Religion and Government: Holding Hands and Singing Kumbaya?

October 28, 2011

Political Theory


Muammar Gaddafi

Prior to reading blakesimons’s post “Bye-Bye, Gaddafi…wait, who?” I was one of the many people who had never even heard of Muammar Gaddafi. And I certainly didn’t realize there was a revolution occurring in Libya. Embarrassing. Immediately I went on a internet search to find out more. I soon found myself on the New York Times website, which had just posted an article about the revolution.

Essentially, the article was announcing the END of the revolution and the beginning of a “new and more pious state.” Libya’s transitional leader, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, was quoted as saying “We are an Islamic country, we take the Islamic religion as the core of our new government. The constitution will be based on our Islamic religion.”

War has ravaged Libya for over eight months and now the nation quite literally has to start from scratch in recreating a government. (State of Nature, anyone??) The people of Libya are working on constructing their own social contract that will work for their society. What surprised me as I read the article was that Church and State will not be separated. This concept is so stressed in our heterogeneous American society that I have a hard time imagining that a government could even function while the two were not separated!

However, maybe that is the issue. The United States is so religiously diverse, no one faith could be accepted to play such a large role in government. Yet, 97% of Libyans are Sunni Muslims. In his “Letter Concerning Toleration”, Locke argued that “the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate, any more than to other men.” One of his main arguments for this is that penalty and force do not change a man’s religious beliefs. Yet, do you think Locke’s argument applies in such a homogenous society? Locke was writing during a time of religious conflict… would his argument have changed had he been writing for a population in which 97% shared the same religious beliefs?

Is this how it always ends up?

It is clear that the majority of Libyan people want a religious based government, one that is founded in Muslim beliefs. Let’s just say, hypothetically, that 100% of Libyans are on the same page with this. Theoretically, everyone would be satisfied, right? But how will this play out in our interconnected world? What would immigration and emigration be like? International policy? Is it realistic today to have such a homogenous society exist in the long term?

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3 Comments on “Religion and Government: Holding Hands and Singing Kumbaya?”

  1. Steve Dougherty Says:

    Very interesting point! I was unaware that the religious climate was so homogeneous. That it’s Sunni Islam specifically may make this less of an issue, but even within a given religion it seems people interpret and apply things differently, and I wonder if compromise in government is as straightforward for religious things than it is in others. My fear is that a single religious interpretation would be converted to codified law, and force people to do things that are against their beliefs, but I suppose it’s entirely possible to use religion as more of a guide than something to be converted to law directly. This still leaves the other 3% of the population in an undesirable situation, however, and I think that Locke’s letter still applies. I wouldn’t want such a government for myself, but if others are going for it, I hope it works well for them.

  2. ianbaker2041 Says:

    Homogeneity and religion in government in the Middle East has interested me for a few years now. It’s one of my favorite things to read about (I’m a nerd, I know). One of the things that I’ve noticed is that theocratic governments seem to work there when democracies don’t.

    I’m not even going to attempt to answer the question about what Libya needs besides wealth. There is a definite link between stability and wealth (western Europe, United States, Australia, etc). People who are wealthy enough to afford basic things are less likely to rebel and cause problems for the ruler. While I can’t say for sure what type of government might work best, it seems plausible to believe that a theocracy might. With such a huge religious majority in the country, it would work much more easily than it would in a more heterogeneous country such as the United States (this is a problem that Israel is about to face). The other characteristic that tends to help with stability in the Middle East is dictatorship. Take Iraq, an example that we’re all far too familiar with. Saddam Hussein was a bad man, don’t get me wrong; there is documented proof that he possessed and used weapons of mass destruction (they were just dismantled before Bush got there), but he was never a direct threat to the United States. The reason that Bush Sr. didn’t remove him from power was simple: if Saddam was removed, who would fill that void? When his son took on the challenge just a few years later, the world would see the answer all too clearly: no one. While it hardly fits into an “American” conception of governance, totalitarianism works very well in its own right. It is efficient, effective, and can maintain the peace.

    As to how it would play out in our interconnected world: I don’t think it would make much difference for Libya to become theocratic. If it was ruled by sharia law, then it would join the ranks of a number of other countries that are (or claim to be) ruled by Islamic law, including our ally, Saudi Arabia. Does the US complain about Saudi Arabia? No way! They give us oil, and if Libya did nothing to rock the boat, I’m sure the United States would turn a blind eye to their government, too. We did it for Saddam when he was our ally. We turn a blind eye to the immense corruption of Saudi royalty. As long as Libya minds its own business, the international community probably won’t care.

    Then we get to your third question, which revolves around how long such a country can last. In my opinion, the Middle East has two stable countries. One is our democratic ally Israel, and the other is Iran. Sure, America likes to hate Iran, but they have done a lot. Iran has used cunning diplomacy to gain allies, and they are flirting with nuclear weapons. It seems plausible to think that they want to have the ability to produce one quickly without actually storing one, which is a clever diplomatic strategy to keep US and western assertions about their nuclear program at bay. Iranian currency is most accepted in southern Iraq, an area where Tehran’s influence far outweighs Washington’s. Why am I pointing all this out? To show that dictatorship and theocracy can be very long lasting and powerful. I don’t see Iran going anywhere soon mainly because of the shrewd diplomatic moves that they’ve made and how they’ve quietly supported Hezbollah and other clandestine organizations. Libya could ensure its own longevity against any foreign powers in a similar way. The US is not eager to go after Iran; why should they be more eager to go for Libya?

    The Libyan situation, while the news has declared it over, still remains to be determined. It’s really hard as an outside onlooker to say what will happen with it, but I think one thing is clear: Libya will thrive or fall based on the government’s decisions more than based on the type of government that they choose. One can find successful and unsuccessful governments of all types around the world.

  3. jgurwitch Says:

    The idea of a government with a religious background could in fact be a plausible solution in some countries. Those countries could potentially strive with that type of government, but overall it would not be a positive way to base what they do politically. Even if 100% of the country has the same religious beliefs, if any of them ever moved there would be a damper on what they know and how they do certain things; therefore immigration would be a huge problem, which in turn would make emigration a problem as well.
    In theory everyone would seem to be happy, but in reality everyone has a different level of religious identity, and certain laws would not please the majority of people. Furthermore the country would have very different political references and laws that the rest of the world would have, which would make international policy quite difficult to achieve. The country would most likely face some type of isolation for having such a unique government, not compliant with others.
    As IanBaker2041 points out so well, a dictatorship would make a country like this stay stable and continue to run. It is a very different dynamic if it is a dictator with a religious background as opposed to a democracy attempting to run a country. The example with Saddam Hussein was spot on, but at the same time he still proves that he was a bad man and was able to run the country efficiently.
    Libya would not be a huge issue if it were theocratic, but overall I do not think it is smart for any country to specifically take on a religious political background. Diversity does make a difference, just as the United States is, but it is also an effective and powerful government, and a model would not be represented well if there were religious ties to the law. There is too much diversity in the world to ever have this truly be efficient because governments will not agree with each other and countries will not work with each other if they are all affiliated with religion. It is smarter to not run a country based off of religion, but the reality is that the country will not falter with this as opposed to how well-organized and capable the government is overall.

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