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June 23, 2015
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Religion and the state

Opinion

June 23, 2015

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What role should Islam play in the state? There are various models on offer. At the far end of the spectrum is the view of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Islam, he believes, is the state. With no distinction between religion and politics, it falls to clerics to run people’s lives. Mullahs become ministers and sermons, the law.
There are obvious problems with the arrangement. First, Mullahs don’t necessarily know how to, let’s say, construct an electricity grid to produce and distribute the power people need. Secondly, different people hold different views about Islam.
Over the centuries various cultures have come to interpret their faith in different ways. For Baghdadi there is a simple enough solution to the dilemma: his interpretation is correct and everyone else’s is wrong. And if you disagree with his view then you deserve to die or, if he is feeling beneficent, to pay him some taxes. While it’s a way of thinking that attracts some of those who share his interpretation, it clearly has distinct disadvantages for those who don’t.
At the other end of the scale is the system furthest removed from this approach. There are states that insist they will have nothing to do with religion. The UK may look like a secular state but it isn’t: the head of state – the Queen – is also the head of the established Church of England. Furthermore some bishops sit in the House of Lords. But with little strong religious belief in the UK these are seen as little more than anachronistic and decorative features of the UK constitution. If no one really believes a bishop has direct authority from God to make policy then there does not seem much harm in having him sit in the House of Lords.
France makes a more complete attempt to separate religion and the state. Hence the restrictions on religious symbols. Of course anyone is free to believe whatever he or she wants but the active attempts to discourage that faith being taken into the public sphere make France a more

genuinely secular state than the UK.
In between these extremes lie a whole variety of political arrangements. There are a number of issues that come up repeatedly. Should the constitution describe a country as an ‘Islamic State’? Even if it’s a symbolic issue with no direct policy implication, it’s often a subject that has been keenly contested. And then there are the constitutional clauses which state that no law should contradict or be repugnant to Islam – sometimes backed up by an enforcement mechanism.
Taken at face value such principles would seem to raise tricky issues. Does a penal code, for example, that does not include provision for amputations for thieves contradict Islam? And how would any enforcement mechanism deal with giving relative weight to the different interpretations of Islam.
The extent to which states should concern themselves with religion is currently the subject of intense debate in North Africa and the Middle East. In Egypt, simply to advocate more Islamic government – even if peacefully and through the ballot box – seems to be enough to attract a death sentence. In Saudi Arabia the clerics are given far more leeway – but the non-clerical royals remain firmly in charge. Meanwhile in Tunisia the Ennahda movement wants an Islamic government but only if it can persuade people to vote for it. The fear that an Islamist election victory would mark the end of elections has proved to be ill-founded. When Ennahda lost it gave up power.
But perhaps the most interesting case is Turkey. Ever since Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power people have spoken about his Islamist project. From George W Bush onwards westerners have expressed the hope that he would succeed in coming up with a form of Islamic government that would both satisfy the Turkish electorate and not cause problems for the west.
But from the outset, Erdogan and his supporters resisted the idea that they were trying to create any such model. And after decades in power we can now see what Erdogan’s objectives and priorities were. First and foremost he has been concerned with economic development. Appeals to religion and a revival of Ottoman imperial nostalgia also played a part as does controlling the military and securing uninterrupted democratic governance. Let’s not forget that when the recent elections results were announced Erdogan immediately accepted the outcome.
Erdogan’s economic and other objectives are broadly in line with the values and view of many Turks. Whilst the long running dispute between secularists and Islamists is important, most Turkish people are no different from those people in the US of whom the Clinton campaign observed “it’s the economy stupid”.
Erdogan’s autocratic tendencies are often seen as inherent to, or at least a reflection of, his Islamism. In fact they are part of a long tradition in Turkish politics in which the leadership – whatever its ideological base – uses pretty heavy-handed and sometimes brutal tactics to remain in power.
So the west still frets that the relationship between Islam and the state
remains unresolved. The systems built by Mullah Omar and Baghdadi have limited appeal. It’s not just the brutality but also the almost complete lack of interest in providing people with a decent standard of living.
Less violent attempts to inject more religiosity into politics have not yet produced stable outcomes. But that perhaps is a western obsession. For many in Muslim majority countries the key questions do not always concern Islam.
The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.
Twitter: @OwenBennettJone
Email: [email protected]

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