The separation of church and state under the ‘Islamist protocol’

The separation of church and state under the ‘Islamist protocol’

Lotfi Maktouf
With the dramatic uptick of Islamist terrorist attacks around the world and with growing concern about “homegrown” terrorism, Western public opinion is drawn to the traditional “Church and State” debate, trying to apply it to the new realities of Islam as part of Western societies.

However, the application of the Western concept of the separation of church and state is simply insufficient for truly apprehending the conceptual contours of the relationship between Islam and the state for at least one reason: the very concept of the state as understood in the West is conceptually irrelevant under the “Islamist Protocol.”

Islamism is an ideology that is all about governance: conquering and maintaining political power. The Islamist Protocol is the foundation on which Islamists base their ideology. It comprises the observation of two guiding principles: the systematic and universal application of sharia and governing in accordance with the principles of the caliphate, i.e., the Islamic state. Under the Islamist protocol, statecraft as such amounts to the fusion of faith and governance in one body of rules that does not leave room for the separation of church and state. 

This ideology’s source and raison d’être derive from a very specific historical context. It is worth recalling that Muslim consciousness is broadly haunted by the fate of the inexorable decline suffered by the Muslim nation or ummah. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq produced a tipping point in the seemingly endless impasse of Muslim defeatism, and revealed to a large sector of the masses that a return to Islamic roots was the only way to salvation. This is the basis of the Islamist Protocol.   

At the root of the Islamist Protocol – on which all Islamist parties from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Islamic State of the Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) base their ideology – lies a principle of formidable complexity: political Islam can only be holistic, not in the inclusive sense, but rather exclusive and monolithic one. When the simplistic Islamist Protocol is applied to a domain as complex and shifting as politics, it easily becomes totalitarian and absolutist. Faced with people’s diverse aspirations, especially in societies undergoing change as in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Gulf regions, this monolithic vision is simply inefficient. 

Seen as prerequisite conditions for the faith to flourish, sharia and the caliphate also represent the surest way for Islamists to secure power indefinitely. Pluralism would, by definition, be un-Islamic and sully the social project as defined by the Quran. 

This holistic distortion leads to three basic consequences of the political model. The first is anti-pluralism, as mentioned above. The second is a blurring of lines among the various branches of the state, which results in, among other outcomes, the surrender of the media into Islamist hands. And the third is the substitution of the components of the nation-state by a faith-based system. 

Despite what Islamists might claim, separating church and state does not imply the betrayal of Quranic precepts. The Islamic state does not proceed from Islam, but rather from a caricature of Islam, a politically motivated distortion. Administering the public interest is, by definition, a human enterprise, so that any suggestion of “divine inspiration” in its workings delegitimizes the process.

Secularism is a clear concept – albeit with moving borders – that has been guiding the relationship of church and state in the West. While it can be applied to all religions, the exclusive nature of the Islamist ideology is such that the two concepts are incompatible. 

Under these circumstances, and in the absence of the very concept of “state” in the traditional Western meaning, a new way of thinking should apply to the dynamics of Muslim minority populations in Western societies.  Such an undertaking must involve Muslim minority communities and their leaders, and extend beyond sterile political debates into designing and implementing efficient and secular educational and cultural platforms. Absent such programs, the Islamist Protocol will continue to shape the emergence of a sub-society within the West, ultimately vowed to annihilate the values of freedom, rule of law, and secularism.

* Lotfi Maktouf is the founder and president of Almadanya, a Tunisian NGO formed after the Tunisian revolution. This is an abridged and revised version of the original article featured in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Fall 2015 issue.