Unholy Marriages of Religion and Politics

[First published in Iowa City Press Citizen, March 25, 2014]

While on UNICEF assignment to Kabul from 1993-’95, I lived next door in Peshawar, Pakistan. At the time Mujahideen warlords were tearing apart Afghanistan, having been trained and armed by American and European powers (working in the name of ‘freedom’) along with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran (in the name of Allah) to destroy a Communist government deemed godless and despotic. But with the common enemy vanquished in 1992, the Mujahideen fell to fighting among themselves.

Periodically I read in Pakistani newspapers about massacres of worshippers in northwest Pakistan. Unlike the Yemen mosque suicide attacks last week, these bombings were of the “drive-by” variety, with explosives tossed into Friday prayers from the back of passing motorcycles, killing worshippers and the young boys who accompanied their fathers to prayer.

The Pakistan bombings and last week’s suicide attacks have in common that the underlying trigger of the atrocities was ancient hatreds between two Muslim religious traditions, the Sunni and the Shia, each claiming exclusive ownership of God’s truth. The perpetrators of these acts defend their murder of innocents in the name of holy ends they assert can justify unholy means.

I don’t blame Muslims at large or their religion for these atrocities. Most Muslims are good, family-oriented people who draw from their religion spiritual sustenance for living a humane and caring life. But a cancer of fanaticism has gotten loose in the Muslim world, its metastasis accelerated by the quack ‘democracy’ cures that America has periodically tried to impose on the ills of the Muslim world. America has no cures for what ails Islam. Muslims are going to have to find their own medicines.

There was a time when Christendom suffered from these same kind of conflicts. Terrible civil wars in England and the rest of Europe arose out of religious conflict among Christian sects. The great armies that for centuries periodically devastated Europe each had their own corps of chaplains who set up field pulpits from which they blessed troops en route to slaughters.

America’s Founding Fathers (and the citizens and refugees from religious conflicts whom they represented) understood what a deadly mix arises when religion and politics get mixed together. At their best, these forces can be benign and useful influences in human life. However, the sense of certainty and sanctity that often goes with religious sentiment mixes dangerously with the hypocrisy and self-interest that politics is so susceptible to. The two forces joined together in the pursuit of power (and of the money and sex that power so beguilingly brings) turn predictably malignant.

In my view, it is not only the Islamic world that has a problem with this: witness the entry of religious interest groups into American politics over the last few decades. America may still be in an early stage of this cancer, but it is a cancer nonetheless when fundamentalist Christian groups try to use the apparatus of the State and its legal systems to impose their religious belief systems on others. We see signs of that in the efforts of some to inject religious doctrine into decisions between individuals and their doctors, and to impose faith-based curricula on public education institutions. Is the underlying principle so different from what the Islamists have sought to do? And where do such things end?

Now let me not leave the Jews out of this discussion. I think there are strong historical and practical justifications for the existence of a democratic Jewish State. When those arguments are conflated with prophetic territorial claims rooted in Biblical atrocities, however, and Israeli policies and laws veer towards theocracy, then friends of Israel would do well to protest. Down that path, citizens of Israel will find themselves on a rendezvous with the kind of apocalypse that their allies among the fundamentalist Christians and their enemies among the Islamists alike foresee as ushering in a world free of Jews.

I apologize to Hindus, Buddhists, Animists, and friends of other persuasions: for reasons of space I’ve not also taken you to task in this brief screed against the marriage of religion and politics.

I urge all those who think an all-powerful God is on their side to stick to asking Him (or Her or It as your case may be) to bless the unenlightened with wisdom, and stop seeing themselves as agents of God’s punishment. Could we instead confine ourselves to showering the world with acts of charity and love, instead of bombs?