Separation of Mosque and State

Today’s Washington Post has a short but fascinating story on the “religious enlightenment” programs we’re providing for Muslim detainees at a military facility in Iraq that we call the “House of Wisdom.” According to the Post,

The religious courses are led by Muslim clerics who “teach out of a moderate doctrine,” [Marine Maj. Gen. Douglas M.] Stone said, according to the transcript of a conference call he held from Baghdad with a group of defense bloggers. Such schooling “tears apart” the arguments of al-Qaeda, such as “Let’s kill innocents,” and helps to “bring some of the edge off” the detainees, he said.

I have a number of reactions to this, and they are not entirely consistent.

My first reaction is to cheer. For one thing, this approach seems to be working quite well, on at least two levels. First, the detainees’ differing responses to the training help us to distinguish hard-core detainees who pose a continuing threat from those who can be released. Second, the training seems to be quite effective in reducing recidivism:

Since May, Stone said, he has released about 2,000 detainees “and we’ve not had any coming back.” He said his goal is to keep those who are released from harming U.S. troops or anyone else. “They’re not going out of here unless I can feel comfortable about that,” Stone added. “I’m not doing mass releases.”

Naturally, reasonable minds might question the sincerity of any “conversions” that occur under such circumstances, but one anecdote in the story seems inconsistent with the idea that moderates are faking it:

Stone described a sort of religious insurgency that occurred at one detention facility on Sept. 2. “We had a compound of moderates for the first time overtake . . . extremists. It’s never happened before. Found them, identified them, threw them up against the fence and shaved their frickin’ beards off of them. . . . I mean, that is historic.”

They “shaved their frickin’ beards off of them.” Maybe that should have been the title of this post.

I also love the fact that we’re using our heads to address the roots of the insurgency instead of confining ourselves to a conventional military response. So often I hear people advocate military operations in Iraq on the ground that we have to do something — as if there were no other possibilities. Whatever else these “religious enlightenment” programs are, they are not a failure of imagination.

So what inconsistent reactions do I have? Mainly, it’s that I have trouble squaring my basically positive and basically visceral reaction to this program with my pre-existing ideas about state-sponsored religious education. I generally support a prominent place for religion in the public square, and I happen to think that distinctively religious arguments are quite proper on matters of public policy. I sometimes make them. At the same time, I do not believe government should ever try to establish orthodoxy in religion, and I developed a hearty dislike of President Bush’s religious allusions in some of his more apocalyptic speeches because they struck me as bad theology. As a Christian, I think Christian prison ministries here in the U.S. are wonderful, but I guess I would be nervous about state-sponsored lessons on the “right sort” of Christianity. (Come to think of it, I have no idea what sort of institutional approval is generally required before an outside organization can come in and establish a prison ministry in the U.S.)

So is my positive reaction to this story primarily a consequence of my not being Muslim? Do I find it easy to brush aside separationist concerns because I know our government could not plausibly be suspected of establishing Islam as the state religion? I’d be interested to know what reasonable minds think about this.

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2 Responses to “Separation of Mosque and State”

  1. Pat O'Donnell Says:

    I worry about the long-term practical impact of a US-sponsored flavor of Islam in Iraq. Like it or not, we are the foreigners there, the ones that (according to US media accounts of polling in Iraq) a majority of Iraqis think it’s legitimate to attack and kill. While I doubt all Iraqis hate us, and some factions seem to believe it’s to their advantage to have us there to help suppress rivals, we’re clearly not loved.

    If I was a moderate Iraqi muslim, the last thing I’d want is a US imprimatur on my flavor of Islam. If, on the other hand, I was an al-Qaeda member or a sympathizer with some other extreme muslim group, I’d love to be able to show the fence sitters that the “moderate” alternative interpretations of the creed are, in fact, endorsed by the US and therefor suspect. Throwing red white and blue arms around a “moderate” flavor of Islam may not be a welcome embrace for long.

    Gen. Stone and the other folks who run the military prisons in Iraq are surely smart enough to identify that risk and, I’d expect, are doing the best they can to protect the bona fides of the moderate clerics they sponsor. But our opponents aren’t dumb, nor is the general populace. Let’s see how well the “moderates” like Uncle Sam’s endorsement in a few months.

  2. David Fitzgerald Says:

    Mark, your post and your scruples remind me of a story that George Will used in one of his columns. Once there was a baseball manager whose team was wallowing in the second division. While being questioned in a postgame interview he informed the media that, “this team is just three players away from being a contender…unfortunately those three players are Ruth, Gehrig and Dimaggio.”

    Will used the story as an analogy to the current political situation in Iraq. He was arguing that Iraq was just three politicians away from being a functioning democracy…unfortunately those three politicians were Washington, Madison and Hamilton.

    The value of separation of church and state only makes sense in the context of the other constitutional protections in the Bill of Rights and the structural protections inherent in the federal system. Banning governement from the promotion of religion or a particular brand of religion makes perfect sense when that same government also protects the rights of minorities to speak freely, the right of assembly, a free and vigorous press and has constituional structures like an independent judiciary and habeus corpus.

    That’s been the trouble in Iraq. In a situation where there is no respect for the rule of law, no law is sacred, or even possible. In that situation, where might and dollars makes right, it makes perfect sense for the US (a faction admittedly and certainly not an honest broker) to compete with Saudi and Iranian agents for influence over the “hearts and minds” of the Iraqis. Without our support its not as if those moderate clerics would have room to speak for their views…they’d end up in a ditch with a bullet in their heads.

    The true tragedy of Iraq, other than the broken lives, is the damage it has done to our own constitutional principles. Everywhere you turn, both at home and “in theatre” we compromise our own basic values in order to function in a situation totally at odds with the most basic concepts of “ordered liberty.”

    US generals sending in some imams to quiet down the locals may be the very least of our concerns.


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