The key to Afghanistan

Secularism unlocks the door to stability.

Published December 19, 2001 10:12PM (EST)

While we wait out the good riddance to bad rubbish that is Osama bin Laden, troubling questions remain.

The "Where's Waldo?" search is tantalizing theater, but bin Laden's demise and that of the Taliban present the Bush administration with an even tougher challenge. We have again assumed responsibility for the fate of Afghanistan, handpicking that nation's new leadership and providing the firepower to put it in charge, as we did with the mujahedin two decades ago. And with that responsibility comes the need to clearly establish a separation of religion from the role of government.

The United States is responsible for the new regime's behavior. Continued religious intolerance and the subjugation of women in Afghanistan will be a stain on our crusader's cape. The growth of a pluralistic, modern and democratic society is essential, but it won't be easy -- the Afghans have known the rewards of modern life only in brief periods, and then only in Kabul.

To lead in a modernizing role, Bush must break with a popular American notion that religion is inherently a benign experience. For most of the world, although it has guided people to high standards of community, religion just as often has been a divisive nightmare. The best thing we could do for the Afghan people, beyond our clear obligation to bear the enormous cost of creating a national economy where none exists, would be to export the concept of separation between church and state -- the key tool to keeping our own nation religiously sane.

Not that we have a monopoly on the concept -- there are examples of such a healthy division in parts of the Muslim world, most prominently in Turkey.

Following the principles of Kemal Ataturk, the modern Turks have rigorously enforced a divorce of religion from politics for about 75 years, going so far as to ban use of religious or ethnic symbolism for political purposes. The Turks were once the engine of Muslim religious imperialism, believing that the Ottoman Empire's ruler was the leader of the Islamic world. But the Turks learned the bitter lesson that destructive fanaticism is the inevitable consequence when religion shapes the policies of state.

Egypt is another Muslim country that has battled successfully, since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, to preserve secular government, resisting the intense pressure of the Muslim Brotherhood and others.

Despite these efforts, the destructive power of religious fanaticism in the region has been chillingly demonstrated again and again, as with the assassinations of two Mideast peacemakers of the last half-century -- Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Yitzhak Rabin -- by zealots of their own faith.

More recently, Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists have helped subvert the Mideast peace process, financed by the same Saudi Arabia-based religious leaders that made bin Laden's terrorist network possible. In fact, evidence garnered by Western agencies points to Saudi Arabia as the financial and inspirational fountainhead of the current wave of terrorism -- strange, coming from a country the United States has long protected while U.S. companies grew rich off its oil profits.

Although diplomatically awkward, a sincere and logical "war on terrorism" would aim at reining in the religious fanatics who have flourished in Saudi Arabia. The harsh truth is that bin Laden and 15 of the hijackers were Saudis; they are the immediate enemy, and not the secular regime of Saddam Hussein -- the man we love to hate.

By Robert Scheer

Robert Scheer is a syndicated columnist.

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