By Nathan J. Brown, George Washington University

 * This memo was prepared for the “Islam and International Order” workshop, April 29-30 2015.

In analyzing the relationship between religion and politics in the Arab world – and where the zones of contention are and where they may recur and even become endemic – scholars may be looking in the wrong places because our concepts are grounded in the wrong history.

Looking in the right places may depend in part in recasting our understanding of what “religion” is and considering diverse historical experiences, especially with state formation, that have cast the issues in different ways. International relations scholars have taken to criticizing themselves for overlooking religion. Whether such a criticism is fair or not, I think the deeper problem is that when we approach the relationship between religion and politics, we do so in categories and questions we have inherited from modern European history. Generally we lean on two sets of concepts and questions generated from our understanding of the 17th century and two more from the 20th century.

From the early modern era, we get our basic understanding of religion as a matter of individual faith and a privatized set of beliefs; we also get an understanding of the relationship of religion and politics as being of one between “Church” and “state.” From the 20th century we get two more ways religion and politics intersect: Religion can be a source of identity, operating like ethnicity and nation to lay claim to loyalties and motivate group behavior. And we also get religion as a mobilizer, for elections (through religiously-based parties) or social movements.

These relationships, while developed in specific European experiences, travel well. They are not at all rigid. Nor do they lack richness. As someone who has written on Islamist movements and parties, I am hardly the one to call for abandoning interest in them. The categories do not need to be replaced, but they need to be supplemented.

Let us begin with one of the central terms that arise when we speak of religion and politics in the Arab world: the sharia. The Islamic sharia is commonly defined simply as Islamic law. But it is also much more: Sharia is ethics, ritual, moral guidance and family relationships. And it is much less: Seemingly important spheres lie, as some sharia scholars suggest, beneath the dignity of the Islamic sharia, such as traffic law or even much of routing governance and regulation. Such omissions and vagueness, however, include not only whether human beings may turn right on a red light. Also much of what we would consider constitutional law is not included in the Islamic sharia.

It may make sense to translate the phrase that is most often used in the Arab world – “the Islamic sharia” – a bit more literally as “the Islamic way of doing things.” Seen this way, Islam and the sharia become virtually coterminous (as they are often seen). And more broadly, this kind of re-translation directs our attention to a different way of defining religion – not only as faith, ritual and text, but also – and more critically for politics – as a set of practices and structures that shape or even govern the ethics of interpersonal behavior.

When it comes to politics and religion, what matters in such a conception is not always what resides in the heart, but how people act in public or interact with each other. Apostasy may be repugnant to God in the view of almost all Muslims, but many sharia authorities suggest that God will know best how to deal with the offense and the matter can be left to Him. Public apostasy – that is, proudly renouncing Islam and mocking it rather than simply quietly abandoning it – is a threat to the social fabric however, and society must respond by punishing the offender.

Religion is not merely something intrinsic to the individual but also a language for people to communicate with each other and a set of institutions. In other societies, many may detach discussions of justice, morality and political and social behavior from those of faith and the divine. But in many discussions in the Arab world, religion provides an important anchor for such discussions. I do not mean to say there are no Arabs who will make a point of detaching religion from ethics – I have met many. But they rarely do so explicitly in public – and that is the point. To do so would be to talk in a language that would not make a lot of sense or even be alienating, as if divine guidance and ultimate values have no role in social life.

Religion is above all a public matter and therefore woven into the structure of the modern state: Ministries of education write religious textbooks; ministries of religious affairs administer mosques; state muftis offer interpretations of religious law; courts of personal status guide husband and wife and parent and child to conduct their interactions the Islamic way. Jocelyne Cesari has found that this is not a phenomenon of the Arab world but probed it more broadly – and noted some very significant variations – in the Muslim world.

Of course, some of these features may be traceable back to Islamic doctrine, the experience of the early community of Muslims and core beliefs derived from sacred texts. But in their particularities – and even in many of their most general features – these features are rooted much more in the process of modern state formation. State muftis are largely a 19th and 20th century innovation. Ministries of religions affairs, the nationalization of waqfs (endowments) and zakat (alms) are as well. The entire category of “personal status” law – perhaps the most essential element of the sharia as Islamic law for many adherents – simply does not exist as a distinct body before the 19th century.

There is no doctrinal base for states to claim that conducting marital relations in an Islamic manner is more important to God than trading goods in an Islamic way. Yet, marriage, divorce and inheritance emerged in the colonial era as the one area of law where states tread most carefully. States take special care to introduce measures that can be more easily expressed in the terms of older Islamic jurisprudence—increasing women’s rights, for instance, is generally pursued (when it is) by drawing on existing if previously ignored interpretations or implementing older concepts in newer ways rather than repudiating them.

Moreover, sectarianism as a political force has emerged with such viciousness in recent years not because of doctrinal divisions but because of the way certain states (such as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Bahrain) were built and others broke down or were destroyed (such as Iraq and Syria).

We need not stop asking whether Islamists will win the next election or whether Islam as a political force will bring down the international order, but we need to shift our attention to important religio-political developments that we might otherwise overlook or underemphasize.

But I have made things sound too simple for Muslims and the states where they live. Defining religion in the alternative way I offer makes matters clearer but not less contentious. By describing religion as a set of practices and structures that shape or even govern the ethics of interpersonal behavior; by directing our attention to religion as specific behaviors, a set of institutions and a language for discussion, I do not mean to suggest consensus were none exists. I have most significantly passed over how the nature of proper behavior is debated. I have elided over how the authority claimed by institutions engenders not only controversy over their structure, operation and power. The use of religion as a language neither prevents misunderstanding nor resolves all disputes.

As students of politics, we should focus our attention on the set of controversies that have resulted from the way religion has been structured, practiced and understood. These controversies should provoke lines of questioning such as: Why many of the important disputes in the Arab world over religion will not be just over what religion teaches but over whose voice should be heard; why such debates will not simply be about doctrine but also about politics. Indeed, why the line between doctrine and politics can sometimes be blurry; why public matters become political matters so easily; why liberalism in the political sense (and its tendency to privatize important elements of religion and morality) might be weak but also why economic liberalism (with its suspicion of attempts to moralize and to impose obligations on society) sparks little resonance. Or why Danish cartoons provoke not simply a desire to turn the page but also to require a political response, and why religious freedom is often defined in communal as much as individual terms.

To reuse an analogy I have drawn on before, the relationship between religion and state may owe far less to Jean Bodin or other theorists of sovereignty and more to Antoine St. Exupery whose pilot in the “The Little Prince” as a child drew a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. By folding religion into itself, it is not clear whether the state is dominating religion, whether it is the other way around, or whether what has been produced is something else entirely that requires great imagination to understand.

Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies. He is the president of the Middle East Studies Association and a nonresident senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Rethinking religion and politics: Where the fault lines lie in the Arab world

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