Is it a good idea for religion to be part of politics?

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Is it a good idea for religion to be part of politics?

Dawn Foster and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown are religious and they disagree.


Illustrations: Kate Copeland

YASMIN - No: Religion and state should always be separate. I am a Shi’a Muslim. I pray, I go to mosque and I feel part of a wider global community. My religion is in my heart and head. It helps me when there are lies and noise. It makes me try hard to be a better person. Millions of believers from different religions and countries feel the same.

But political Islam is aggressive, powerful, and totally unethical. Think about Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran is a brutal Shi’a theocracy and Saudi Arabia is a Sunni-Wahhabi powerbase which violates every human right. Think about authoritarian, powerful Catholicism. Secular states have their bad histories too and some, like China, are behaving in a terrible way towards individuals and minorities. But I think that the worst states in the world are those that use God to control the minds and actions of their people. Religion does have a place in public life. But when bishops, rabbis, priests, and mullahs get political roles, they corrupt politics and religion.

DAWN - Yes: Like Yasmin, I’m religious, I am a very active Catholic – I go to mass a few times a week. I meet my church’s youth group, I go on prayer retreats. Catholicism is part of my life like socialism and trade unionism. It is a part of all of my life. My belief in equality and workers’ rights comes from my religion and my politics. Collective action is important for the success of campaigns and movements. I belong to the Catholics for Labour group in the UK Labour Party. It has people from the Right of the Party to people to the Left of the Party. We all work together and our differences are not important.

Oscar Romero was made a saint in 2019. At first, he thought politics and religion must be separate. But when he saw military police killing innocent religious people, low-income workers, and rebel priests like Rutilio Grande, he decided to use his position to criticise the government and stop the killings. He was assassinated, but he has inspired millions of people, and his death put pressure on the US government to change its position a little in Latin America. As religious people, we must act when we see injustice. We have to fight for people and for a common humanity.

YASMIN - No: I am not as deeply religious as you are, Dawn, and I do not think my religion is the most important part of my self. It is a part of who I am, because I was born a Shi’a Muslim and my mother was a real believer. And she made me into the person I am. But she could see how religions could and did stop change and how religious leaders exploited human fears to control them. When I was six, she took me away from of our faith school in Uganda and sent me to a multifaith school instead.

I go to mosque sometimes and I find it helpful for a time to be with other believers. But very soon I find their opinions annoying. Our Islam is open and modern but the believers seem to feel they are superior. This, you will know, is the same in all religions.

You are right about the good work of religious people and many of them are heroes. But in the past and now different forms of Christianity have had a terrible effect on people around the world. Their abuse of power is worst when it is linked to governments. For example, when they make people feel they must have babies, they must punish gay people, they must reject unmarried mothers. Political leaders control more. Look at the anti-gay laws across Africa. The laws against abortion in so many Catholic countries. Are you not against such violations of human rights? You say religious people must act when they see injustice but how can we understand the millions of religious people who seem to agree with terrible injustices? You don’t seem to understand that and I think you should.

DAWN - Yes: I agree that religious communities can become insular. That’s why it is so important to meet people from other churches and faiths, and with people with no faith. When religion is separate from politics, it becomes more insular and more open to abuse. Politics plays a very big part in our lives, and political policy is very important for a lot of the ideas at the centre of the main faiths- for example, charity, togetherness, human dignity, helping family life, fighting homelessness, and opposing war and violence.

These ideas should not belong only to the Left or the Right, and people of all faiths should protest against politicians for not building a fair society. A lot of the issues in our financial system do not agree with many ideas in Christianity and Islam. And people from all religions can help to fix a broken system - campaigners and party members and faith leaders. People respect religious leaders and listen to their opinions when they speak for the oppressed. For example, when the Archbishop of Canterbury criticised British government policies that do not fight poverty. If we involve religion in public life and show that faith and politics can work together, it puts pressure on religious institutions to be more open and stop the silence that can let abuse continue.

YASMIN - No: I agree with you when you write that religions can (and should) bring people together. People of faith can bring these values into politics and society. Charity, for example, is a part of Islam and of Christianity. And I know how much Christian Aid or Islamic Relief does around the world. But I fear and hate the way religion works with political power, for example, when church leaders bless Donald Trump and say his opponents are godless. The worst example is Myanmar, where Buddhist monks have supported the persecutions of the Rohingya Muslims. And women and girls, even rape victims, are put in prison in some South American states if they have abortions.

And here in England and Wales, more faith schools are starting. These schools have good exam results, but they are socially conservative and focused on their own religious ideas. In Northern Ireland, people are encouraging integrated schools because the people there know what happens when religious and political apartheid continue from generation to generation. I am so happy we talked about this. It has helped me understand why faith means so much to many of us and made me put myself in a wrong position: states and faiths must be separate.

DAWN - Yes: But in the US, many religious leaders have spoken against Trump – a number of nuns and Jesuit priests were arrested for demonstrating against his immigration policies after they refused to leave a sit-in. Religious leaders have been deeply involved in anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles, and often killed themselves when speaking against repressive governments.

The demand for faith schools isn’t only about exam results, but it’s because people want to connect with their own culture. My Catholic school taught us a lot about the history of oppression, struggle, and the fight for civil rights. Parents don’t choose all schools for social conservatism. In Northern Ireland, especially with housing, the state has not thought about religious backgrounds and rushed to build integrated communities without thinking about safety and cultural history. This has resulted in attacks on homes and families running away for their personal safety after police warnings. The state must think about how important religion is to so many people. The state must not try to impose secularism on a community without thinking about the consequences.

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