Mosque-state separation and religious freedom appear to have stalled in Muslim-majority countries, leading scholars, theologians, and policymakers to conclude that a theocratic model of governance is inevitable for the Islamic world. They argue that Islam is distinct from religions like Christianity because Islamic states have a duty to implement Shari’a, and therefore require a government with joint religious and civil authority.1 Muslim publics are presumed to be deeply attached to this belief, which is why they have rejected the notion of a secular-based rule of law.

An objective look at the facts, however, uncovers quite a different picture. Recent surveys indicate that the populations of many major Muslim-majority countries are almost evenly divided on such hot-button issues as whether Shari’a should serve as the primary foundation for laws and whether clerics should be involved in political questions. These new data challenge previously held assumptions about the values and attitudes of Muslim publics concerning mosque-state separation.

As important, history informs us that the current debate surrounding separation of religion and politics is not a historic anomaly; nor is it unique to Islam. In other parts of the world, including the West, it took great efforts to replace the “age-old assumption” that it is “right and justifiable to maintain religious uniformity by force.”2 The debate occurring in the Islamic world today should be viewed in the context of other countries’ transitions to separation of religion and politics, which offer valuable lessons that can help supporters of mosque-state separation become more effective.

Among the most interesting precedents for the Islamic world, and most surprising, is colonial America. To establish church-state separation and religious freedom in the United States, the Founders had to convince a devout and deeply skeptical populace that such a system posed no threat to religion. What today seems like a natural and obvious development was in fact a hard-won paradigm change with astonishing parallels to the issues dominating the debate in the Islamic world today. The Founders’ experience provides a template for those who seek to advance mosque-state separation in Muslim-majority countries.

Religious freedom in the Islamic world

In the battle between supporters and opponents of mosque-state separation, there can be little doubt that the Islamic fundamentalists are currently winning. Most countries in the region do not separate religious and political authority. The Saudi Arabian constitution, for example, declares that it is the state’s duty to protect Islam and implement Shari’a. The result is a country where a typical year sees roughly 50 public beheadings, many for petty crimes such as marijuana possession, in accordance with strict interpretations of Shari’a. Women are not allowed to drive cars and the Muttaween (religious police) patrol public spaces to punish conduct or styles of dress they deem too liberal. Infamously, this has included an intervention in which they drove young schoolgirls back into a burning school building to die, because in fleeing they had neglected to properly don their veils. In Iran, too, the theocratic regime in power since 1979 operates a virtual police state. Minorities, such as Baha’is, have been largely driven out of the country. Flogging is a common penalty for personal “transgressions,” and adultery is still punishable by stoning. In 2004, a mentally handicapped 16-year-old girl was hanged in public for “crimes against chastity.”

These two countries are among the more extreme examples, but even the more enlightened constitutions in the region have reserved a significant role for Islam in lawmaking and governance. Article 2 of Iraq’s constitution — one of the most recently ratified in the Islamic world — states that “Islam is the official religion of the state and it is a fundamental source of legislation.” The constitution goes on to provide that “no law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam shall be established.” Similarly, the recently ratified Afghan constitution asserts that the country is an Islamic Republic whose religion, according to its own Article 2, “is the sacred religion of Islam.” Moreover, the constitution stipulates that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.”

The prevalence of these laws suggests that Islamic fundamentalists vastly outnumber moderates, but recent surveys present a different picture. In these surveys, conducted under the supervision of the University of Michigan’s Mark Tessler, people in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories were asked a series of questions aimed at determining attitudes towards mosque-state separation. The survey first asked whether men of religion should have influence over government decisions.3 In each country, at least 44 percent of respondents answered “no.” In Algeria and Iraq, the proportion was as high as 51 percent. The survey also asked whether it was important that a government implement only Shari’a laws. Again, a substantial number of respondents answered “no,” 41 percent and 48 percent in Jordan and Algeria, respectively. As Tessler noted, the data show, at the very least, that “there exists a substantial and roughly equal division of opinion on questions about the relationship between religion and politics.”

Furthermore, in response to the more specific question of whether they would prefer an Islamic to a secular democracy, respondents split almost evenly, with a small edge for secularism in some countries. In Algeria, 39 percent favored Islamic democracy while 45 percent favored secular democracy. In Iraq, where Islam was chosen as “a fundamental source of legislation,” the survey indicated that 42.7 percent of respondents favored Islamic democracy, compared with 43.3 percent support for secular democracy. In Jordan, 43.5 percent supported secular democracy, and in the Palestinian territories the proportion was 37.2 percent.

A separate survey, conducted in Iraq in 2004, around the time the country’s new constitution was being adopted, asked whether religion should have a special role to play in government.4 Forty-nine percent answered that “religion and government should respect one another by not impeding on the rights, roles, and responsibilities of the other.” By contrast, only 42 percent answered “yes.” A more recent poll found that 55 percent of Muslims in Iraq now strongly agree that Iraq would be a better place if religion and politics were separated.5

At the same time, the data show that between fervent supporters of mosque-state separation and fervent opponents lies a large group that might most appropriately be labeled “conservative.” These conservatives believe that God must play an important role in their lives, but do not have very strong feelings about the issue of mosque-state separation.6 Some lean toward the moderates, but many continue to hold views more closely aligned with those of the fundamentalists.

This new information on public opinion in the Islamic world affords an opportunity for moderates who wish to win over a greater portion of the population but face tremendous challenges, particularly in appealing to the conservatives who currently lean toward fundamentalists: Islamic fundamentalists are better funded, better mobilized, and more vocal. Additionally, they often benefit from entrenched systems and laws that are difficult to overturn, particularly where oppressive regimes remain in power.

An unexpected model

The united states supplies a model that is attractive for the Islamic world. At the time the Founders were drafting the U.S. Constitution, many colonists were extremely conservative, and feared that church-state separation would undermine religion’s role in American society. The Founders managed to assuage their concerns, crafting a system that ensured religious freedom while preserving high levels of religiosity. Indeed, the United States remains a religious society by global standards, particularly compared to similarly developed countries. The Founders’ approach is therefore highly apposite and offers valuable lessons.

The first constitution of the Massachusetts colony provides a sense of early American views on church-state separation and the challenges that faced the Founders. The constitution’s preamble declares that “God had set up political government among his people [and] gave them a body of laws for judgment both in civil and criminal causes.”7 It goes on to state explicitly that these laws were drafted with “the help of some of the Elders of [their] Churches to compose a model of the judicial laws of Moses.” This language is not unique to the preamble — the entire constitution is filled with references to scripture. One section, for example, proclaims that any person who commits blasphemy “by willful or obstinate denying [of] the true God” must, in accordance with principles derived from scripture, be put to death. The drafters of this constitution, who just a few decades later would support full religious freedom, evidently believed the Bible to be the only legitimate source of jurisprudence.

Constitutions in other American colonies expressed similar beliefs. Virginia, for example, was chartered as a Christian mission. In 1606, the king of England announced that the colony would bring glory to the British Empire by propagating “Christian religion to such people, as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God.”8 The state’s legislature also passed laws against defaming ministers and involved both church and state institutions in punishing violators. Other laws made religious observance a civil duty. Under the Virginia Constitution, settlers were forbidden to “speak impiously or maliciously against the holy and blessed Trinit[y], or any of the three persons . . . or against the known articles of the Christian faith, upon pain of death.” The examples of Massachusetts and Virginia represent the prevailing viewpoint in the overwhelming majority of the colonies.

Thus, when the Founders introduced their arguments in favor of church-state separation, colonists were opposed for a number of reasons. One widely held belief, for example, was that separation would usher in an era of moral decline. Colonists believed that civil government “depended upon religion and upon the morality which it inculcated,” that church-state separation threatened the country’s “moral and political order.”9

Opposition, on these and other grounds, was often driven by conservative clergymen and their vocal followers. These preachers feared they would be financially unable to sustain their churches without funding from the state. Believing that religion was a necessary basis for the morality required of government, they argued that the preservation of religion required government financing. They and their followers supplied a constant stream of propaganda aimed at discrediting the supporters of church-state separation, whom they labeled “infidels” and “atheists.” Thomas Jefferson was derided specifically as a “French infidel.” Perhaps the most potent criticism came from Jonathan Edwards, who described several of the Founders as dangerous men who had “wholly cast off the Christian religion, and are professed infidels.”10

In all, public opinion on church-state separation in the colonies bore an uncanny resemblance to current views in the Islamic world. Islamic fundamentalists today argue that laws must be based on religious scripture. They label moderates as atheists and infidels and frighten conservatives by telling them that the separation of mosque and state will undermine public morality and lead to decreasing levels of religiosity. Whether in the context of Christianity or Islam, the arguments between those who support and those who oppose the separation of religion and politics tend to be similar.

The Founders, too, argued that they feared the influence of politics on religion, but they sought “not to establish freedom from religion but to establish freedom for religion.”11 By making this distinction, they set an entirely different tone for the disestablishment process, aligning themselves with the conservative elements of their society.

First, they argued that establishing a single national church would be dangerous because it would put control over each individual’s destiny in the hands of others. Allowing a government to interpret religion on behalf of an entire country, said Jefferson, would be like giving “fallible and uninspired men dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible.”12 In Christian theology, individuals ultimately answer God alone for their actions. Therefore, if the government’s interpretation were to prove wrong, individual worshippers could pay the price with their souls. The Founders argued that this risk was too great, that even “mainstream” Christians should therefore devote themselves to keeping religion “wholly exempt from [civil society’s] cognizance.”13

Second, joining church and state would pose a risk to religious denominations, since, as Madison argued, “the same authority which can establish Christianity . . . may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects.” There were already two dominant sects of Christianity in the Colonies — Anglicans and Puritans; the official establishment of one would come at the expense of the other. Similarly, many religious minorities, including Quakers and Baptists, worried that the free exercise of their faith would be threatened by the establishment of a national church. This argument resonated strongly with the colonists and mobilized significant support for church-state separation.

Third, the Founders argued vehemently that separating church and state would not undermine the viability and spread of religious faith in the United States. The belief that religion pre-existed and flourished before the institutions of government contradicted the assertion that to be successful Christianity needed the power of the state. Indeed, demanding the establishment of a national church would signal a lack of confidence in the innate excellence of the religion, and convey to those rejecting it a sense that its adherents lacked the confidence to trust it on its own merits. Followers should instead have faith that their ideas would be vindicated without the support of government laws or funding.

Finally, the Founders rebutted the notion that a government would conduct itself less morally without direct guidance from a particular church. Rather than acting as a force for spiritual purity, national churches had been vehicles for upholding the thrones of political tyranny, as Madison put it, and subverting the public liberty with the assistance of a complicit clergy. The Founders focused on examples from the colonists’ personal experiences in Europe, where tyrannical monarchies were catalysts for emigration to North America. These examples, still fresh in the memories of most colonists, helped to make this a powerful point.

With these arguments, the Founders convinced the most conservative elements of society, including clergymen, that church-state separation was not a threat to their faith. One, for example, conceded that while he had initially believed the damage done to religion was “irreparable,” he soon realized that “by voluntary efforts, societies, missions, and revivals,” ministers had come to exert a deeper influence than ever before.14 Other preachers echoed those sentiments, so that by the time Alexis de Tocqueville asked whether the support of civil power was useful to religion, he received replies such as “absolutely not.”15 Indeed, the number of ministers who became advocates for church-state separation serves as a good indicator of the Founders’ success.

Applying the model in the Islamic world

Islamic conservatives, who remain powerful in Muslim-majority countries, will ensure that an approach perceived as hostile toward religion will generate a backlash. The American approach is therefore instructive because it demonstrates, in the context of a conservative society, the value of focusing on how disestablishment benefits religion. Islamic moderates, similarly, must build a convincing case that mosque-state separation, coupled with full religious freedom, is actually advantageous for religion.

The Founders’ experience yields at least four specific guidelines for the Islamic world. First, moderates should emphasize that establishing a national religion requires choosing a single favorite among the many variations of Islam, at the expense of all others. There are several different interpretations of Shari’a, for example, distinctions that are becoming more salient as Muslims observe the ongoing clashes between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. There are many other Islamic sects in addition to the Sunni and Shiite. A government intent on establishing an official religion would have to choose among these many versions to determine which should guide the country’s mosques, or which interpretation of Islamic law should inform its courts. But a government with the power to establish one sect as correct and all others as wrong threatens all sects. Faced with this threat, each group should therefore favor mosque-state separation and religious freedom.

At the outset, this argument might focus more on establishing freedom of religion for Islam, specifically, meaning that no branch of Islam can be favored over another. But this principle, once properly accepted, could extend to include other faiths. It would be a first step in the direction of removing government from the sphere of religion, teaching tolerance of religious beliefs with which one disagrees, and creating an area of freedom in which individuals can speak and debate openly about matters of religion. Indeed, such a progression would not be entirely different from the gradual move toward full religious freedom in the United States.

Second, moderates must argue that religion is endangered when it is placed under the control of government. The populations of Muslim-majority countries, in many cases with long histories of oppression at the hands of their rulers, exhibit relatively high levels of mistrust toward government and should therefore be receptive to this logic. Moderates must capitalize on this by arguing that religion is sure to be misused and corrupted by government if placed under its authority. The only way to guard against it is to remove religion from the realm of politics and perhaps even use it as an independent check on the excesses of political leaders.

Islamic fundamentalists might claim that a government true to the actual principles of Islam would not be corrupt or oppressive, but moderates must counter that placing political power in the hands of mere mortals is by its very nature corrupting, no matter how Islamic the government. Indeed, all recent examples of so-called Islamic rule, such as Afghanistan under the Taliban or Iran under the ayatollahs, have resulted in government-sanctioned support for oppression and terrorism, all ostensibly in the name of Islam. The misuse of Islam by those governments has caused widespread discontent among their populations and has had negative implications for Islam’s reputation. There is no reason to believe that future attempts to create a true Islamic republic would be any more successful.

Third, moderates must stress that Islam, like Christianity, contains the philosophical foundation for religious liberty. Each human being must ultimately face God individually to “receive reward or punishment in accord with his deeds in life.”16 Islam therefore “teaches in a very vivid way that each human being is free and, in an important sense, self-determining and self-defining.” Islamic fundamentalists who argue that it is imperative to establish political systems that compel compliance with the principles of Shari’a to ensure that Muslims can enjoy the rewards of heaven therefore have it exactly backwards. By proscribing the freedom to make choices, they take away the possibility for a person to prove that, with the God-given freedom to make choices, he, of his own volition, made choices of which God would approve and which can therefore properly result in reward in the afterlife.  

Furthermore, pious Muslims ought to recognize the inherent danger of placing their spiritual fates in the hands of ordinary and fallible men. If a theocratic government which compels a certain type of religious worship has indeed selected the “right” religion and religious rituals, then all is well. But if the government has made the “wrong” choice, then its people are faced with the consequence of eternal damnation. This seems a consequence so grave that the people should, indeed must, be given the chance to decide matters of religious conviction free of any government influence.

Fourth, moderates should communicate that religious freedom is the approach most likely to maintain high levels of religiosity in the Islamic world. Francis Fukuyama has commented that “countries without established churches . . . often experience a higher degree of genuine religious observance,” an observation that has been confirmed by numerous studies.17 Fukuyama notes that mandatory religious identity “often goes on to feel like an unwanted burden,” associated with all the grievances that people have against the government in general. By contrast, when people are given the freedom to worship as they choose, church attendance rises, as does the level of charitable donations to religious organizations.

These lessons from the American approach complement work that advocates for the moderate cause are already carrying out. One example is Abdou Filaly-Ansary, who has argued powerfully, much as Thomas Jefferson did, that one must avoid a “devastating misunderstanding that would present democracy as an alternative to religion.”18 Another is Abdul Karim Soroush, an Iranian scholar and activist whose belief, very similar to that of James Madison, is that as a true believer one must have full freedom, because belief “attested under threat or coercion is not true belief.”19 These and other champions of freedom can apply some of the Founders’ strategies as they advance their own ideas.

Guidance for the United States

U.s. policymakers, whose actions will help shape the future of the Islamic world, also must take a fresh look at their approach to mosque-state separation. Most important, policymakers must recognize that they have done an insufficient job of providing support to the moderates who form a sizeable portion of the population in Islamic countries. In Iraq, for example, the United States enabled the drafting of a constitution which established Islam as a foundation for all laws, despite the fact that, as we now know, moderates supporting mosque-state separation form the majority of the country’s population. In doing so, the United States inadvertently sidelined moderates and emboldened Islamic fundamentalists.

A more assertive approach is not without precedent. After World War II, the United States had to determine what to do about Shintoism, the Japanese state religion, which had served to motivate people for a holy war against America. The U.S. decided to support freedom of religion, and the policy was summarized in a State Department cable stating that “Shintoism, insofar as it is a religion of individual Japanese, is not to be interfered with. Shintoism, insofar as it is directed by the Japanese Government . . . is to be done away with.”20 There is no reason Islam should be treated any differently, and this approach should therefore serve as a template for future American involvement in Muslim-majority countries.

In addition, the United States should take specific steps to help moderates overcome the challenges inherent in delivering their ideas to the public. They do not, for example, have adequate means to disseminate their writings or speak directly to large Muslim audiences. The United States must provide funding to moderates and give them access to printing facilities, distribution networks, and U.S. government-funded media stations that broadcast in the Islamic world. These forms of assistance are particularly necessary given that fundamentalists receive extensive backing from extremist governments like the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The U. S. must also do a better job of publicizing the high levels of American religious observance, which are today the highest in the developed world. A recent poll reported that over 90 percent of Americans believe in God, and 65 percent affirm “strong religiosity.”21 Roughly two-thirds of the population also claims membership in a church or other place of worship. These figures, if better publicized, would help moderates convince clerics that freedom of religion is in their interests and that America might indeed be an attractive model for the Islamic world.  

Prospects for success

To succeed in advancing mosque-state separation, moderates must present themselves to conservatives as potential allies, not enemies. The Founders’ approach not only demonstrates that such an alliance is possible but provides specific guidance on how it can be achieved, and how to introduce religious freedom to the Islamic world in a way that is effective and sustainable in the long-term.22

An approach like that outlined in this article has never been tried in the Islamic world. To date, efforts to separate mosque and state have been antagonistic toward religion and religious groups. In Turkey, for example, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk argued that religion was stifling Turkey’s modernization and that secularism was “necessary” in order for Turkey to join the “community of civilized nations.”23 A more extreme example, of course, is the recent experience of the Baath regime in Iraq, which presented itself as a secular republic but was in fact nothing more than a brutal dictatorship.

To be sure, the challenges facing moderates are formidable. Clerics oppose their efforts, as do many Muslim-majority governments. Additionally, a substantial portion of the populations of Muslim-majority countries remains skeptical of any actions that could be construed as undermining religion’s influence in society. These challenges are remarkably similar to those faced by the Founders as the United States progressed from colonies to nationhood. Their approach was effective and merits closer study by reformists and policymakers looking to give religious freedom a boost in the Islamic world.

1 See, for example, Samuel Huntington, Clash of Civilizations (Simon & Shuster, 1996), 66. Huntington writes that “religious alternatives” to secular democratic governance might be more appropriate for Islamic countries. He adds that “in Islam . . . God is Caesar” (70). Ernest Gellner has summed up this view as follows: “Islam is the blueprint of a social order. It holds that a set of rules exists, eternal, divinely ordained, and independent of the will of men, which defines the proper ordering of society. . . . In traditional Islam . . . the roles of theologian and lawyer are conflated.” Muslim Society (Cambridge University Press, 1981), 1.

2 Perez Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West (Princeton University Press, 2003), 3.

3 Mark Tessler and Eleanor Gao, “Gauging Arab Support for Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 16:3 (July 2005).

4 “Survey of Iraqi Public Opinion November 24December 5, 2004,” International Republican Institute (2004).

5 “World Values Survey: Iraq 2006,” World Values Survey (2006).

6 “World Values Survey: Algeria 2002,” World Values Survey (2002).

7 “The Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts” (1648).

8 Frank Lambert, The Founders and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton University Press, 2003), 46.

9 Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Harvard University Press, 2002), 66.

10 Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption (Philadelphia, 1773), 281–282

11 Samuel Huntington, Who Are We (Simon & Schuster, 2004), 85.

12 Thomas Jefferson, “The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom” (1786).

13 James Madison, “Memorial and Remonstrance” (1785).

14 Clifton Olmstead, History of Religion in the United States (Prentice-Hall, 1960), 215.

15 George Wilson Pierson, Tocqueville in America (Dudley C. Lunt, 1969), 203.

16 Michael Novak, The Universal Hunger for Liberty (Basic Books, 2004), 192.

17 Francis Fukuyama, Trust (Free Press, 1996), 288.

18 Abdou Filaly-Ansary, “Muslims and Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 10:3 (July 1999).

19 Robin Wright, “Two Visions of Reformation,” Journal of Democracy 7:2 (April 1996), 68.

20 William P. Woodard, The Allied Occupation of Japan 1945–1952 and Japanese Religions (E.J. Brill, 1972), 66.

21 “World Values Survey: United States 1999,” World Values Survey (1999).

22 Alfred Stepan has demonstrated that countries which are “secular, but friendly to religion” have far greater prospects for long-term stability than countries in which there is “an antireligious tone.” Alfred Stepan, “Religion, Democracy, and the ‘Twin Tolerations’,” Journal of Democracy 11:4 (October 2000), 42.

23 Feroz Ahmad, The Making of Modern Turkey (Routledge, 1993), 53.

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