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 Iran\xadians 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. The more the government imposes religion in the private sphere, the more it has alienated people from both the regime and its religion.
Iraq holds a special place in Islamic history, where the nascent religion of the Arabs was transformed into a “golden age” under the Abbasid caliphs in the ninth and tenth centuries of the common era. Yet during this period, religion and government were actually quite separate; the secular caliphs and the religious leaders (ulama) coexisted but were left to their own relative public and private spheres. This made the literary, scientific, political and other achievements of the Abbasids possible.
More recently, in the decades before Saddam Hussein came to power, Iraq’s secular government built the foundations for one of the most developed and progressive states in the modern Arab world. The challenge before the current government is to reassert that liberal tradition of secular government, where religion is allowed to develop fully, but in the private sphere. Just as Iran’s religious regime recoiled at the excesses of the Taliban to its east, many of Iraq’s Shi’ite leaders have looked eastward and recognized the failure of the velayat-e-faqih in Iran. This is a hopeful sign.
In all three of these countries, those who most value economic development, the rule of law and individual freedom (including religious freedom) emphasize the importance of allowing religion to develop as a component of civil society, separate from governmental supervision or sponsorship. The relegation of religion to the private sphere is not alien to Islamic civilization; indeed, history reveals that Islam flourishes most when government sponsors it the least.
This lesson should reinforce the value of strong and consistent church-state separation for preserving our own values and religious freedom.
David Wallace and Mark Welton are program directors in the Department of Law at West Point. Welton teaches comparative law and jurisprudence and also lectures on Islamic law. Wallace served in Afghanistan last year with a team devoted to establishing a National Military Academy of Afghanistan. As part of that effort, discussions were held with Afghan jurists, educators at all levels, government and military officials, business executives and clerics, as well as many Afghan citizens. The team traveled around the country and gained an appreciation for what Afghans endured during the reign of the Taliban. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not the Army or the U.S. Military Academy.