America’s official creed turned 61 on July 30. On that date in 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Public Law 851, resolving that “In God we trust” shall henceforth be the motto of the United States, even though the phrase had already begun to appear on U.S. currency almost a hundred years earlier. The chances of such an innovation happening today are slim to nil.
Few things are more controversial in America today than the subject of God-talk in the public square. The courts have thus far rejected First Amendment petitions to expunge the loaded language from our wallets, but only by positing that the God of the Treasury is a secular impostor. In 1984, Justice William Brennan invoked “ceremonial deism”—a dictum first conceived by Yale Law School dean Eugene Rostow—to suggest that references to the Divine on legal tender or in the Pledge of Allegiance should be “protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny chiefly because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”
For guardians of the U.S. Constitution, “Thou shalt preserve the separation between church and state” is the 11th commandment. It ensures that no single religious tradition is given preference over all others, providing for all citizens to be treated equally before the law. America’s fidelity to this principle, however inspired, may have stunted its ability to fully fathom world events.
Here’s a news flash: God never left the Middle East. This isn’t to say that he’s deserted the United States, which—despite the growth of the “Nones”—remains in many ways a deeply religious land. But over in the Middle East, religion is intertwined profoundly with national identity. It’s not relegated to the realm of personal choice, a private matter seldom discussed in polite company, but a completely public affair. And turning the American model on its head, both synagogue and mosque are very much connected to the apparatus of state throughout the region.
The July 14 shooting on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where three Arab Israeli gunmen killed two Druze policemen, has ignited passions across the region. The site, which is under the control of Israel, is administered by the Islamic waqf (religious trust). The introduction of metal detectors to screen visitors for weapons—standard practice at venues around the world—was sufficient pretext for the Palestinian Authority to suspend security coordination with Israel.
The outbreak of nationalist violence at one of humanity’s most sacred shrines—home to both ancient Jewish temples and the present-day Haram al-Sharif mosque—has once again focused global attention on the tangible and explosive nexus between faith and politics. Nothing could better epitomize the volatility of mixing sanctity with earthly dominion.
In the Middle East, loyalty to country—a relative term where borders have proven fluid historically—continues to play second fiddle to deeper spiritual ties. We’re not talking about some perfunctory expression of tribal solidarity either. A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that a staggering 97 percent of the world’s Muslims subscribe to the shahadah, according to which “there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.” (Pointedly, the poll excluded North America and Western Europe.) And 93 percent of them observe the daytime fast throughout the holy month of Ramadan.
Meanwhile, in Israel, where 93 percent of Jews profess to taking pride in their Jewish identity, a plurality of them describe themselves as Jewish first and Israeli second. Notwithstanding a robust debate about whether “being Jewish” is foremost a religious or national attribute, the facts speak for themselves: at least 90 percent of Israeli Jews claimed that it was “important” or “very important” for them to circumcise their male infants, celebrate a bar mitzvah, and say the kaddish mourning prayer for their parents. Just over three quarters (76 percent) of them maintain the dietary laws of kashrut in their homes. These levels of ritual performance vastly outpace comparable figures for their co-religionists in the United States.
But personal observance is only half the story. In the United States, questions of devotion and praxis are confined largely to domestic affairs. Access to abortions, school prayer, and discrimination against the LGBT community are typical examples of this. To the God-fearing masses of the Middle East, where religion and state have a symbiotic relationship, they are also a core driver of foreign policy, impacting forcefully on the security and economics of the entire planet.
President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have been engaged in trying to broker a ceasefire in Syria. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just recently returned from a failed round of shuttle diplomacy in the Persian Gulf, where he attempted to conciliate a Saudi-led consortium of four Arab states and their rival in Qatar; his two envoys have just arrived in the region to pick up where he left off. And the tenuous nuclear deal with Iran remains under administration review. At the heart of all these Middle Eastern conflicts lies a civilizational struggle for primacy between opposing versions of Islam.
In Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other quarters of the region, the Islamic Republic of Iran (note the official appellation) employs its assets and proxies to promote its vision: exporting the Islamic Revolution. Employing their own form of “replacement theology,” its leaders aim to expand the influence of their Shi‘a brand at the expense of Mecca-centered Sunni Islam. Geopolitically, through the deployment of Hizballah in Syria and Lebanon, and its de facto alliance with Moscow, Tehran supports this objective by maneuvering to keep Bashar Assad in power and preserve its beachhead on the Mediterranean. Riyadh and its Sunni allies are pushing back, not only against Iran, but also against its satellites; thus, their bitter resistance to Qatari sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Al-Jazeera network, which threaten to undermine their regimes and ideology. This power struggle over which doctrinal interpretation will prevail will define the future of the Arab world. The demands it places on the resources and bandwidth of the United States and its Western allies are enormous.
No less consequential is Muslim hostility toward the Jewish state of Israel, whose security repeated U.S. administrations have pledged to uphold. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran—a nation once friendly with Israel—has called for the destruction of Israel, allegedly based on “well-established Islamic principles.” Saudi textbooks have branded Jews as “apes” and “swine,” and Qatar’s largest mosque hosted a sermon calling for Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque to be saved from “the claws of the Jews;” they’ve had no kind words for Christians either. Israel has found common cause with a number of Sunni Muslim states in opposing Iranian expansionism, but contagious racial sentiments continue to incite fundamentalist violence against Western targets.
Israel, meanwhile, is awash in religious discord of another sort. Recent government decisions concerning prayer arrangements at the Western Wall and religious conversion standards have sparked divisions between Judaism’s different denominations. The fallout has unleashed talk within the U.S. Jewish community of possible repercussions that could affect Israel’s standing abroad. If steadfast friends of Israel in the United States were ever to withhold their support, it could potentially trigger changes in congressional voting patterns on issues such as foreign aid.
The devil, if you’ll allow me to mix metaphors, is in the heavenly details. Belief is not simply a quaint feature of the human condition but a complex operating system that holds the key to understanding the Middle East. If diplomats and other professionals involved in international affairs are to be effective, they need to get up to speed. Cross-cultural literacy, the bread-and-butter of navigating relationships, implies more than just a bemused, superficial understanding of religious customs; it’s about engaging in reflective dialogue, not just knowing whose hand you’re allowed to shake and when. Never before has it been so important that practitioners develop a nuanced appreciation of religious canons and motivations. In too many cases, these are the powers behind the true game of thrones.