WEEKLY COMMENTARY: The Relationship of “Church” and State: Why Is It Such A Huge Issue In Today’s Afghanistan Peace Talks?

September 3, 2019

The United States and the Taliban have inched closer to a peace deal that would include a timetable for withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, the New York Times reported recently.  But, these continuing negotiations have been underway for nearly two decades.

First, however, the U.S. wants the Taliban to sit down with other Afghans to chart the country’s future.  This will be the hard part!!  While the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan are largely Muslim, they do not agree on the proper relationship of “church” and “state”.

By 1996, most of Afghanistan had been captured by the Islamic fundamentalist group called the Taliban, who ruled most of the country as a totalitarian regime for more than 5 years.  Eventually, the Taliban were largely removed forcibly by a NATO-led military coalition, permitting a new democratically-elected, governmental political structure to be formed.  But the Taliban still controlled a significant portion of the country.

When the Taliban took control of Kabul (the Afghan capitol) they proclaimed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.  The Taliban were condemned internationally for the harsh enforcement of their interpretation of Islamic Sharia Law, which had resulted in the brutal treatment of many Afghans, especially women.  Today, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world due to a lack of foreign investment, government corruption, and the Taliban insurgency.

In September, 2014 Ashraf Ghani became President after the 2014 Presidential election where for the first time in Afghanistan’s history political power was democratically transferred.  This was remarkable in a Muslim country, and this time none of the election candidates were  Islamic clergy.

In the history of Christianity, roughly the same fundamental change had occurred much earlier.  Two thousand years ago, Jesus of Nazareth was born into a community whose religion was an expression of its national independence, at a time when that national independence was in the process of being crushed by the Roman Empire.  Given the overwhelming power of the Roman Empire, a revival of the Jewish religion in its nationalistic form was bound to lead to disaster —– and it did so forty years after Jesus’ death.

In his book, Faith & Power: The Politics of Islam, Middle Eastern scholar Edward Mortimer suggests that Jesus offered a way out of this blind alley by expounding a non-political interpretation of Judaism: “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Claiming not to be the national warrior leader (Messiah) whom Jewish prophets had predicted, Jesus offered salvation only in the world to come, to be achieved by individuals through earthly faith, hope and charity, rather than by the political nation through organized revolt.  By implication, salvation in this sense was not reserved for Jews only.  After the death of Jesus, Christianity became an invitation to all who suffered under the Roman Empire to hope for a better world after death.

Yet the notion of a non-political religion was a novel one, which the Roman Empire itself could not take at face value.  The expression of allegiance the Roman Empire expected from its subjects was to acknowledge the divinity of the emperor.  Christians who refused this were persecuted, with varying degrees of intensity, until the day came (three centuries after Jesus) when the emperor himself became a Christian.  Once that happened, Christianity was no longer non-political.  A Christian ruler was naturally expected to follow Christian precepts, to advance true Christian doctrine, and to suppress heresy.

It took more than a thousand years before a school of political thought arose suggesting that religious belief was a matter for individuals, with which the state need not concern itself.  All this time, says Edward Mortimer, Christians kept alive the notion of “the church” as something distinct from “the state”.  Though church and state might be composed of the same people, they had separate leadership whose roles were in theory distinct and complementary, even if in practice overlapping and often conflicted.

While for many centuries a number of European countries declared their monarch to be the head of the Christian church in that country, as countries evolved a parliamentary form of government, the power of the monarch was diminished and the “church” became less and less an agency of the state.

Because church and state have been moving apart over the past 200 years in many Christian societies, many people of Christian background have expected something similar to happen in the world of Islam.  But Edward Mortimer says that involves a profound misunderstanding, since in most Muslim societies there is not and never has been such a thing as a church.  Mortimer believes that the community of believers founded by Mohammad was virtually from the beginning what we should call a “state”.

Therefore, it is fair to say that the conflicts today sponsored by some Muslim groups flying the flag of Islam, are simply attempts to get or retain political power.  They seem to be using dedication to their particular interpretation of the Word as sort of a smoke screen to boost their political power.  While not all Muslim groups are motivated in this way, the radical Muslim groups Taliban and ISIS are fine examples of how extreme the political side of Islam can become —– they even describe the territory they now have taken and rule, as “The Caliphate Restored”.

We began this story by noting the version of Islam practiced by the Taliban —— the exercise by religious leaders of an ultimate political control over its people, regarding their practice of religion.  Meanwhile, members of the Muslim community based in today’s Kabul, are voting individually, showing that each of the faithful have some civil and religious discretion regarding their daily lives, as well as in their practice of Islam, and can choose from among various election candidates.  Two different versions of Islam!!  Will Afghans be able to reconcile those differences, or will Afghanistan be really stuck with two irreconcilable understandings of Islamic practice?  Can they meld together their two different understandings of Islam to form a workable government?  Perhaps you are glad that, in the United States, the conflict between “Church” and “State” was  resolved long ago —— at least we think it was!

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These thoughts are brought to you  by CPC’s Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage you to pursue some personal spiritual growth this Fall at CPC.

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