Dear Concerned Citizen,

After their historic election, the Iraqis are about to pick their prime minister. The leading candidate is Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

His party, the Dawa Party, supports in principle the enforcement of sharia or holy law in Iraq. Once again the American government is nervous, and no doubt some government majors in the state department are rushing to explain to Jaafari the importance of Jefferson’s doctrine of separation of church and state.

Yes, separation of church and state has worked reasonably well in America, but it is not a universal principle. Indeed there are other Western nations, such as Great Britain, which have religious establishment (the Anglican church) and yet have religious toleration. So why can’t Muslim countries make a democratic choice to govern themselves according to Islamic principles, even if those principles include the “holy law”?

True, religious establishment and “holy law” have a perilous history in the West. The Catholics and the Protestants used the power of the state to slaughter many thousands who did not share their particular creed. But the Shia and the Sunni in the Muslim world are not Catholics and Protestants. Their theological differences are, well, nonexistent. The main difference between the Sunni and Shia has to do with two views of legitimate Islamic succession, arguments one may say about the Islamic “family tree.” Islam is not a creedal religion anyway, but rather (like Judaism) a religion of law and practice. Islam has never had religious wars of the type that nearly destroyed Europe, and it is senseless to issue calls (as we sometimes hear in the West) for an “Islamic reformation.”

We in America may not like all the verdicts that Islamic holy law pronounces upon the Iraqi people. The National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union may be troubled to discover that women inherit less than men, or that husbands can divorce wives more easily than wives can divorce husbands, or that homosexuality will be illegal and thus plans for Gay Pride Week in Baghdad will have to be canceled.

Some Americans may object to such choices, but welcome to democracy! We have asked the Iraqi people to choose, and they cannot always be expected to choose our way.

But what about the rights of women and minorities and non-Muslims? These are things the Iraqis will have to work out. Our best hope is that they will do so within a framework of tolerance and pluralism. There is a precedent for both in Islamic history. Under the great Islamic empires, whether the Abbasid empire or the Mughal empire or the Ottoman empire, Muslims had sharia and yet they allowed Jews and Zoroastrians and Christians to live peacefully and to worship freely. Religious minorities were discriminated against in some ways, and yet they enjoyed tolerance. The Ottoman empire was not a model of pluralism, but it was a pluralist society.

Before America lectures the Iraqis on the virtues of pluralism, which the Iraqis admittedly need, we would do well to reflect on the absence of pluralism in this country. In the past few decades we have seen a radical secularism that has sought to deprive Americans of the rights of self-government and to drive all vestiges of religion—even of morality—from the public square. The right of self-government is paramount in a democracy, and yet on a whole range of issues (abortion, school prayer, homosexual marriage, pornography) the zealots in our culture and our courts seek to thwart Americans from making the rules under which they live.

In an equally radical move, the secularists are trying to remove all references to religion from America’s public domain. These persistent attempts to prevent moral self-government and to empty the public square of all traces of religion are no less intolerant and monolithic than anything the Iraqis are contemplating in their country.

Look at it this way: If it’s wrong for devout Muslims to occupy the public square all by themselves, using law as an instrument of Muslim goals, and pushing everyone else into the background, why isn’t it equally wrong for devout secularists to occupy the public square all by themselves, using law as an instrument of secular goals, and pushing everyone else into the background? (At least the devout Muslims are a majority. On a whole range of issues such as school prayer and gay marriage, the radical secularists often use the courts to trump the will of the American majority.)

If the public square belongs to all citizens, then shouldn’t a commitment to pluralism and tolerance mandate the admission of a wide range of beliefs and perspectives into the public arena? This is no violation of Jeffersonian principles; it only violates the perverted and illiberal understanding of Jefferson that is promoted by the secularists and unfortunately shared by many courts.