Lockdown has led many of us to take up obscure hobbies to while away the hours cooped up at home. But Ed Davey, acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, is breaking new ground by dabbling in other people’s religious practices.
Davey is among several Lib Dems fasting as part of Ramadan this year, the MP having tweeted to Muslims “doing Ramadan in isolation, you are not alone!” He was joined by Layla Moran, an MP and potential future leader, as well as councillor Ian Manning, who helpfully tweeted a picture of the bacon he was breaking his fast with.
Critics have inevitably decried the Lib Dem Iftar – named after the evening meal Muslims break their fast with – as virtue signalling. Where such criticism alleges bad faith it surely misses the mark: almost nobody is as earnest as a Lib Dem.
Squint and you can see why some people thought this was a good idea. Ramadan will, like much else in life, be made harder for people to do without the support of others, as the Lib Dem councillor Hina Bokhari laid out in a piece for EasternEye. Virtual solidarity is better than none, and that’s beside the predictable boilerplate about building understanding between different groups.
Some Muslims might even appreciate the gesture, but it will come across to others as patronising. Religious observance is not about following the form of a ritual, but ascribing meaning to it beyond the mere act. In that sense the Lib Dems are just randomly fasting.
A better criticism levelled against the Lib Dems is that there have seemingly not been similar campaigns around Christian Lent or Jewish Passover. It would be surprising if Lib Dem politicians had no recent interaction with Christian or Jewish practices on similar grounds (not least because ceremonies of the British state have Christian trappings), but there is still something to this accusation.
The trouble for the Lib Dems is that, as for many progressive or leftish parties, there is a perception they are warmer towards religions that aren’t Christianity. It is hard to imagine a Muslim leader of the party would have been ousted for their religious views on gay relationships, for example, as was the case for the Christian leader Tim Farron.
More recently Rob Flello was dropped as a party candidate over his Catholic views about abortion and gay marriage. I don’t believe the Lib Dems would have acted the same towards a Muslim candidate with similar views, or even a Jewish one.
This is a wider sticking point for progressives: they hold Christians to stricter standards than other believers, particularly those who are white or ethnically British. Among the justifications for this is the view that criticism of foreign religions can add to prejudice against minority groups, who may be underprivileged in other ways too.
One problem with this is that majority or plurality groups may perceive that such progressive parties are not on their side, or are even prejudiced against them. Sometimes they may even be right: some progressives do dislike their homeland and its culture, as George Orwell famously pointed out.
That such views are hypocritical and unjustified is a topic for another article. What is pertinent is that progressive parties are unlikely to win elections if they alienate most potential voters.