Christian Politics and Islam
By André Rouvoet, ChristenUnie MP and leader of this party
The subject of this conference is ‘Ethnic and religious diversity in Europe’. In this lecture I would like to focus on two main issues. First, the present situation of Islam in the Netherlands and the recent developments that brought unto the surface some rather problematic aspects. And secondly, a Christian approach to Islam, related to the issue of the separation of Church and State, or – in general – the issue of religious diversity in a democratic society based on the rule of law.
Islam in the Netherlands
Let me start by giving you some facts and figures. Worldwide there are estimated 1.3 billion Muslims. In 56 countries Islam is the majority religion; only two of them have a democratic system. In the Netherlands there are estimated 1,000,000 Muslims; this number might be overestimated: unlike Christian churches and denominations, mosques don’t have the custom of registered membership. It is important to notice that there is an enormous diversity within the Muslim community: Turkish, Moroccan, Arab and others. ‘The Muslim’ is as clarifying on the position and convictions of any individual Muslim as ‘The Christian’!
One of the major issues related to Islam is the problematic integration process we face in the Netherlands and other European countries. Along with it goes the realistic threat of subcultures, of citizens of foreign origin living apart from and maybe even growing apart from Dutch society and having their own problems like the language problem, unemployment and the reality of new generations ‘living between two cultures’. It turns out that this context gives fundamentalist imams the opportunity to have a growing influence on young (often highly educated) Muslims. So we see how an extremist version of Islam steadily spreads, especially via the Internet.
Incidentally this leads to extremism, violence, young Muslims portraying ‘the West’ (especially the United States of America: ‘the Great Satan’) as decadent, hostile to Islamic values and lifestyle, and sometimes even to the call for ‘jihad’ in the really violent meaning.
After ‘9/11’ (New York) and ‘3/11’ (Madrid), we in the Netherlands envisioned two political murders: on Pim Fortuyn and on Theo van Gogh. Both were very outspoken in their criticism on Islam, which they viewed as ‘a backward religion’. The first was murdered by an animal rights activist. The latter was a religiously motivated assassination, performed as a ritual slaughtering, and brought about in our society a broad sense of fear, uneasiness and alienation from (distrust towards) both the Muslims and the political elite, that had no answers to these acts of violence. At the same time, as a result of these developments, many members of religious, cultural and/or ethnic minoritiesfeel out of place in our country, where they have lived for years or even decades; they feel unaccepted, distrusted, treated with hostility. Many Turkish or Moroccan fellow citizens feel being considered as potential terrorists. Recently, there was great national distress when a train passenger alarmed the police by mobile phone, because two Arab-looking men acted rather suspiciously in going to the lavatory one by one, carrying mysterious bags. The train stopped, all train traffic in a wide region was derailed, Special Forces entered the train… and found out these two men were just two simple train passengers with no plans for any terrorist action. Alls well that ends well, we could say. But in the following days many internet sites and chat boxes boiled with indignation about the scandalous treatment of these two ‘brothers’. Many spoke in terms of war and revenge!
A Christian Approach?
How do Christians respond to the rise of a new religion in the Netherlands and in Europe? How about the uniqueness of Christianity, of the faith in Jesus Christ? What about the concept of theocracy? Isn’t that a Biblical concept? Is this compatible with the separation of Church and State and freedom of religion? Does the Bible teach a Christian understanding of tolerance?
First of all, let me say that I myself, as a Christian, see with pain in my heart the rise of Islam in my country and in Europe. In some cases, unused churches have been taken into use by Muslims as Mosques. But instead of blaming Islam for using these former houses of Christian prayer and worship, we should blame ourselves for leaving these churches empty! The biggest problem we face in our days is not ‘Islamisation’, but secularisation! The coming of Islam to our part of the world poses a huge challenge for the Church to preach the Gospel and proclaim the Kingdom of Jesus Christ to all people!
But our issue today is not what the Church must do, but what the State must do. Therefore, we must consider closely the character of the relationship between State and Church (or: religious communities).
Church and State
The history of Christian politics tells us that there has been continuous attention for the issue of Church and State. How do they relate to each other? To what extent are they able to influence one another, directly or indirectly? Is the Church on a higher or rather on a lower plane than the State? Till this present day these matters have kept Christians separated in church life as well as in political life.
In the light of a Christian view of Society, the relationship between Church and State should first and foremost be defined by their distinctive nature and responsibilities. The Church is the congregation of Christ and is to be characterised as a religious community, whereas the State is a public legal community of government and citizens. With Groen van Prinsterer and other Christian political thinkers I contend that with the New Testament as our guide we can and must vindicate a separation of Church and State, in the sense of discrimination.
The State's concern is public justice, whereas the Church's is justice through faith! So here we have distinctive offices, from the basis of which we must conclude that the State cannot be reduced to the Church or vice versa. They do not relate to each other in terms of super ordination and subordination, but in terms of co-ordination. In the exertion of their respective offices they are basically independent. They do not derive their competence from one another, but directly from God.
By the way: strictly speaking, whenever we speak of 'the Church', we imply nothing beside the Christian church. Indeed, the word 'church' derives from the kurios, Lord, by which the Bible refers to Jesus Christ. However, whenever we speak of the church as a societal sphere, the extent of reference increases, encompassing all religious communities without exception.
Key-role of the Church
Given the basic idea of Church and State being co-ordinate to each other, as are all societal spheres, we must make an additional observation. For this basic idea could be an invitation to believe that the church is 'just' a sphere like any other and is therefore levelled with the spheres of company, school, or marriage.
As for the Church, we should note that being a community of faith by nature, it holds a special position in society. We could say that the Church holds the key-role in society. This central position of the Church follows from the fact that the Church has been entrusted with the Word of God, whereas the authority of the Word of God is not confined to the Church. God's revelation bears decisive relevance to all domains of life and so to all spheres. It is the Church nurturing the believer through the preaching of the gospel, and preparing the believer to his office in the various spheres that he belongs to: as a father or son, as a member of the congregation or an elder, as an employer or an employee, as a citizen or a politician.
When we focus on the concept of theocracy, we must notice that this concept has different meanings. One meaning is derived from the literal translation, i.e. divine government. But theocracy is also seen as a legitimate for engaging the worldly powers to fight idolatry and false religion.
Christian politics cannot accept this concept of theocracy. The sword that Paul speaks of in Romans 13 was not given to the State to arbitrate in spiritual matters. Faith cannot be instilled by the sword: "Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit" (Zechariah 4:6).
Whoever judges otherwise, believing that the government, being the servant of God, should 'hence' use its derived competence - including the power of the sword - in spiritual matters, overcharges government, because it overlooks its vocation to serve public justice. Indeed this would require the government to resist not only all non-Christian religions, but also liberal preaching in the Christian Churches!
Let me state very clearly that a Christian is a theocrat by definition. He is so by virtue of his positive acknowledgement of God's reign over all aspects of life. When we read the Psalms, we find innumerable passages making this divine government the object of praise (for example Psalms 24, 33, 47, 96, 97, 99). From this perspective, the recognition of God's reign should be reflected in all aspects of the Christian's life: in his family, in church, in his work and in politics. Indeed, what we are dealing with here is sanctification of life! This theocratic inclination is also characteristic of the Christian politician in his daily duties; that is in performing his responsibilities in his office as a servant of the government. Theocracy does not imply an alternative form of state or government to some other form of government, such as democracy. Nor does it imply a calling or responsibility for the government to resist and eliminate false religion. In this limited, non-ideological sense we can agree with characterizing the State as ‘neutral’: it gives all religions equal protection. So within the public domain there is room for everyone to act according to personal judgement and responsibility.
Freedom of Religion
An essential element in Christian political thinking has always been that government should be prevented from putting restraints on the conscience at all times. Of all institutions, a government realising from whom its authority descends will have to guarantee the freedom of thought and conviction of all citizens. In other words: a Christian State and freedom of conviction for everyone must be associated by definition. Safeguarding freedom of thought and freedom of religion is part and parcel of the responsibility to serve public justice.
But then: what exactly do we understand by ‘freedom of religion’? What does it imply in political practice, how far does this freedom range? We feel that the word 'public' provides us with a helpful and major support for establishing our position. It designates a key characteristic for government performance. The safeguarding role of the freedom of religion can only apply to the outward aspects, to the outside of the various denominations and denominational institutions. It is the government's responsibility to create public infrastructure enabling the citizens to perform their religious activities. Constitutional freedom of religion is to be considered an aspect of infrastructure.
This prevailing interpretation of freedom of religion would require the government to realise this freedom (equally for the various religions) on the one hand, and to refrain as much as possible from interfering with how these denominations use this freedom on the other. It is crucial to point out that religious communities themselves decide what makes up the contents of their confession. This does not suggest that there are no limits. Not anything goes as long as it is tagged 'freedom of religion'. Such limits may have been stipulated in the legal order (particularly in the penal code, e.g. the ban on polygamy and the restrictions on ritual slaughtering of cattle). However, limits may also have been set in order to maintain public order (e.g. rules concerning church bell ringing and summons to prayer, the ban on processions, clauses regarding licences for outreach campaigns, etc.).
Christian Politics and Islam
What are the consequences of all this for the issue of Christian politics and Islam? As said: we accept and tolerate the presence of a growing number of Muslims in our society and we defend their fundamental rights. But after what I have said about the relationship between Church and State, freedom of religion, you will understand it is crucial to realize that this is not just a matter of ‘being practical’, but of principle. We do so as a consequence of Christian political thinking: not by concession, but by confession! That is what I meant by ‘a Christian understanding of tolerance’. No mistake: real tolerance does not imply indifference about the truth. But it does mean accepting that others have different convictions about it and for that reason think, believe and behave differently. Indeed, real tolerance hurts. If not, it is probably indifference.
At the same time, the rule of law includes the obligation for Muslim citizens to act in accordance with the law, to abstain from violence, discrimination and acts of hatred. Freedom of religion is exercised within the framework of the Constitution and the national laws. In the present situation of growing extremism, violent fundamentalism and the promotion of a certain kind of violent jihad, it is not unnecessary to underline this. We must not be naive! Such excesses must be fought. Misuse or abuse of fundamental rights cannot be tolerated. But in a State based on the rule of law, the answer to some extremists perverting their religion and abusing their rights is not to deny those rights to all Muslims.
Separation of Faith and Politics?
As a result of the feeling of uneasiness in society, connected with the relatively new phenomenon of a foreign and growing religion, a vehement debate on the – thus far generally accepted – principal of the separation of Church and State has been launched in Dutch politics.
The trouble is that in this debate some libertarian, anti-clerical parliamentarians as well as populist newcomers are eager in playing the Islamic card and in doing so endangering long-time cherished fundamental rights like the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech and opinion. To my astonishment I hear self-proclaimed democrats and liberals plead for limiting the fundamental rights of specific groups of citizens. Freedom of religion is still acknowledged, but more and more religion-based convictions and opinions that do not fit in mainstream, secular thinking, are considered to clash with the separation of Church and State.
And as a result of this, we see a tendency towards an interpretation of the principal of separation of Church and State as the separation of faith and politics, which is – of course – something completely different. In my opinion, this tendency is a result of the fact that the original humanism of the first stage of the Enlightenment (which was relatively moderate in its appearance, not in the least because many leading humanists had a Christian background and still considered themselves as Christians), gradually developed into an outspoken and – especially in our times – even aggressive secular humanism.
Let’s look as an example at the issue of the Pre-amble of the European Constitution: in the Draft-version the Enlightenment and the importance of humanistic values were outlined, but reference to the Judeo-Christian roots of European civilisation was intently left out! The European Union was to be humanist and secular or it was not to be at all.
This tendency of banning faith from the public domain must be strongly opposed. Let me say this from a personal experience: it is simply impossible to do my political job while leaving my Christian life- and worldview and my biblical convictions back home!
Beside that: I wouldn’t know why this form of voluntary schizophrenia would be asked only of Christians or – generally speaking – religious people. What kind of a democracy would that be, where all kinds of life- and worldviews, including humanist, secularist, atheist belief systems, are valid and acceptable as source of political choices, except religions?!
In conclusion: the separation of Church and State follows from a Christian understanding of tolerance and with that is to be considered part and parcel of Christian political thinking, while the separation of faith and politics is an impossibility and nothing more than an attempt of secular humanism to ban God and religion from the public domain. We cannot allow that to happen!
 Dit artikel is een enigszins ingekorte versie van de lezing ‘Islam and Christian politics’, zoals gepubliceerd in Ethnic and Religious Diversity in Europe - A Collection of Texts from the 1st ECPM Congress, 30 November – 2 December 2005, Leuven (Belgium).