Get Religion out of Politics a Trend toward Tolerance Allows Intolerant Believers to Thrive

Article excerpt

The norm for judging modernity in a society -- in human rights and in political and economic terms -- has moved steadily toward greater secularity.

This evolution has included growing tolerance of different religious beliefs. Some practitioners of some religions have taken advantage of this trend to insist on practicing their beliefs even if they are at variance with the views of the society within which they live and to seek to punch above their numerical weight in political affairs.

At one point in my life I was a member of a British Army officers' mess in which a hard-and-fast rule was no discussion of religion or politics. This rule was enforced because discussion of these two issues could be divisive to the unit, and, thus, destructive of its ability to fight as a unified body in the event of combat.

Nothing of this rule prevented some members of the mess to worship together in the unit chapel, nor to gather together after the service to "thirst after righteousness." It worked, to the degree that to this day I couldn't tell you what the personal religious beliefs of virtually any of the group's members were, even though I knew some of them quite well.

Now, in 2012, when it seems that more and more of the world's population is indifferent to or only formally practicing religions, religious differences are playing a disproportionate role in politics. And as I've said, certain sects are taking advantage of the secular, liberal -- I know, anything but that! -- practice of tolerance by modern governments to organize themselves and use their religious beliefs as a basis for political action.

One prime example are the governments and political structures emerging in the wake of the Arab Spring and other political evolutions in the Middle East.

In Egypt, if the popular drive toward democratization gets free of the stranglehold of the Egyptian military (financed at $1.3 billion a year by the United States), the political contest to rule the country will be between secularists, the relatively moderate Islamic Brotherhood and the more extreme Salafi Islamists, with the traditionally tolerated Copts and other old Christian sects trying to stay safe under the table.

This is not to say that Egyptians were better off under the Hosni Mubarak regime, or that they would be better off if the military keeps its hands on their throats and in their pockets, but there is a supreme irony in the fact that implementing democracy -- which implies modernization -- also involves a very old-fashioned religious dust-up, including violence and possibly the burning of places of worship and the like.

Another example: It is no secret that the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003 set off inter-religious strife among Iraq's majority Muslims that resulted in the departure of most of the country's Christians, practitioners of very old rites, some dating literally from the time of Christ. …