I wrote an article last year about the relationship between intelligence and free thought. While religion provides the function of giving a moral code to humanity, it also takes away from humanity the ability to arrive at a judgement using their own intellect. When that judgement is a political one, the influence of religion should be looked at even more critically.
The link between church and state (or religion and politics) has been severed in Europe for as long as anyone can care to remember. In America, that link is more nuanced, but still there on paper, if not always clearly there on the floor of Congress.
Secularism has been established in the West as the method to separate religious teachings from the official business of government.
In the UK, the most recent example of an openly-religious leader was former PM, Tony Blair, who waited until he stood down as premier before converting to Catholicism; then again, there were his infamous shared prayer-meetings with former US President, George W Bush, which were ridiculed in the British press. In a secular state, when a premier's private religious views become openly-displayed habits, ridicule is probably the best reply to remind a politician that religion is a private matter outside of the realm of government. So he then made sure to keep his religious sentiments more to himself.
Staying in the UK, the problem of what happens when when religion and politics fuse together is seen daily across the water from London, in Northern Ireland. The clash of two Christian branches, Catholicism and Protestantism, led to a sectarian conflict. After the thirty years of "The Troubles", the religious divides are as sharp as ever, even if the violence has subsided. The politics of Northern Ireland are divided as always; the Catholics voting one way, the Protestants another.
Not long ago, the province was ruled by Rev. Ian Paisley, a hardline Protestant priest. While his rhetoric had undergone a massive toning-down compared with his earlier days, Paisley had been the recipient of the polarisation of the two sides. Until the late '90s, when the "peace process" had begun in earnest, the main Protestant party was the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP); after this point, Protestant views became more intransigent against surrendering their position in favour of the Catholics, and flocked to the more hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), represented by Paisley. So for a time in the 2000s, Paisley became the provincial head of government, in tandem with his Catholic deputy (and former terrorist) Martin McGuinness. More recently, trouble has flared up again from the Protestants, who rioted as a result of a compromise with the Catholics over the flying of the British flag from government buildings in the province. But the UUP are finished as a political force, and the hardline DUP still hold sway over the Protestant vote in Northern Ireland, demonstrating that religion is often anathema to moderation.
For Brits who live on "the mainland", the politics of Northern Ireland is an unfathomable mess.
The same can be said of Syria, but in this, Syria's "troubles" are far more extensive, horrifying, and potentially explosive.
Like its neighbour Iraq, Syria is a religious melting-pot of four or five major religious and ethnic denominations: Sunni Muslims, Alawite (Shia) Muslims, Druze (Muslims), and Christians (of a few different Orthodox churches). And there are also the Kurds, too, who are a significant ethnic minority in the east. Given the delicate religious mix, it has seemed sensible that secularism would be the best way to avoid a sectarian war. That had been the case during the French Mandate between the First and Second World War, and also after Syria became independent.
Things became more complicated (and a ticking time-bomb of resentment) when Hafez Al-Assad, an Alawite, took power in the sixties. Although he officially continued the secular (and quasi-socialist) form of government, he began to fill the government with fellow-Alawites, who were far outnumbered by Sunni Muslims in the general population.
This reached a head when there was a Sunni "uprising" in the early eighties, which was brutally suppressed, and also suppressed to the outside world. It was only finally after the "Arab Spring" in 2011, when Hafez's son, Bashar, was in power, that the Sunnis were able to properly make their voices heard against the persecution and maltreatment from the Alawite-led "secular" government.
The problem with the Assad regime in Syria was not that it was secular; it was that it was clearly not secular, but favoured the Alawites (and to an extent, the Christians) at the expense of the Sunni majority. The rebellion against Bashar Al-Assad's government then quickly took on a religious dimension, which has broadened ever since, attracting the attention of Al-Qaeda-linked fighters to the Sunni Muslim side. The original aims - to make Syria a "free" country - has become confused amidst the conflicting aims of two major factions fighting on the ground against the regime, as well as the conflicting aims of the foreign powers (the West and the Gulf States) that supply them.
The rebels' political aim of "freedom" has now become merged with the religious aim of creating a Sunni Muslim-majority state, which has spurred-on horrifying levels of violence and reprisals on both sides.
For the West, the politics of Syria has become and unfathomable mess.
Thus in Northern Ireland, thus in Syria.
The "Arab Spring" that first sprouted in Tunisia, which toppled regimes there and in neighbouring Libya and Egypt (as well as, indirectly, Yemen), was meant to be about freedom and democracy.
These states had been ruled for decades by secular dictatorships. During the Cold War, America tolerated this as it feared what the result would be if the Arabs gained the right to vote with their religious conscience. Iran was a short lesson that matched its greatest fears: what had originally been a "democratic" revolution against Iranian Shah, turned into an Islamic revolution when anti-Shah secularists, lacking a clear leader of their own, sided with the Muslim conservatives to install Ayatollah Khomeini as an "apolitical" leader.
The "Arab Spring" took its inspiration from contemporary Turkey, which had put some of the West's fears of mass Islamic revolution across the Middle East to rest.
While the Arab world had been under the thumb of American-backed secular dictatorships, Turkey had been a secular democracy since the around the Second World War, or thereabouts. To be fair, its form of "democracy" was far from perfect, and in some areas bore little relation to the West, such the strong weight that the military had over how the country was governed (and intervened directly when it felt necessary). Furthermore, grievances by ethnic and religious minorities tended to be swept under the carpet in the name of unity.
But some conservative Muslims felt that for too long Turkey's secular democracy was not properly representative of its religious values, and that the various official parties had brushed their views under the carpet like with other marginalised groups. One person who held this view was Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had been istanbul's mayor during the nineties.
Knowing how Turkey's political system effectively banned religious parties from parliament, he created the AK ("Justice and Development") Party, which was not overtly religious; conservatively Muslim in values, but capitalist in economics and tolerant and pro-European in outlook (or so it seemed). Once his party came to power in 2002, he emphasized the need for "democratic" reforms that broadened freedom of (religious) expression; similarly, he sought to "democratise" Turkey by removing the influence of the army. It was this, and the steps to improve Turkey's economy, that earned him the respect of the West. It was for these reasons that the West had felt reassured by the "Arab Spring's" inspiration from Turkey.
We know now that this story does not end well. As in Turkey, as in The Arab Spring.
While Erdogan in Turkey was "democratising" the country, the West was wilfully ignoring the real purpose for the "reforms", while also ignoring the obvious signs over the years of creeping authoritarianism and Islamification, as I've explained before.
The same process can be seen in the Middle East, post-Arab Spring. While Arab states are ruled by AK Party-like groups, they make the claim that because they are the largest party, it means they have a mandate to implement Islamic policy. Thus they subvert the purpose of democracy for religious purposes to mean Islamic majoritarianism. All those who therefore do not subscribe to a religious government are therefore against the popular will.
The hideous irony is that two years on from the Arab Spring, with his reaction to the Gezi Park protests, Erdogan has finally been recognised by the West as the religious authoritarian he was all along, while using the masquerade of democracy to achieve his aims; and now the Arab Spring bears all the hallmarks of following the same pattern as Erdogan's "Turkish Spring" at the ballot box in 2002.
This is another example of why religion and politics don't mix. The result is often ugly.
Pakistan is another example of what happens when you have religious parties in a (supposedly) democratic system. Politicians then start using religion as a weapon against their enemies; the same has been done in the past in neighbouring India during the rule of the Hindu nationalist BJP. Religion was used as a weapon there by Hindu politicians to blame Muslims; the result was massacres and the destruction of religious sites.
Let the religious leaders stick to the religion, in the confines of their religious places. Let politicians stick to the politics, in the dull confines of their drab government buildings.
Let the religious leaders deal with personal morality, and the politicians deal with social policy.
And never the two should meet!