Tel Aviv Diary: When Religion Guides Politics

1215_Obama Islamic State
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement after attending a National Security Council meeting on the campaign against ISIS on Monday. Carlos Barria/Reuters

Neither President Barack Obama nor the Republicans seem to understand the threat presented by radical Islam.

According to an article published last week in The Atlantic by Peter Beinart, the president believes that radical Islam, as practiced by the Islamic State militant group, or ISIS, is "a small toxic strain within Islamic civilization." Moreover, Obama does not believe radical Islam is a true ideological competitor to democratic capitalist societies.

In contrast, some Republican presidential candidates consider radical Islam the single greatest threat to Western civilization—with Mario Rubio warning we are at war with people who "literally want to overthrow our society and replace it with their radical Sunni Islamic view of the future."

Unfortunately, each of these perspectives completely misses the point—albeit for very different reasons. Obama's view completely overlooks the pull of religion, while the Republicans, whose base is comprised largely of evangelicals, dare not raise the issue of religion at all.

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The true challenge facing the West is not, as President Obama states, whether the ideology of radical Sunni Islam will be more compelling than the ideology of the West. Rather, the daunting clash surrounds whether extreme religion is more compelling than the ideas and tenets of Western democratic thought.

The fight over communism was eventually determined by economics (since communism turned out to be an inefficient engine of economic development in the second half of the 20th century). It is harder to see how a battle with fundamentalist religion can easily be won.

In 1999, Thomas Friedman wrote The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Friedman's underlying question was whether the world—and especially the Muslim world—would pick the path of the Lexus (technology, education and a better future for their children), as opposed to fighting to retain control of their olive trees.

Friedman's visionary book was the first to correctly present the dilemma we face today. Friedman book had one weakness: He understated the central role of religion in determining the existential importance of the olive tree, placing too much emphasis on the role of nationalism.

Regrettably, over the course of the past 16 years, the olive tree has won. From bus bombings here in Israel to the attacks of 9/11, from the massacres carried out by Boko Haram in Africa to the genocide going on Syria, fighting over olive trees in the name of religion has taken hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide—almost all of these terrible losses have been in the Middle East.

President Obama's position that radical Islam is merely a passing phenomenon, which if only contained will disappear, might have been justified—had the Muslim Brotherhood not successfully hijacked the Arab Spring in Egypt (even if temporarily).

History might have taken a different turn had the fall of Hosni Mubarak brought a liberal democracy to power in Egypt. However, that did not happen, and for a year we witnessed the rise of a religious theocracy in the center of the Arab world, until it was overthrown.

The problem of fundamentalist religious sects is not limited to the Muslim Sunni world. Here in Israel, democracy has been under assault by those who believe God gave all of the land of Israel to the Jewish people, and no man has the right to return any of that gift.

Fundamentalist interpretations of Judaism led to the assassination of a prime minister, as well as a concerted and successful program to undermine any chance of reaching peace. The impact of Jewish zealots could also result in changing some of the fundamental values of a nation founded to be a secular democracy, with Jewish culture informing its national character.

That all being said, one should not stop after examining only Islam or Judaism. Why are the Republican presidential candidates as misguided as President Obama?

The answer is the same reason that 90 years after the Scopes trial (a trial during which John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in a Tennessee school), almost none of the Republican candidates are willing to say they believe in evolution for fear of offending their fundamentalist base—a base that believes the literal word of the Bible must be believed and cannot be reinterpreted based on modern knowledge.

The liberal democratic world is engaged in a fight, and it's a fight that is as all-encompassing as the fights against communism and fascism. It is a fight over our very values, proclaiming we are all equal, regardless of whether we are men, women, gay, straight, black white or anything else. This is a fight over the very concept that a woman's life is her own, as is her body. This is a fight over who possesses the ultimate authority in a nation—elected officials or religious leaders.

Nearly 220 years ago, the brightest minds in America met and wrote the U.S. Constitution. America's founders understood how dangerous it would be for religion and government to mix. They understood that it was the responsibility of the democratically elected government to ensure the rights of the people. As such, they composed a Constitution, creating a mechanism that could be amended to protect the rights of all people.

Today, the real confrontation is the conflict between those who believe that both men and women have "inalienable rights," among which are "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," and those who believe that religious leaders who follow the dictates of texts from previous millennia should decide what rights individuals retain.

Today, the nexus of the fight is with ISIS, the most extreme of the Muslim groups. Ten years ago, the battle was with Al-Qaeda. Before that the challenge was with the Iranian theocrats in Tehran.

It should be clear that our struggle today is also with those who blow up abortion clinics, as well as those who try to stop the teaching of evolution in the schools, and with those who deny women education and freedom of choice in their lives.

I say to President Obama: ISIS may or may not be contained in the coming months. However, the fight against the very ideas that have spawned ISIS cannot be so easily contained.

This contest is not (as too many Republicans claim) against radical Islam. Our fight is against anything radical—or, more correctly, fundamental religion—regardless of which religion it is a part.

We are capable of achieving tactical victories over ISIS or any other one group. Yet in order to achieve a strategic victory over the forces of darkness, who push to return us the middle ages, we must recognize our true enemy—and that is religious fundamentalism, regardless of its stripes.

Marc Schulman is the editor of