Religion, Conflict, and State Power in Europe and the Middle East
Religions are blamed for much turmoil in the Middle East. If only people could all just get along and not turn to violence to convert those of other faiths, argue the critics. In reality, secular leaders like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot have murdered far more than Christian and Islamic leaders through history. Impoverished and dysfunctional Middle Eastern societies are the fault of repressive secular governments.
The wars and conflicts through history attributed to the clash of religions, whether Catholic versus Protestant, Shia versus Sunni, or Christianity versus Islam are better understood as clashes between states whose leaders take them into war in a endless quest for new land, riches and fame.
Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason emphasizes the positive influence of Christianity for the social and economic development of the West. He explains also the negative influence of state Christianity. When Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, top positions in church were soon filled by those more interested in wealth and power than in advancing the faith.
Rodney Stark discusses the rise of Christianity in Rome and the problem of power in this interview (he discusses other issues too). A review of Victory of Reason from the Independent Review is here. And a review by Samuel Gregg of Stark’s more recent book, How the West Won, is here.)
Stark also writes about the Spanish empire and how religion mixed with political power damaged Spain and all of Europe. The flood of gold and silver from the New World allowed Spanish kings, aristocrats, politically powerful merchants, and the Spanish church to repress economic development at home and to carry on decades of war across Europe.
Documenting the economic, political, and cultural damage caused by Christians backed by the state shouldn’t be seen as casting doubt on Christianity or Christian doctrine. Similarly, repression by Islamic leaders with state power should be seen as a problem of state power rather than a problem with Islam. (I realize there is more to the story here, and Islam seems through history and today more often combined with state power.)
We can apply this great C.S. Lewis quote to help explain why sincere religious leaders, when invested with political power, are a source of so much harm.
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
So, problem one: religions in power attract the wrong people to the faith (those eager for power and wealth). This is a problem of state power rather than religion. And problem two: Those sincerely wishing to improve the lives (and afterlife) of others, when they have access to power, can, when they become impatient with persuasion and turn to state-backed coercion.
In this TEDx presentation, Faith versus tradition is Islam, journalist Mustafa Akyol contrasts less restrictive traditional Islam with more restrictive later Islam in Saudi Arabia. Mr. Akyol was a speaker at the 2014 Acton University and his 2008 article in the Acton Institute’s Religion & Liberty is here.
The sources here are conservative and classical liberal organizations, rather than modern multicultural apologists for Islam and political and religious repression in Middle Eastern countries. Hope that helps.
This short article by Dalibor Rohac argues that secular authoritarian governments in the Middle East are more the source of conflict than Islamist governments.
Secular Arab regimes typically allowed the Brotherhood and similar groups to run hospitals and schools and to provide assistance to the poor. In 2006, the Brotherhood was running hospitals and schools in every governorate in Egypt. Islamists were also among the first and most effective to provide relief during large-scale disasters, such as the earthquake in Algeria in 1989. In other locations, Islamists run sports clubs, collective weddings, or provide Sharia-friendly business loans.
As a result, Islamic political groups developed trustworthy brand names — a unique asset in a political environment where most voters saw politicians as crooks (often for good reason). The reality is that electoral promises in transitional countries are generally not worth much. But when a political organization can show a 70-year record of social service provision, people are more willing to listen.
For a deeper scholarly look at how the legal institutions of Islam diverged from market-friendly law supporting economic development, Timur Kuran’s The Long Divergence is recommended. An short Atlas Network interview with Timur Kuran is here.
A much longer presentation by Timur Kuran at Rice University’s Baker Institute, The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East, is below.