled and troubling area of religious extremism that the Bloom Review falls short. This is for the following reasons.
First, the Government could have done better with an Independent Faith Engagement Adviser than to appoint someone who was not only not a scholar of religion but also a former Executive Director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship and a former Director of Christians in Politics.
And it showed. No less than a body such as the (Christian) Evangelical Alliance, whilst recognising that “[t]he Bloom review has ignited an important conversation about faith engagement at the centre of government”, has been troubled its use of biblical references. It pointed out that “[a]s Christians the language of apostate and heretic is familiar to us because of the Bible teachings on such matters” but that “to read such words in a report to the UK government is alarming” and “[p]articularly where there is such a strong position against such language and an expectation for the government to watch out for such use of language in the context of religious extremism.”
Second, when one looks at the context of religious extremism the shortcomings of the Bloom Review are starkly evident. It sets out to cover “Sikh extremism” and “pro-Khalistan subversion”, in pages vastly greater than for any other religion, without defining these terms, thereby raising a dangerous possibility of bias. The meaning of “subversive” is “trying or likely to destroy or damage a government or political system by attacking it secretly or indirectly”, but there is no evidence provided of any Sikh activity attacking the UK Government either secretly or indirectly. And, as for “extremism”, the Prevent strategy already has a definition, namely: a “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values.” Freedom of speech and protest, as everyone knows, is a fundamental British value and a hallmark of all free societies. The Bloom Review drew upon 21,000 responses and when on 14 July 2023, in a Written Answer, Dehenna Davison of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities provided a “breakdown of respondents by declared faith”, we learned that Christians comprised nearly half of Colin Bloom’s respondents, at 47.01% (numbering 9,874); Muslims comprised under a quarter at 19.94% (4,189); Hindus half that figure at 12.01% (2,522). But Sikhs were even behind Atheists/Humanists (11.74: 2466) and Pagans (1.81%: 381), at a paltry 1.69% – numbering at just 354 respondents. Yet there are some 11-pages devoted in Section 6.7 (at pp 121-132) to Sikh “extremism” and “subversive” activity.
Third, let us look at the Sikh examples. The Bloom Review provides us with three in the subsection headed “Subversive activity in the UK” (para 6.7.4 at pp 127-129), but neither of which are subversive. First, there is “[t]he issue of secessionist political agendas within the Indian diaspora” as “was highlighted during the controversy over calls for an additional tick box option in the 2021 Census, which would allow individuals to identify as ethnically Sikh instead of, or as well as, religiously Sikh” (para 6.7.4, at p 127). A demand for an additional tick box for Sikhs is not ‘subversive’ even if it is the case that “[s]ome respondents to this review claimed that the tick-box controversy bears all the traits of an extremist interpretation of pro-Khalistan ideology,” given that we don’t know who these respondents – 354 out of a pool of 21,000 – are. This is all the more so given that it is recognised that “[i]n the UK , people are free to campaign with all the nationalistic fervour they want…” (para 6.1 at p 112). Second, that “during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic” there “was a press release criticising government’s guidance for places of worship as ‘offensive’ ….”. The objections appear to be (i) to the use of alcohol-based hand sanitisers; (ii) to the shutting down of Gurdwaras for normal services; and (iii) to the restriction of the over-70s to Gurdwaras. None of this can be described as “subversive”. Yet the Bloom Review describes these sincerely held objections of a religious faith minority group as being “un-cooperative and disruptive behaviour” with some “intent on sowing division” (at p 128) No reference is cited for this claim. Third, we learn of how “[a] prominent Sikh in public life, Lord Singh of Wimbledon, has alleged deliberate ill-treatment aimed at silencing him…” which was “in response to a complaint made against him” by an organisation (p 128) whereby, “[t]he name of the organisation has been redacted for the purposes of this review” (at footnote 344). The Bloom Review goes onto explain that “[t]he complaint against Lord Singh was not upheld, but the report also did not find evidence that the complaint was brought in ‘bad faith’ as part of a sustained campaign against him” (at p 129). If that is so, how does this qualify as an example of “Subversive activity in the UK”?
Not surprisingly, there has been criticism of the Bloom Review. David G Robertson has referred to its “clumsy mistakes”. These could have been avoided had the Government “commissioned someone with a training in the academic study of religion.” It was not to be, because “the report is intended to promote the narrative that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is always and necessarily positive.” In fact, “[s]triking by its absence is any mention of Christian terrorism—or even explicit connection between white supremacism and Christianity” and “[n]or does the report mention clerical abuse in Christian institutions—arguably the biggest scandal involving religion today, with multiple legal proceedings underway in the UK and elsewhere.” So, in the end, “[r]ather, like the Sewell Report on race (another heavily-criticised and supposedly independent report commissioned by the Johnson administration)”, Robertson has no doubt in his mind that “this report was intended to make the case the government wanted it to.” Ultimately, however, “a report that frames one religious tradition as inherently less problematic than others and reinforces that tradition’s connection to institutionalised power to boot, will not contribute to a more equal and peaceful society.” The irony is that “[f]inding ways for communities to live together well is a noble and important aim, but it won’t be achieved by ignoring reality.”
The Bloom Review did well to recognise that “[t]he British Sikh Community is one of the oldest minority communities in the UK”, with the 2021 Census results showing “there are approximately 524,000 people in England and Wales who identify as Sikh”. It did well to note that there are “approximately 250 gurdwaras in the UK, with the largest able to accommodate over 3,000 worshippers” (at p 122). It did not do well to have interviewed only 354 Sikh respondents, and even less well to have then drawn the conclusions that it did on the evidence stated.
Religious extremism is a menace that stalks the world all over. Where crimes are committed, no right-thinking person would say that the law must not take its course even as the right to dissent remains a valuable feature of democratic society. Ultimately, however, it is the balance of this report that is so wrong. The examples given in the Bloom Review do not suggest systematic problems. After all, extremist behaviour exists in all religious communities. A Report such as the Bloom Review is there to guide policy. It is well known that “hard cases make bad law”, and a few odd cases here and there wrongly described as “subversive” or “extremist” will not help guide government policy.
Any report on a subject as difficult as whether government “should do God” must be independent, impartial and transparent. It does not help, as Dehenna Davison has explained, that Boris Johnson’s Independent Faith Engagement Adviser was not “under any obligation to inform officials of his meetings or to pass on any written evidence” and that he could choose himself to decide who “he deemed to have relevant insight.” It does not help to say that because he was “an Independent reviewer” he has the luxury of engaging upon his task with his own “anonymised sources and external analysis” because “the views and recommendations expressed are Mr Bloom’s own” and of no one else. This does not let one off the hook, if only because we are then handed up a Recommendation 16, in relation to Chapter 6 on “Faith-Based Extremism”, where the Bloom Review calls for “improved faith literacy across government and the parliamentary estate, particularly on intrafaith issues, so the government can be more discerning regarding engagement and representation within British Sikh communities” (at p 22).
Recently, Martha Gill wrote that “[t]he first thing to say about a government of a modern western nation setting out to ‘change its culture’ is that this simply cannot be done”, and that “culture wars in the west are above all futile; our leaders are just not powerful enough.” Indeed, recent research by the Policy Institute at King’s College London has found Britons to be amongst the most tolerant towards historically marginalised groups.
The Bloom Review “recommends that the MPs who are in the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Sikhs consider the findings of this Report” (at p 129). On 19 July 2023, the newly formed “Sikhs in Law” group responded with its own critique of the Bloom Review. The APPG for Sikhs is yet to express an opinion on it.
 The Bloom Review at pp 18-24.
 Alicia Edmund, “Further Reflections on Colin Bloom’s Faith Engagement Review”, 15 May 2023. The reference here is presumably to how outcasts in a faith system are branded “as ‘apostates’, ‘unbelievers’ or ‘heretics’” (at p 112, para 6.1).
 See “UK Sikhs unhappy over govt guidelines for places of worship” The Times of India, 16 June 2020, cited at footnote 343 of the Bloom Review.
 David G Robertson, “In Good Faith? How the Bloom Report misrepresents religion in the UK”, Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective, Open University.
 Martha Gill, “Sorry, Tories, but conjuring up ever more culture wars is bound to backfire” The Guardian, 20 August 2023.
Cite this article as: Satvinder Juss, “How Government Should Not Do God”, Law & Religion UK 4 September 2023.