What do religious groups want from the general election?
A short guide to the manifestos.
The UK’s forthcoming general election isn’t unique just in terms of the collapse in support for the major parties – and an increase in the number of smaller radical parties of the left and right – but also the number of religious groups that have produced their own manifesto, some for the first time. This is a reflection of the growing confidence of minority religions partly as a result of the government’s shift from multiculturalism to “multi-faithism”, i.e. the recasting of minority populations along religious lines and addressing their needs largely through a faith-based framework. At the same time, a new survey puts the UK at the bottom of the religiosity stakes; sixth from the bottom, to be precise. The lower the public interest, it seems the more politically engaged the religious institutions - not such a paradox as it might first appear.
As our state religion, and with 26 bishops in the House of Lords, the Church of England has always played a major role in the national debate; it seems strange then that so many journalists have recently questioned whether the Church should have a voice in politics. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, responded robustly: “To suggest that some areas of life are off-limits for the Almighty is at best ignorant and at worst heretical.” That almost sounds like it’s a religious duty to go out and vote, but how much will it influence C of E believers, when only 10 per cent of them can be bothered to drag themselves to church on a weekly basis? Minority religions, on the other hand, have loyal and growing congregations. In marginal seats, perhaps their faithful will have the power of the tail to wag the dog.
Unlike the C of E, which takes its pre-eminent position for granted, the minority manifestos generally call upon the government to give them more: more funds; more state funded faith schools; more public space; more recognition of their specific religious practices and dress. They all have very little to say about women but they are very keen on loving their neighbours (though not all of their neighbours). And they all rely on the best evidence in this world for their analysis of our social ills – their holy books. Although each of them argues that preserving their distinct religious identities will enhance social cohesion, I fear it will sow division.
Here is a brief introduction to six manifestos: C of E, Black Majority Churches, Sikh, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim.
The Church of England
Technically theirs is not a manifesto in that there is no list of demands. It is a 52 page letter drafted by the Bishops entitled, Who is my neighbour?, which sets out a “fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be”. It’s been condemned by right-wing Christians like the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries as being left-leaning. Judging by the issues it supports, the document almost appears to align the Church with the Scottish National Party and the Greens, although its support for small government sounds more like Rand Paul, the libertarian Tea party Republican candidate for US president.
Early on, they set out the theological assumptions on which their analysis is based. They proclaim loudly that “All are sinners”, which is where I part company from them. However, I could not help being suffused with warm fuzzy feelings as they set out the rest of their stall: they are opposed to “an overweening corporate sector”; rampant individualism; the lack of morality in the market; Trident; austerity measures affecting the poorest. The warm feeling continued as the “love thy neighbour” list included immigrants and welfare claimants but rapidly ended when bankers and oligarchs were included too. They advocate the supply of good quality housing and the importance of “place” for people; staying in the EU; and power devolved down to community level because neither the market nor the state has offered us “salvation”. Their answer is to strip politicians of power as they have accumulated more and more power and achieved less and less with it, a strange ask in an election manifesto. It is such a comprehensive document that they even allow themselves to have a pop at “health and safety gone mad”.
Black Majority Churches (BMC) Manifesto
Black Church Political Mobilisation: A Manifesto for Action is the debutante’s first flutter. Proudly for them but less so for us, they quote another commentator who says “Black Christianity may well prove to be a key agent in the re-evangelisation of Christian Britain”. Whilst their analysis of police racism is spot on, their solution is to become a recruitment agency for the police. To this end, they recommend “Setting up uniformed youth services like Boys’ and Girls’ Brigade (in church itself) and encouraging young people from the BMCs to join the Police Cadets.” Also worryingly, they seem to be suggesting that their “insider” status vis a vis the black community makes them a valuable resource for the police “who can consult them on crime”.
On foreign aid, the manifesto sounds very promising indeed. They deplore conditions attached to aid for “displaying attitudes of residual imperialism and cultural hegemony” that reinstate a “master-slave” relationship and undermine “the recipient nation’s sovereignty and cultural values”. But the “cultural hegemony” they object to is Britain’s demand for gay equality in countries like Uganda and Nigeria which define marriage as taking place between a man and a woman. At the same time, they say “we also recognise that the Church has to find ways to engage and respond to the issue of gay and lesbian relationships in a pastoral way.” Pastoral is not defined but it’s not such a stretch to imagine that it might involve counselling to open the eyes of the LGB community to the glory of heterosexuality. The manifesto takes issue with the description of the Black Church in the UK as “a sleeping giant”. I say, long may it sleep!
The Sikh Manifesto
Another first. This manifesto is keen to depict the Sikhs as proud to be British, proud exponents of multi-culturalism, making a valuable contribution to British society including the death of thousands of Sikhs in the two world wars. The introduction, headed “We have given so much, we deserve better”, stakes a claim to a bigger slice of the cake. Not only do they demand more representation of Sikhs in Parliament, they demand “visible Sikhs” i.e. “turban wearing Sikhs” – this seems not so much a radical demand to reverse the invisibility of minorities as a way of ensuring it’s observant Sikhs who are elected.
Their achievements to date are getting legal exemptions for wearing a turban instead of a safety motorcycle helmet and a safety helmet on a construction site – the previous requirements were, apparently, unnecessary concessions to health and safety. The manifesto wants action on barriers to employment, levels of discrimination and allocation of resources – all of which apply in varying degrees to all BME communities. In fact, the real differences are found not in terms of religion but national and class variations: for instance, the Sikhs from Punjab are mostly unskilled whilst Sikhs from East Africa are mostly professionals. Yet the manifesto wants to jettison the term “Asian” so as not to be lumped together with Pakistani Muslims, known for honour killings – as if this were not also an issue in the Sikh community.
The Sikh Network, which has co-ordinated the writing of the manifesto, includes Sikh Federation UK, many of whose members are ex-International Sikh Youth Federation, an organisation that was banned in 2001 for bombings, assassinations and kidnappings. This explains the bombshell on the last page – demanding that the British government supports a Khalistani demand for self-determination at a time when the movement for a separate homeland in Punjab has died away in India. Their bargaining chip: a little-known offer by the British at the time of Indian independence in 1947 of a separate homeland for the Sikhs, backed up by 10 years of British military support – an offer not taken up by their leadership because they believed they would be safe in India.
The Jewish Manifesto
The problem with communities that are both an ethnic and religious group, like Sikhs or Jews, is that secular members of the community are not well served by manifestos that concentrate on religious freedoms. The Jewish manifesto asks for ten commitments outlining many of the freedoms that are already available. They are more sophisticated than the others in their concern for LGBT rights, in their equal condemnation of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and in demanding improvement in the living conditions of Israel’s Arab population. There is even a small paragraph on women, although the sentence on domestic violence and the need for government “to work with UK civil society, including faith groups, to advance opportunities for women, voicing support for initiatives that take this forward” would sound less encouraging to women who find that their freedoms are most at risk from religious groups.
In November 2013, the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency published the results of its survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism. The Jewish community in the UK had the lowest levels of fear of attacks, a relative degree of comfort which is perhaps reflected in the manifesto. The manifesto calls for being alert to, defending, supporting, continuing with, to cite one example, government funding of security guards at Jewish schools.
The demands are more controversial when it comes to action on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Again starting with fairly innocuous demands for promoting peace, prosperity and equality for all in the region and supporting a two state solution, it says, “we urge resistance to calls for boycotts of Israel. By their very nature, such measures attribute blame to only one side of the conflict, and through this stigmatisation they perpetuate a one-sided narrative.” This seems odd, since any boycott campaigns that do exist in Britain are not endorsed by the state.
The British Hindu Manifesto
Published in late April (until then, demands on behalf of the Hindu community were being made by one man and his blog, Kapil’s Khichadi), the Hindu Council UK’s manifesto calls for compulsory voting – the famous Hindu tolerance obviously doesn’t stretch to voter apathy. They claim that there is a revival of religious fervour among the younger generation and want more funding to help Youth, Women and Elderly “for the development of these people”. As with the Sikh manifesto, there is a veiled attack on Muslims via a call to end grooming and forced conversions. However, neither document provides evidence of forced conversions. There is anecdotal evidence that voluntary inter-communal relationships, i.e. love marriages which offend the conservative sensibilities of families on both sides are condemned as “forced conversions”. The manifesto is peppered with references to social cohesion, yet the Hindu Council, like the Sikh Network, wants to ditch the term “Asian”.
Despite access to generous donations from their faithful, they demand grant funding for more temples. They want exemption from new regulations requiring the serving of meat at school lunchtimes, recruitment of Hindu soldiers and Ayurveda and yoga to be available on the NHS. Damagingly, although it’s no surprise, they seek a repeal of the clause that forbids discrimination on the basis of caste in Britain’s equalities legislation. They argue that it causes resentment and destroys inter-communal harmony. Ask the Dalits about that, an invisible “minority within a minority” who face discrimination in employment, healthcare and education. The one progressive demand in the whole manifesto unfortunately stems from self-interest: demanding a UN inquiry into the Sri Lanka government’s war crimes against Tamils. Why? Because they are mostly Hindus.
The Muslim manifestos
Who said Muslims were a monolithic bloc? There are at least two manifestos, even though their concerns overlap. A quick Google search reveals that the attention these documents have received – particularly from right-wing commentators – is far in excess of the other minority manifestos. The prevalence of anti-Muslim racism makes it all the more difficult to criticise Islam and Islamism from a progressive standpoint.
The MEND Muslim Manifesto is produced by an organisation (Muslim Engagement and Development) that describes itself as an anti-Islamophobia think-tank. Shortly after its launch in parliament, the blogger Guido Fawkes drew attention to the fact that MEND’s head of Community Engagement has previously been accused of praising the Al-Qaeda militant Anwar al-Awlaki. The other manifesto, Muslim Manifesto 2015, produced by the Institute for Muslim Community Development think tank, makes 33 demands, which are similar to MEND in wanting protection for a Muslim lifestyle and from “Islamophobia”, reduction of poverty and increase of employment.
Both manifestos seek to project an establishment-friendly image, yet pleas for the preservation of a community’s distinct cultural identity and religious freedoms can also mask fundamentalist sympathies. The manifestos demand further action against hate speech, which sounds reasonable enough, but could become a route into shutting down any criticism of religion. Similarly, the demand to “guarantee the Muslim community the opportunity to evolve independently” could become a cover for introducing parallel legal systems based on sharia, which the secular lobby has been resisting vociferously. Their standout demand is to “encourage enquiry into the effects of oversexualisation of public spaces upon young people” - whatever that means.