Religious Fundamentalism in Modern Times

Published on Tuesday, April 9, 2013

In the modern age, religious experience becomes part of "expressive individualism", that is, it becomes important to find one's own way against a model imposed from outside −− be it from society, the previous generation, or religious authority. Although there is a strong individualist component to the religious experience in modern times, this will not necessarily mean that the content is individuating; on the contrary, many join powerful religious communities.

The process of De-institutionalization of religious experience is equally valid for Islam. Islam, which has traditionally been a binding force among those who belonged to a locality, to a particular confession, and to a nation−state, today becomes a reference point for an imaginary bond between those Muslims who are socially uprooted. In this respect, contemporary Islam shares some common themes with modern forms of religious experience, because it represents socially dis-embedded forms of religiosity and, as a consequence, becomes a matter of personal choice. Rather than being a descendant of given religious structures, authorities, or national and confessional allegiances, the experience of Islam today works as a horizontal social imaginary bonding that connects many different Muslim actors in different contexts, acting together and simultaneously.

Islamism refers to the modern production, elaboration, and diffusion of this horizontal social imaginary bonding in spite of the historical distinctions between spiritual Sufi and canonized Sharia Islam, Shia and Sunni Islam, and conservative Saudi Arabia and revolutionary Iran.

Furthermore, the contemporary politicization of Islam engendered a displacement of the authority of the religious classes (Ulema). On one hand, this meant a democratic opening of the interpretation of religious texts to the public at large, including political militants, Islamic intellectuals, and women. On the other hand, it brought about a vulgarization of religious knowledge and sources, which is used, and especially abused and taken out of context, in favor of the political ideology of Islamism. Therefore, radical Islamism does not subscribe to the traditional interpretations of religion; Islamist discourse is simplistic, anachronistic, and cut off from its referential context of the Koran.

Islamism operates as a sort of ideological amalgam between different schools of Islam, national cultures, and popular customs. Lay persons who speak the language of Islam without the institutional authority of religious schools and knowledge find legitimacy in their activism. Activism and terrorism provide, or rather impose, a new source of legitimacy for the Islamic idiom. Who will decide what is licit and illicit in Islam? Who has authority over the interpretation of religious texts? Who can give a "fatwa" and declare a "jihad"? These questions become very problematic as Islam becomes De−traditionalized in the hands of Islamism in particular, and in the face of the modern secular world in general.

Islam today is constructed, reinterpreted, and carried into public life through political agency and cultural movements, not through religious institutions. At the same time, the presence of Islam in public life and in the shaping of social imagery and daily practices of Muslims is increasing. We are therefore observing both personal and collective appropriations of Islam. Even though this does not take place on an institutional, purely political, or revolutionary level, we can observe a growing public visibility of Islam and its claims for public visibility everywhere.

What we are witnessing now is a shift from a Muslim identity to an Islamist identity. This new phenomena connected with Islamism cannot be derived from confessional or national schools of Islam. What we observe in contemporary forms of political Islam, rather, is an affirmative reconstruction of identity, a collective social imaginary. The presentation of a religious self which is put forward, is being carried from the private to the public realm, albeit personally and collectively, and in a form of conflictual engagement with the Western and secular values of modernity. Those Muslims who embrace a more radical form of affirming their religious and cultural identity, however, are those who leave their local origins behind and enter into new public, urban, European life experiences. There is a sociological paradox behind the phenomenon of Islamism. It is not the distance from but, on the contrary, the familiarity with and proximity to modern forms of life, education, and politics that trigger a return to religious identity and its political expressions.

Veiling is usually taken as a sign of the debasement of women's identity, as a sign of their inferiority to men. Those Muslim women who are no longer confined to a traditional role and to an enclosed space are now readopting this sign of passivity and seclusion within interior domestic spaces. They are crossing the frontiers of that interior space and gaining access to higher education, urban life, and public agency.

Veiling thus becomes both a personal and collective expression of Islamic religiosity. It is personally carried as a bodily sign, but also imagined as a source of collective empowerment and a horizontal bond between those who distinguish themselves as Muslims, and, more precisely, as Islamists. They turn veiling, an attribute of potential public discredit, into a subaltern advantage. As a result, they are changing the meaning of veiling as they carry it into new modern spaces. From a symbol of stigmatization (as a sign of backwardness and gender inequality), it is transformed into a positive identity affirmation, bestowing Muslimness with a higher sense of self. Through a collective affirmation of Islamic identity, a historical sense of loss of dignity and humiliation is turned into a search for distinction, prestige, and power.

Today's religious revival among Muslims is no importation of religious traditions born in the Middle East or the wider Muslim world. Rather, it reflects many of the dynamics of contemporary American evangelical movements. No surprise then that, instead of being tolerant and liberal, it is a movement based on dogmatism, communitarianism, and scripturalism. The Salafism (fundamentalist religious radicalism) disseminated nowadays among teaching networks, and usually financed by Saudi Arabia, emphasizes the loss of cultural identity in traditional Islam. It is a mistake to think that the phenomena of religious radicalism (Salafism) and political radicalism (Al Qaeda) are mere imports of the cultures and conflicts of the Middle East. It is above all a consequence of the globalization and Westernization of Islam. Today's religious revival is first and foremost marked by the uncoupling of culture and religion, whatever the religion may be. This explains the affinities between American Protestant fundamentalism and Islamic Salafism: both reject culture, philosophy, and even theology in favor of a scriptural reading of the sacred texts and an immediate understanding of truth through individual faith, to the detriment of educational and religious institutions.

This globalization of Islam also takes place in traditional Muslim countries, that is, it not only refers to the movement of men and women, but also of ideas, cultural representations, and even modes of religiosity: the relationships that believers entertain with their religion.

In countries with a Muslim tradition, both the believer and the non−believer, or the less convinced believer, experience religion as some sort of cultural given: by and large their society organizes and provides the space for religious practice. It is easy to fast during Ramadan in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Egypt, even if a person does not want to. Anybody wishing to observe Ramadan can do so without any problem, as society is organized around it for as long as necessary, and there are even instances of societies like Iran, where, in fact, very few people practice it, but where, officially, everything is done in order for believers to observe Ramadan. In the countries of origin, religion is always embodied in a culture, and it is difficult, for the believer, to distinguish between what belongs to the cultural tradition −− and to some extent to social conventions −− and what belongs to dogma.

The real question is not an intellectual or a theoretical question about Islam; the real issue here is about the tangible practices of Muslims. What forms and religious beliefs are in circulation among young Muslims today? The forms of religiosity witnessed in Islam today are transversal; they are more or less the same as the ones found in the most popular Western denominations: Catholicism, Protestantism, even Judaism. In our contemporary world we are now witnessing the uncoupling of religion and culture, in other words, contemporary believers put far more stress on faith, on spiritual experience, on individual and personal rediscovery of religion, than on legacy, culture, transmission, authority, and theology.

Today, we see forms of religious revival leading to the "born again" phenomenon, in other words, people are born again into their religion. It is perhaps the most striking phenomenon of contemporary religiosity in all denominations. It is these "born again" believers who now define religious belief, for the large part, and not what we call the sociological believers. A born again believer is someone who rediscovers faith and decides that from then on his or her life will be put totally in the perspective of this rediscovered faith, in other words, he or she will rebuild his or her self in his or her relationship to that faith. This is what I call "religiosity."

Religion is easy to define: the corpus, the revealed texts, the interpretations, the theological debates, the dogmas, and so on. As for religiosity, it is the manner in which the believer lives his relationship to religion. And, today, religiosity, everywhere, is far more important than religion. The young people gathering to see the Pope during the world meeting of Catholic youth are not looking for theological explanations. They are looking for a spiritual and personal experience. They seek an immediate experience, an enjoyment of religious fervor. They are not seeking to understand, they are not seeking an authority. They cannot be found attending mass on Sundays or attending seminaries. There is said to be a return to religious belief in Christianity nowadays and millions of young people go to meet the Pope every year. However, at the same time, the seminaries and the vocations are losing ground and fewer and fewer people want to become priests.

Therefore, what we have is not a contradiction, but two totally different trends: one is the crisis of religions as institutions and cultures; the other is the return of religiosity.

What we today label as Islamic fundamentalism, the re-islamization is happening in a lot of Islamic countries, under the same conditions as the revival of religious belief in Christianity, be it Protestant or Catholic. Therefore, far from witnessing an expansion of Middle Eastern and traditional Islam, which would assert itself against an equally traditional Christianity, what we are seeing is the globalization and Westernization of Islam from within, including in its most fundamentalist forms.

I mention fundamentalism because it is the subject that concerns people the most and that is the issue at stake. A liberal Muslim worries no one, and does not appear to be an issue. I am going to discuss a minority, not only because this minority is making headline news, but also because radical movements are often symptoms of underlying trends. Radical movements may be pathological, but, as often as not, it is pathology, or the absence of it, that defines good health.

What do we call Islamic fundamentalism today? We use other names: some call it "wahabism", from the official name of the doctrine in Saudi Arabia. They themselves use "Salafis" as their preferred terminology. "Salafi" means "a return to the way of the pious ancestors", i.e. of the prophet and the prophet's successors. Personally, I use the term "neo−fundamentalism", but this is merely a question of terminology. What are we talking about? The Salafi or neo-fundamentalist movements are above all movements that criticize traditional Muslim cultures. They are anti−cultural before they are anti−Western. Let me use an example we have all heard about, the Taliban in Afghanistan. When the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 1996, their enemy was not the Western world: they had an excellent relationship with Americans and foreigners. Westerners could travel freely in Afghanistan between 1996 and 1998. What the Taliban were fighting was not Christianity, not the Western world, but the traditional Afghan culture. They waged a cultural war: they forbade music, poetry, dance, all forms of games, everything resembling spectacle and entertainment. Movies, tapes, novels were all forbidden. They forbade forms of cultural activities that were very traditional among Afghans, such as caged songbirds at home, or the use of kites. Why forbid the use of songbirds? Why forbid the use of kites? The rationale of the Taliban was very simple: this world is simply made available to the believer to prepare for his or her salvation. This is a theme found in all forms of fundamentalism. The role of the state is not to put in place a fair society, but to create opportunities, even if they are coercive, for believers to find their way to salvation.

This kind of coercion was found during the Inquisition of yesteryear. The Inquisition never punished people because they went against the social order. On the contrary, the Inquisition approach was to allow believers to find their salvation and then, possibly, they could be handed over to the secular order. The Inquisition's obsession was with salvation, not punishment.

So, for the Taliban, to be a believer, to be a Muslim, meant strict observance of religious obligations −− for instance, praying five times a day. If interrupted when praying, however, one had to begin again from scratch. The Taliban argument is the following: if you are praying and the bird in your room starts singing, you will be distracted and your prayer will be nullified. If you are a good Muslim, you will have to stop immediately and start all over again. But we are not sure you are a good Muslim and that you will have the strength to start all over again. Therefore, it is easier to ban the birds, since then they cannot bother you and distract you from your duties. Same thing with kites: a kite can get tangled in trees and, if it does, you will climb up the tree to untangle it because you paid good money for it. However, from the top of the tree, you can look over your neighbor's wall and you run the risk of seeing a woman without her veil, which is a sin. Why run the risk of burning in hell for a kite? Kites are banned.

This rationale is pushed to its limits, in other words, this form of religiosity cancels out culture, by the following reasoning: either culture belongs to religion and therefore culture is not needed or culture is something different from religion, and therefore must be eliminated because it distracts you from religion. Indeed, this denial of all distraction, of all that is not linked to religious practice and the seeking of salvation, is a line of thought found in a lot of religions. It is the standard line of thought and can even be found, for instance, in some forms of American Protestantism.

This type of fundamentalism is also a major cause of the loss of cultural identity; in fact, it vindicates the loss of cultural identity. It considers not having any cultural identity as positive. And even if this type of fundamentalism has appeared in geographical zones that are, not surprisingly, rather tribal societies −− Saudi Arabia, Taliban Afghanistan −− it is perfectly suited to a modern loss of cultural identity. It offers young people an excuse for their crisis of cultural identity.

It is a coherent and structured discourse. It is what, for example, an association called the 'Tabligh" say when they go preaching from door to door. They are not radicals, they are not terrorists, and they are even people who scrupulously abide by the laws of the country they live in. But they are people who consider that we live in a world where Islam is not embodied by a society or a territory and that this is an opportunity rather than a loss, because Islam has finally been detached from any given culture. This explains why fundamentalist ideologies have a lot of success among young Muslims. Here, fundamentalism is not at all the protest of an original culture; on the contrary, it vindicates the disappearance of the original cultures. It would be a huge mistake to link modern forms of fundamentalism to the idea of a clash of cultures, or a clash of civilizations, because there is no culture any more, there is no civilization.

Today, we express the issues of religious conflicts in cultural terms. This is wrong and pointless, because we are beyond cultural differences. That is why the answers we try to bring to these religious fundamentalist issues are always blind to what is actually happening. It is not a Middle Eastern issue, and young people are not joining fundamentalist groups because the Palestinian issue is not resolved. That has nothing to do with it. Young people do not become fundamentalists because their parents' culture is ignored by Western civilization. That has nothing to do with it either.

When these young people join neo−fundamentalist ideologies, they enter a universe where they rebuild their religion on the basis of their individual selves, and for them it is the experience of the Almighty, an experience of creation, which can also be found among Protestant fundamentalists. All these forms of fundamentalism are based on the same aspects: the loss of explicit cultural identity, individualization, the rupture of family ties and social ties, and "positivization" −− the fact that this rupture is considered to be positive.

This religious revival is also a generation thing. It is true of Catholicism, it is true among Muslims, and it is very often the case among young Protestants. The young are returning to religion against the religion of their parents, or alongside the religion of their parents, rather than as an extension of it. Protestants set great store by these words from Jesus: "Leave your family, leave your friends, leave your home and join me." This idea that religious revival must happen through rupture has always been around, of course. The words of the Gospel have been here since the beginning, but, as always, different paradigms have been taken from the sacred texts at different times in history. Muslims do the same: the Koran provides answers to everything, but nowadays verses are chosen that match this religious fervor.

This religious reconstruction is done on an individual, generational basis, and in a religion conceived as a set of codes, norms, and values, rather than a theological corpus. We live in times where theology is despised. Theologians have disappeared: in the 1950s and 1960s, famous theologians had an audience among Catholics and Protestants alike. Theological issues were discussed. This is over now, even in Catholic circles. Of course, theology fellowships in famous seminaries still exist, but theologians as a body, as a corporation, no longer do. It is the Curia in the Vatican, not theologians, that manages religious orthodoxy today, and this is true of all religions. The same thing is happening with Islam. The Ulemas, or doctors of the faith, the ones who tell the truth, have lost their legitimacy, but, at the same time, people still need truth, hence the emphasis on norms and/or values. And the whole difference between the fundamentalist radical forms, on the one hand, and liberal forms, on the other, will depend on whether we attach more importance to norms or values. That is the difference between liberalism and fundamentalism today. But the forms of neo−fundamentalism that we are now witnessing are forms of reinvention of the norm, which can be very variable: some groups of neo−fundamentalists will insist on physical norms, such as dress codes, where the way one dresses matters. This explains the importance of the current Islamic veil issue.

That said it is interesting to note that the issue of the Islamic veil is a contemporary issue. 30 or 40 years ago, there was no debate about the veil. There has been some debate in Turkey about the banning of the veil, but even in Turkey, it is only in the last 15 years that the veil has become the subject of fierce public debate; in the 1950s, it was not the subject of any public controversy. Suddenly, this issue of marking religious identity becomes extremely important. Today, the issue of the external religious sign is so because all the religious communities are refashioning themselves as more or less closed communities.

The religious communities of today are no longer the expression of cultures or societies. They are reconstructions made on an individual and voluntary basis. Today, all religions are lived as minorities, even when they represent the majority. For example, in the United States, 80 per cent of Americans say they are believers and practicing churchgoers. At the same time, preachers, be they Protestants, Catholics, or Muslims, all say the same: "We live in an atheistic, materialistic, and pornographic society..." a society where 80 per cent of the people say that they are believers. Thus, either there is a contradiction, or they are right. And in my opinion they are right. In fact, societies are no longer religious, even if believers represent a majority in society. Societies are built on other forms of cultural representation, of modes of consumption, of norms, of values, of economy, of anything we care to think of. There is no religious evidence any longer, even in societies with religious majorities.

Therefore, the question, "What is a religion?" today becomes the question of a community of believers. But this community of believers no longer has a Cultural basis, and less and less of a territorial basis. Therefore, we are in the middle of a reconstruction effort of a virtual community. It is easier for some. The Catholic Church has the huge advantage of being an institution, of having a Pope, of having a global dimension, and of being supranational. Thus, the Catholic Church can survive this globalization crisis, but other religions, which lack those very institutions, are suddenly faced with the problem of "What does the norm say? Who is speaking the truth in religious matters?" This produces the paradox that the debate is totally open, but nearly always ends in favor of the fundamentalists. Why? Because they have the clearest ideas of what the norm is.

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