Monday, June 13, 2016

Is Faith The True Shibboleth? The West Wing and ‘Bible Trivia’

Religious-based persecution constitutes one of several possible reasons why people seek refugee status. In some cases, this type of persecution arises where an individual or a group converts to a new faith and adopts a new religious identity. The consequence of this ‘departure’ from their original faith may include persecution involving persistent harassment, physical violence and/or imprisonment. Such persons face many challenges in obtaining refugee status. Included amongst these challenges is being able to establish that they are genuine followers of the new religious faith that they have adopted. How do individuals prove their bona fide status as members of the religious community to which they have joined? What facts and evidence must claimants advance to convince an appropriate decision-maker of the legitimacy of their claim?

A recent article in the Guardian revealed that British immigration officials have engaged in “Bible trivia” with respect to claimants arguing that they were persecuted on account of being converts to Christianity. As set out in a recent report published by the Asylum Advocacy Group and the All-Party Parliamentary Group For International Freedom of Religion or Belief, such claimants have had to demonstrate that they are true believers by answering a number of questions about Christianity. They were posed questions such as: Can you name the twelve apostles? When is Pentecost? How many books are in the Bible? Who betrayed Jesus to the Romans?

The Report articulates the following criticism about this approach to ascertaining the legitimacy of claimants’ faith: “Whilst they may seem reasonable, this report reveals that such questions, often referred to as “Bible trivia”, are a very poor way of assessing a conversion asylum claim and result in wrong decisions and expensive appeals.” It then begs the following question – what are more appropriate questions?

This very issue came into sharp relief on The West Wing during its second season (Episode 8). The West Wing was a popular television (which still carries a following) depicting the trials and tribulations of the fictional U.S. presidency of Josiah “Jed” Bartlet and his administration. The episode entitled “Shibboleth” is set around Thanksgiving. A boat of roughly 100 Chinese migrants reaches the United States. Those on board claim asylum on the basis of religious persecution in connection with their belief in and practice of Christianity. Due in part to pressure by Christian political activists in the United States, the administration considers whether to grant refugee status. However, there are suspicions that the asylum-seekers are merely feigning belief in Christianity to secure refugee status and remain in the United States. President Bartlet, a devout and practicing Roman Catholic himself, makes the decision to interview one of the asylum-seekers to determine the veracity of the asylum-seekers’ claims to be Christian. As convenience would have it, Bartlet interviews a college professor who speaks English fluently enough to carry on a conversation without the assistance of an interpreter. Leaving aside the rather incredible and extremely unlikely scenario of a United States president having the time to conduct such an interview instead of an immigration official, the dialogue that transpires between Bartlet and the asylum-seeker is instructive and touches upon the above-mentioned report’s criticisms.

The following is a clip from the episode which depicts Bartlet’s interview with the asylum-seeker (the interview begins at roughly the two minute mark):

As can be seen, Bartlet begins the conversation by legitimately asking the asylum-seeker how he practices his faith and other basic facts related to such practice. He then shifts the conversation by asking the names of Jesus’ apostles. After naming them, the claimant then states the following: “Mr. President, Christianity is not demonstrated through a recitation of facts. You’re seeking evidence of faith, a wholehearted acceptance of God’s promise of a better world. ‘For we hold that man is justified by faith alone,’ is what St. Paul said. ‘Justified by faith alone.’ Faith is the true…shibboleth.”

This scene illustrates both a combination of what is at least partially crucial to understanding whether a person is a member of the claimed faith group and what is less relevant. While it is important to assess the credibility of claimants and the veracity of their claims (by examining their practices and beliefs in addition to any inconsistencies in their stories), the recitation of ‘trivial’ facts about the religion is not central to determining whether someone is a true and genuine believer. As the Report observes, one of the British government’s Asylum Policy Instructions suggests that “knowledge tests ‘are liable to establish nothing more than the ability to absorb factual information’ and be ‘based on the interviewing officer’s subjective perception of what a convert should know.’” Instead, the Policy suggests that there “should be a focus on the personal beliefs and behaviour of the claimant and directs government interviewers to use open-ended questions to facilitate exploration of the claimant’s personal experiences and their journey to their new faith.” (Report, p.24)

The rather brief interview Bartlet conducts provides both an illustration of the better type of questioning, which explores the personal experiences and modes of actual religious practice as well as the rather less valuable form, which delves into trivial information. Even though the asylum-seeker is able to answer the question regarding the number of Jesus’ apostles, he stresses that such knowledge is not what is crucial to demonstrating the veracity of his faith.

Just as an aside, while this interview ultimately works in the favour of the asylum-seekers, we might want to reflect on the problematic nature of the process depicted in the scene. The college professor whom Bartlet interviews serves as a representative of the entire group. However, it is eminently possible that on a transoceanic voyage involving scores of migrants, some on that ship may not be bona fide refugees. Due to the college professor’s credible performance, they are all viewed as worthy. Equally problematic would be an instance where the college professor failed to prove to Barlet that he was a genuine Christian and every other migrant on the ship is tarred by the same determination even if some are otherwise genuine Christians being persecuted as they claim to be. This mass refusal based on the testimony of one person would amount to mass punishment. But I digress, it’s only television after all.

It is worth reading the Report’s findings in greater detail to understand some of the other challenges religious asylum-seekers face in these circumstances. This includes instances where a government interviewer’s own perceptions of how adherents of a particular religion or sect might typically practice their faith in a specific culture lead to erroneous assumptions that such practice might be universal to all or most other adherents of that faith. The failure of the claimant to provide facts that support the interviewer’s presumptions may lead to a negative assessment of the claimant’s credibility. 

Other problems also arise where, unlike the case of the asylum-seeker in The West Wing episode, others need the assistance of an interpreter. There may be legitimate concerns with some interpreters who fail to employ the proper terminology or use different vocabulary in conveying the claimant’s answers. Conflicts may emerge where the interpreter is not of the same faith community as the claimant and is thus not familiar with some of the religious terms employed. Furthermore, the interpreter may even belong to the same faith community as those who have persecuted or threatened the claimant with persecution. In The West Wing scene, the claimant could speak enough English and had sufficient knowledge of the proper terminology to demonstrate to Bartlet his bona fides as a Christian.

Interviews with immigration officials or examinations before an immigration judge or tribunal adjudicator will tend to be longer and more extensive than what we see in The West Wing (for obvious reasons). Nevertheless, the show hits upon a legitimate criticism that the Asylum Advocacy Group and All-Party Parliamentary Group address in their Report. Assessing the veracity of one’s faith must reach beyond interrogating the limitations of a claimant’s knowledge of trivial information. Indeed, evaluating a claimant’s grasp of the number of Jesus’ apostles and questions of a similar ilk undermines the humanitarian goals of the Refugee Convention
A special thanks to JiHyun Youn for providing editorial assistance on this post.  
All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Asylum Advocacy Group, "Fleeing Persecution: Asylum Claims in the UK on Religious Freedom Grounds" (A Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Asylum Advocacy Group, 2016), online:   
Harriet Sherwood, "Refugees seeking asylum on religious grounds quizzed on 'Bible trivia'" The Guardian (7 June 2016), online:

No comments: