-- December 8, 2011- Religious Extremism- Does it Matter Which Religion

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By Marc Schulman

December 8, 2011- Religious Extremism- Does it Matter Which Religion

Should we really be surprised by the election results in Egypt and in most of the rest of the Arab world? Is it a surprise that a people who are religious vote for religious parties? Both people throughout the west, and liberals everywhere keep on making the same mistake, over and over again. Westerners and liberals blindly believe that if voters are given a choice they opt for the same liberal values that Westerners believe in. This belief in the primacy of liberalism is what is behind the American push for elections throughout the Arab world. Unfortunately, those who have been pushing for elections in the belief it will bring about freedom, have failed to learn one of the most important lessons of history, true freedom and true democracy only occur in countries were religion does not dominate.

Just look at the history of Europe. It took both the reformation and the enlightenment to provide a foundation for American and European democracies. No such reformation/enlightenment ever took place in the Arab world. In a sense, just the opposite has happened. For a century, the Arab world was dominated first by Western colonial states, and then by successor regimes that tended to be military dictatorships of one kind or another. Thus, as modernity developed in the West in places where the church and religion were strong, it became clear that a modern state could not be dominated by church and religion. However, whatever natural evolution might have taken place in Islam never had the space to develop. Muslims have never had that same opportunity to independently experience the dissonance between modernity and religion. As a result, the incompatibility between adherence to strict religious beliefs and the governance of a modern state remains unknown to much of the Muslim world, and certainly to many of the poor and undereducated supporters of Muslim parties.

Israel actually suffers from a similar problem, but with different historical roots. The early Zionists did not worry about the influence of religion on their movement at that time, or even in the early state days, since the number of religious Jews who participated in the Zionist enterprise was severely limited by the fervent opposition of many leading Rabbis in the pre-Holocaust Europe. When the State of Israel was founded the number of religious Jews, especially ultra-Orthodox, living in the land was small. In light of the Holocaust there was a feeling that this small community should receive at least minimal support as a concession to history and in the name of Jewish continuity.

The power of the religious minority was very limited. Thus, conventional wisdom held that they presented no threat to the dominant secular culture, or to secular politics as a whole. Over the years three factors occurred to seriously undermine the false confidence exhibited by Israel’s founders. First, Israel's political system, in which coalitions are necessary to build any government, granted the religious parties disproportionate influence since the early years of the state.

Second, in the aftermath of the Six Day War, Israel's moderate Orthodox population was transformed. A significant portion of the modern Orthodox community morphed into a cohesive movement, almost messianic in their beliefs. Their fervency cannot be distinguished, in many ways, from the ultra-Orthodox. In addition, this religious block espouses very clear political beliefs and goals. Their singular dedication to these beliefs has enabled them to have a disproportionate effect on Israeli policy.

Finally, the natural growth of the ultra-Orthodox population, with average families twice (and sometimes three times) the size of average Israeli families, has driven their need to receive ever larger slices of the economic pie to maintain their community. In addition, their burgeoning size has given them increasingly greater political clout.

For many years numerous people have said: "we really do not have to worry about the confluence of state and religion in Judaism". As opposed to the Muslim world we have no modern history of a state religion. This may be part of the problem. It has been over 2,000 years since we have had a state religion and to many, this is the golden opportunity to once again have Jewish religious state. Too many Israelis do not recognize the dangers of mixing religion and state. Similar to the Muslims, we have not encountered first hand all the dangers this combination brings. As Israelis we cannot be surprised by the rise of religious parties in the Arab world, when we have been unable the staunch the very same phenomenon in Israel. 

It makes no difference whether your Jewish, Muslim or Christian, the belief that “gods” law must be supreme is inconsistent with democracy.

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