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IslamQA: The separation of church and state in Islam

What is your opinion on separation of church and state. Is such thing possible in Muslim countries?

Separation of church and state only matters if one envisions the state as an authority that forces certain behaviors on the population. This is mainly a concern for elitist intellectuals who think that a small number of intellectuals in the government should have the right to dictate to the rest of the population how to manage their lives. And since most of these intellectuals (in countries like the US) are secular, anti-Christian, highly elitist, and highly hostile toward ordinary citizens, they believe that the separation of church and state should be promoted because they do not want the values of ordinary citizens to affect their plans for managing the country according to their own ideologies.

In other words, these elitist intellectuals have a top-down view of government: they think they should be the moral authorities over the population. They do not want the population’s own morality to seep into the government.

But if we envision government in a non-elitist way, as merely a reflection of the will of the people, then the idea of the separation of church and state becomes irrelevant. A government is merely a tool for making life more stable and manageable, it is similar to the management of a business. The way that the people of a village can come together to manage their village’s affairs, the people of a country can come together to manage their country’s affairs. A government should not be a force from the top forcing certain behaviors on the people, it should simply be a reflection of the people themselves and their values and desires.

The smallest unit of government is a family, as the philosopher Hegel recognized. The idea of separating church and state within the family is absurd because the way the family manages its affairs is guided by its values, which naturally means its religious values among others. These values are not forced on them, it is their own democratically chosen values. And if we get a large number of families in a community, we have a government.

If by the separation of church what is meant is that a small number of religious authorities should not dictate to the rest of the population how they should live their lives, then I fully support that. But I reject the idea of anyone forcing a way of life on any other, so this should not be a problem to begin with. It is not the separation of church and state that is the problem, it is the forcing of the values of a minority over a majority.

In my view an ideal Islamic society would be a truly federalist version of the way the United States is today: each state, and even each city, would democratically choose its own laws. In this way the government of each city would simply be the desires and values of the people of that city reflected in their laws. Separation of church and state is completely irrelevant here because it is the people themselves choosing their own laws. No one is forcing it on them.

So the crucial value for ensuring a lack of oppression is not separation of church and state, it is this: a lack of the use of force by one group in the country to change the way of life of another group. This is the higher issue. Separation of church and state is simply a sub-category of this concern. The higher concern is non-domination.

As Treebeard said to Merry and Pippin in The Two Towers:

‘I am not going to do anything with you: not if you mean by that ‘‘do something to you’’ without your leave. We might do some things together.

In a perfectly harmonious society, no one would to use force on others. When people talk about the separation of church and state what they mean is that they worry about religious authorities controlling people’s ways of life. But if we reject the very idea of control from the state, if we say that the government should be nothing more or less than a reflection of the people’s desires and values, then there is no control involved. The secular would not control the religious, and the religious would not control the secular. People would respect each other’s rights to have different laws. A city with a religious majority can choose to have more religious values reflected in their laws, while a city with a secular minority can have secular values reflected in their laws.

But to elitist intellectuals this is unacceptable since what they really want is to force secularism on all to prevent the possibility of any community making its own moral choices. The moral choices, in their view, should all be made at the top by those who control the government.

So a skeptical thinker would realize that “separation of church and state” is merely another way of referring to the domination of the secular over the religious. I reject all domination, whether of the secular over the religious, or the religious over the secular. If both types of domination are ended, then there remains nothing to “separate”.

So what we should call for is not the separation of church and state, but non-domination. If non-domination is made law, then that automatically includes what separation of church and state is supposed to accomplish (a lack of the use of force in religious matters).

But non-domination also includes the destruction of the power of the intellectual elite to control the population’s ways of life. So rather than accepting the terms of the argument chosen by them (“separation of church and state”), we must instead move the terms to a higher plane: non-domination. In this way we give these elitist intellectuals a taste of their own medicine: taking away their power to dominate others.

As Muslims, we must seek a humanist, consensual community where we deal with non-Muslims as equally valued humans, never wanting to do things to them, but wanting to do things with them. And as for those who call for the separation of church and state, they either belong to the class of elitist intellectuals who know exactly what they are doing (they are calling for the domination of the elite over the average citizen), or they have naively bought into the ideology of the elite without fully analyzing its intentions and implications.

And God knows best.
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