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Trouble Is Inherent for Religious States

July 06, 1986|G.H. Jansen | G.H. Jansen, author of "Militant Islam," has written about the Middle East for many years.

NICOSIA, CYPRUS — Recent violent incidents between Orthodox religious groups and secularists in Israel are the product of contradictions inherent in the founding of any state on the basis of religion. The same contradictions and the same clashes are to be found in the two other religious states in the region--Islamic Iran and Pakistan.

In Israel the Orthodox groups, for months past, have been attacking bus stands bearing advertisements showing scantily clad women, while the secularists, in the last few weeks, have been counterattacking with attempts to burn and desecrate synagogues. In one synagogue, most significantly, was scrawled a graffiti stating "No to Khomeinism," a true and valid comparison.

The trouble for religious states begins with their beginnings. The founding fathers of Israel, men like Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion; and of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan, were not religiously minded and were trying to establish states for Jews and Muslims, not Jewish or Islamic states. Even in Iran the battle against the shah was fought, except for a small group of clerics around Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, by secular nationalists and leftists, with the time-serving mullahs kidnaping the "revolution" only im its last stages and then directing it at an "Islamic republic."

The Zionists tackled this anomalous situation very early on. In 1946, two years before the actual founding of the Jewish state, the orthodox and the secularists, led by Ben Gurion, reached a standstill agreement under which the status quo between the positions of the two sides under a then-British administration would be continued in the new Jewish state. Among other things this has meant that personal status is governed exclusively by Jewish religious law, which is why there is still no civil marriage in Israel. It is this 40-year-old status quo agreement that is now under threat in Israel.

Things were not settled so tidily in Iran or Pakistan, where the specifically Islamic restrictions and observances have been imposed by force, in Pakistan by the army under devout Gen. Zia ul-Haq, and in Iran by the armed thugs of the Hezbollahi, the Party of God, led by radical mullahs. This is one big difference between Israel and the two other countries. In Israel, the imposition by a religious hierarchy of a whole range of Jewish observances on a non-observant majority has come about through a quirk in the democratic process: The small religious parties have held the balance of power between the much larger parties of the left and right in Israel's coalition governments.

Though the method of imposing religious characteristics has been different in Israel and in Iran and Pakistan, the restrictions themselves have been very similar .The most striking similarity is in the contentious atmosphere, of a distinctive quality, that the imposition of religious restrictions has brought into the political and public life of these countries. This is not the usual antagonism between contesting political parties.

For the secularists, the Orthodox are not just wrongheaded, they are anachronistic obscurantists, enemies of the whole modern way of life. For the Orthodox, the secularists are unholy and wicked, candidates not just for electoral defeat but for damnation and hellfire. Consequently in all three states there are first-class and second-class citizens, those of the faith and those not of the faith: In Israel only Jews; in Pakistan only Muslims--in effect only Sunni Muslims, and in Iran only Shias are first class. There are sharp gradations even within the members of the faith: In Israel, the Orthodox have recently asked for the word "converted" to be used on personal identity cards to distinguish between first-class born Jews and those who have merely become Jews.

It is because of this tendency to define orthodoxy in an ever more narrow and restrictive manner that, most ironically, it has been impossible for the Jewish state to give an official answer to the key question, "Who is a Jew?" The answer to that question given by the Orthodox would in effect de-Judaize much of world Jewry.

It must be stressed that the external observances and restrictions imposed by the religious states have little or nothing to do with the inward, spiritual values of the religions on which they claim to be based.

Naturally the holy day of the week, Friday or Saturday, is officially enforced most strictly of all in Israel, where even El Al is grounded on the sabbath and public transport is virtually absent. In Iran and Pakistan, government servants in good standing are expected publicly to attend mosques regularly and especially on Fridays, and to publicly observe the fasting month of Ramadan. Because of their strict down-to-the-minute observance of the sabbath, the Orthodox in Israel for two years resisted the introduction of summer time.

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