Faith, Ideology, and Politics

David Forte

August 1, 2003

Many in the West think, or used to think, that the problem of violence in the Middle East lay within Islam itself. Jihad and Islam were, and are, seen as the same thing. There is no doubt that there is a strain of violence within Muslim culture, as there was a strain of violence within medieval culture, and within many tribal cultures. And my studies convince me that some elements of the legal tradition in Islam held by some particular writers can work to validate atavistic violence: the death penalty for apostasy, the prohibitions against blasphemy, the (otherwise normally appropriate) constraints on certain sexual activities, the approval of slavery, and the sometime legal degradation of religious minorities.

But what the recent bombing attacks in Israel and Baghdad show is that the enemy in the Middle East is not Islam, or at least the mainline tradition of Islam, but Fascism. The Baathists are overt Fascists, but so are Hamas and Hezbollah. Sometimes this brutal strain of Fascism wears an Islamic mask, but it is still in its essence the same kind of Fascist totalitarianism that ruined Europe, the same kind of Fascist/Communist totalitarianism that ruined Russia and China, and wounded Africa and Latin America. It is the Fascism that made the Holocaust in Europe and would do so again in the Middle East if it could.

The mask it wears, however, is important. In Germany, Fascism wore the mask of maintaining a rich cultural tradition, and seemed more valid because generations of intellectuals had accepted Social Darwinism. In Russia, Communism wore the mask of humanitarian concern for the worker and the poor, and it seemed more valid because generations of intellectuals had accepted the class dichotomies of Fabian Socialism and Progressivism. In the Middle East, Fascist terrorism tries to wear the mask of Islam, and it seems more valid to many because of its surface connection to a deeply held faith.

In Germany, the mask was a lie. Fascism destroyed the German cultural tradition. In Russia, the mask was a lie. Communism demeaned the worker and annihilated the poor. In the Middle East, the mask is a lie. The radicals and the Jihadists have killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims, and would destroy millions if they ever gained the kind of power Hitler and Stalin achieved.

The mask may be a lie, but it can attract millions to its false representation. That is why, today, every Muslim must decide whether his religion is a faith or an ideology.

Some elements within Islamic culture have chosen to make their religion an ideology. They include the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Wahhabism, Iranian Shi-ism, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Sudan. Their policies range from rank intolerance (at best) to overt genocide (at worst). The vast majority of Muslims live outside of the Middle East. The vast majority of them see their religion as a faith and not an ideology. To these Muslims, elements of the Islamic legal tradition are guides to personal devotion, not a program for political action. In the Middle East, however, where the Muslim terrorists are waging a brutal war to gain political and military control, the question of faith or ideology becomes the central question for each Muslim.

It is the same question we must ask ourselves. In this country, every Christian must decide whether his religion is a faith or an ideology.

Our sense of our own humanity and the structure of our political institutions hang upon the answer.

Those whose beliefs are ideological worship politics, and it is through their god of politics that they seek to change man, usually coercively. Those whose beliefs are faith-centered look towards the spiritual transformation of the individual person, and only then through spiritually aware individuals can politics be changed for the better.

The route from religion to politics to man sees man as an object, dependent on politics and the regime. The route from religion to man to politics sees man as a subject, the ruler of politics. Only subjects possess rights. Objects do not. Ideologies turn people into objects. That is why those who use religion as a means to gain political power inevitably create the most horrendous human rights violations. True religion recognizes people as subjects. That is why a religion turned ideology is a perversion of itself.

In this country, there is an easy litmus test. Does your pastor, does your denomination, spend more time (and words) seeking to transform politics? Or does your pastor and denomination seek more to transform souls? Many imams in the Middle East fail that test. Friday sermons in Iran, Saudi Arabia, the West Bank, Egypt, and Iraq are often political, filled with hate, intolerance, and thereby instigate violence.

Our policy should be two-fold. First, we should have an “equal application of the law” policy towards all forms of terror. Whether your Fascism is Baathist, a form of national liberation, Shi-ite, or Sunni, it is all equally our enemy and the enemy of all humanity. We make no distinctions. Second, as our Founding Fathers understood, the flourishing of all religions as faiths is to our interests. They champion the person as subject, as a bearer of rights, as one capable of doing great good. True religion is a school of virtue. Those faith-centered elements of Islam should be validated, encouraged, supported, and given legitimacy. We shall know them by their fruits.

The common cause between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is not that we all worship the same God. It is that we worship the same God who made all of us free individual subjects, responsible for our actions, and entitled to live in a free society.

David Forte is a Professor of Law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in Cleveland, Ohio and the author of Islamic Studies: Classical and Contemporary Applications. He is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio.