The Islamic State is only one example of its surprising return

Human history is full of surprises. Who would have imagined that something called the Internet would come along and comprehensively transform how the inhabitants of this planet relate to one another not only culturally and socially but even politically? After 1989, when one had decent reason to believe that the age of totalitarian ideologies was definitively over (or at least banished for many generations), who would have expected a new totalitarian ideology to be a significant global player so soon? And who on earth would have predicted that ancient theocracy, of all things, would come to define the core of this new ideology?

The problem of religion and politics is obviously still very much with us. For 35 years, we have had a stubbornly illiberal clerical regime in Iran. In Egypt not long ago we saw a popularly elected theocratic government, which was subsequently overthrown by what amounted to a military coup. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are fighting deadly serious jihadi insurgencies with theocratic ambitions that may or may not be defeated. In Syria and Iraq, the jihadi movement that now calls itself “the Islamic State” (formerly ISIL or ISIS) aspires to a restored caliphate, and has been able to demonstrate, with notable military victories against the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, that those aspirations are not a wild fantasy. No one surveying the scene in 2014 could confidently assert that theocracy as a possible regime has been banished to the past.

Islam gets most of the headlines, but the problem of contemporary theocratic politics is by no means limited to Islamic contexts. In Israel, both domestic politics and relations with the Palestinians are severely complicated by theocratic political parties. In the Balkans, we recently saw the Serbian Orthodox Church trying to scuttle a settlement between Serbia and Kosovo brokered by the European Union. Or consider reports, not long ago, of radical Buddhist monks helping to incite anti-Islamic ethnic violence in central Myanmar. The last is perhaps especially disturbing (certainly if one presumes that no religious tradition could be more politically benign than Buddhism!) since it underscores the existence of ugly forms of theocratic politics beyond the ambit of the three Abrahamic faiths. We see a similar phenomenon in Hindu nationalism. Indeed, a theocratic potential exists in all the world religions.

All of this, of course, demands urgent responses at the level of policy and practical judgement. But the renewed challenge of theocracy in our time also demands more considered intellectual responses at the level of moral reflection. For starters, we need to ask ourselves once again what defines a secular society (that is, a society founded on a principled rejection of theocracy), and why we prize secularist principles as we do. Why is secularism for us in liberal democratic societies an indispensable civic good?

Religion’s complicated balance sheet

We have a classic statement of the theocratic idea in Rev. Jerry Falwell’s memorable line (in his 1976 U.S. Independence Day sermon) that “the idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country.” To begin working through what is at issue here, think back for a moment to the 2012 U.S. presidential election. We wouldn’t want to bar Mitt Romney, a former bishop of the Mormon church, from seeking the presidency on account of his religious beliefs, but neither would we want those religious beliefs to have assumed any special authority had he been elected.

Political association is a community of citizens, not a community of believers. The political philosopher Will Kymlicka has written, “The boundaries of state and nation rarely if ever coincide perfectly, and so viewing the state as the possession of a particular national group can only alienate minority groups. The state must be seen as belonging equally to all people who are governed by it, regardless of their nationality.” The principle articulated here, which for me is a foundational one, is just the same (and just as valid) if we substitute religion and religious for nation and national (and the principle obviously has no less force in cases where a minority religion rather than the majority religion holds the seat of power). For the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to have any special authority vis-à-vis other denominations or other religions would mean that the state would be “owned” by Mormons, or owned by them to a greater extent than it is owned by other citizens. This would be, to put it fairly mildly, normatively problematical.

One’s views concerning a proper and desirable negotiation of the relationship between politics and religion inevitably draw on one’s general views about religion, and about whether introducing religion into political, social and moral matters tends to make things better or worse. Let me sketch my views as briefly as I can. Shared religion clearly provides a focus of communal loyalty and identity; and as people participate in these deeper identities they can become willing to sacrifice their own comfort or security in ways that may be more difficult to elicit from us secularist types. So we sometimes see religion provide a foundation for forms of moral and civic heroism that are indeed worthy of admiration.One might even consider the hypothesis that there’s a kind of “amplifier effect” associated with religion, exaggerating the moral tendencies that are already present – so that, in effect, religion makes good people better and bad people worse. The notion here would be that believing one knows what God expects of us tends to intensify human behaviour, whether generous or wicked, reinforcing our determination to care for the needy or persecute the unfaithful.

And if, human nature being what it is, there tends to be a preponderance of human vice over human virtue, that would then offer an easy explanation of why, in the overall balance sheet of human life, the harm associated with religion is at least equal to its benefits. I don’t think it’s reasonable for anyone to argue that religion is solely a source of good or solely a source of harm. Clearly, it’s a very complicated balance sheet, and determining exactly where the balance lies between the good that religion fosters and the harm that it does is anything but easy. Yes, the deeper identities and deeper solidarities elicited by religion sometimes make possible saintly good. But the very same deeper identities and deeper solidarities can also sometimes be mobilized on behalf of political evil.

Religion builds solidarities that often help people cope with the challenges of life, and sometimes even makes them better citizens. But naturally the question of whether religion contributes to useful solidarities is different from the question of the truth of what believers believe. My own fundamental problem with religion is more on the intellectual side than on the moral side. For me, the fundamental issue is what it does to human dignity to believe things that are unworthy of belief.

We’ve known for several centuries, and certainly since Darwin, that human beings – with their hopes for salvation and their fears of a death that is death and nothing else – are not the centre of some cosmic drama; and that God, if there is one, has no reason to take a special interest in the animal species that happens to have prevailed on this obscure planet. Don’t we simply embarrass ourselves by inflating our own importance to the level of objects of divine care and attention? It seems to me that, in the case of the three Abrahamic faiths, taking these religions seriously requires actually believing that (to take them in chronological order) there will be a Jewish Messiah, that Christ is the Redeemer of humanity’s sins, that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. But believing these articles of faith requires in turn the belief that this small planet of ours figures fairly importantly within a larger divine scheme. Is it intellectually credible, or intellectually respectable, to believe that in the post-Copernican, post-Darwinian world that we now inhabit? Even if everything connected with religion increased the stock of good in the world (which again is far from being a plausible view), wouldn’t there still be something humanly demeaning in needing to inject more meaning into the world than is really there in order to sustain a meaningful life?

I don’t think these are rhetorical questions. They are real questions that one is obliged to reflect on in pondering the proper role of religion in human life. No one disputes that life is full of mystery, and that with respect to the mysteries of birth, existence and death, there seems to be an ineliminable yearning to share in an apprehension of a meaning deeper than science will ever be able to supply. But as rational or cognitive beings, we understand – better than the purveyors of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament or the Qur’an were able to understand – that we live on a minute planet (an infinitesimal speck, really) in an unfathomably large universe, and it’s just not terribly plausible that human doings have the cosmic importance that these scriptures say they do. Furthermore, as moral beings, we can see quite clearly the historical reality that the world religions have caused at least as much havoc and destruction as they have moral good. As for God, it’s hard to see how it helps at all to abate the mysteries of existence that are apparent to all of us by simply invoking another mystery.

I can’t say I fully understand why so many people feel such a strong gravitational pull toward religion. But let’s face it, there are a thousand things I don’t understand about human nature. I don’t understand why people watch golf on television. I don’t understand why people vote for political parties representing the view that minimization of taxation is the highest purpose in political life. I don’t understand why people are interested in buying Rolex watches for $43,000. I don’t understand why people drive somewhere within walking distance when they can just as easily walk. And so on. Yet the reality is that these things are a part of how people define their lives, whether it makes sense to me or not. Nor is it particularly clear that I need to come to an understanding of these aspects of the inscrutable (to me) nature of human beings.

When religion becomes a problem

What matters, politically speaking, is not the reasonableness of what believers believe but rather how those beliefs affect our civic relationships – how we stand toward one another as citizens. For religion doesn’t just mean private belief. Religion commonly involves structures of churchly or priestly power and authority, and often asserts substantial political claims. Theocracy is the politicization of religion, which is why a liberal-secular society is not antireligious per se but is necessarily antitheocratic.

Admittedly, structures of clerical power are sometimes exercised for positive civic purposes. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is an absolutely unchallengeable case of religion being mobilized for noble and worthy civic ends. Another shining example of politically beneficial clerical authority is the civic heroism of Buddhist monks marching in protest against the rule of Burmese generals. But quite often, that same power is exercised for purposes that are hardly benign. It suffices to glance around the world today. Think of the religiously sanctioned oppression of homosexuals in Africa, the influence of Serbian Orthodox priests during the Yugoslav civil wars of the 1990s, religious extremism in Israel and Palestine, theocratic politics in Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan (a veritable sinkhole of ignominy and grief), the religious right in the United States. Think of countless other places where clerical political power is being abused – that is, helping to mobilize fear, hatred and cruelty. It is a common story, to the extent that it would be absurd to assert that the norm is for religious authorities to deploy their power and authority for worthy or even merely benign purposes.

Why do we pride ourselves on living in a secular society? We inhabit a society where women won’t be arrested or perhaps lashed for wearing the wrong clothes or listening to the wrong music; where no one will be accused of blasphemy or heresy; where one group of religionists won’t suffer pogroms at the hands of, or have their villages razed by, some other group of religionists (as apparently happens on a regular basis, for instance, in Nigeria); where gender equality won’t be put out of reach by people appealing to sacred scriptures; and so on. In short, we live in a society where religion is largely privatized, where liberty of individual judgement is vastly expanded, and where religion’s power of policing sexuality – historically, one of the chief sources, surely, of its social and political power – is dramatically curtailed. How can we consider this anything other than a political achievement of very large proportions?

Nor can it be assumed that theocratic politics are not a possibility even in the modern West. I’ve lived in two societies (Ireland and pre–Quiet Revolution Quebec) where, within living memory, politics was a priest-infested business. Neither of them was a happy experience. As Theodor Herzl said in trying to imagine what a Jewish state ought to look like, priests should be confined to their temples in the same way that soldiers should be confined to their barracks. The parallel Herzl drew impresses itself on us all the more vividly when we think again of present-day Egypt, where a military-dominated regime was replaced for one year by a theocratic regime, only to be deposed once again by the military. In short, as citizens we share a substantial common good in sparing ourselves the distortion of political life associated with theocracy, whether Islamic, Hindu, Christian or Jewish – and contemporary political life has given us samples of all four.

Interpretations of the world religions that are consonant with liberal and democratic citizenship do not pose a problem for political life. The problem is illiberal religion, especially versions of illiberal religion with political ambitions. And religions that ground nonliberal or antiliberal views of life cannot be simply legislated away; they need to be submitted to a process of reciprocal democratic engagement. Yet the exercise of comparing the present-day state of liberalized religion (e.g., Anglicanism in England) and that of illiberal religion (e.g., Anglicanism in Africa), and asking which is vibrant and which is declining, certainly gives one pause. It may well be, after all, that what typically elicits religious commitment is not the beliefs (about creation, salvation, the nature of the divinity and so on) but simply the longing for moral direction. That is, people seek a larger framework that instructs them in fairly clear terms about how to conduct themselves regarding sexual issues, family norms and social obligations more generally. If this thesis is true (or true in significant measure) then it would go a long way toward explaining why it is precisely illiberal religions (e.g., Pentecostalism, Mormonism and the more reactionary versions of Islam) that seem today to be capturing ever-larger “market share” among the religions on offer.

The liberal state doesn’t try to police the tendency of people to adopt a whole range of dubious beliefs. If people want to believe in astrology, let them believe in astrology. Belief in astrology starts becoming a political problem if large numbers of people start organizing themselves politically on behalf of that belief, to bully or arm-twist nonbelievers and to attempt to make structures of authority within this group of believers binding on the whole society. Politically speaking, a secular society is one where religious authorities have no special clout, and insofar as clerics participate in political debate (which is fully legitimate), it’s on the basis of citizen to citizen rather than shepherd to sheep (that is, minister to those who are ministered to, or pastor to recipients of pastoral care). Secularism in this sense has become the norm in Western liberal societies, and we should not allow ourselves to become so fearful of appearing Eurocentric that we hesitate to affirm that norm as normatively (that is, universally) justified.

The attractions of jihad

It’s often claimed that the way to make sense of the threatening jihadi ideologies we now see in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East is on the basis of a “root causes” analysis – that is, in terms of the grievances against the West felt by the poor and marginalized in the Islamic world. But does such a mode of analysis penetrate deeply enough into the positive attraction exerted by these ideologies (which evidently have the troubling capacity to draw into their orbit individuals who are middle-class and citizens of prosperous and influential societies such as our own)?

No doubt, the vast majority of Muslims are as repelled by the crimes of the Islamic State as non-Muslims are. But one of the things that distinguishes Islam as a world religion is its historical emergence coincident with the conquest of a world empire spread by the power of the sword. It would be strange if this wasn’t at least part of the allure drawing young middle-class men from Timmins and Calgary (many of them converts to Islam) to martyr themselves on behalf of the cause of medieval piety. The soldiers of the new caliphate, starting with their self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, aspire to an empire stretching from Morocco to India, and it is crucial to their conception of their own mission that this is an intended reclamation of past glory, not merely a newly invented ideological vision.

Unlike Al Qaeda, the Islamic State is not just a furtive gang of terrorists but an appreciable army of conquest on the march (hence closer to earning the label of “Islamofascism” controversially applied by writers like Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis to an earlier generation of jihadi Islam). Submissive piety represents one ideal of life outside the liberal horizon and the lust for glory represents another. Arguably, this ideological movement potently combines both. It remains to be seen how far the caliphate will march, or how long it will endure (especially now that there is an international coalition committed to engaging it militarily). But in the meantime, this odious theocracy has at least done us the service of reminding all of us that there will probably always be human beings for whom modernity presents itself as inherently slavish and degrading.

It’s so easy to take for granted that life within liberal post-Enlightenment horizons is self-evidently more attractive than the alternatives. Yet our own welfare and security may hang on whether we’re able to make progress in penetrating the riddle of the jihadis. That’s precisely why we need especially to exert ourselves to keep asking the questions that liberals rarely ask: Why do there continue to be human beings for whom a society geared toward treating its citizens simply according to a standard of decency and mutual respect isn’t good enough? And why are theocratic enemies of liberal society so convinced that a society oriented to secular freedom and equality fundamentally impoverishes human beings? In other words, what human longings are left unfulfilled in liberal society?