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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Islam and the Separation of Church and State

There are many who believe that for Muslims, the separation of church and state, or in the case of Islam, separation of mosque and state, is an impossibility. And to be sure, for some Islamic groups, like Al Qaeda ("The Al Qaeda Reader") or ISIS ("What To Do About Iraq" "ISIS and Mosul's Christians"), this certainly appears to be true. However, it isn't necessarily a nonnegotiable feature of Islamic life. Or to put it in biblical terms, it isn't written in stone. About 1,000 years ago, the Muslim theologian and scholar Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazzali wrote,
Know that you can have three sets of relations with princes, governors, and oppressors. The first and worst is that you visit them, the second and better is that they visit you, and the third and surest is that you stay far away from them, so that neither you see them nor they see you.
Al-Ghazzali's use of the term, visit, should be understood as indicating who is subservient to whom. In this case, the one doing the visiting is the weaker party. He also writes from the perspective of the religious believer, so that "you" refers to religious individuals and "them" and "they" refer to governmental authorities ("princes, governors, and oppressors").

Thus, al-Ghazzali believes that the worst situation is when the state controls religion, and uses religion to pursue political goals. Examples of this include England after Henry VIII broke from the Roman Catholic Church, and Nicaragua into the 1970s when the Catholic Church gave its uncritical support of the the country's ruling elites. Better, according to al-Ghazzali, but still not the best, is a theocracy, when religion controls the state. Iran, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, is an example of this. The best situation, though, according to al-Ghazzali, is when religion and politics stay out of each other's way ("you stay far away from them, so that neither you see them nor they see you").

This, of course, is easier said than done since most people of faith are also citizens of the society in which they live, and it's unreasonable to think they'll leave their faith at the door when they enter the public square. In fact, most people don't care when faith communities advocate on behalf of a program, position, or policy with which they agree; it's just when faith communities take a position contrary to their views that they get their knickers in a twist. Thus, in the 1980s many on the left didn't take exception to the various religious groups (e.g., Sanctuary Movement) that protested the Reagan Administration's policies in Central America (see Christian Smith, "Resisting Reagan: The U.S. Central America Peace Movement"), while becoming unglued by the political activism of the Religious Right at the same time. Many people also forget that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was accused of "legislating morality" by Southern whites.

But I digress. The point is not so much that the practice of church and state separation is hard but that theological resources exist for predominantly Islamic countries to embrace the separation of mosque and state as well. Al-Ghazzali was no theological lightweight. He has been referred to by some historians as the single most influential Muslim after the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Thus, the possibility exists for his theological views to spread far and wide in the Muslim world. Let's hope they do.

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