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Don’t let extremists own the badge

14 December 2018

Pitting Christian and Muslim identities against one another abets the far right, says Graeme Smith


A supporter of PEGIDA, a far-right, anti-Islam German political group, holds a crucifix at a rally

A supporter of PEGIDA, a far-right, anti-Islam German political group, holds a crucifix at a rally

THE European refugee crisis has demonstrated that the Churches need to develop a new understanding of Christian identity. In particular, they need a notion of Christian identity that can resist the extreme right wing’s appropriation of the term “Christian”. What is required is a way of incorporating a positive idea of “the Muslim” into what we mean when we say “Christian”.

This will seem paradoxical, because we are used to thinking in terms of a binary choice of being either “Christian” or “Muslim”. But, because right-wing groups employ the term “Christian” as a way of describing themselves and Western society, while excluding and often demonising migrants, some form of theological response is needed that goes beyond simply saying that they are wrong. Politically and pastorally, what is required is a theological notion of Christian identity which is fluid enough to incorporate Islam.

The need for this redefinition is made apparent by a collection of essays, Religion in the European Refugee Crisis. Although the refugee crisis has slipped from the media spotlight recently, the issues remain, as do the related questions of immigration. Some of the essays make clear that church members, together with other faith groups, work hard to help and support vulnerable refugees.


THE Churches, however, are not the only people using the term “Christian” in relation to the refugee crisis. The adjective “Christian” is also being used by right-wing groups to describe themselves, and the society and culture that they see themselves defending. “Christian”, in this context, means being white, being “not Muslim”, and belonging exclusively to a particular, constructed Western society that needs defending from a perceived Muslim attack.

One example of this phenomenon is PEGIDA (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes) an extremist right-wing group which enacts what Dr Ulrich Schmiedel calls a performance of Christianity. Dr Schmiedel describes how the group’s founder, Lutz Bachmann, employs rhetoric which suggests that all migrants are Muslims intent on overthrowing Western Christian society. In his speeches, Mr Bachman equates violence and terrorism with Islam, and then accuses political and church leaders of neglecting their duty by leaving Europe open to invasion.

Perhaps more shockingly, church leaders have been known to share some of this rhetoric. The Hungarian Roman Catholic Bishop László Kiss-Rigó contradicted Pope Francis’s support of refugees when he stated that the Pope did not know “the situation on the ground”. It was, Bishop Kiss-Rigó asserted, not a refugee problem but rather “an invasion. . . They come here with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’. They want to take over.”


ONE response is to say that right-wing political leaders, and some clergy, are simply mistaken, and don’t know what they are talking about; the real Christians are the ones who want to help refugees. But such criticisms are dismissed by leaders such as Mr Bachmann, who describe them as the empty words of the “fat princes of the Church” who have “sold their faith” for a “few pieces of silver”.

So, more is needed theologically if we are to support refugees. A definition of Christianity is required that, first, is appreciated by people who think of themselves as white, Western, Christian, and under threat. It then also has to include something of Islam, its theology and history. The Churches need to construct an identity that states, paradoxically, that if one calls oneself Christian then one is also participating in the history and theology of Islam.

It is not clear what this identity might look like; the priority is to begin the task of constructing it. It cannot be constructed by Christians alone: they will need the expertise of Muslim scholars. Nor should the Churches argue that Islamic scholars also need to redefine Islam; the problem is one for the Churches and their relationship with right-wing extremists who call themselves Christian.

Some may be fearful that to go down this route will dilute religious identity, be it Christian or Muslim. Such criticism, however, ignores the interwoven nature of Christian and Islamic histories. It is a mistake to presume that a sort of pure Christian identity emerged in the West parallel to an equally separate Islamic identity constructed elsewhere. Our histories are shared, overlapping, and our theologies make sense only because of their intermingled relationship.

To suggest that a distinctive and exclusive Christian identity exists is to make a political, not a historical or theological point. Those who make it risk adding fuel to the fire of right-wing extremism. Christian identity needs to be reclaimed. The need is urgent; it is the political and interfaith challenge of our times.

Dr Graeme Smith is Professor of Public Theology at the University of Chichester.

He is co-editor with Ulrich Schmiedel of Religion in the European Refugee Crisis, which is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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