Why research in surveillance and religion?

Religious communities are targets, as well as users, of surveillance. Balancing human rights to freedom of religion, of expression and of privacy is a complex activity that intersects with politics, culture and, significantly, religious beliefs and practices. These inter-related dimensions will be the focus of this research network which aims to bring together scholars and faith practitioners. Religious traditions have significant contributions to make to contemporary discussions of the ethics of surveillance – whether in the realm of national security, human rights, trust, privacy and human flourishing in general.

As targets, Muslims (for example) currently encounter the securitisation of their identity (Isakjee, PhD Birmingham 2013) when the state seeks to address, prevent and pre-empt terrorism. Recent claims in a Claystone report (2014) that Muslim charities are viewed as a ‘suspect sector’ suggest there are issues beyond airport security. Jewish-Muslim conflict over holy sites is impacted by the Israeli state’s deployment of surveillance balloons over Jerusalem. Questions around the surveillance of religious communities has a long history in the UK and Ireland, given conflict on the island of Ireland.Given that most religious worldviews include a concept of a watching deity/deities, the matter of encountering surveillance needs to be examined in the light of specific beliefs. It might be that particular beliefs in divine surveillance sharpen or blunt people’s political responses to being targets. Perhaps a failure to perceive acute religious sensitivities around surveillance may exacerbate conflict when a more nuanced justification by the state might increase cooperation?

Religious communities also use surveillance. The need to secure their property can lead to the use of CCTV at, and in, places of worship. A search for accurate data on the growth or decline of a denomination (or local congregation) leads to information gathering that, depending on the resources available, might be sophisticated ‘customer’ data management. Religious people are aware of the lure of online material that can be counter to their ethical standards. Software is marketed that can distribute a report of browsing activity to an ‘accountability partner’. As users of social media, identity and relationships are mediated and shaped in ways that may be affirmed or challenged by religious traditions. The network will be interested in questions such as what a Christian ethical stance might be, as distinct from or similar to a Muslim or other viewpoint. The ethical challenges of using and participating in surveillance need to be considered within the beliefs of respective religions or faith stances.

The principal aim of this network is to bring together researchers and practitioners from disciplines as diverse as sociology, criminology, theology and religious studies to pool knowledge, share ideas and generate new research initiatives around surveillance and religion.

Made possible by funding from the Arts & Humanities Research Council, three workshops are planned 2016-2017 in order that participants may provoke and fuel original ways of thinking about specific dimensions of the interplay between surveillance and religion. One symposium will focus on security. A second will focus on the use of surveillance by religious communities. A third will unpack the wider contribution of religious ethics to 21st century surveillance. The workshops will generate proposals for specific research projects and, through the participation of stakeholders from religious communities, such proposals will be grounded in the issues experienced by people in their everyday lives.