ISIS and the Separation of Church and State

ISIS, the new Islamic state that has taken over much of northern Iraq and northeastern Syria this summer, directly threatens the existing states in the region. The USA also has a substantial stake in how the current drama plays out. There is a public debate these days as to what that stake is and what strategy our government should be pursuing, a debate that has intensified since ISIS stuck a thumb in our national eye by publicly beheading a couple of our journalists.

As concerned Americans, we all need to be engaged in this debate. But we also need to be engaged as humanists. It isn’t just oil and geopolitics, and it isn’t just the cavalier flouting of international law, or the gross violations of human rights. For us, there’s the important issue of the separation of church and state. Shari’a law doesn’t just try to redefine where the line should be drawn between religion and temporal authority, it denies the existence of any line at all. The law of the land is just what the Koran and its commentaries say it is. And it’s religious authorities who explain it all to the rest of us. It makes our own fundamentalists look like modern liberals by comparison.

How did this extraordinary development happen? In Syria you had a disparate gaggle of groups, mostly from the Sunni branch of Islam, trying to overthrow the regime run by Assad, who belonged to a Shi’a sect. One of these groups spread to Iraq and forged an unholy alliance with dispossessed and unhappy Sunni officers of Saddam Hussein’s former armed forces. The jihadis of the first group supplied the ideology and the fervor, the second supplied the military expertise. It was a toxic combination that combined religious prejudice (Sunni versus Shi’a) with military clout and lust for revenge. ISIS stormed Iraqi prisons to free and recruit seasoned army veterans, it took and ransomed captives and robbed banks to get funds, and it captured a lot of the military hardware we had supplied the new Iraqi army. Then ISIS captured Mosul and much of that part of Iraq where the Sunnis were in the majority, while on the Syrian side they absorbed many of the more radical Sunni elements in Syria that were fighting Assad.

Ideologically, ISIS seeks to reestablish the days of glory of classical Islam when the Muslims ruled a vast swath of the then civilized world under the banner of Islam. They believe in Shari’a law, based on the words of the Quran and related official interpretations. There is method in their madness: they aim to establish themselves as the true champions of Islam, opposing Muslim heretics (Shi’a and other sects) as well as adherents of other religions. They present themselves as the way to go for Muslims around the world who feel oppressed by the West generally and the USA particularly.

I don’t want to suggest that humanists take sides in the Sunni-Shi’a conflict, which is increasingly resembling a civil war. We do not have a dog in that fight. We can all agree, however, that it is atavistic and just plain wrong for people to go around killing each other because of religion. And we can point out to religious fundamentalists in our own society that look here, do you see what this all leads to?

We can and should point out to all concerned that when the US military seized the reins of power in Baghdad, we were pretty short-sighted when we neglected the sectarian implications of our postwar occupation and reconstruction programs and policies. We might remind our leaders that as a general rule, support for non-sectarian groups and causes is better for everyone in the long run than betting on one sect as opposed to another. Stability comes from the rule of law, not from religious fanaticism.

Other things being equal, we should favor regimes that stand for freedom of religion and harmony between religious groups. We shouldn’t forget that separation of church and state is a basic premise of who we are.

PS: I should have posted this a couple of weeks ago, when it was still fresh. An update will follow shortly, to include comment on the President’s 9/10 speech.

Carl Coon

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