Ditchley and religion

BY Clara Marks

Clara is an undergraduate studying theology and religion at Oxford University. She was part of Ditchley's Christmas and Easter internship scheme.

This paper is based on reviews of twelve Director’s Notes selected from the 800 or so conferences and some Annual Lectures held by the Ditchley Foundation between the early 1960s and 2020. The conferences reviewed here are those directly about ‘religion’ or a subject related to the workings and discussion of religion within politics and international relations.

Ditchley conference reports provide source material on contemporary political discussion and the people who took part, from the 1960s to the present day. The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of the way ‘religion’ was discussed and highlight recurring themes.

Multiple Ditchley conferences on terrorism and particularly, eradicating terrorism, will be discussed in terms of how they reveal the understanding (or misunderstanding) of Islam fundamentalism and more generally, the role that religion has played in shaping international relations. Themes such as improving religious literacy in the West, bettering the understanding of terrorism in the mass media and engaging more with marginalised communities in Western countries were recurrent when discussing how to combat religious extremism.

Following the September 11 2011 attacks by terrorist group Al-Qaeda in the U.S., conversations about terrorism at Ditchley became international and urgent. Comparatively, at Ditchley’s inception (1960) there is little or no preoccupation with either terrorism or religion. In the twenty first century, Ditchley discussions explored the relationship between religion, multiculturalism and identity, within the wider context of the state of democracy worldwide.

As Ditchley’s aims have broadened from the renewal of Anglo-American relations, to a broader understanding of democracy worldwide, conversations about religion have become more diverse, nuanced and set against a backdrop of improving participation in the democratic process.


Ditchley’s initial goal was to promote Anglo-American dialogue. Within the context of the emerging Cold War, it is unsurprising that the topic of religion was not prioritised before the 1990s. The earliest suggestion of the importance of religion in international relations was found in the Ditchley conference Terrorism (November 1978). Though never made explicit, the link between religion and terrorism was present in discussions about the IRA in Britain. The tone of the conference was largely optimistic. There was acknowledgment that the media is prone to exaggeration of violence which is unhelpful in the context of reporting terrorism. However, the Director’s Notes reflect a hope that trends in the media towards self-regulation would continue, thus reducing the problem of sensationalism.

The solutions suggested to counter terrorist sentiments in general tend to be national in scope, betraying a certain naivety about the power of religion in non-Western countries. The demographic of participants, almost exclusively from Europe and North America, may also explain the lack of concern. Better teachers, continuing adult education, more activities and sports and a revival of music are all mentioned as possible buffers to terrorism. In all these discussions, religion was not openly discussed, at this time there was a general sentiment in Europe and North America that political ideology was more of a dangerous threat to democracy than religious fundamentalism.

The Iranian Revolution in 1979 prompted conversations about the resurgence of Islam, clearly seen in Ditchley’s The Resurgence of Islam conference (April 1981). The Director’s Note clearly expresses an acknowledgment that sweeping generalisations about Islam should be avoided and that any discussion should take into consideration differing opinions in every nation, time period and religious sect. The conference centred on the communities of Muslims living in the West, although a clear effort had been made to broaden the geographical reach of participants as compared to the Terrorism conference in 1978. It was noted that in the UK, France and Germany, Islam was almost part and parcel of ‘national culture’ while in the US it was still seen as external and alien.

Throughout the West, work was needed to combat the rise of so-called extremism. As in the 1970s, the two main solutions mentioned were the improvement of education and a change in how Islam was represented in the media. While the phenomenon of ‘Westoxication’, defined as ‘an uncritical acceptance of Western culture coupled with a glaring denigration of national values and norms’, was considered a factor in Muslims’ sometimes negative perception of the West, there was no real thought about how to guard against this. The Director’s Note closes with a telling confession that though the most effective way of reducing the tension between some Muslim states and the West would be to reverse policies viewed as hostile towards these states, it was ‘probably impossible – especially for the United States’ to do so.

In 1985 the first conference explicitly about religion was held at Ditchley, The role and influence of religion and religious organisations in the democratic political process (October 1985). Perhaps reflective of Ditchley’s initial Anglo-American focus and a general underappreciation of the importance of religion in non-Western states, the focus was largely on a Judaeo-Christian understanding of both democracy and religion. This focus is reflected in the participants of the conference, exclusively from Europe and North America as well as exclusively Christian or Jewish. Thus, the starting point was that the individual is prior to the state, a position that was believed to be the foundation of Pope Saint John Paul II’s political doctrine.

The main outcome of the conference was a belief that the religious and non-religious must accept each other as a part of the democratic process. A rabbinic saying was quoted to show the importance of religions in supporting governments: Pray for the peace of the government, for without them we would swallow each other alive. The important role of religion in facilitating the participation of all in society and democracy was acknowledged with a warning that religions can become victimized by their own propaganda and should critically self-regulate. The phenomenon of religious renewal in Eastern Europe was observed but not explored in great detail, overlooking its importance in the overthrow of Soviet rule.


The 1990s opened with the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and what is now known as the first Gulf War. Within this period, discussions about religious fundamentalism and terrorism were more frequent at Ditchley and increasingly outward facing. Discourse about religious freedom was popular in the West, culminating in the European Copenhagen Criteria of 1993 which required religious freedom within all members and prospective members of the European Union.

Straying from its intended general focus, a conference on the Middle East (May 1991) morphed into a debate almost exclusively about Islam. Consequently, Ditchley conceived of a separate conference Religious fundamentalism and democracy in the West (March 1992) to address the clear preoccupation with Islamic fundamentalism. The Director’s Note opens with important questions troubling the participants: Were there areas where the views or practices of a strict Muslim would conflict with principles and laws of Western liberal democracies? If not, why were Muslim communities perceived as threatening by local non-Muslim populations (not in the US, but especially in Britain)? As in previous conferences on Islam, it was firmly asserted that the 1.2 billion Muslims in the world should not be judged by the actions and ideology of a tiny minority of Jihad terrorist groups. The conference was a multifaith discussion attended by representatives from Muslim states though notably outnumbered by academics from Western states.  The concluding view was that what had been seen as a fundamental conflict between strict Muslims and western liberal democracies was actually manageable, ‘provided what was claimed as the majority view prevailed’.

The issue of Qur’anic passages or Islamic traditions that subordinated women was seen as one primarily for the Muslim community to resolve internally, without state intervention (apart from polygamy and marriage age, though it was noted that forced marriage is condemned in the Qur’an and polygamy is permissive rather than mandatory). The distinction between assimilation and integration of Muslims into Western democracies was discussed in detail; the former aiming to prevent the growth of isolated Muslim communities, the latter considering the organisation of Muslim communities into political lobbies a triumph; but none was seen as superior. France was seen as a model for assimilation and the US for integration. Britain fell in between the two approaches, professing integration as an aim, but in practice tending towards assimilation.

The recurring theme of better education was seen as important, more explicitly than in previous conferences. The government was urged to improve comparative religious studies in schools. Freedom of speech was declared vital to democracy, but those who exercised it still had a duty to be aware of the susceptibilities of others, especially the religious susceptibilities of others, for example, insulting of the Prophet.


The September 2001 attacks in the U.S. drastically changed international attitudes towards religion, especially towards Islam. President George W. Bush’s so-called ‘War on Terror’ shaped Ditchley discussions for decades and undoubtedly played a part in precipitating years of conflict in the Middle East.

Unsurprisingly, Ditchley’s first conference at the start of the decade was about how to respond to terrorism, Terrorism: national and international responses (January 2003). The conference opened with acknowledgment that domestically a definition of terrorism such as the British Terrorism Act 2000 was necessary for law agencies to function. Internationally, an agreed definition was desirable but not entirely realistic. Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ rallying-cry was said to have outlived its usefulness and it was firmly expressed that the West was not engaged in a war against Islam. Education as a solution was raised again, especially public education about the nature of terrorism.

The important role of the media in how they reported incidents was again discussed. The idea that there should be a ‘golden thread’ linking intelligence, policing and public understanding coherently was raised. Other policies discussed which might lessen the attraction of Islamic fundamentalism were the expansion of open markets and freedom; the reversal of ‘double standards’ by the West (for example, abuses at Guantanamo Bay by the U.S.); the promotion of home-grown imams in communities in the West, and greater effort to involve citizens of Muslim states in domestic politics.

While there was a general pessimism about the apparent unwillingness of mainstream Islam to challenge fundamentalism (indeed, conspiracy theories about 9/11 were said to be rife in the Muslim world) there was optimism about successful attempts to connect with young Muslims worldwide. A problem was identified in that many continental European countries had a lower sense of threat from terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and as such, were not strengthening their intelligence capabilities. The Director’s Note concludes with an ominous warning that understanding the complex motivations of Al Qaeda and related terrorist groups was difficult, especially given that most people in the West no longer understood religion.

In 2006 Ditchley had two conferences which related to religion. In the same year that a wave of sectarian violence swept over Iraq and Saddam Hussein was executed for crimes against humanity, the pertinent topic The politics of identity and religion: must cultures clash? (October 2006) was the subject of a conference. Here the topic of why Islam produced such a strong reaction in the West was most thoroughly explored, aided, no doubt, by the most geographically, culturally and religiously diverse set of participants seen thus far. People and influences previously invisible were now coming into the mainstream of citizens’ lives, which made the mainstream uncomfortable for many. Of all the religions and cultures, Islam was perhaps caught up in these perceptions more strongly than any other, because faith was such a powerful part of a Muslim’s daily life.

The idea that time and patience would allow democracy to flourish in all countries was made (more optimistically than current events can substantiate) more explicit than in previous conferences. The improvement of education was once again discussed, with curricula in schools and universities needing to be updated to address some of the deficiencies in the new global makeup, in awareness, tolerance, respect, civil education, the importance of the rule of law – ‘soft-sounding concepts at the rhetorical level, but with real power if they were properly promoted’. The Director’s Note also laid emphasis on the benefits of patriotism, citizenship and loyalty, themes which were not previously championed in Ditchley conferences as responses to fundamentalism. Citizenship should be seen as the most important aspect of people’s identity. The promotion of democracy and globalisation, important in avoiding the clash of cultures, was suggested to be more effective by setting ‘a quiet example’ than by ‘preaching…in loud words’.

The conference Can terrorism be comprehensively eradicated? (December 2006) looked carefully at how terrorism had recently evolved. It was proposed that there was no one monolithic source of terrorism: a diversity of motivations was clear from analysis of different geographical areas. Any notion that Islam the religion was responsible was rejected, but it was nevertheless recognised that a temptation to turn to terrorism lay at the extreme edge of perceptions of reduced status and power in some Islamic communities. There was a strong reminder from some that the response to terrorism would be a generational struggle which required ‘smart power’, rather than engaging in the hard or soft power dichotomy. A potentially effective strategy against Al-Qaeda discussed was exposing the political motivations hidden beneath the simplistic promise of the group: an Islamic state based purely on the perceived core values of Islam. Perhaps reflecting the call for ‘smart power’ at Ditchley in 2006, Britain and the US agreed to a staggered withdrawal of troops from Iraq, committing to no boots on the ground by the end of 2011.

2010s – 2020s

Picking up from the outcome of the counter-terrorism conference in 2006, Ditchley opened the 2010s with a conference on Countering radicalisation in local communities (February 2010). Despite the agreed withdrawal of troops from Iraq, the threat of terrorism (particularly terrorism in the name of Islam) remained alive in the West. The Director’s Note confesses that discussions centred on the context of radical Islam, not because of any prejudice (far right, Irish and non-Islamic religious extremists were touched on), but because law enforcement experience identified an extreme interpretation of Islam as a common factor in terrorist plots and attacks. The relevance of the ‘War on Terror’ slogan and accompanying policies generated after 9/11 anti-Western sentiments in Muslim countries, were recognised. Importantly, it was noted that the threat of terrorism had existed prior to 9/11 (seen in Ditchley’s discussion over the years) and that even if Al Qaeda were defeated, terrorism would continue, perhaps in different ways. The importance of the internet in enlarging the opportunities for radicalising connections was discussed, but technology innovations could be beneficial for both sides of the radicalisation struggle.

There was discussion, reflecting debate in Europe at large, about whether or not to deal with Islam in its entirety. Was it right to try to promote ‘moderate’ Islamic discourse, or rather deal with social issues in sensitive areas in order to deter moves to criminal violence—whether or not religion was involved? Such difficult questions had no direct answers. However, it was cautiously argued that it was not for government policy-makers or agencies to try to settle the internal questions of Islam or to make external choices of who might be considered ‘moderate’. Previously mentioned themes of better religious education, greater civic engagement with young Muslims, reversal of double standards projected by Western democracies, challenging the oversimplified narrative of Islamic fundamentalists and the promotion of free markets and religious tolerance where reiterated.

In 2011, Ditchley commemorated the fateful 9/11 attacks in 9/11: The world ten years on (September 2011). The international fallout of the attacks was still being felt. In that same year, Osama bin Laden was killed during a U.S. military raid in Pakistan. Meanwhile, in Syria, a bitter civil war broke out along sectarian lines between Sunni, Alawite and Shiite Muslims. The conference began with agreement that terrorism, properly seen as a tactic, not a movement, had not fundamentally threatened resilient democratic societies, though movements using terrorism could destroy the current political structures in Pakistan or Afghanistan. The much discussed but seemingly not enacted policies of improving the understanding of Islam in Western society and avoiding oversimplification and sensationalism by the media were brought up. Getting the narrative right necessitated careful choice of messages and labels, avoiding an automatic link between terrorism and Islam, as well as engagement with local Muslim communities to avoid feelings of being targeted and ignored. Poignantly it was noted that if we did not embrace our own religious communities, we left them open to manipulation by others with ulterior motives.

While those identifying as Christian in the England and Wales Census fell by 13% between 2001 and 2011, the number of people who identified with no religion increased by 10% and the number of Muslims by almost 2%. Set within this local context, Ditchley’s conference Multiculturalism and religion in foreign policy (April 2012) was held. The Director’s Note opens with agreement on the fact that religion was a growing influence in the world, for better or worse, and that religious groups had a legitimate right to feel they should try to influence foreign policy. However, it was also noted that faith could not trump all else and it should not be the only viewpoint considered. Echoing the strong belief in the 2003 conference, Terrorism: national and international responses,that the West was not engaged in a war against Islam, it was agreed that religion should not be seen as a problem to solve. As such, foreign policy should only be used to promote religious freedom and tolerance, rather than any particular religion (or indeed, atheism).

The first decades of the 21st century could hardly be described as an ‘age of religion’, but the previously held ideal that religion could be kept out of political life (‘We don’t do God.’) was fading. The growth of religion was not all down to Islam; other notable mentions were Pentecostalists gaining influence in Africa, the evangelical Christian right in the US and strict religious parties in Israel. Some stressed that religion had a legitimate place in the public sphere, while others noted the dangers of aggressive fundamentalism as well as the way religion was easily manipulated to inflame and create division.

It was pointed out that militant secularism could be as divisive as any religion, returning to the consensus that religion had a legitimate place in the public sphere. As has been notably recurrent, the desire for greater religious literacy and awareness was expressed and seen as a current failure by Western democracies. It was ‘reassuringly’ concluded that religious and ethnic minority groups had a right to be part of the public foreign policy debate, a right all citizens have. On the other hand, it was also clear that both majority and minority groups needed to be careful about how they handled public debate and each other, to reduce the risks of simplistic labels and over-identification with one characteristic. The participation of religious groups in the democratic process was ultimately seen as a positive phenomenon and something which should be encouraged further in all nations.

The persisting conflict in Syria reflects the enduring power of religion when manipulated by terrorist organisations, dictators and fundamentalists. The November 2015 Paris attacks by the Islamic State showed that Continental Europe’s underestimation of the threat of terrorism, as noted in a 2003 Ditchley conference, had had consequences. Just as the fallout from 9/11 is still being felt, the effect of the Paris attacks is still seen in Macron’s strong policies enforcing French laïcité. Despite this there is hope that the much-discussed responses to fundamentalism, in particular Islamic extremism, are working. The offensive against Islamic State forces in Iraq carried out in 2017 by the Iraqi government along with Shia and Kurdish allies was seen as successful, at least in part.

In recent years there has been a lack of conferences on religion or related topics, as in the period of the 1960s to 1980s, these topics weren’t seen as uppermost. As at the foundation of The Ditchley Foundation, current preoccupation appears to be political ideology, namely populism, as the main threat to democracy, rather than religious fundamentalism.

Religion Timeline and Ditchley Conferences

11 November 1978: Ditchley Event – Terrorism
1979: The Iranian Revolution results in the establishment of an Islamic Republic in Iran.

4 April 1981: Ditchley Event - The resurgence of Islam
14 December 1984: Ditchley Event - How do democratic states cope with terrorism?
12 October 1985: Ditchley Event - The role and influence of religion and religious organisations in the democratic political process
1989: The overthrow of Soviet rule in many East European states allows a resurgence of open religious practice.

1990: Iraq invades and annexes Kuwait, prompting what becomes known as the first Gulf War.
27-29 March 1992: Ditchley Event - Religious fundamentalism and democracy in the West
1993: The European Council agreed to the Copenhagen Criteria, requiring religious freedom within all members and prospective members of the European Union.
29-31 March 1996: Ditchley Event - New faces of terrorism

2001: TheSeptember 11 attacks by terrorist group Al-Qaeda in the United States cause 2,977 fatalities. Nine days later, President George W. Bush pledged to “defend freedom against terrorism”.
10-12 January 2003: Ditchley Event - Terrorism: national and international responses
2004: The US hands sovereignty of Iraq to an interim government headed by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
2006: In February a bomb attack on a Shia shrine in Samarra, Iraq, unleashes a wave of sectarian violence. In December, Saddam Hussein is executed for crimes against humanity.
27-29 October 2006: Ditchley Event - The politics of identity and religion: must cultures clash?
8-10 December 2006: Ditchley Event - Can terrorism be comprehensively eradicated?
2008: The UK Parliament approves a security pact with the United States, under which all US troops are due to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

11-13 February 2010: Ditchley Event - Countering radicalisation in local communities
2011: Osama bin Laden, leader of Al-Qaeda, is killed during a U.S. military raid in Pakistan.In Syria, civil war breaks out along sectarian lines between Sunni, Alawite and Shiite Muslims. In the England & Wales census 59% of people identify as Christian, 5% as Muslim and 25% with no religion.
15-17 September 2011: Ditchley Event - 9/11: The world ten years on
19-21 April 2012: Ditchley Event - Multiculturalism and religion in foreign policy
2013: Pope Francis is elected, becoming the first Jesuit and South American pope. In Iraq, Sunni insurgency intensifies, with levels of violence matching those of 2008.
2015: In January, the Charlie Hebdo Attacks happen in France, killing seventeen. TheNovember Paris attacks by Islamic State kill 137.
2017: Iraqigovernment forces drive out the Islamic State in an offensive with Shia and Kurdish allies.
2018: A buffer zone is implemented in and around Idlib, Syria, as negotiated by Russia and Turkey.

2020: Violence breaks out between the Syrian government and Turkish forces. A cease-fire is brokered by Turkey and Russia.