14 November 2011

Is "Fundamentalism" Still Relevant?

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Fifth Volume of the Fundamentalism Project (2004), eds. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby Fifth Volume of the Fundamentalism Project (2004), eds. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/series/FP.mwo4ml

Social scientists agree that our world has become more religious since the 1970s. True, polls show Americans have been edging away from religion and even “spirituality” since the 1990s, but, paradoxically, “secular” Europe has been steadily becoming more religious ("Crises of Faith"). The Tony Blair Faith Foundation plausibly states that we’ve entered a “post-secular age,” in which religion plays a dominant role in many parts of our world.

In this second installment of the sociology of religion, I intend to show that this global resurgence of religion offers a variety of manifestations; that fundamentalism is a particular response to globalization, and as such, remains a relevant category in our quest to understand religion today. And by the way, it seems like we’re stuck with the term “fundamentalism.”

Peter Berger and de-secularization

The “secularization theory” in vogue among sociologists and anthropologists of the 1950s and 1960s has now been largely debunked. Daniel Lerner in his classic text, The Passing of Traditional Society (1958) argued that the more traditional societies were touched by the westernizing influences of industrialization, urbanization, education and capitalism, the less religious they were to become. Unsurprisingly, American intelligence chiefs saw this theory as a runway for a whole new propaganda project in the Middle East (where Lerner had actually done his research). “Modernizing” these nations through the mass media would ensure pulling them into the orbit of the Americans and away from the Soviets at the height of the Cold War. The future seemed bright: religion – Islam, in this case – would enter a transition phase during which it would delink from state institutions and then gradually move to a stage when it ceased to be relevant.

Peter Berger, wrote his famous text, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1969) at a time when secularization theory ruled. The idea that religion in traditional societies forms like a “sacred canopy” which weaves all aspects of society into a meaningful whole become the commanding metaphor for the emerging field of the sociology of religion.

Keep in mind that it was about this time that the philosopher Karl Jaspers had launched the idea of the Axial Age, which many others had taken up after him. Jaspers, noting that the period between 800 and 200 BCE witnessed the rise of Greek philosophy and all of the great religions of the Middle East, India and China, was indeed a pivotal (“axial”) age. Scholars working within this framework consider Christianity and Islam to have hitched their camels to this same caravan. It was a period of relative peace, with growing economic prosperity, traveling scholars and the appearance of a priestly class.

To this Peter Berger added that, once these religions had established themselves in their respective societies (think of Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity and Islam), they functioned as an effective social glue and a reassuring identity marker. This was the “sacred canopy” that overarched human societies for nearly three millennia.

Modernity, however, ripped apart this traditional canopy. Depending on the time and place, it did so both unevenly and unpredictably, so that the metaphor itself lost usefulness. Lester R. Kurz, a younger sociologist who studied the evolving religious landscape (Gods in the Global Village: The World Religions in Sociological Perspective, 2nd ed., 2007) explains why scholars no longer see the “sacred canopy” as a plausible model:


“Not only is religion alive and well in the world’s most advanced industrial society, it is thriving in many other areas of the world. Along with the creation of new religious forms, we are now witnessing some dramatic revitalizations of traditional forms of religious life. The growing interdependence of the various human cultures, along with the economic and social webs woven across thousands of former boundaries, is creating an unprecedented series of changes in the nature of human theology. On the one hand, the very notion of religious belief has been called into question by the secular nature of thought in industrial society. On the other hand, the idea of a tightly woven, nearly seamless sacred canopy has clearly become obsolete (if it ever truly existed) as people from various strands of religious thought encounter ideas from other traditions. It is virtually impossible for any believer in the world today to live in isolation” (189).


In her recent textbook, The Sociology of Religion (Sage, 2007), seasoned scholar Grace Davie deplores the continued resistance of many scholars to the notion of a resurgence of religion in the past three decades. Yet the reality is that religion has thrust itself to the center of the world stage. Davie’s premise is this:


“ . . . in global terms, it is as modern to draw on the resources of religion to critique the secular as it is to draw on the resources of the secular to critique the religious. Religion is not something that can be safely or sensibly relegated either to the past or to the edge” (1).


Peter Berger himself, Davie notes, has actually come full circle, from an enthusiastic advocate of secularization in the 1960s to a fierce critic of the secularization theory today. She quotes from his Introduction to a book he co-edited in 1999 (The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics):


“My point is that the assumption that we live in a secularized world is false. The world today, with some exceptions . . . is as furiously religious as ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labeled ‘secularization theory’ is essentially mistaken. In my early work I contributed to this literature. I was in good company – most sociologists of religion had similar views, and we had good reasons for upholding them. Some of the writings we produced still stand up. . . .

“Although the term ‘secularization theory’ refers to works from the 1950s and 1960s, the key idea of the theory can indeed be traced to the Enlightenment. The idea is simple: modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion, both in society and in the minds of individuals. And it is precisely this key idea that turned out to be wrong” (2-3; 64 in Davie).


So has the “sacred canopy” come back? Not exactly. But as is always the case in the human sciences, it’s more complicated than that. This is where the idea of “fundamentalism” comes in.

The “Fundamentalism Project” and its wake

The year of the Iranian Revolution (1979) was also the year Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla became pope. Religion took the world by storm and social scientists had to play catch-up. I had only been living in Algeria for a year at the time, but I couldn’t help notice a sea change of religiosity around me. From one week to the next, after the Ayatollah Khomeini’s proclamation of an Islamic Republic in Iran the mosques up to then frequented by a few elderly men suddenly were bursting at the seams with enthusiastic young men. We were entering a new era.

This was the time when Pope John Paul II traveled the world tirelessly, drawing crowds of mostly young people. Even Protestants who didn’t agree with him grudgingly recognized he was bringing spiritual revival to many parts of the global church. The media were continuously commenting on this or that statement of his, this or that action of his – like his visiting his would-be Turkish assassin in prison and forgiving him. But more than that, Christianity was exploding in the South, whether Pentecostal churches in Latin America, African-initiated churches or more traditional denominations in Africa. Historian Philip Jenkins documents the dramatic shift of vitality and growth of Christianity from the North to the South (The Next Christendom, revised and updated ed., 2007).

Meanwhile, the Iranian Revolution was paralleled by a robust Islamization campaign from below all over the Muslim world. Muslims were more practicing, young women in universities were donning the veil, and even sometimes against their parents’ will. Islamic finance was rapidly becoming popular in places like Malaysia and Egypt. Authoritarian governments were forced to integrate Islamic symbols simply to hold on to power. And finally, political Islam was on the rise, with a handful of violent groups appearing on the fringes and beginning to make their presence felt.

Other religions were making headlines too: the Dalai Lama’s ubiquitous media coverage symbolized for many the growing popularity of Buddhism in its various hues among scores of westerners in Europe and North America. The BJP Party in India with its uncompromising nationalist ideology (Hindutva) was beginning to dominate Indian politics in the 1990s, leading to clashes with Muslims. The worst violence took place in Gujarat Province in 2002, when hundreds were killed on both sides, with Muslims suffering the greatest losses. To the south in Sri Lanka, a three-decade civil war was tearing the country apart, with the Hindu minority using terror tactics to force the Sinhalese Buddhist government to give them autonomy (by the way, the Tamil Tigers in the 1970s were using suicide bombings a decade before the Shia resorted to this tactic in Lebanon).

Likely the most influential American scholar of religion, University of Chicago professor Martin E. Marty, co-edited a landmark study in the late 1980s with Notre Dame scholar R. Scott Appleby. This was the Fundamentalism Project, which enlisted the talents of scholars from all over the world. In the end, five volumes were published between 1994 and 2004. Their core thesis is that with the political, economic and social upheavals of the postcolonial period (roughly the three decades after WWII), the globalization of western modernity forced several reactions among the adherents of the world’s religion. The reaction this project called “fundamentalism” was the most defensive posture — defining one’s identity in terms of “us versus them.” Here is Marty’s explanation:

“Fundamentalisms usually occur on the soil of traditional cultures; cultures which over long periods of time have been relatively protected from disturbance either from within or from outside. The seeds of fundamentalism are sown when such a situation is challenged or disturbed . . . The threat may be constructed in a variety of ways: sometimes it comes from outside the group in question and is given a code word such as ‘Westernization’ or ‘modernity’ or ‘invasion’; other threats may come from within, for example when particular individuals or sub-groups begin to incorporate new or different ideas” (quoted in Davie,185).

Violence can become an issue, but in most cases it is not a factor. What sets “fundamentalism” apart from traditional or simply “conservative” religion in this scheme is this strong reactive current, the pitting of one’s self either against an outside foe (like western modernity) or an inside foe (like the original “fundamentalists” in 1920s America who drew up the five “fundamentals” in order to distance themselves from, and repudiate, liberal Protestantism).

Other scholars remained unconvinced. Why use the term “fundamentalism” that originally applied to US Protestants to designate vastly disparate movements from many other religions half a century later? Is this not a pejorative term? Can’t we find a more neutral term that could then be more scientific as well? I myself contributed a chapter to an interdisciplinary book coming out next year on this topic (Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History).

Three scholars published a book to defend this thesis (including Scott Appleby), Strong Religion (2003). It argues is that fundamentalism is mostly about religious people drawing strict boundaries around their own community – enclave-building, as they put it, this time providing a more sophisticated sociological analysis. Details aren’t important here – only the idea of religious people withdrawing from wider society to form a group of “born again” believers. They don’t use that term, but French sociologist Olivier Roy does – to good effect.

Olivier Roy’s Globalized Islam

In my previous blog (the first in this series of three on the sociology of religion), I introduced Asef Bayat who published a seminal article on “post-islamism” in 1996. Olivier Roy had already written on this topic in 1994 (later translated into English, The Failure of Political Islam, 1998). In 2004 he published another landmark book, this time examining the phenomenon of religion – using Islam as a case study – now transformed by many factors, including:

- increasing movements of people across borders, whether refugees or economic opportunity seekers

- growing influence of international bodies like the UN, international NGOs and an increasingly interconnected global civil society

- international news media and satellite TV

- the use of the Internet and the social media

- religious instruments of globalization such as Sufi orders now impacting the west,

- islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or the Hizb al-Tahrir (“Party of Liberation,” a movement with an international following seeking to revive the idea of a worldwide caliphate),

- or secular factors like multinational corporations and universities.

Ironically, the islamist thrust of the 1980s and 1990s with the parallel growth of Islamic political parties had a secularizing influence on many Muslim societies. By using religion as a political tool, islamists emptied religion of its spiritual potency, thus leaving a vacuum in its wake. Conversely, by militating for an “Islamic state” (variously defined, depending on what group you ask), they contributed to the strengthening of an already powerful modern state, and thus, paradoxically, created a civil society far more religious than it had been before. And because they have manipulated religion by means of their political and social discourse, they have in fact led many Muslims in the direction of “a conservative, inward-looking and ossified religion” (5).

This new revivalism has nothing to do with reformist Islam. In fact, Roy calls it “neofundamentalism.” It is no longer Islamism (it’s apolitical), nor is it traditional religion. Especially in the west, it is driven by young people, often highly educated and upwardly mobile, who have internalized the modern cult of the self. It’s about a personal choice to join a group that defines “Islam” through its own set of criteria, including both doctrines and practices, which have often been gleaned through various Islamic websites.

This is “deterritorialized” religion – cut off from its cultural roots in the home country, or simply in reaction to the dominant strand of Islam a particular country. Religion is now de-linked from culture. But it is also “strong religion,” wherein members of the group proudly announce to themselves and all who care to listen that they are the “true believers.” Hence, it’s a born-again group, with characteristics that are common to similar groups across the religious spectrum, mostly in the urban centers of the globe.

    “Born-again” or “true” believers, exhibit the following traits:

- they emerge in the context of crisis, or a loss of religious authority

- they carefully distinguish between the “religious” and the “cultural”

- their communities form around the self-definition of individuals as “believers”

- they explicitly reject “non-religious” elements

- they seek to define the “true tenets of the religion”

- they enforce strict rules of dos and don’ts

- they share the feeling that “our” community is a minority in the midst of a secular or even pagan society

In this vein, think of some very conservative evangelical (including Pentecostal) groups in the US or elsewhere; some off-beat Mormon communities that still practice polygamy; some strongly ideological settler communities in the West Bank. Call to mind too various new religious cults, some of which, like in the case of Jonestown in Guyana, end up literally destroying themselves through mass suicide. In the next blog I will consider the vast network of Muslim Salafis.

On the other hand, the various sects of Haredim, or Ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York or the Mea Shearim quarter of Jerusalem do not fit this category. They are conservative and traditional communities that follow the same creeds and rituals from one generation to the next.

Though many of these groups openly loathe the dominant culture and often western-led modernity itself, Roy is correct in noting that they profoundly interact with modernity and all the tools it can offer. Many of them are technologically savvy, leaning on the latest computers and smart phones to communicate, articulate their teaching, and proselytize others. And that is the point: this kind of religiosity comes from the west.

Take one of the great “televangelists” of the Muslim world, the young Egyptian Amr Khaled, who travels the world speaking to packed audiences everywhere he goes. Millions follow him on satellite television too. But make no mistake about it: at the heart of his preaching is the word tawba – “repentance.” This is no coincidence, because he is calling for individuals to repent and be “saved.” It’s like Billy Graham urging nominal Christians to come forward after his preaching and be “born-again.”

This is not so much religion as it is “religiosity,” argues Roy. The trappings of individual cultures are mostly discarded in favor of strict rules demarcating the clear boundaries of the group. He explains it again in terms of Islam:


“Muslim identity is recast according to what are seen as purely religious behavioural patterns, and not on the basis of a given culture. Even if the term culture is used, it is more the meaning of a set of values than the expression of a given literary or anthropological culture. (Usually the term values is preferred because it emphasizes belief and ethics in culture.) The definition of a religious community as a voluntary gathering of believers who intend to live according to the definite patterns of their faith . . . is a Western (or more precisely US) view of religion in society” (39).

Wrapping up

Back to the question we started with: is fundamentalism still relevant? The answer is clearly “yes.” But, as we’ve seen, withdrawing into groups of “true believers” that focus on stringent rituals and demanding purity laws is not the only way people of faith cope with the dizzying changes of our age. I suggest that there are at least three other ways to respond to the globalization of our postmodern world, and in particular to the caldron of myriad religions pressing in on us from every side of our urban landscapes:


1. Reformist religion, that is, the reflex of reinterpreting the central tenets of one’s faith in order to solve some of the urgent challenges of the day; this trend is already significant in the Muslim world and I believe it will dwarf the others in time; Christian liberation theologies in Latin America and elsewhere fit here, along with feminist theologies


2. Diluted religion: with everyday pressures of work and the pull of “quasireligious forms, such as individualism and consumerism, civil religion and nationalism” (Kurtz, 192), religiosity goes by the wayside


3. Syncretistic religion: from Afro-Caribbean cults, to New Age spirituality, to loose-knit Ashrams and Sufi-inspired communities – all of these combine elements from various traditions to create new hybrids of religious practice

So the religious market is booming and the choices are bewildering. The point is, religion is alive and well in the global village. As bestselling author and scholar Stephen Prothero has it, even the in-your-face New Atheism is a religious form in itself.

Yet, we cannot ignore the issue of fundamentalism, as people of this ilk deeply impact society in many places. Precious few Muslims directly support jihadism, but this is a strand that won’t go away in the foreseeable future. More prevalent, and much more influential in Egypt today in particular, are the Salafis – the topic of my next blog.