This explanation, I am quite sure, is behind Sam Harris' The End of Faith. America was not founded as a religious republic, but as a republic that could be free from religion. Just as Francis Fukuyama imagined that history was purely political and economic, and so could end when capitalism and free enterprise (which, in America, are synonymous with "democracy"), so Harris can imagine that only a people free from "religious faith" can be truly rational. Hence, all believers are inherently "irrational," and therefore dangerous.
And what could be more irrational than fighting over religious interpretations. Northern Ireland. Hindus and Muslims in India. Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq. And if these battles can be said to be old ones, to have deep historic roots, so much the better to display the virtues of the Enlightenment.
Except it ain't so. The religious division between Ireland and Northern Ireland is an historical quirk. And the "centuries old" battle between the Sunnit and the Shi'ia in Iraq, isn't centuries old at all.
According to Anisa Mehdi, the "feud" between Sunni and Shi'ia is a legacy of the secular leader Saddam Hussein, not the mullahs. Not surprisingly, the divide she identifies is the divide of privilege, of power, not, as she says, "piety." LIke the rich whites in America, who keep poor whites looking to poor blacks, Mexicans, what have you, as their enemies, Hussein divided his enemies by turning them against each other. Religion is certainly a useful tool for setting people against each other; but if it wasn't religion, it would simply be something else. What is sadder is that religion is not a stronger healing force in the world than it is. But then it would have power; and that is the root of many problems: who has the power, and who doesn't.
And we prefer our stories of people who can't shed their ancient hatreds, because they do not share the light of reason shed by democracy. This is an attitude betrayed as much by critics of religion like Sam Harris, as by George W. Bush and his reliance on democracy as the cure for all international ills:
AMY GOODMAN: We continue with our guests today. We are joined by Faiza Al-Araji, who is a civil engineer, who has just flown in from Amman, lived in Iraq until this past summer when her son was kidnapped. We are also joined by Eman Ahmad Khamas, who is a journalist, translator and activist, a member of the Women’s Will organization. We welcome you both. I asked you during the break, Faiza, are you Sunni or Shia?Democracy Now!
FAIZA AL-ARAJI: I don't like this question. I'm Iraqi. And I'm insisting I am Iraqi. I don't want to use these new titles, have been entered Iraq after Bremer. When he entered Iraq he put this division for the Iraqi people. And we refuse it.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean it’s just been introduced? I mean, there is a sense in the media in this country that this is age-old sectarian, almost tribal hatred.
FAIZA AL-ARAJI: Oh, my God. Yeah, they are trying to tell you another story. The reality is there. We are brothers and sisters. We are Muslim, my dear. This is the identity of the nation. We are Muslim. But they are trying to divide the people, to go to the sub-identity, to make a cause of fighting or to provoke the people against each other. And we refuse it.
AMY GOODMAN: Eman?
EMAN AHMAD KHAMAS: Well, the reality is that it never happened in the history of Iraq for thousands, six thousands of years. It never happened, a civil war or these kind of distinctions. It is true that there are in Iraq, there are Kurds, there are Arabs and Sunnis and Shia and the Christians and many other minor religions and groups. But it never happened that we fight each other. No. At all.
FAIZA AL-ARAJI: And a thing I said yesterday, in the history there is fighting between the regime and the Kurds or the regime against the Shia. But it doesn't mean it is civil war. It is something between, you know, for political reasons. But the media here is investing these actions to tell you another kind of stories.
You see, of course, that even this story is a matter of power. "They" are prey to their weaknesses, their fears, their emotions. "We" are superior, stronger, rational, and above all keep religion in it's "place." Why, even their history of violence betrays them; and isn't it all because of religious belief? Far better that they have "democracy," like we do. While we ignore, of course, our "White Man's Burden" that led us to slaughter the natives of this country, the very people who taught Benjamin Franklin how to structure his new government, his experiment in republic; and to bring "civilization" to the Philippines (just ask Mark Twain about that little adventure; it's part of the reason he wrote "The War Prayer"). We use our "reason" as a weapon, and when that is insufficient in itself, we rely on our ignorance.
Maybe "Enlightenment" should mean we humble ourselves, and realize we always have more to learn; that the world, if not the Creator, can always enlighten us, rather than the other way around.