The Arab Spring (and its aftermath) was the kind of external shock needed to force policymakers around the world to rethink policy. But it has not happened yet. There is widespread stagnation of governance, and many governments have chosen to revert back to old authoritarian models. This is making it increasingly difficult to secure fundamental rights and freedoms for all people. A paradigm shift is needed, to include new models of citizenship and governance.

The key: safe spaces to talk about these things, which allows for scholarship that informs government and civil society, which leads to training of government and grassroots leaders together. In the process, stereotypes break down. This is the way to rethink policy. This is the process government officials can use to lead by example and create the paradigm shift that is so needed in the world today; to implement new policies that will integrate “the others,” celebrate the dignity of difference, and ensure greater social harmony, stability, security, peace and prosperity.

None of these problems will be solved top-down or bottom-up alone, but by partnerships—top-down and bottom-up, government and citizens working together.

In this direction, Mitchell traveled to the Kyrgyz Republic and Nepal in late February 2014 to participate in two “religion, security and citizenship” conferences organized by the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE). These conferences explored key issues related to religion, identity, and citizenship in the context of multi-faith and multi-ethnic societies. Participants included government officials, scholars, and grassroots religious leaders, and seek to catalyze dialogue between the different groups.

The Bishkek conference on “Religion and Society,” held in partnership with the Carnegie Endowment’s Al-Farabi Central Asia Program, featured participants from across the Central Asian region and built upon the results and outputs from IGE’s previous conferences held in Astana, Kazakhstan (May 2013), and Almaty, Kazakhstan (December 2013). In particular, the Bishkek conference will begin the work of producing white papers from three working groups: 1. Religion and Identity; 2. Religion and Education; and, 3. Religion and Gender.

Mitchell moderated the “International Perspectives” session and delivered remarks that included a description of the IRF Roundtable and a summary of the Roundtable’s ongoing dialogue with the Kazakh government regarding the 2011 Religion Law. This session  included a keynote presentation by Mira Karabaeva, Chief of the Department of Ethnic, Religious Policies and Interaction with Civil Society in the Office of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic. Ms. Karabaeva said the Kyrgyz government has created a working group in order to develop a concept document that will guide the government’s increasing regulation of religion, and this working group is gathering inputs from stakeholders.

Mitchell proposed a series of roundtables that would allow the Kyrgyz government to engage in an ongoing, meaningful and transparent dialogue with religious and civil society leaders as it is reviewing its religion policies and shaping new regulations. It is important that this policy review be informed by an open and honest dialogue between government and grassroots leaders, and Mitchell offered the assistance of the IRF Roundtable in this direction. The Roundtable can bring international experts to the process.

After the international conference in Bishkek ended, IGE and Carnegie organized an International Roundtable on “Religion in Kyrgyzstan 2014.” At this roundtable, Kyrgyz officials sat across from religious and civil society leaders from the Kyrgyz Republic and around Central Asia. This was the first open exchange of this kind between government and grassroots leaders.

The Kathmandu conference on “The Impact and Implications of the Arab Spring” & “Religion and Security,” was held in partnership with the Institute for Ethnic Minority Groups (IEMG), a Beijing-based government think tank, and the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, a think tank based in Islamabad. This conference focused on two broad themes: 1. The effects and influence of the Arab Spring on the Middle East region and the world, and 2. Education and extremism: The role of religious and secular education in countering violent extremism.

For the Chinese, this conference provided a neutral venue to freely discuss sensitive issues related to religion, education, security, and citizenship, particularly in the context of Muslim communities. The conference featured IGE’s network of “alumni” who have participated in previous conferences in China (July 2011), Myanmar (October 2013), and Kazakhstan (December 2013). This network is made up of scholars and experts from Central, South, and Southeast Asia who are able to provide comparative perspectives on key issues related to religion, security, and citizenship.

Greg Mitchell was a panelist on the “Comparative Perspectives on Religion, Security and Citizenship” session, which was chaired by former U.S. Congressman Geoff Davis. Mitchell delivered remarks that included a description of the IRF Roundtable and a summary of the Roundtable’s ongoing dialogue with the Kazakh government regarding the Religion Law.