The rapid rise and threat of the jihadist group Islamic State has confounded the secularist West. The idea that their motivations could truly be driven by religious ideology simply fails to register with those who view religion as an individualistic, private affair.
If we are going to defeat ISIS, though, this will have to change. As Kishore Jayabalan says, it’s time to start taking the relationship between religion and politics seriously:
The idea of a caliphate is, of course, very foreign to Western minds that dogmatically profess the separation of Church and State and think of religion as a private, individual matter. The reason we think this way is due in part to the theological-political arrangements that followed Europe’s own wars of religion such as the Peace of Westphalia. Wood reports that ISIS views such arrangements as well as democratic elections and representation at the United Nations as “ideological suicide” and “acts of apostasy.”
Remarkably, ISIS is attracting Muslims living in the West to join its battle for medieval purity. Defeating ISIS therefore requires us to stop thinking like secular liberals and start taking the relationship between religion (in this case, Islam, even if President Obama likes to lecture us about Christianity as well) and politics seriously. It will be up to Muslims to determine if and how Islamic theology and interpretation are compatible with liberal democracy (our friend Mustafa Akyol is one such Muslim), but the West also needs to understand the spiritual vacuum it has created and give fewer reasons for devout Muslims to identify with the extremists. Our present governments, however, seem to be bent on doing the opposite.