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Published: Wednesday, 7/20/2005

Separating politics and religion on the seething world stage

WHEN the officers of the British Military Mission in Benghazi, Libya, asked me in 1964 to become an honorary member of their mess, they explained to me carefully that there were two subjects that were out of bounds for discussion there - religion and politics.

Those two subjects, they said, had the potential to be so disruptive of unity in personal relationships that problems might occur if it ever came to a battlefield situation. I agreed readily and preferred in any case to hear them argue current issues vicariously through debates of strategy in the North African campaign, much of which was fought in Libya.

Religion is still tough. The reason is that it is difficult not to offend an interlocutor without knowing in advance what his beliefs are, and the only way to find that out is to ask questions that might be considered to be intrusive. At the same time, the increasing linkage these days between the two taboo subjects - politics and religion - makes it difficult to venture into one without risking putting one's foot in the other, or in one's mouth.

A survey was carried out by the corresponding secretary of the Yale College class of 1944, who happens to be former Sen. James L. Buckley, a Republican from New York. Mr. Buckley, 82, recently sent a questionnaire to his class e-mail list asking his classmates' religious affiliation, if any. The results were in the July/August Yale Alumni Magazine and tell us something about 82-year-old men and, perhaps, Yale. Lest I be accused of various unacceptable prejudices at this point, let me note for the record that both candidates in the 2004 presidential elections were Yale graduates, possibly making views emanating from the place more interesting than they might otherwise be considered.

Mr. Buckley's survey found 83.3 percent of them are believers; 16.7 percent atheists or agnostics. Of the believers, 51.3 percent attend services weekly, the same number who said they consider religion to be very important to them. A small percentage (2.1 percent) said that religion repels them and one said that religion had caused more problems than anything else, wars, ethnic cleansing, the antagonisms, the hate, and the killings.

All of this is food for thought as we try to figure out what are the root causes of the 9/11 attacks, the Madrid train bombings, the London underground and bus assaults, and the particular savagery of the fighting going on in Iraq at present. British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke eloquently about the "evil ideology" which seems to be prevailing among the seemingly insensate attackers. He called upon the British to confront symptoms and causes. Symptoms can be attacked through security measures; causes are much harder.

He urged that we are not looking at a clash of civilizations, rejecting the idea that Christian civilization, spearheaded by a United States led by American evangelicals, and the Muslims, led by their own religious fundamentalists, are being driven inevitably to clash.

To the degree that they are driven to clash, it is arguable that both civilizations are impelled by the same factors. The United States senses itself dropping behind in the globalization competition and relinquishing the lead military position in the world. If anyone would like to argue that last point, consider the fact that in spite of the enormous proportion of our resources we spend on "defense" - 48 percent of the annual budget - American forces have not been able to prevail in Iraq or Afghanistan and the United States can only pray that China, North Korea, or Iran don't challenge us now in Asia or the Middle East.

On the Muslim side, it is clear that its civilization, too, has fallen far short on the world stage. With only a few exceptions, Muslim countries underperform economically and get trounced consistently on the battlefield. The Muslim reaction to these problems has been, also, to lurch backward in terms of religion, although in full knowledge - at least on the part of its leaders - that a restoration of the caliphate, traditional Muslim rule, means only further political, economic, and military marginalization on the world stage.

So where is the answer to the question about "root causes"? It is tempting to imagine that it lies in resolution of the Middle East Israeli-Palestinian issue. But that is to forget that the 9/11 attack came when the new Bush Administration was beginning to grapple, along with the other members of the Quartet (the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia) with the road map to two states and peace in that area. I am not alone in believing for a variety of reasons that the sooner we wind up the Iraq War the better. But it was and is a side show, devised to get George Bush elected for a second term, now very hard to get out of without leaving an ineffaceable mess in Iraq itself.

So how to turn this around? I have to believe it would help to return to a resecularization of the issues. That is to say, to get religion out of the picture as much as possible, to get as many of the key, determinant pieces of what makes up the world as possible out of reach of religious forces and influences.

It is a multifaith world. It makes absolutely no sense for the U.S., Great Britain, Iraq, or any other country to line up against each other on the basis of faith. Get religion out of this. Therein may well lie the road back to the comity we are now so rapidly losing, in America and in the world.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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