On Thursday 6 May 2010, a friend of mine will serve as an official international observer of the UK general election. He is Muhiddin Kabiri, a Member of Parliament in Tajikistan and the leader of the country’s Islamic Revival Party (IRP). The IRP is the main opposition party and often cited as ‘the only legal Islamic party in Central Asia’.
Tajikistan recently held its third post-war parliamentary elections with the party of the President maintaining a comfortable majority through a combination of direct manipulation of the poll and genuine sympathy for a government which is seen to have brought the civil war to an end.
One of the most significant aspects of the political conflict which generated the war was over the place of Islam in politics and society. The IRP never abandoned a moderate political position, always arguing, for example, that Tajikistan was ill-prepared for Shari’a and seeking improved Islamic education before further Islamisation of society and government.
However, today the IRP continues to face public suspicion in urban areas whilst garnering further support from a disenchanted youth. At the same time, it sees disillusioned former supporters abandon politics or, on an apparently small scale, join more militant groups.
Politically-active Muslims in Tajikistan worry about the poor education provided to the post-Soviet generation and [the] decline in personal and social morality brought about by years of labour migration and the ruptures of the free market economy. Nevertheless, the IRP itself supports market reform and modernisation which it believes is consistent with what they call “Euro-Islam” and the model of religious political parties provided by the Christian Democrat Party in Germany.
Mr Kabiri will be observing constituencies in Manchester. Observers from developing countries are often invited to observe the elections of established democracies in order to educate them in the practice of electoral campaigning and polling.
However, in monitoring the UK elections, Mr Kabiri will search in vain for an electable Christian political party which might provide a model for the IRP. More worryingly, he may notice that militant and intolerant Christian political parties and Christian political candidates are becoming more commonplace.
He probably hasn’t heard of the idea of post-Christendom but he will certainly find very little evidence that these parties and candidates are taking the notion seriously.
This shift towards a more militant Christian politics seems to reflect the change in the British church over the last 40 years. Over this time we have seen the emergence of the house church movement and its new denominational successors as a challenge to the hegemonic position of the Anglicans.
This has both positive and negative dimensions.
Some in this new wave of Christians in politics, such as New Frontiers and the Conservative Party’s Philippa Stroud, have a real heart for and experience of working with the poor and downtrodden in society. Such individuals and groups are successors to the working class non-conformists and Pentecostals who did so much to transform the lives of the British poor from the eighteenth century. It is important that these initiatives come from beyond the established, yet declining, Church of England.
Sadly, however, this new wave remains wedded to a narrow view of politics where religious freedom and so-called “life issues” are denoted as Christian priorities above all else, despite the Evangelical Alliance’s commendable attempts to broaden evangelicals’ political scope.
Whilst Mrs Stroud trumpets the Conservatives’ support for faith-based initiatives to tackle poverty, her party fails to accept that it was its own deregulation of credit, liberalisation of financial markets and emphasis on (over-)consumption in the 1980s that worsened much of the poverty that Stroud has tirelessly striven to end. There is little indication that the Conservatives, or Mrs Stroud, have learnt this lesson in the face of the latest and more severe financial crisis.
The Christian Institute, taking its lead from the US evangelical right, is the cheerleader of this narrow view of God’s politics. Whilst it decries ‘harm reduction’ policies such as the liberalisation of abortion, and demands principled leadership reflecting Christian values, it has an unfortunately narrow view of what these values are. Foreign policy, economic and environmental issues remain, at best, secondary to a movement which is still playing catch-up to secular organisations on these issues.
The worst of this new wave of conservative Christian politicians are openly homophobic, patriarchal and xenophobic. Their Christianity is bound up with highly conservative views on the primordial basis of the nation, the ‘natural’ authority of men and the deviancy of abnormal sexualities.
None of these are straightforward issues that Christians can easily come to terms with by adopting liberal positions of multiculturalism, equality and tolerance. There is some ambiguity in the Bible’s message on these issues. However, despite, or perhaps because, of this ambiguity, it is important that we do not lose sight of the law of love – the greatest commandment.
At the same time, any Christian that wishes to take a position in politics, must face up to the reality of sin (everything that mars our relationship with each other and with God) and the need to combat it with what the biblical prophets of justice call 'righteous anger'.
Yet here, the new wave of evangelical and conservative Christians are finding far less sin than they should. Sin, the Bible indicates clearly, is 'us' as well as 'them', and in institutions as well as individuals.
Sin is not merely found in sexual promiscuity but in self-serving economic choices, in neglect for the environment and in foreign policies which value our lives more highly than theirs.
As an evangelical Christian myself, I have no problem with Mrs Stroud finding sin amongst the poor and their societies. My problem is, if she does not also find them amongst the rich, their institutions and policies.
It is sinful social relations that sustain the increasing inequality and prejudice which is tearing at the fabric of our society. Sin is social as well as personal and the demonic, as Walter Wink has argued, can be found in institutions such as our military and religious establishments which conservative Christians will often acclaim.
So, knowing Mr Kabiri a little as I do, I think he will not be convinced by the religious political parties and candidates that the UK has to offer. He may, for example, find it odd that some Christians in British politics are in uproar every time a Christian missionary is killed in the Muslim world but say little about the 10,000s of Muslim civilians killed by military interventions initiated by openly-Christian political leaders of the West.
As Christians we should find this deeply troubling. If we do not then we must ask ourselves why we hold such a narrow view of the role of faith in politics.
© John Heathershaw is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Exeter. His recent book is Post-conflict Tajikistan: the politics of peacebuilding and the emergence of legitimate order (London: Routledge, 2009). It will be released in paperback later in 2010.