On the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Bruce Thornton says we Americans still don’t understand the role of Islam in shaping Mideast politics. Instead, we mislead ourselves by using theories that make sense to us, but that do not deal adequately with the fundamental fact of Islam.

For example, says Thornton, the idea that Islamic terrorism is caused by colonialist blowback can’t be an adequate explanation, because it doesn’t account for how other nations — India, African countries — that were also colonized by the West failed to spawn global terrorist movements.

And the idea that Islamic terrorism is a bitter fruit of the lack of liberal democracy, and can be cured by embracing liberal democracy, is groundless. Thornton:

Much of the conflict in the Middle East reflects the collision of these two sets of goods, the religious and the secular, which we oversimplify by emphasizing only the latter. We assume that if a liberal democracy can be created, the tolerance for differences of religious belief, respect for individual rights, and a preference for settling political conflict with legal processes rather than violence, will automatically follow. We forget that in our own history, despite the long tradition of separation of church and state whose roots lie in Christian doctrine, Europe was torn apart by wars of religion that killed millions before that tolerance for sectarian differences triumphed.

The power of Islam is the reality our various narratives ignore or rationalize away when we attempt to understand the violence and disorder of the Middle East. But as the scholar Bernard Lewis reminds us, “in most Islamic countries, religion remains a major political factor,” for “most Muslim countries are still profoundly Muslim, in a way and in a sense that that most Christian countries are no longer Christian . . . in no Christian country at the present time can religious leaders count on the degree of belief and participation that remains normal in the Muslim lands . . . Christian clergy do not exercise or even claim the kind of public authority in most Muslim countries.”

This observation provides an insight into recent events in Egypt. After Mubarak fell, many believed that the secular democrats were on their way to creating a more democratic political order. But ensuing elections brought to power the Muslim Brothers, an Islamist organization that scorns democracy and Western notions of human rights as alien impositions preventing the creation of an Islamic social and political order based on sharia law.

When the deteriorating economy created frustration with the Muslim Brothers’ arrogance and ineptitude, mass protests sparked a military intervention that once again was interpreted as a rejection of the Brothers and sharia, and a yearning for liberal democracy. Our ideological stencil assumed that our secular goods of freedom and prosperity had trumped the religious goods of fidelity to Islam and its doctrines.

Yet it is not so clear that this is the case.

Thornton says that we can only come up with a foreign policy that truly protects our own interests when we deal honestly with the dominant role religion — Islam — plays in the politics and culture of the Middle East. I think this is correct. We are constantly negotiating in our culture the role of religion in public life, a process that is made more difficult than it need be by the inability or refusal of seculars to understand how the religious mind works. But to be fair, it is quite difficult to reconcile fully the religious way of thinking about the world — I’m speaking broadly here — with the secular way of thinking about the world. Seculars think that this automatically means that the secularist way is superior, but this is by no means obvious, or at least as obvious as they think. Without the power of religion, it becomes over time hard to justify the goods we associate with liberal democracy. “We hold these truths to be self-evident” and what follows is an assertion of the premises upon which our constitutional order is based. From where did these premises derive? Why should they be privileged over other principles? You cannot get around religion. As Glenn Tinder wrote in The Atlantic in 1989:

We are so used to thinking of spirituality as withdrawal from the world and human affairs that it is hard to think of it as political. Spirituality is personal and private, we assume, while politics is public. But such a dichotomy drastically diminishes spirituality construing it as a relationship to God without implications for one’s relationship to the surrounding world. The God of Christian faith (I shall focus on Christianity although the God of the New Testament is also the God of the Old Testament) created the world and is deeply engaged in the affairs of the world. The notion that we can be related to God and not to the world—that we can practice a spirituality that is not political—is in conflict with the Christian understanding of God.

And if spirituality is properly political, the converse also is true, however distant it may be from prevailing assumptions: politics is properly spiritual. The spirituality of politics was affirmed by Plato at the very beginnings of Western political philosophy and was a commonplace of medieval political thought. Only in modern times has it come to be taken for granted that politics is entirely secular. The inevitable result is the demoralization of politics. Politics loses its moral structure and purpose, and turns into an affair of group interest and personal ambition. Government comes to the aid of only the well organized and influential, and it is limited only where it is checked by countervailing forces. Politics ceases to be understood as a pre-eminently human activity and is left to those who find it profitable, pleasurable, or in some other way useful to themselves. Political action thus comes to be carried out purely for the sake of power and privilege.

It will be my purpose in this essay to try to connect the severed realms of the spiritual and the political. In view of the fervent secularism of many Americans today, some will assume this to be the opening salvo of a fundamentalist attack on “pluralism.” Ironically, as I will argue, many of the undoubted virtues of pluralism—respect for the individual and a belief in the essential equality of all human beings, to cite just two—have strong roots in the union of the spiritual and the political achieved in the vision of Christianity. The question that secularists have to answer is whether these values can survive without these particular roots. In short, can we be good without God? Can we affirm the dignity and equality of individual persons—values we ordinarily regard as secular—without giving them transcendental backing? Today these values are honored more in the breach than in the observance; Manhattan Island alone, with its extremes of sybaritic wealth on the one hand and Calcuttan poverty on the other, is testimony to how little equality really counts for in contemporary America. To renew these indispensable values, I shall argue, we must rediscover their primal spiritual grounds.

I would much rather live in a polity based on secular liberalism than one based on Islam. The point, however, is that Islam is even more difficult to reconcile with liberal democracy than Christianity. And Islam, whatever else may be said about it, is a fighting faith. I have no idea what an American foreign policy that took Islam with proper seriousness would look like, and Thornton doesn’t give us any hints. But I agree with him that Islam cannot be gotten around. Our inability to come to terms with Islam as it is lived and believed in the Middle East is caused by our WEIRD-ness — that is, the condition of cultural psychology in which we in the West are outliers on common human experience, and assume that our way of seeing the world is normative.