In the United States the separation of church and state is regarded as a founding principle, embedded in the constitution and the writings of Thomas Jefferson. The belief that there should be a divide between the practices and the institutions of religious bodies and those of political power has become widely accepted in the Western world. In contrast to that paradigm are the political Islamist movements that emerged in the post-colonial Middle East which supplement their religious teaching with a large measure of political and social outreach.
Since 9/11, many in the Western world regard the combination of Islam and politics with deep suspicion. This perception has been reinforced by the barbarous acts of the Islamic State (ISIS) and its persecutions of minority groups.
Such acts are far from the norm in the treatment of minorities in Muslim countries. Jocelyne Cesari, a professor of religion and politics at the University of Birmingham (UK) and director of the Islam in the West Program at Harvard University, told The Media Line.
“We tend to assume that the discrimination towards religious minorities comes about because Islam is intolerant and does not separate between religion and politics, but that ignores centuries of history.” Violence towards minority groups is actually the result of a form of nationalism that uses Islam to solidify its concept of identity, the Harvard academic said.
As an example Cesari explained that violence towards ethnic minorities in Turkey started not with the Islamist Ottoman Empire, but with the nationalist Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. “We think that secular states in the region have been more favorable to religious minorities but it’s not the case.” As a result, there is a notion among some Western intellectuals that the Islamic religious world must subject itself to a divorce from politics similar to that undergone by European states during the Enlightenment.
“(Rather) what needs to happen is for the state to extend its equity to all religions,” Cesari argued, singling out the political changes that have taken place in Tunisia since 2011, where synagogues have been granted funding and status similar to mosques.
It would be a mistake for outsiders to put pressure on Muslims to separate politics and religion, Adam Deen, a former Muslim extremist who now works as head of outreach with the Quilliam Foundation, a UK-based think-tank aimed at countering radicalization, told The Media Line.
“To try and make Islam apolitical is counterproductive, it just won’t work. Islam does in fact have something to say in terms of politics,” Deen added
Muslims who argue that there is but one form of governance that is Islamic are mistaken. Nevertheless, there are principles inherent in Islam which can and will be manifested through politics, Deen said, singling out equity, justice and mercy. “It’s not a political system as such, but political values, and it is up to Muslim intellectuals or theologians to bring about these values in the most appropriate manner.”
In Deen’s opinion, liberal democracy is the best way of ensuring that these values are realized.
An over-reliance on secularism has brought about two flaws in Western understandings of the dynamic between politics and religion, Andrea Mura, a lecturer with the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, told The Media Line.
The first is an assumption that events in the Muslim world that are inherently political are actually ‘religious’ or ‘Islamic’ in nature. “This is true for modern Islamism, whose emergence should never be delinked from the struggle against colonial or foreign powers,” Mura said.
The second failing is a lack of self-awareness when it comes to the role religion plays in many Western nations’ political discourse. “Think about the modern theory of the state where the theological unity of God is translated into the unitary concept of ‘sovereignty’,” the academic said.
When it comes to the suggestion that political Islam somehow encourages violence, opinions are mixed.
“I think that’s totally (false). It’s just not a well-founded theory. Radicals exist everywhere, and not just in religion,” Basel Sader, a Palestinian law student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told The Media Line. Radicals from all ideological spectrums - Muslims, Christians, Jews, democrats and even peace activists - have proven violent at one time or another. “It has absolutely nothing to do with Islam,” Sader added.
Adam Deen was less dismissive of the idea, suggesting that authoritarian forms of Islam espouse a violent ideology. “The problem is that there is one interpretation of sharia law that is being imposed on society and on Muslims. That will lead to conflict,” he said.
In fact an ideology located between the secularism of the West and the violent Islamism of ISIS is likely to emerge. Previously it was imagined that this shift would come from the Muslim populations of Europe and the United States, but it increasingly appears that it will emerge in Middle Eastern countries like Tunisia, Jocelyne Cesari explained. “It is a question that the new generation is prepared to address in ways I hadn’t anticipated ten years ago.”
Far from Western notions that the internet is awash with radical scheming, the social media is in fact facilitating discussions among the next generation of Muslims who are keen to discuss with each other how Islam and politics can be combined, Andrea Mura noted.
For many living in the Middle East, any form of change from the current reality will be welcomed, Basel Sader argued. “(Young people) are just sick of the way things are, they just want to change the current system, the current situation.”