Current developments in the Middle East show that the relationship between religion and politics in which religion plays central role do not change their character that formed a long time ago. The confrontation of governments that claim to be faithful to Islam and opposition forces in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia arose when the latter accused the former in authoritarianism and hostility to Islamic principles. In any case, while in the course of history Western countries realized the necessity to separate religious from political, in the Middle East tradition religion and politics always remained entangled together. This would not present a serious problem if the religion the Middle East region were unified. However, there are numerous religious groupings that tend to interpret the law in different ways and consider themselves rightful to repress the “infidel”. The most powerful of these groups use religion to gain the support and territories by creating the chaos across huge areas in order to start an “apocalyptic war” after which they will raise the common state that will profess one faith – Islam (Stern and Berger 375). There are various hypotheses on the ideal way of the combination of religion and politics within a state in the Middle East.
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Historically, four factors contributed to the close connection between religion and politics (Lee 6). First was the development of states in which religion played a regulatory role by justifying and defending the movements that were created by governments. Second and third factors relate to the development of written tradition and the growth of literacy among elites and common people which allowed for the mass spreading of religious ideas across regions and even cultures. Fourth and the last factor is the development of nationalistic consciousness that started when people separated by time but bonded by common traditions and beliefs began identifying themselves as communities. As history and current developments show, far from always these communities coincide with political boundaries. This leads to a wide disparity between the religious and political identity of state members. Because of the latter, the Middle East countries have to search for ways and methods of constructing harmonious relations between religion and politics within a state (Lee 11).
The most obvious way to create a nation-state is to use religion as means of bonding and establishing the stable institutions (Lee 12). Some historians and political scientists argue that the play on the religious identity and national history helps to instill loyalty into state’s citizens. They exemplify such point of view with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Morocco, and Jordan that proclaim their faithfulness to Islam and Israel that bases its political institutions on Judaism (Lee 12; Stern and Berger 376). In any case, the idea of using religion as means of national identity development seems to be reasonable because religion is a powerful instrument of bonding. Such method, however, will not serve to a state where there are several groups of people identifying themselves as confessants of different religions. In this case, the use of religion as means of establishing stable and indigenous political institutions may lead to sectarianism and deepen the confrontation between different groups rather than cultivate tolerance of state members. There is a wide range of examples such as cases of India, Iraq, Nigeria, Belgium, Sudan, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, etc (Lee 13).
As opposed to the idea of integrating religion in politics, there is a way to exclude it from the political process. There are two hypotheses concerning the full separation of religion and politics. The first one suggests that organized, strictly structured religious organizations prevent the political development by questioning and interfering with state’s attempts to employ its authority upon the citizens. In accordance with the previous hypothesis, the idea of secularization is supported by the fact that state’s cooperation with official church deprives citizens of freedom of religious choice. This may result in tensions among citizens against the government (Lee 24). However, full separation of religion from politics may undermine the legitimacy of a government. Historically, political powers sought in religion the justification for their actions. Church vested rights on governments, and people believed in their righteousness. Without religion that cultivates faith in common equality and democracy, governments will not be able to prove the social equality empirically (Lee 16). As a result, people will question the legitimacy of governments which will lead to political instability.
Another hypothesis of organizing the relationship between religion and politics admits the possibility of changing some of the religious laws. Certain confessions, such as Islam, are authoritarian in nature (Stern and Berger 279), and if a state needs some reformations and developments, interpretation of some dogmas may be revised. Thus, Muhammad Abduh, Egyptian Islamic religious scholar, argued that since the Islamic law comes from revelation, and revelation affirms reason, then the revision of Islamic theology for the sake of state’s development is fully justified if it is based on reason (Lee 18).
Religion may help governments in providing social services to people. However, religious organizations whose initial purpose is to serve social needs by educating or rendering medical aid may develop into strong non-governmental institutions that will eventually result in political pluralism. For example, numerous community organizations in Saudi Arabia that initially constructed facilities and educated people from middle class eventually created a political force, and currently there is a large number of groups that have different demands: revolution, revision of Sharia, governmental support, etc (Lee 22; Stern and Berger 370). So far, this did not lead to severe consequences for the Saudi government; however, political pluralism has a tendency to undermine the political stability of a state.
With various hypotheses to the organization of relationships between religion and politics that are rather urgent to the Middle East where religion always played leading role, the question of how ISIS leaders interpret religion seems to be logical and consistent. In spite of the fact that ISIS appeared on the political scene quite recently, its basics started to develop in the last century. Many scholars tend to connect ISIS to Al Qaeda, but this connection cannot be fully proven. It is well known that the ideas of current ISIS were formed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who was a strong opponent of Western politics as well as Shiism. He expressed the idea that there is one God for all Muslims and that they need to proclaim and propagate it in all countries that have different religions.
Being a radical jihadist, Zarqawi believed that the world should be rid of polytheism and everyone should follow the Sharia rules. His ideas were greatly influenced by Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi who theorized jihadi Salafism. Jihadi Salafism justifies and approves the violent repression of those who do not live in accordance with the Sharia law, proclaiming them as “infidel” (Stern and Berger 378). Nowadays, Islam that underlies ISIS ideology is considered a “religion of warriors” (Lee, 31). They aim to undermine and destroy all existing political regimes and confessions and set up a world’s regime based on the Sharia law. In such perspective, Islam becomes not only a religion but also a political doctrine that is aimed to overturn states and governments. The problem is that Islam in inconsistent religion in itself since numerous groups interpret the Sharia law in different ways. A single, unified Muslim State in the Middle East is impossible until these groups find common ground, not to mention the impossibility of a universal Sharia law.
In the case of the Middle East, religion was always closely connected, even entangled with politics. Current developments only prove this fact because the vast majority of Middle East conflicts start over the religious issues. Historians, political scientists, and comparative politics specialists analyze and suggest different ways of organization of the relationship between religion and politics within a state. This may be the close connection as in the case of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Morocco, and Jordan, where governments use the religious identity as means of social bonding, or a complete separation of religion and politics, as in most present day Western countries. Currently, Islamic religion became a religion of warriors because ISIS uses this religion as a revolutionary doctrine in order to undermine all existing rules and systems in the world and establish a unified regime based on the Sharia law.
Lee, Robert. Religion and Politics in the Middle East. Westview Press, 2013.
Stern, Jessica, and J. M. Berger. ISIS: The State of Terror. Harper Collins UK, 2015.