Why Clarion Project Ignores Theology

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The Blue Mosque, Istanbul
The Blue Mosque, Istanbul (Photo: Benh Lieu Song / Wiki Commons)

Islamism is not Islam. Islamism is the politicization of Islam, the desire to impose a version of this ancient faith over society.” — Maajid Nawaz.

Religious freedom is a key principle that must not be abandoned in the fight against radical Islam. Some of those who seek to combat jihadism and political Islam do so by attacking what they see as the root of the problem: Islam itself. This view sees Al Qaeda and ISIS as truly representative of Islam and therefore holds that any approach which doesn’t tackle the religion directly as ultimately doomed.

Clarion disagrees. Our position is in alignment with one of the founding principles of western classical liberalism.

Freedom of religion in the West can be traced back to the aftermath of Europe’s brutal Protestant Reformation. English philosopher John Locke argued in his famous Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) for the then-revolutionary idea that different Christian sects ought to be tolerated by the state. Locke reasoned that government and religion have different roles. Whereas it is the government’s duty to promote “external” interests, like national security, religion exists to promote “internal” interests (i.e., the salvation of the soul).

Given that these functions are very different, there is no need for the one to interfere with the other. These ideas gradually evolved into the notion of freedom of religion, later enshrined in the First Amendment of the United States constitution.

This baseline tolerance of divergent philosophies is a bedrock precondition of a free society.

It is all the more important given the very low odds that the state will make the correct call on religious matters. It is extremely unlikely there will ever be universal agreement over which spiritual or religious tradition is true until/unless a divine entity of some sort reveals itself, proving one, several or even none of the existing faiths as true. Given the range of views on offer, it seems highly unlikely that the state will pick the right religious sects to curtail or allow.

Some have argued that religious freedom isn’t being damaged in the case of banning Islam, since Islam is a political ideology and not a religion. This argument is flawed since it misrepresents Islam. It is true that religious fundamentalists in Islam do see their faith as political. They seek to implement sharia as state law and create an Islamic State. Clarion Project opposes all of these things.

It is also true that Islam has historically blurred the lines between religion and state to a greater extent than Christianity. Islam does not have an equivalent of Matthew 22:21 which states, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

What Islam does have is tremendous variety, i.e. not all Muslims are fundamentalists. Many Muslims today interpret jihad as a spiritual struggle and would never want to implement the violent hudud punishments you see in Saudi Arabia, such as beheading apostates.

While it’s true that Islam can be political, in the sense of a political ideology implemented as a system of government, it doesn’t have to be. 

Some argue that the political version is the “true” version of Islam and any non-political version is by definition un-Islamic. It is here that Clarion must again insist on toleration. It is not for us to say what counts as “true” Islam or not. We are assessing political and social ramifications of a large number of people. That means we are only interested in the outcomes, not whether or not a give practitioner is being authentic.

Our interest lies where a religious belief gives rise to a political outcome. This is true even where we might find the religious belief in question absurd, problematic or just flat out wrong.

Take the example of homosexuality. A religious belief that God demands the death of gay people through the infrastructure of an Islamic State is firmly in the political arena in Islamist regimes. This is dangerous to the lives of gay people and must be combated.  Yet, if a person believes that God hates gays and will burn them in hell, but simultaneously upholds the principle that this religious belief cannot be allowed to violate the rights of gay people, we have no political quarrel with that person.

Many people disagree that a person can hold both those views. Take the case of Britain’s Liberal Democrat party. They forced leader Tim Farron, a conservative Christian who refused to answer questions about whether he believed gay sex was a sin, to resign. That is their prerogative.

But at Clarion, we uphold the traditional liberal understanding that any private religious belief which does not cause a dangerous political outcome must be no concern of the state.



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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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