Noah Smith: Islam Needs To Separate Church and State

The Islamist terrorist attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the hideous nightmare of ISIS have reignited the controversy in the West over the nature of Islam. President Obama and others have argued that ISIS is “not Islamic,” and some Muslim scholars have called the Charlie Hebdo attacks a “betrayal” of Islam. The French gunmen and ISIS warriors, of course, beg to differ.

I’m not going to take a position on whether modern Islamist violence is truly Islamic or not - I’m not a scholar of Islam, and thus I am not qualified to judge (and neither is President Obama). That is a question for Islamic scholars to decide. But as an outside observer, I do think it is pretty clear that the wave of Islamist violence that has rocked the world in the last few decades shows that there is a major, deep-seated problem with the Islamic religion, and I think I know what it is. Most of Islam has not yet recognized the importance of the separation of church and state.

Consider the most famous waves of Christian violence, in the 16th and 17th centuries. Wars of religion devastated Europe, killing huge percentages of national populations. States disintegrated and acts of terror were commonplace. The main impetus for these wars was the question of which Christian sect - Protestantism or Catholicism - would rule each state. Clergy had great amounts of political power, dispensing law and owning huge tracts of land. Nationalism was, as yet, weak. The question of which religion would dominate in which area was also the question of who would rule. 

Eventually Europe’s religious wars calmed down, and a solution was reached. In the Peace of Westphalia, it was agreed that governments - not clergy - would get to decide which religion would prevail in their territories. A century later, the founders of the United States went even further, declaring that religious institutions and governmental institutions should be separate. No doubt the holocaust of the previous century loomed large in their minds.

Nowadays, the Middle East is embroiled in a set of conflicts that look a bit reminiscent of the European Wars of Religion. A few powerful, cohesive states - Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey - are fueling proxy wars in anarchic areas like Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen. The wars are being carried out by religious zealots, who have heeded a global call to arms. Meanwhile, lone individuals or small groups carry out horrific acts of individual violence that we now know as “terrorism,” claiming religion as their motivation. Two sects - Sunni and Shia - are pitted against each other, although there is also fighting among Sunnis of different sects, and ethnic and tribal fighting mixed in. Just as the European Wars of Religion featured Christians mostly killing Christians, the Islamic Wars of Religion feature mostly Muslims killing other Muslims.

It’s worth noting that the Islamic Wars of Religion are, so far, much less violent and deadly than their European predecessors. Christianity’s troubles killed tens of millions; Islam’s have probably killed less than one million, out of a much larger population. The modern age really is less violent than the past. But the violence in Islamic countries and by Muslim terrorists is still disturbing and needs to stop.

The obvious solution, it would seem, is for Islam to come to the same collective realization that Christianity came to after 1648 - that church and state make for a volatile mix, and should be separated. I believe this will eventually happen. But it is going to be difficult, for three reasons.

The first reason is historical. Islam, unlike Christianity, was originally sold as a means for creating the Good Society. I highly recommend Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, which explains the political orientation of early Islam. Whereas Christianity, like most religions, was born as a spiritual cult, Islam was born as a conquering empire and a system of jurisprudence. Christianity acquired its addiction to state power long after its founding, while Islam’s came immediately and never really went away.

Whatever the reason, most Muslims still seem to think of Islam as a legal system, rather than as a path to salvation or spiritual enlightenment. According to a 2013 Pew survey, large majorities in most Muslim countries support making sharia (Islamic religious law) the law of the land. If Islam is ever going to embrace separation of church and state, this idea will have to go.

The second reason is linguistic. Countries like Iran, Turkey, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, though majority-Islamic, have had far more success in escaping theocracy (and avoiding the scourge of Islamist violence) than have the Arab countries. (Iran is only a partial exception: Iran has remained largely peaceful since its revolution, and is quasi-democratic. Its sponsorship of international terrorism has been very limited.) Since Arab countries share a common language, the forces of nationalism in Iraq or Syria or Saudi Arabia will naturally be weaker, and the forces of theocracy will be that much stronger in comparison. Saddam Hussein and the Assad family tried to substitute nationalism for theocracy, but their regimes ultimately proved too fragile.

The third reason is economic. The Arabian peninsula and Iran are rich with oil, which brings the curse of bad institutions. National governments have little incentive to build strong secular national institutions like bureaucracies, educational systems, and courts, because they can just tax oil revenue and live like princes (which, of course, many of them are). That lack of good institutions opens a vacuum for Islamists to fill.

So the deck is stacked against the Arabian peninsula and North Africa. It will simply be harder for these countries to embrace separation of church and state than it was for European countries to do so. But still, I think that there is only so much theocratic violence that people can stomach before they wake up to the collective realization that a religion does not make a good government. Separation of church and state may be late in coming to the Islamic world, but come it must.