As Palestinians press the international community to live up to its commitment to ensuring the establishment of an independent Palestine alongside Israel, conversation is intensifying about the character of this new state. In their own interests, Palestinians should buck the regional trend towards religious politics and ensure, from the outset, that it is firmly and irrevocably a secular state.
There is no question that the Palestinians are, in general, a relatively conservative and religious people, but this is all the more reason to embrace a secular form of government. Secular government does not mean official atheism, iconoclasm or hostility towards religious belief and practice. It means rather the strict neutrality of the state on religious matters and, therefore, the upholding of religious freedom for all citizens. It means the freedom of all religious communities from state interference, but also the freedom of the state from the dominance of any one religious authority.
Palestinian society is strikingly heterogeneous. A very significant percentage of Palestinians are Christians of numerous denominations, and they have played a major role in the national movement and in society generally. Any move to establish a government structure based on Muslim religious principles by definition would marginalize if not discriminate against or exclude Palestinian Christians.
Numerous Palestinian leaders have expressed the willingness to allow Jewish Israeli settlers who wish to remain in Palestine and abide by the laws of the new state to do so. This raises the prospect of a Jewish minority in Palestine as well. It is likely that Israel, rather than Palestine, would insist on a complete evacuation of settlements, because of the political difficulties arising for any Israeli government should Jews or Israelis remaining in the new Palestinian state encounter any significant difficulties. However, the willingness of Palestinian leaders to embrace a Jewish minority as equal citizens or residents under the law is an important principle that ought to be upheld.
Obviously, a secular government will be essential to affording Palestinian Christian and possibly also Jewish religious minorities equal treatment under the law and equal access to all the benefits of citizenship. Numerous Middle Eastern states, including Israel, serve as examples not to be emulated in the social treatment and political status of religious minorities, even when freedom of religion is officially afforded.
Even within the Palestinian Muslim community, there is significant heterogeneity. Palestinian Muslims range in orientation from the politically secular but religiously devout, to the Islamist (and even in some cases extreme Islamist), to the religiously disinclined. There are also significant constituencies of atheists and agnostics within both the Palestinian Muslim and Christian communities.
Historically, secular values have been a major feature of the Palestinian national movement, and the recent trend towards re-defining it in religious terms has been almost entirely counterproductive. Driven mainly by Islamists led by Hamas, but also engaged in by nationalists seeking not to be outbid on religious legitimacy, the intensification of religious rhetoric, accompanied by increasing levels of militarization and violence during the second intifada, had disastrous results for the Palestinian national movement.
This sanctification of the struggle on the Palestinian side has been matched by a less well-recognized but equally fanatical and dangerous rise in religious zealotry in Israeli society. The shift away from a conflict characterized by the competition for land and power by two ethno-national groups, as it has thus far largely been, and towards a holy war over the will of God and control of sacred spaces is profoundly threatening to both Israelis and Palestinians alike. Political conflicts are amenable to negotiated agreement. Holy wars are not.
My colleagues and I at the American Task Force on Palestine have long recommended that the Palestinian state be democratic, pluralistic, non-militarized and neutral in conflicts. Obviously, for a society to be genuinely pluralistic, it cannot be dominated by one religious opinion but must allow for the greatest possible expression of religious diversity.
All societies are heterogeneous on matters of faith, and Palestinian society is obviously so. This is one of the reasons why historically the Palestinian national movement has been politically secular in spite of the relatively devout nature of much of Palestinian society. This principle is being seriously threatened by the rise of religious politics, but it must be resolutely defended.
Any Palestinian state worth struggling for and establishing must represent all of its citizens equally. This requires the establishment of a Palestinian system in which the state is neutral on religious matters, in other words a secular government.