Intersection of Religion and Politics– who is on the losing side in this encounter.

Gulay Icoz |


Over the past two months, I see that religion is playing a significant role in politics, both domestically and internationally. The UK and Ireland archbishops’ warning of the government’s  Internal Market Bill, ongoing confrontation between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the French President Emmanuel Macron over Islam and Secularism, and the Catholic Church’s success in tightening the abortion laws in Poland are good examples of the intersection of religion and politics. In the case of the UK, we see illegitimate religious actors interfering in political processes, while in the other two examples we note that Erdogan and Kaczynski using their association with religious institutions for their political agendas.

The person on the street knows that in democracies, we elect our representatives to represent our interests and make decisions on our behalf on numerous policy areas at different levels of government. There are also mechanisms through which the public can keep the politicians to account. To put it in simple terms, when and if the electorate is not happy with the politicians’ policy choices, in the next elections, they vote them out.  However, not alone the person on the street, but also the person with a certain level of education, do not have an idea about how much religious institutions and actors are involved both in our everyday life choices (private/public). Beyond that, the relationship between the religious institutions/actors and the elected politicians is not always transparent. The interests of the public in this interaction is the one that raises alarm bells.

Following are the questions that have been occupying my mind:

  • Why are religious actors, symbols and expectations are popping up time and again in politics?
  • How and why religious actors are given platforms to express their views on the day of the business?
  • How can you explain the intersection between religion and politics?
  • What is the public’s place in this interaction?
  • Is religious politics an outcome of rational calculations of both politician and religious actors?

I do not have answers for all the above listed questions. Instead I have some observations which may address some of those questions.

Internal Market Bill

On 19th October, the five primates of the UK and Ireland have written a joint letter in Financial Times, setting out their grave concerns about the UK’s Internal Market Bill. They said: ‘the UK government is not only preparing to break the protocol but also to breach a fundamental tenet of the agreement: namely by limiting the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights in Northern Ireland law.’  Additionally, they implicitly implored their fellow peers in the House of Lords to take responsibility and stop the democratically elected government in passing the Internal Market Bill by saying: “We wish to highlight the grave responsibility of peers… as they debate the UK Internal Market Bill’.

I like to make a couple of points in relation to the above. First, the UK government’s Internal Market Bill can be criticised on many grounds, and the legitimate institutions and actors, such as the opposition political parties have expressed their position on this bill. At the same time, the European Commission has already started a formal infringement process against the United Kingdom. Whereas the UK and Ireland archbishops’ interference in the democratic process do raise questions about the role of religious institutions and actors’ role in the UK political system and the impact they may have on the political processes.

Second, I know from my observations that the UK archbishops, if not regularly, occasionally do express their views on the political processes, which means there is a culture of religious actors interfering with the political processes in the UK. Whether they succeed in affecting the outcomes of the political processes, and whether seen as a problem in UK politics, I am not sure.

Third, how an illegitimate and unelected body like the Archbishops of the UK and Ireland can openly ask another unelected House of the Westminster Parliament to interfere and block the passage of a bill. It is this level of interference which makes me ask: whose interest the Archbishops of the UK and Ireland do represent, what kind of relationship Archbishops have with the House of Lords, and is there any mechanism to keep to account.

Islam versus Secularism

The tension between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the French President Emmanuel Macron began to intensify, and to this day it is still escalating when in early October Macron said:  “Islam is a religion which is experiencing a crisis today,” and announced stricter oversight of schooling and better control over foreign funding of mosques. Macron’s statement was an open provocation beyond disrespect for Erdogan, who responded:  “Who are you to talk about the structuring of Islam?” What made the relationship between Macron and Erdogan worst was the tragic murder of Samuel Paty, a French history teacher, for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to his students. Upon this, Macron said that “We will not give up caricatures and drawings, even if others back away”.

I like to offer a couple of points. First, Macron and Erdogan are seating on the opposite side of the seesaw. Macron is an advocate of Secularism, on the other hand, there is Erdogan, who in all his political career fought against ‘French-inspired Turkish version of Secularism’.  Therefore, it is only average for them to disagree and confront each other at this level.

Second, Erdogan, from his first day in politics to this day, has gradually, but consistently, both favoured use of religious symbols in everyday life and allowed involvement of the religious institutions and actors in the political processes in Turkey.  That meant religion continuously have a high impact on the policy decisions and choices made by Erdogan. Having said that when the intersection between politicians and the religious institutions and actors has become constant and persistent in Turkey, ultimately it became harder to work out on who is influencing who, whose interests the government and the religious institutions do represent, and more importantly, where do the public’s interests lie in this interaction.

Third, as far as what motivates Erdogan and Macron in their attack for each other apart from having a different position on the separation of government institutions and persons from religious institutions. I do not think Erdogan is standing up against a secular and Christian leader in the best interests of the Muslims. Erdogan, who earned a name across the globe for his vociferous character and a strong opinion about religion, is using religion to create a smokescreen to cover up the downturn of the economy and rising COVID-19 cases in Turkey. Every news outlet in Turkey has been covering this story, hailing him for his words, used against Macron. While the interest of his loyal voters and Muslim communities is the least of Erdogan’s concern, the problem is that it is difficult to prove to these people that Erdogan is only confronting Macron because it serves well his current political interests. As for Macron, he is representing one of the most secular country  in Europe, but his dispute with Erdogan is not only motivated by Secularism. There is a suggestion that Macron likes Erdogan using this situation in his benefit, as 2022 Presidential Election is looming, and he is head-to-head with far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the opinion polls.

Polish Women versus the Catholic Church

On 22nd of October, the Polish Constitutional Court outlawed abortion in cases where the foetus is severely damaged or malformed; which meant that in practice now means almost all forms of abortion are banned. The tightening Poland’s abortion laws were welcomed by senior church figures, including archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, head of Poland’s episcopal conference, having pushed for it for a long time. However, the women whom this ruling most concerned took to the streets to protest against the Court’s declaration and have disrupted masses and spray-painted churches. Whereas the Jarosław Kaczynski, who is the leader of ruling Law and Justice political party and Deputy Prime Minister of Poland, regarded demonstrators’ action as an ‘attack to destroy Poland’ and called on for his supporters to turn out on the streets to defend churches at any cost, in a way he permitted violence against the protesters.

First, since 2015 the PiS has been overhauling the Polish Legal system regardless of the EU’s criticism and the Article 7 procedure. Thus the constitutional courts have been going through a reform. I cannot say for sure, but the judges may have been sympathetic to the PiS’s agenda, as well as to the Catholic Church’s demands when declaring the tightening of the abortion law.

Second, Kaczynski’s harsh critique of the protestors and his call on his supporters are an indication of a deeper problem Kaczynski may have. Kaczynski is failing to read the public mood about abortion law, but more so on women’ place in the society. This might cost him women’ vote in the next elections.

Third, the interaction of Catholic Church and the leadership of the PiS, the close connection between them and how out of touch they are with Polish society, but particularly with women who are demanding a voice in political processes and want to decide for themselves, in this case, whether they want to have an abortion or not. I think that women screaming in the face of a local priest for the first time and chanting at them to “go back to church”, is a piece of evidence that Polish women are saying ‘no’ to status quo, pointing to Churches where priests should be based, not interfering with politics and in women’s personal choices.

In conclusion, religion and politics together do not seem to serve in the interests of us all, either religious actors want to see politicians representing their demands in the political processes, or politicians use religion for their political agendas. The losing side in this interaction is us all; but like the Polish Women, we can always stand up to them.