On Political Islam and Political Christianity

Mika Vähäkangas

When the radical Christianist terrorist Anders Breivik murdered scores of people in Utøya and Oslo in Norway in July 2011, I happened to be in Istanbul. I followed the news mostly through channels produced in Islamic countries. I think that I got a hunch of what Muslims must feel like when following news on Islamist terrorism through Western media.

It felt so wrong that Breivik was described as acting on the basis of his Christian conviction. Why do we and the western media then treat Islam and Muslims in a manner we would not want to be treated? I would claim that this is not entirely due to ill will but at least partly due to a specific blindness in relation to religion in western cultures. This blindness is caused by faith in secularization, i.e. secularism.

Istanbul between Europe and Asia. Image: Mika Vähäkangas

Purely secular state is a mirage

In the West, especially in Western Europe, we often not only consider it ideal that religion and politics are separated from each other but also believe that it is so. In this faith, we miss the fact that many of the governmental administrational structures have their origin in the ecclesiastic structures. Additionally, according to Adrian Hastings, even the concept of nation has biblical and Christian origin in Europe. The (in)famous political theorist Carl Schmitt would go even so far as to claim that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development… but also because of their systematic structure…”(1985, 36).

Christian heritage labels the way we run our countries and imagine politics and legitimacy. However, due to modernisation and secularisation, we miss this connection. These very processes, in turn, are developments in the intra-Christian theological debate. Modernisation and secularisation are children or at least stepchildren of the Protestant Reformations.

Hagia Sofia in Istanbul portrays the relations of Christianity and Islam to the political situation: Built as a church, turned into a mosque, then into a museum, and again a mosque. Image: Mika Vähäkangas

Both Islam and Christianity are inherently political

The dread of “political Islam” is usually (subconsciously) Christian dread of Islam. We have two religions whose political systems are in competition. Moreover, it is not only competition between these two but a legion of political systems within the two.  In Christianity, liberal democracy and secular way of governance have their pedigree in dissenter movements, among others, strong in the US at the time of independence. There are also various versions of how to marry the dominant church, or at least alleged Christian values, with the government. The Polish PIS and the Hungarian Fidesz, the ruling parties, are prime examples of such within the EU. In the Orthodox world, there is an age-old tradition of symphony between the church and the state, continuing also in Russia, the largest Orthodox nation.

Is political religion an aberration, as one tends to imply in the West when referring to political Islam? Secular modernity attempts to place religions in the private realm and whenever this does not happen, it is a source of concern. However, in both of the religions, politics has played a part from the very beginning. Islam with its umma, the community of believers, was simultaneously a political unit. When it comes to Christianity, the picture is obscure in the West because of looking at the picture from within. Since Constantin the Great, Christianity and western statecraft have been strongly interwoven.

Rhodes skyline with minarets and church towers. Image: Mika Vähäkangas

“The Kingdom of God”, “the Christ” and “the Lord” all convey a political message

One major dimension of Jesus’s message was that the Kingdom of God is near. The choice of terminology “basileia tou theou” is unashamedly political. The parables on the Kingdom turn the political realities of the day upside down in a revolutionary manner. They show this kingdom as a silently and gradually subversive entity that challenges the status quo of Realpolitik of the powerful.

It is not a wonder that the early Christians chose to call Jesus as the Christ (the anointed one, the King) and the Lord (kyrios). Both of these titles were direct challenges towards the empire. The occasional persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire were political rather than religious. The Roman authorities were very tolerant towards other mystery cults as long as they remained in the private sphere in the sense of every knee bending to the Emperor and not lifting any religious heroes as rivalling Lords and anointed ones.

In conclusion, both Islam and Christianity are inherently political religions. Only if they would concentrate on the private feel-good factor and not attempt to transform the total lives of individuals, and oftentimes also societies, could they be apolitical. Rather than worrying about these religions forcing themselves out of the Enlightenment secular cupboard, one should engage in critical dialogue about what kinds of political visions they have to offer. Will these religions contribute to an increased liberation of the humankind, and care for the creation, or only propagate for their sectarian interests?


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