Can the U.S. Be a Model of State-Religion Relations for the Arab World?

Can the U.S. Be a Model of State-Religion Relations for the Arab World?
Worshippers on their way to perform Friday afternoon prayers in the courtyard of Ezzitouna Mosque, Tunis, Tunisia, Oct. 23, 2015 (AP photo by Mosa'ab Elshamy).

As the U.S. presidential campaign finally wraps up, the Middle East is taking away some very negative messages about American culture that will diminish America’s ability to be a model for good governance and to influence outcomes in the region. Iran’s media has even used a broadcast of the U.S. presidential debates to validate the regime narrative of America’s corruption and weak moral values, and Iran’s own preference for strict religious codes of conduct. But Arab states working to avoid extremism and authoritarianism still seek virtue in the American experience, even if they are not yet ready to embrace democracy as the solution to the Arab world’s dysfunction.

At a panel in Washington last week co-hosted by the Stimson Center and the Abu Dhabi-based Trends, a diverse group of scholars examined the Arab world’s struggle to offer more-positive models for state-society relations than the failing caliphate of the so-called Islamic State and the failed dictatorships that, though formally secular, manipulated religious identities as part of their hold on power.

Some scholars at the panel focused on the existential threat represented by radical Islam and argued in support of political approaches that formally separate religion from the function of government. Thomas Jefferson’s defense of the separation of church and state in the early debates about the U.S. Constitution were invoked. The United Arab Emirates in particular has advocated a new version of this aspirational bright line between religion and governance, out of fear that the long-term threat may come as much from nonviolent Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, who are willing to work incrementally to achieve Islamic governance as from the violent Islamists that are now being defeated militarily in Iraq and Syria.

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