When Mosque and State Merge: Lessons from the Global War on Terrorism

Article excerpt

In the current "culture war" over church-state relations, Americans often miss the big picture. Whether debating religion in public schools, religious symbols on public property or faith-based initiatives, we fail to consider these issues in their broader context. Our greater exposure to the Islamic world as a result of the "global war on terrorism" can give us new perspectives on this issue.

Recognizing the role of religion in our history, and embracing it in many of our personal lives (the private sphere), while maintaining a clear separation of church and state in the public sphere, have been the foundation for preserving the religious freedom that matters to both liberals and conservatives in this country.

To better appreciate this distinction, we can consider three battlegrounds in the global war on terrorism: Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. Old and new developments in these countries illuminate the importance of the private sphere/public sphere distinction in cultures where religion and the state are often assumed to be inextricably connected. Two of these countries have recent or current experience with religiously based government--Afghanistan under the Taliban, and Iran as an Islamic republic. Both have proven failures. The third country, Iraq, is now debating the role of religion in its future constitutional and political framework.

Between 1996 and 2001, most of Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban, a fanatical Islamist movement. The Taliban instituted and applied its crude version of Islamic government and law based loosely on the Shari'a. Enforced by the religious police over all aspects of private and public life, the severity and cruelty of that regime is well-known.

In addition to the horrific toll on individual Afghans, national institutions essential to civil society and individual liberty were systematically dismantled and devastated. For example, Kabul University, the jewel of the higher education system in Afghanistan, devolved to the point where it had no books for the students; they had all been burned by the Taliban as insufficiently religious. Many individuals from all walks of life who lived under the Taliban spoke to us of the alienation of the people from the regime, and consequently even of Islam.

Iran's government by "guardianship of the Islamic jurist" (velayat-e-faqih) is now rejected by much of the population. Observers within and outside the country have told us of the widespread antipathy of young people (over half the population of Iran is under 30) towards the religious figures who run the country, and consequently of religion itself. While most Iranians embrace Shi'a Islam, both the intellectual elite and ordinary citizens increasingly demand--or quietly dream of--a state in which Islam is a private matter, not a government program. …