Jewish State, Islamic State: All States are Religious

While perusing the foreign policy section of President Obama’s official White House Web site, my attention was drawn to a policy statement under the subhead “Renewing American Diplomacy”:

Obama and Biden will make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a key diplomatic priority from day one. They will make a sustained push—working with Israelis and Palestinians—to achieve the goal of two states, a Jewish state in Israel and a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security.

What caught my eye in this passage is the reference to a Jewish state and a Palestinian state, rather than what seemed to me intuitively to be a more natural parallel, a Jewish state and an Islamic state. As a political thought experiment, I decided to imagine for a moment what would happen if the terms were reversed. If, rather than pushing for “a Jewish state in Israel and a Palestinian state” tout court, Obama had called on his Web site for “an Israeli state and an Islamic state in Palestine.”

Unthinkable, right? But why? Why is it natural (and for many, laudable) for one religion to be officially and openly linked to the identity of one state [Judaism], while it’s considered off-putting, and even a threat to international security, for another religion [Islam], to be linked to the identity of a neighboring proto-state? Doesn’t this one-sidedness collide head-on with Obama’s professed evenhanded, pragmatic approach to politics and diplomacy, an approach that is so sorely needed in the contemporary Middle East?

I think it does, and I want to suggest one way out of this impasse. Let me say up front that I will call neither for a single-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nor will I suggest that Israel should “give up” its identity as a Jewish state. The extent to which any particular religious tradition exercises influence over the institutional apparatus of a state is, and should remain, a subject of public debate and legal, cultural, philosophical, and religious contestation in that state; and, perhaps in some circumstances, globally. Instead, I want to make a broader argument that applies to all states; not just to those in the Middle East or those influenced by the Abrahamic religions.

I want to argue that all states, whether they self-identify as religious or secular, are deeply and unavoidably involved with religion.

All states are involved with the negotiation of what religion is and how the state defines, relates to, regulates, rejects, co-opts, and/or spurns what becomes identified as religion. The anthropologist Talal Asad makes this point quite powerfully in an interview in which he rebuts those who insist that secular states have removed themselves from the inevitably messy business of negotiating religion:

[I]t is precisely in a secular state—which is supposed to be totally separated from religion—that it is essential for state law to define, again and again, what genuine religion is, and where its boundaries should properly be. In other words, the state is not that separate. Paradoxically, modern politics cannot really be separated from religion as the vulgar version of secularism argues it should be—with religion having its own sphere and politics its own. The state (a political entity/realm) has the function of defining the acceptable public face of ‘religion.’

In Asad’s view, which I share, all states contribute to the management and definition of religion and, consequently, it is not necessary or even quite possible to identify any state in a fixed and final way as a “religious” or “secular” state. And if one chooses to make such a designation, this is a political move and must be understood as such.

For example: is Saudi Arabia a religious state? It depends who you ask—many Muslims for example argue that the Saudi state twists and misrepresents Islam such that they no longer identify that state as “religious” in any way. Is Israel a religious state? It depends upon whom you ask—many ultra-Orthodox Jews for example have opposed the Zionist project from the beginning. My point is that to identify any state as “religious” in nature is a political move.

Applying this insight to the current conflict suggests that to validate religious elements of the identity of the Israeli state, while refusing to acknowledge religious elements of the identity of the Palestinians’ proto-state is to quietly assume that the latter’s religious commitments are somehow less worthy of thoughtful engagement, both in politics and outside of it.

This position is simply untenable if we want to find a workable solution to this conflict. Obama should treat both sides equally. Assuming we are focusing on a two-state solution to this conflict, let’s talk about an Israeli state and a Palestinian state, rather than a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. The diverse politics of Jewish law, Islamic law, canon law, and secular law are much too complicated to be subsumed under the hotly politicized shorthand of a Jewish state or an Islamic state. The devil is in the details.