by Giles Fraser
The different responses to a political endorsement from a Hindu leader and from imams show the UK’s law of undue spiritual influence is not consistently applied
David Cameron takes part in a ceremony at a Hindu temple. ‘The Conservative Friends of India even rewarded him with his own campaign song in Hindi.’ Photograph: Alastair Grant/Reuters
She describes her job as “to carry the hopes and aspirations of thousands of Hindu families in the UK”. And in the performance of this role, Trupti Patel, president of the Hindu Forum of Britain, hasn’t been shy to rally her people to vote for one particular party. In an open letter on the forum’s website, Patel attacks Labour and the Lib Dems for insulting Hinduism by supporting legislation to outlaw caste discrimination. “Only the Conservative party has stated that if they are in a majority government, then this piece of unwanted legislation will be repealed,” she says, adding: “In these elections, the very honour of your faith is in danger of being undermined.” In short, vote Tory.
David Cameron has a longstanding relationship with the 600,000-strong Hindu community. Just three days before the general election, he was back at the temple in Neasden, north London, taking part in the ceremony. The Conservative Friends of India even rewarded him with his own campaign song in Hindi: “The sky is blue and glorious. This is colour of Britain’s pride. Let’s join together with this blue colour. Let’s join together with David Cameron.” Mind the contents of your stomach, it gets worse. “Your dreams will be fulfilled; He’ll keep his commitments; The job which David has started; He’s determined to finish.”
Around the same time, another endorsement – written to a Bangladeshi newspaper by 101 imams – was being cited by the election commissioner, Richard Mawrey, as one of the reasons that the 2014 re-election of Lutfur Rahman as mayor of Tower Hamlets should be voided. This letter, argued Mawrey, contravened the law against undue spiritual influence – a law unused and pretty much unheard of since the 19th century. It was first invented to stop the Irish working classes from falling under the influence of the Catholic church after the introduction of secret ballots (which meant that landowners could no longer control how their tenants were voting) and was bound up with a racist view of the Irish as stupid and with conspiracy theories about Catholicism as some alien power intent on taking over.
So why was the imams’ letter a reason for Rahman’s election being voided but Patel’s letter not a reason for Cameron’s election being voided? Like Patel’s letter, it contained no sense of threat, nor implication of any spiritual consequences for those who chose to vote otherwise. Yet, in an astonishing display of double standards, the imams’ letter was used to void an election result and Patel’s letter has passed with barely a mention. So maybe this is, deep down, really about Islam. For just like English attitudes towards Catholicism in the 19th century, English attitudes towards Islam often regard it as some malevolent and foreign power, requiring exceptional legal treatment – including silencing at election time.
“Why are all the free-speech humanists so quiet about this?” asked Conor Gearty,professor of human rights law at the LSE. And the answer is probably that many of them dislike religion more than they support free speech.
Yes, there were other important reasons that Rahman’s election was dodgy: vote-rigging, corruption etc. And because of this – and anxious not to be seen as an apologist for Rahman – many have been reluctant to question Mawrey’s interpretation of the law of spiritual influence. But obscured by the public outcry against Rahman, Mawrey has opened the most enormous can of worms. It is possible Mawrey got the law wrong. In a legal opinion I commissioned, one leading QC has challenged Mawrey’s interpretation as, among other things, inconsistent with the European convention on freedom of expression.
But the question at stake here extends far beyond the mayoralty of Tower Hamlets. Should religious leaders have the same freedom of political expression as non-religious leaders? Unions advise their members on voting. Business leaders write to the newspapers doing the same. Or are we religious types so uniquely gullible and easily led – and our leaders so manipulative – that a law is necessary to silence us from expressing political opinions?
Source: The Guardian