Rally Against Sharia in Central London

This afternoon there will be a “rally against Sharia Law” in central London, as part of the “One Law for All” campaign. Here’s the call:





The organisers are secular-minded progressives who want no truck with groups such as the English Defence League; Peter Tatchell (whom I greatly respect) gives some background at Comment is Free:

 While other faiths are also often oppressive, sharia law is especially oppressive. Its interpretations stipulate the execution of Muslims who commit adultery, renounce their faith (apostates) or have same-sex relationships. Sharia methods of execution, such as stoning, are particularly brutal and cruel – witness the stoning to death this week in Somalia of a 20-year-old woman divorcee who was accused of adultery. This is the fourth stoning of an adulterer in Somalia in the last year.

…The key point of the protest is to show support for the many courageous, inspiring Muslims who are campaigning against the inequalities and inhumanities of sharia law, often at great risk to their liberty and life. Contrary to the way our critics are trying to misrepresent our campaign, this is not an attack on Muslims or Islam. Nor are we uniquely condemning sharia law. We reject all religious laws and courts, including those inspired by Judaist and Christian fundamentalism.

This is a subject I’ve blogged on: five years ago I noted how local Muslims in Nigeria were protesting against Sharia-based laws as a foreign, Saudi, imposition, and, later, how state enforcement at the hands of a religious police force in Kano was causing problems. The situation in Indonesia is similarly alarming and depressing.

Nevertheless, I have a couple of reservations about the rally. First, talk of “religious-based tribunals in Britain, … Somalia and elsewhere” is a crude polemical conflation of several different problems: (i) draconian and barbaric criminal penalties that shouldn’t be imposed on anyone no matter what they’ve done; (ii) the banning of activities that should be allowed in a free society; and (iii) a gender bias in judgements that discriminates against women. All of these should of course be opposed, but only the third point risks being indulged by British law; this is because unofficial sharia courts can take advantage of the  1996 Arbitration Act, which allows for a range of mediators to make judgements on civil disputes that can then be upheld by the county courts. And as I’ve noted previously, reports of the courts’ activities are certainly unencouraging: inheritances doled out unequally between male and female relatives, and women “persuaded” to drop complaints to the police about domestic violence. The obvious – and reasonable – fear is that some women are agreeing to be bound by the courts’ decisions as a result of community and family pressure rather than giving true consent. It certaintly seems to me that the 1996 act ought to be amended so that civil courts will not enforce decisions where there is evidence of gender bias.

Second, these problems do not encompass full complexity of sharia in its various schools and interpretations – it would be unhelpful if “sharia” were to become simply a synonym for “legally-sanctioned religious oppression”, the way “fatwa” has come to be understood as meaning “death sentence”. In the US, unremarkable niche financial products for Muslim customers who wish to arrange their finances in accordance with sharia principles have provoked ridiculous howls of outrage, and there is an effort underway to paint any Muslim who does not repudiate his or her religion’s legal traditions in toto as an extremist (see here and here).

Tatchell complains that

Sadly, the turn out in Hyde Park will probably be quite small. This is odd. Most liberals and leftwingers would protest loud and strong if these persecutions were perpetrated by a western regime or by Christian fundamentalists. But they get squeamish when it comes to challenging human rights abuses committed in the name of Islam. They fear being denouned as Islamophobic. They confuse protests against fundamentalist, political Islam, which seeks to establish a religious dictatorship, with an attack on Muslim people and the Muslim faith. These are two very different things. Saturday’s protest is in defence of Muslim people – and all people everywhere – who are victims of any form of religious tyranny.

That’s a noble sentiment. However, although I accept I may have a jaundiced view from looking at too many right-wing American websites, I’m not entirely convinced that the organisers want to be clear that they are not protesting against “the Muslim faith”.

New Report on the US Christian Right and Africa

Political Research Associates has just released a new report, Globalizing the Culture Wars, on the role of US Christian Right organisations in promoting anti-gay hostility in African churches as part of an exported “culture war”. The report, by a Zambian Anglican priest named Kapya Kaomoa, is timely: as has been widely reported, Uganda is currently considering a bill which would impose draconian penalties on gay people, those who fail to report gay people to the police, and those who speak in advocacy of gay rights. US Christian Right groups and leaders – as well as more ostensibly moderate evangelical figures, such as Rick Warren – have well-known links with conservative African clerics and political leaders, and it is reasonable to enquire as to their role in shaping events in Africa.

Kaomoa observes:

According to Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Africa, by Terence Ranger, African evangelicals’ voting patterns are similar to those of US progressives. Ranger concludes that African evangelicals are likely to align with left-wing political movements. However, the success of US conservatives in depicting mainline churches as decadent has led Africans into siding with conservatives. (23)

But how has alliance been cemented? One notorious suggestion, made last year, was that wealthy US conservatives used “chicken dinners” to win over their African counterparts. That was, of course, a grossly  simplistic and condescending suggestion; David Virtue made the obvious rebuttal:

It is the crassest theological idiocy to believe that Africans, most of whom have received their undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate theological training in the West would ever succumb to a theological change of heart for a few lousy chicken dinners and alleged payoffs by certain American Evangelical bishops.

Here are men who have suffered for their faith. Some have lost family members… and friends in tribal wars. Many live on the edge of personal poverty, their congregations own no buildings, their populations are being wiped out by civil and tribal wars and an AIDS pandemic, and they are going to sell their immortal souls for chicken? Judas Iscariot did better with 30 pieces of silver for his betrayal…

However, Kaomoa does highlight evidence that superior Western material resources have been wielded in a way which is rather unsubtle. One has to wince when reading the following quote from a conservative leaflet given to African delegates at the 2008 United Methodist General Conference:

We have purchased cell phones for each of you to use during General Conference. There is no charge to you for the use of the phones.

Please considering voting for the following persons… (11)

We also learn that Ugandan bishops at the GAFCON conference were hazy about who funded their attendance:

All they knew, they told PRA, was that “unnamed friends” of Ugandan Archbishop Orombi funded them. (10)

Particularly belittling is evidence that materials supposedly written by African religious leaders habe been heavily re-edited to include talking-points provided by the Institute on Religion and Democracy; a text by Liberian Methodist superintendent Rev Jerry Kulah was re-written to include screeds against Churches that consider “sociopolitical issues” and against the “Arab-oil funds” being used to promote “the massive silent invasion of Islam”.

This does not mean that clerics have been “bought”, although Kaomoa considers that the nature of the funding process may be corrupting:

Funding from conservatives is highly personal – only bishops with US connections receive it – and unrestricted, unlike that of mainline churches, which demand strict accountability from African church for all the money they receive. Therefore, some African religious leaders…prefer it and view American conservatives as more generous than their progressive counterparts. (10-11)

Kaomoa avoids the trap of simply reducing anti-gay sentiment in African Christianity to an American import, and by describing how the idea of gay rights is seen as a form of neo-colonialism by some Africans he gives a sense of how local agency may serve as a counterbalance to an explanatory model based on conservative American strategies and propaganda (some other writings on the subject have been criticized for concentrating exclusively on the latter). However, I don’t think we get a full account of what motivates a conservative African Anglican cleric – in particular, there is little discussion of theology or Biblical interpretation.

The report also draws attention to some nuances: it is interesting to read that some conservatives – and some IRD activists – are opposed to idea of severing links with mainline churches on issues such as poverty relief, and that declarations by African Anglican church leaders disassociating from the US Episcopal Church are not always clear-cut:

In countries like Uganda and Nigeria, where civil society is weak, the declarations have been implemented. By contrast, in Zambia, Kenya. Botswana, Ghana, and other more democratic countries, their declarations were opposed or simoply taken as the leader’s person opinion. (11)

The whole report can be read here.