The term coexistence, as it is used at the present time, implies a willingness to live at peace, and perhaps even in mutual respect, with others. It might therefore be useful to begin with a glance at the notion of “otherness,” which, no doubt as a result of the conspicuous failures of coexistence—religious, national, racial, social, ideological—in our century, has received a good deal of attention of late.1
The two most articulate peoples of eastern Mediterranean antiquity, the only ones who have retained both their voices and their memories, have left us two by now classical definitions of the other—the barbarian and the gentile, “barbarian” meaning not Greek, “gentile” meaning not Jewish. Both of these terms, in classical usage, contain at least an element of hostility, in which the notion of the other easily changes into the somewhat different but closely related concept of the enemy. Yet both of these notions—barbarian and gentile—represent a considerable advance on what went before.
The urge to define and reject the other goes back to our remotest human ancestors, and indeed beyond them to our animal predecessors. Both the Jewish and Greek definitions represent an immense change, in that the barriers which they raise are permeable. They are not impenetrable barriers, and in this they are different from the more primitive and universal definitions of identity and otherness based on birth and blood. They can be crossed or even removed by the adoption, in the one case of a language and culture, in the other of a religious belief and law. It was not easy, but it was possible, and already in classical antiquity we confront the phenomenon of Hellenized barbarians and Judaized gentiles, even indeed of Hellenized Jews and Judaized Hellenes, either directly or through the more spectacularly successful Jewish heresies.
The Jewish definition of identity and otherness, by religious belief and practice, was adopted by both the successor religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which for fourteen centuries have shared—or rather contested—the Mediterranean world. The three religions have an immense heritage in common—from the ancient Middle East, from Greco-Roman antiquity, from Jewish revelation and prophecy. Yet their mutual perceptions and reciprocal attitudes differ enormously.
The Jewish perception of the religious other is different from that shared by Christians and Muslims, and, in this respect, brings Judaism closer to the religions of eastern and southern Asia—in that, while Jews claim that the truths of their faith are universal, they do not claim that they are exclusive. Judaism is for Jews and those who care to join them. But, according to a well-known Talmudic dictum, the righteous of all peoples and faiths have their place in paradise. The rabbis relate that before the ten commandments given to Moses there were seven commandments revealed in the time of Noah, and these were for all humanity. Only two of them, the bans on idolatry and blasphemy, are theological; all the rest, including the prohibition of murder, robbery, cruelty, etc., are no more than the basic rules of human social coexistence. Since Judaism makes no claim to exclusive truth, salvation, according to Jewish teaching, is attainable for non-Jews, provided that they practice monotheism and morality. Much medieval Jewish theological and legal writing is concerned with the question whether Christians and Muslims qualify under these headings. It was universally agreed among Jewish scholars that Islam is a monotheistic religion, but the often misunderstood doctrine of the Trinity caused some problems to Jewish as well as to Muslim theologians.
Traditional Christianity and Islam differed from Judaism and agreed with each other in that both claimed to possess not only universal but exclusive truths. Each claimed to be the sole custodian of God’s final revelation to mankind. Neither admitted salvation outside its own creed. In the fourteen-centuries-long encounter between Islam and Christendom, the profoundest conflicts between the two religions, the most irreconcilable disagreements between their followers, arose not from their differences but from their resemblances. Some other religions would not accept converts. Most, while not rejecting them, did not seek them, and felt no mission or duty to cause other men, in other parts, to change their faiths. Christians and Muslims shared the belief that theirs was the sole universal truth, and that it was their sacred mission to bring it to all mankind. When Christians and Muslims called each other accursed infidels, each understood exactly what the other meant, because both meant exactly the same thing. Neither the adjective nor the substantive would have conveyed much to a Hindu or a Confucian.
Christendom and Islam were not only major religions; each of them was also, in modern parlance, a considerable power bloc, with universal claims and aspirations, and, for most of their shared histories, with their main power base by or near the Mediterranean. The other great civilizations of the world, India and China, despite their antiquity and their sophistication, were essentially local, regional, almost ethnic. Neither Hinduism nor Confucianism ever made an attempt to become a world religion or a world power. Buddhism, which preceded both Islam and Christianity in ecumenical ambition, had long since abandoned the attempt. Rejected in its Indian homeland, it was, in effect, confined to East and Southeast Asia. Only Christianity and Islam remained—two religions of the same kind, for more than fourteen centuries neighbors, rarely in association, sometimes in confrontation, often in conflict, each claiming to possess God’s final dispensation.
But how would the possessor of God’s final dispensation to mankind view a rival claimant? Much depends on whether that claimant is previous or subsequent. From a traditional Christian point of view, since Christianity was, so to speak, the end of the process of revelation, anything subsequent was necessarily false and noxious. From a Muslim point of view, since Christianity was earlier, Christianity, like Judaism, was an incomplete, somewhat damaged, and now superseded religion, but not in itself false and not in itself noxious. When Muslims have confronted a subsquent dispensation, like the post-Islamic faiths of the Baha’is or the Ahmadiyya, they have also reacted with something of the hostility which Christians showed to the advent of Islam—a similar situation though, as it turned out, much less dangerous from their point of view.
For both Christianity and Islam, Judaism is a predecessor, yet there is a fundamental difference in the attitudes of the two religions toward the Jews, alike in the extent, the form, and the manner of toleration. Both claimed a world mission, whence the continuing clash between them. For both of them Judaism as a predecessor was entitled, by the logic of their own beliefs, to a certain, albeit limited, measure of tolerance. But in their actual treatment of Jews there were significant differences deriving from the foundation myths—I mean no disrespect by this expression—of the two religions, reinforced by subsequent experience. The founders of both religions came into conflict with Jews, but in these conflicts one lost, the other won. This made a profound difference to the perception of Jews in sacred history, in the memories enshrined in the scriptures and other writings that formed the core of self-awareness of the two religious communities. Muhammad won his battle with the Jews, and it was he who destroyed them, not the reverse. His successors therefore felt able to adopt, shall we say, a more relaxed attitude to subsequent generations of Jews.
There is also a difference in their claims. The Christian dispensation claims to be a fulfillment of promises made to the Jews, and the accomplishment of Jewish prophecies. Christians retained and reinterpreted the Hebrew Bible, which they called the Old Testament, and added a New Testament to it. In a view only recently and partially relinquished by the churches, God’s covenant with the Jews was taken over and Israel was, so to speak, replaced by the “true Israel,” Verus Israel, which is the Church. Jewish survival and still more Jewish refusal were thus seen as somehow impugning the authenticity of the Christian dispensation. Muhammad and his successors made no such claim, and the conversion of the Jews was therefore a matter of little or no concern to them. Muslims abandoned both testaments, which in their belief were replaced, not supplemented, by the Koran. This difference is manifest in the polemical literature of the two faiths. There is in medieval and even in modern Christendom a vast literature of polemics, written by Christian theologians, to persuade Jews of the truth of the Christian dispensation. The theologians of Islam felt no such need. There are few Muslim polemics against Judaism, and most of them are efforts at self-justification by recent converts from that religion.
This doctrinal difference was confirmed and amplified by important practical differences between the two situations. In Christendom, which until the dawn of the modern era substantially meant Europe, Jews were the only religious minority in an otherwise religiously and to a large extent racially homogeneous society. Their presence, and still more their otherness, were always clearly visible, and in times of trouble they provided not just the best but the only scapegoat. The Islamic world in contrast was international, indeed intercontinental, embracing peoples in Asia, Africa, and Europe, and forming a varied and pluralistic society in which Jews were just one among a great many minorities. In Muslim eyes they were for the most part neither the most important nor the most dangerous. They were obviously much less important than the Christians, who were vastly more numerous and who could moreover be accused of treasonable sympathy with the Christian European enemy. No such suspicion attached to the Jewish minorities in Islamic lands.
A religious definition of group identity inevitably raises the question of another kind of otherness, crucial in the history of Christendom, not unimportant in the history of Islam—that of an intermediate status between the believer and the unbeliever—the schismatic, the heretic, the deviant.
Islamic experience, both past and present, shows many groups of deviants, who differed from mainstream Islam in belief or practice or both. The major polemical literature of Islam was written by Muslims against other Muslims—between Sunnis and Shi’a, between the different schools and tendencies within each of these, and between mainstream Islam and extremist fringe groups such as the Isma’ilis, the Alawis, and the Druse. These polemics are far more extensive and sophisticated than any directed against Christians or Jews. Deviation was serious; it was dangerous. It represented a real adversary that could threaten the established order. Beginning in early times, it continues to the present day. Yet there is no such thing as either schism or heresy in Islam, in the Christian sense of these terms.
Schism means split. There is no split in Islam like the schism between the Greek and Roman churches, since there is no institutional authority—no popes or patriarchs or councils, and therefore no questions of jurisdiction or obedience or submission. Heresy means choice and therefore, human nature being what it is, it has been specialized to mean a wrong choice. This again hardly arises in Islam because there is considerable freedom of choice in matters of belief, within very widely drawn limits. And so, despite frequent deviation and occasional repression, we find few of the legal, theological, and practical implications of heresy that we know from Christendom. One reason has already been mentioned—the absence of an institutional structure, a church. There was no ecclesiastical authority to formulate, promulgate, and direct belief, or to define and denounce incorrect belief—to detect, to enforce, to punish. All this, so characteristic of the Christian churches, has no true equivalent in Islamic history. There have been a few attempts by rulers to impose some kind of orthodox creed. Most such attempts were short-lived and ineffectual.
There is another reason for this difference. Correct Islam is defined not so much by orthodoxy as by orthopraxy. What matters is what a Muslim does, not what he believes. According to an oft-repeated Muslim dictum, only God can judge sincerity in belief. What a Muslim does is a social and at a certain point a political fact, and it is this that is of concern to the public authorities. The demand of Islam from the believers is not textual accuracy in belief, but loyalty to the community and its constituted leader. This led to a broad tolerance of deviation, ceasing only at the point where it became disloyalty, easily equated with treason, or where it became seditious and subversive, a danger to the existing social and political order. When that happens, the deviant crosses a boundary—not between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, which is relatively unimportant, but between Islam and apostasy. When deviation reaches that point, it becomes an issue of law, a matter for prosecution and punishment.
Have there been wars of religion within Islam, comparable with the great struggles which convulsed Christendom? The answer must be no. There have been many internal wars in Islamic history, and in some of them people on opposing sides professed different forms of Islam, but one cannot speak of wars of religion in the Islamic world, in the sense that this term is used of events in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There were regional, tribal, and dynastic wars with, shall we say, a religious coloration. There were great power rivalries, as between the sultans of Turkey and the shahs of Iran. One was Sunni, the other Shi’a, and this difference is reflected in the propaganda, the subversion, and the repression of the two sides, but it would be misleading to describe these as Sunni-Shi’a wars.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the agonizing problem for Christians was not that of coexistence with followers of other religions, but of coexistence with fellow Christians of other churches. It was from these bitter conflicts, which devastated so much of Europe, that the modern doctrine that has come to be known as secularism emerged. The notion that religion and political authority, Church and state, are different and that they can or should be separated is, in a profound sense, Christian. Its origins may be traced in the teachings of Christ, notably in the famous passage in Matthew 22:21, in which Christ is quoted as saying: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” This notion was confirmed by the experience of the first Christians; its later development was shaped and in a sense even imposed by the subsequent history of Christendom. The persecutions endured by the early Church made it clear that a separation between the two was possible. The persecutions inflicted by later churches persuaded many Christians that such a separation was necessary.
The notion of the separation of Church and state seems to have emerged in the Protestant countries of northern Europe, and was first given legal and constitutional force in the United States of America. In John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, published in both Latin and English in 1689, he concludes that “neither Pagan nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.”2 In a letter written to a Jewish community leader in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790, George Washington explained how the new republic embodied this principle:
The citizens of the United States of America…all possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.3
In these words, the first president of the United States expressed with striking clarity the real difference between tolerance and coexistence. Tolerance means that a dominant group, whether defined by faith or race or other criteria, allows to members of other groups some—but rarely if ever all—of the rights and privileges enjoyed by its own members. Coexistence means equality between the different groups composing a political society as an inherent natural right of all of them—to grant it is no merit, to withhold or limit it is an offense.
For fourteen centuries, the countries of the Mediterranean have been ruled by Christian or Muslim governments whose record at best is one of limited tolerance. Their frequent lapses into intolerance can readily be explained by the long and bitter struggle between them for the domination of their common homeland. In the seventh century, at the time of the advent of Islam, the Mediterranean world was entirely Christian, with only Jewish minorities. In a series of swift and overwhelming victories, the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean were permanently wrested from Christendom, and even substantial parts of the European mainland were subject, for many centuries, to Muslim rule. For most of their common history, relations between the two communities were shaped by attack and counterattack, jihad and crusade, conquest and reconquest. The loss of the Levant and of North Africa to Christendom proved permanent, and the attempt, in the Crusades, to recover the Holy Land finally failed. The reconquest—of Iberia from the Moors, of Russia from the Tatars—grew into a vast new expansion of Christendom into Africa and Asia, where Spaniards and Portuguese at one end of Europe and Russians at the other pursued their former masters into their own homelands.
The last great Muslim assault on Europe, that of the Ottoman Turks, ended with the second unsuccessful siege of Vienna in 1683. With that failure, and the Turkish retreat that followed, a thousand years of Muslim threat to Europe came to an end, and three centuries of Christian threat to Islam began.
With the ending of the great European empires, and the imminent collapse of the last of them, that of Russia, that phase too has come to an end. Christians and Muslims face each other across the Mediterranean with old prejudices and new anxieties, but for the first time in centuries without threat or fear of armed invasion. Christian minorities remain in the lands of Islam; new Muslim minorities have been created by migration in the lands of Christendom. And in the eastern Mediterranean, after a hiatus of almost two millennia, the Jews—the eternal and universal minority—have created a third Jewish commonwealth after a second and immeasurably longer Babylonian captivity.
There are now three sovereign religions in the Mediterranean world. To these some would add a fourth—secularism. There is a kind of secularism which flourished especially in eastern Europe, though it has its supporters elsewhere. This kind of secularism seems to have retained the defects, without the merits, of earlier orthodoxies. Its adherents are atheists, but not godless. They have no theology, but they do have a creed. They have no religion, but they certainly have a church, complete with scriptures and dogmas, prelates and hierarchs, orthodoxies, heresies, and an inquisition to detect and extirpate them. This church too, coincidentally, was founded by someone of Jewish origin and background, and it has even been argued that he was to some extent inspired by Jewish prophetic vision and messianism. Fortunately, unlike his predecessors, he did not come into collision with any Jewish establishment, and the Jews are therefore not cast, in Marxist sacred history, in an adversarial role, as they are in Christian and to a lesser extent in Muslim historiography. In this kind of secular religion, there appears to be little or no room for tolerance, let alone coexistence. At the present time it is manifestly in decline, and offers no current threat.
The secularism that emerged in Western Europe in the seventeenth century and was established by the American and, in another way, the French revolutions in the eighteenth century was of quite a different kind. Its purpose was not to establish and enforce irreligion as a new state doctrine, but rather to preclude the state from any involvement in doctrine, and to prevent the upholders of any doctrine from using the coercive powers of the state. After the long and bitter struggles of the wars of religion, Christians gradually came to the conclusion that only in this way would it be possible for adherents of rival or even merely different churches to live side by side in reasonable peace.
This principle—some would say this expedient—is denoted by the French term laïcisme which has also been adapted in a number of other languages, though not as yet in English, where we continue to use secularism with a wide range of connotations of which this is one, and “separation” for the constitutional and legal arrangements by which church and state are prevented from interfering with each other. Few modern western states have followed the American example all the way, and many retain some form of state-established church. But interference, either way, has become minimal in most of the western democracies, and a situation of de facto separation prevails.
No such problem, and therefore no such solution, arose in Islamic history and culture, or was considered in Muslim theology or statecraft. In pagan Rome, Caesar was God. Christians were taught to differentiate between what is due to Caesar and what is due to God. For Muslims of the classical age, God was Caesar, and the sovereign—caliph or sultan—was merely his viceregent on earth. This was more than a simple legal fiction. For Muslims, the state was God’s state, the army God’s army, and, of course, the enemy was God’s enemy. Of more practical importance, the law was God’s law, and in principle there could be no other. The question of separating Church and state did not arise, since there was no Church, as an autonomous institution, to be separated. Church and state were one and the same.
For the same reason, though Islamic society very soon developed a large and active class of professional men of religion, these were never a priesthood in the Christian sense, and could only loosely be described even as a clergy. In the upper house of the British Parliament sit the lords spiritual and temporal, the former being the bishops. As already noted, there were no lords spiritual, no prelates or hierarchs in classical Islam, and nothing resembling such figures as Cardinal Richelieu in France or Cardinal Wolsey in England. It is only in Ottoman times, almost certainly under the influence of Christian example, that an organization of Muslim religious dignitaries was developed, with a hierarchy of ranks and with territorial jurisdictions. The ayatollahs of Iran are an even more recent innovation, and might not unjustly be described as another step in the Christianization of Islamic institutions, though by no means of Islamic teachings. Khomeini has no predecessors in Islamic history, though it would not be too difficult to find parallels in the history of Christendom.
It was not only the theoretical and historical basis for separation that was lacking in Islam; it was also the practical need. The level of willingness to tolerate and live peaceably with those who believe otherwise and worship otherwise was, at most times and in most places, high enough for tolerable coexistence to be possible, and Muslims did not therefore feel the imperative need felt by Christians to seek an escape from the horrors of state-sponsored and state-enforced doctrine. The character and extent of traditional Muslim tolerance should not be misunderstood. If by tolerance we mean the absence of discrimination, then the traditional Muslim state was not tolerant, and indeed a tolerance thus defined would have been seen not as a merit but as a dereliction of duty. No equality was conceded, in practice or even less in theory, between those who accepted and obeyed God’s word, and those who willfully and of their own choice rejected it. Discrimination was structural, universal, imposed by doctrine and law and enforced by popular consent. Persecution, on the other hand, though not unknown, was rare and atypical, and there are few if any equivalents in Muslim history to the massacres, the forced conversions, the expulsions, and the burnings that are so common in the history of Christendom before the rise of secularism.
In our own day, certain self-styled fighters for Islam, who claim to be acting in the name of their faith, have brutally maltreated hostages and other innocent victims, and their claim has not been convincingly repudiated by accredited Muslim authorities. But these are crimes against civility, decency, and humanity, not against non-Muslims as such, and those who have committed them, along with those who direct them, deal as badly or worse with their own coreligionists. Both as tyrants at home and as terrorists abroad, their actions are in violation of Islamic morality and law.
From a Muslim point of view, neither Judaism nor Christianity is a false religion. Both were in origin based on authentic revelations, but both are superseded by the final and perfect revelation vouchsafed to Muhammad in the Koran. Some go further, and claim that the Jewish and Christian scriptures were distorted and corrupted by their unworthy custodians. However, the principle has always been adopted in Muslim law and usually in practice that Christians and Jews—but not atheists, polytheists, or idolaters—are entitled to the tolerance and protection of the Muslim state. This has meant, in law and in practice, that they were allowed to practice their religions, and to form their own communal organizations in which they administered their own laws, subject to the payment of additional taxes and the acceptance of certain social, fiscal, and political restrictions. The severity with which these restrictions were in fact applied varied enormously from place to place and from time to time. It was determined by many factors, perhaps the most important among them being relations with the outside and more particularly the Christian world. In some periods the restrictions were harshly and rigorously enforced; in others they amounted to little more than a token of formal submission.
By a sad paradox, the adoption in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of democratic constitutions, guaranteeing equal rights for all citizens, in the Ottoman Empire, in Iran, Egypt, and elsewhere, on the whole weakened rather than strengthened the position of minorities. On the one hand it deprived them of the limited but substantial and well-grounded rights and privileges which they enjoyed under the old Islamic dispensation. On the other, it failed to make good the new rights and freedoms offered to them by the newly enacted constitutions which, in this as in many other respects, proved a dead letter. It is easier to be tolerant from a position of strength than from a position of weakness, and in the age of overwhelming European superiority of wealth and power, the Christian and to a lesser extent the Jewish minorities, suspected with some justification of sympathizing and even collaborating with European imperialists, were subject to increasing hostility. After the withdrawal of those imperialists in the postwar period, the surviving minorities were in an exposed and dangerous position.
The first Muslim encounter with secularism was during the French Revolution, which they saw not as secular—a word and concept equally meaningless to them at that time—but as de-Christianized and therefore deserving of some consideration. All previous movements of ideas in Europe had been to a greater or lesser extent Christian, at least in their expression, and were accordingly discounted in advance from a Muslim point of view. The Renaissance, the Reformation, even the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment passed unnoticed in the Muslim world. The French Revolution was the first movement of ideas in Europe which did not appear Christian and which even presented itself, to Muslims at least, as anti-Christian. And Muslims in increasing numbers therefore looked to France in the hope of finding, in these ideas, the motors of Western science and progress, freed from Christian encumbrances. These ideas, and others derived from them, provided the main ideological inspiration of many of the modernizing and reforming movements in the Islamic world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
From the beginning, that is to say from the first impact of these ideas at the end of the eighteenth century, there were a few who saw that they could threaten not only Christianity, which did not concern them, but also Islam, and who, seeing this, gave warning. For a long time they had little influence. The small minority who were at all aware of European ideas were, for the most part, profoundly attracted by them. Among the vast majority, the challenge of Western secular ideas was not so much opposed as ignored. It is only in comparatively recent times that Muslim religious thinkers of stature have looked at secularism, understood its threat to what they regard as the highest values of religion, and responded with a decisive rejection.
In the secularization of the West, God was twice dethroned and replaced: as the source of sovereignty by the people; as the object of worship by the nation. Both these ideas were alien to Islam, but in the course of the nineteenth century they became familiar, and in the twentieth for a while became dominant among the Westernized intelligentsia who at that time ruled many if not most Muslim states. In a nation-state defined by the country over which it ruled, or by the nation which constituted its population, a secular state was in principle possible.
Only one Muslim country, the Turkish Republic, has formally adopted the separation of religion and state as law. It has enacted the removal of Islam from the constitution, and the abrogation of the shari’a, which ceased to be part of the law of the land. One or two other Muslim states went some of the way, and several of them restricted shari’a to marriage, divorce, and inheritance, adopting mainly Western laws in other matters. There have been some political movements which claim to be secularist, the most remarkable of these being the Baath, which rules in Syria and Iraq. Recently, the secular leader of this party in Iraq, finding himself at war, inscribed Allahu Akbar on his banner and, after seeing the Prophet in a dream, proclaimed jihad against the infidels. This suggests an imperfect understanding of what secularism means, or perhaps a perfect understanding of how little appeal it would have.
For some years now, there has been a strong reaction in Muslim countries against these secularizing tendencies, expressed in a number of Islamic radical movements, loosely and inaccurately designated at the present time as fundamentalist. Among these countries are Egypt, North Africa, and, to some extent, even Turkey. These movements share the objective of undoing the secularizing reforms of the last century, abolishing the imported codes of law and the social customs that came with them, and returning to the holy law of Islam and the Islamic political order.
That is what Islamic fundamentalism is primarily about. In one country, Iran, these forces captured power. In several others they exercise growing influence. And a number of governments have begun to reintroduce shari’a law, either from conviction or as a preemptive strike against the fundamentalist challenge. Even nationalism and patriotism, which, after some initial opposition from pious Muslims, had begun to be generally accepted, are now once again being questioned and even denounced as anti-Islamic. After a long period in which, for example, Arab nationalism was sacrosanct, it is now under attack. In some Arab countries defenders of what has now become the old-style, so-called secular nationalism are accusing the Islamic fundamentalists of dividing the Arab nation.
“You are dividing the Arab nation,” they say, “and setting Muslim against Christian,” to which the fundamentalists reply that it is the nationalists who are divisive by setting Turk against Persian against Arab within the larger community and brotherhood of Islam and that this division is the greater and more heinous offense.
In the literature of the Muslim radicals and militants the enemy is variously defined. Sometimes he is the Jew or Zionist—the terms are more or less interchangeable; sometimes the Christian or missionary or crusader, again more or less interchangeable; sometimes the Western imperialist, nowadays redefined as the US; occasionally—though not much of late—the Soviet Communist. The primary enemy and immediate object of attack among many of these groups are the native secularizers, those who have tried to weaken and modify the Islamic base of the state by introducing secular schools and universities, secular laws and courts, and thus excluding Islam, and so also the professional exponents of Islam, from two major areas which they had previously dominated, education and justice.
In these antisecularist writings, the arch enemy is often Kemal Atatürk, the first major secularist ruler in the Islamic world and the model for all others. Some fundamentalist writers even allege that he was neither a Turk nor a Muslim, but a crypto-Jew, who established the Turkish republic to punish the Ottoman house for having refused to give Palestine to the Zionists.
The fundamentalist demonology includes characters as diverse as King Farouk and Presidents Nasser and Sadat in Egypt, Hafiz al-Asad in Syria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Shah of Iran and the kings of Arabia, all lumped together as the most insidious of enemies, the enemy from within who wears a Muslim face and bears a Muslim name and is therefore much deadlier than the open enemies from outside.
At the present time secularism is in a bad way in the Middle East. Of those Middle Eastern states that have written constitutions, only two have no established religion. One is Lebanon, once a shining example of religious tolerance and even coexistence, now a terrible warning of the consequences of their failure. The other, as already noted, is the Turkish Republic, where, while the general principle of separation is maintained, there has been some erosion in recent years, for example, in the reintroduction of religious education in the schools, and the maintenance of the longstanding distinction between Turk and Turkish citizen. Turk means Muslim—perhaps an unbelieving or lapsed Muslim, but at least some kind of Muslim. Non-Muslims may be designated and treated as Turkish citizens, but are not called Turks. A similar, or rather parallel, distinction exists in Israel.
Of the remaining Middle Eastern countries, those that possess written constitutions all give some constitutional status to Islam, ranging from the Islamic republic of Iran, which gives religion a central position, to the rather minimal reference in the Syrian constitution which says the laws of the state shall be inspired by the shari’a. Of the states without written constitutions, Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia both accord a very considerable place to religion in the definition of identity and of loyalty. If one may briefly compare the two, Saudi Arabia gives a greater place to the application of religious law; Israel, because of its unique electoral system, allows a far greater political role to the clergy through the parties which they influence or control.
I said a little earlier that historically speaking there are no lords spiritual for Muslims, or for that matter for Jews, no political churchmen like Richelieu or Wolsey. The first statement, that there are no lords spiritual, is clearly no longer true, either for Jews or for Muslims. I wonder if it is still true, and if so, how long it will remain true, that there are no political ecclesiastics. There is of course the obvious example of Khomeini in Iran, though if one looks for a Christian parallel he was a Savonarola, rather than a Richelieu. One may also see, if one looks nearer, other Muslim and Jewish men of religion who, forsaking traditional values, have become both political and ecclesiastical.
Secularism in the Christian world was an attempt to resolve the long and destructive struggle of Church and state. Separation, adopted in the American and French revolutions and elsewhere after that, was designed to prevent two things: the use of religion by the state to reinforce and extend its authority; and the use of the state power by the clergy to impose their doctrines and rules on others. This is a problem long seen as purely Christian, not relevant to Jews or Muslims. Looking at the contemporary Middle East, both Jewish and Muslim, one must ask whether this is still true—or whether Jews and Muslims may perhaps have caught a Christian disease and might therefore consider a Christian remedy.
March 26, 1992
This article is adapted from a lecture given in Naples in April 1991, at a colloquium on Coabitazione tra religioni e laicità dello stato nel Mediterraneo del novecento, organized by Storia Uomini Religioni. The proceedings of the colloquium will be published in Italian, by Laterza, later this year. ↩
John Locke, A Letter concerning Toleration, with the Second Treatise of Civil Government, edited by J.W. Gough (Oxford: Blackwell, 1946), p. 160. ↩
Facsimile and edition in David Goldenberg, editor, To Bigotry No Sanction: Documents in American Jewish History (Philadelphia: Annenberg Research Institute, 1988), pp. 56–59. ↩