Civil Liberties

If imams may not influence voters, why should priests or bishops?


According to Dominic Kennedy, Investigations Editor of The Times, there is an 18th-century law which prohibits the ‘spiritual influence’ of the electorate in the process of democracy. He writes (£):

Influencing voters is illegal, judge tells priests and imams

Religious leaders were told by a judge yesterday that it was unlawful to instruct their followers to vote for particular candidates in an election.

Richard Mawrey, QC, an election commissioner, said that priests and imams could be committing the 19th-century offence of “spiritual influence” if they told their supporters it was forbidden to vote for a certain candidate.

Mr Mawrey, a High Court deputy judge, gave the warning as the case opened against Lutfur Rahman, the mayor of the London borough of Tower Hamlets, who is accused of winning re-election last year by telling Muslims that it was their religious duty to vote for him. Mr Rahman is fighting all allegations against him.

Spiritual influence in elections was last alleged in a British court against Irish Catholic clergy in Victorian times. They were accused of ordering their rural parishioners to vote for candidates sympathetic to Home Rule.

The context is the investigation into the “corrupt campaign” which led to the election of Lutfur Rahman as Mayor of Tower Hamlets. The Guardian explains:

It was claimed that a Bengali newspaper, The Weekly Desh, published a letter signed by 101 Islamic leaders which was “intended to have undue influence on the Muslim population of the borough”, Hoar said. Their pronouncements had been used to cajole and control many within the local 65,000-strong Muslim community.

The court heard that one of the petitioners saw a voter crying outside a polling station after allegedly being told by a supporter of Rahman that it was “un-Islamic” not to vote for him, and that if you did not vote for him you were “not a good Muslim”. Bribes were also used to win over voters, the court heard, with meals given out on election day. Hoar said that there was evidence of “interference with voters” – including in polling booths.

And the Evening Standard:

Mr Rahman is said to have spoken at an event at The Waterlily last May where local imam Mawlana Shamsul Haque is claimed to have urged those attending “to retain truth, righteousness and practise religious belief” by voting for him. He is said to have prayed for Mr Rahman’s victory at a wedding at the same venue a week later.

Now, allegations of voter intimidation, bribery, electoral fraud, slush funds, contractual corruption and medieval monarchies aside (Tower Hamlets is manifestly a very rotten Islamic borough), the crime of ‘spiritual influence’ is an interesting prohibition, for what religious leader does not desire to influence his (or her) flock toward a particular conception of the common good? Is it socially harmful or dangerous to exhort one’s followers to vote for a particular candidate in an election? Is it a deviant behaviour? Is not society shaped by interpersonal relationships which are subject to forms of social control – either formal or informal – and these require compliance to certain norms and cohesive values?

The crime of ‘spiritual influence’ belongs to the demonic era of criminal law – when Satan was the explanation of all evil and demon-possession the excuse for sin, vice and crime. Punishment is not only carnal and temporal, but preternatural and eternal: vengeance belongs to God. If, as alleged, Lutfur Rahman persuaded or colluded with Imam Mawlana Shamsul Haque in order to exhort faithful Muslims “to retain truth, righteousness and practise religious belief”, what business is that of the criminal court?

Certainly, if this exhortation was complimented with certain physical ‘assistance’, then it would be a matter for the courts. But spiritual influence?

Is it supposed to deter Roman Catholic priests from expressing an opinion about public morality? Is it a crime to encourage a congregation not to vote for a particular parliamentary candidate because they happen to support abortion or same-sex marriage? Has a criminal offence been committed if this catechetical instruction goes further – an assertion that to vote for a particular candidate might meet with divine disapproval and judgment? Is it a matter for the courts if a vicar says that voting Labour must be followed by repentance? What if an entire church – from the lowliest curate to its most senior archbishop – favours a particular political settlement (UK membership of the European Union, for example), and makes it very clear in its sermons, meetings, conferences and briefings that it is an enlightened, transformational Christian enterprise which must be supported by all who work for peace and reconciliation? Should Roman Catholic and Anglican prelates be prosecuted for influencing their parishioners to vote for candidates opposed to home rule?

Obviously, a congregation is not obliged to obey a political exhortation, but coming from a pulpit such encouragement is undoubtedly embroidered with soteriological significance. Forget Lutfur Rahman and his coterie of compliant imams, how can it be a criminal offence for any religious leader to urge people “to retain truth, righteousness and practise religious belief”, and then to make it clear that, in their judgment, Candidate A is more righteous than Candidate B?

Is the crime of ‘spiritual influence’ not designed to enforce a concept of ‘neutral’ secularity in the public sphere, making it a criminal offence for people of faith to engage in democracy? Surely they should be free to exhort and we free to denounce? Where does such a crime leave the Christian Party? If it should be illegal for religious leaders to guide or ever-so-subtly coerce others in how they might vote, why are the 26 Lords Spiritual in the Upper Chamber of Parliament?