Humantrustees.org aims to foster understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians so as to empower them to live up to their God-given calling as “trustees of the earth.” This Christian initiative seeks to accomplish this goal through scholarship, teaching, news commentary, and networking between scholars, members of both communities, and with anyone else who is passionate about peace and human flourishing.
David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

[This is the last of 4 blog posts on the sociology of religion] So you read the news: in the first round of post-revolutionary elections in Cairo and Alexandria – the only places where secular parties have a chance to do well – the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party raked in 37% of the vote, while the brand new Salafi party, Al-Nour (“Light”) got 24%.

Political Islam is definitely not over, but as it enters the push and shove of democratic politics and is held responsible for solving pressing socioeconomic problems, its leaders will have to compromise their ideals, both in policies they will promote and in the alliances they will be forced to make. Then too, the army is still very much in charge and will not put up with an Islamic state. When at the helm, by necessity, pragmatism trumps idealism.

Yet, these days the Salafis pop up as you read about Egypt, Indonesia, and even France. It’s a movement with global reach certainly, but at the same time very diverse – from apolitical, world-refusing born-agains, to al-Qaeda-emulating Jihadi-Salafis. In “Whence the Salafis?” I explained the cyclical nature of conservative revivalism in Islamic history. Now it’s time to look at the sociology of salafism. This will also lead me to remark on how sacred texts are read – a theme that runs throughout my work.

Just a reminder from blog 2 on the sociology of religion (“Is fundamentalism still relevant?”): globalization has created new hybrid cultures and religious movements that become divorced from their original cultural context and focus on a “pure” version of the faith. In recent years, thanks in large part to Saudi petro-dollars, the ultra-conservative brand of Saudi Islam (Wahhabism) has dovetailed with a prevailing literalism in interpreting the Islamic texts and produced a movement now labeled “Salafism.”


Salafism and the fundamentalist enclave

Salafism is textbook “fundamentalism.” In their book Strong Religion, Scott Appleby, Gabriel Almond, and Emmanuel Sivan reexamine 75 case studies from different religions on five continents in the five-volume Fundamentalism Project. Their list nicely dovetails with Olivier Roy’s characteristics of “neofundamentalism” (see my fundamentalism blog):


        a) Leaders, typically from a conservative background, are charismatic and authoritarian, and strongly patriarchal in their outlook

        b) They infuse in the community a strong sense of self-righteousness and embattlement, i.e., they are the “true believers” in the “pure version” of their faith, in opposition to the lukewarm, the heretics and the non-believers, with a discourse often laced with conspiracy theories

        c) This in turn creates a strong division between insiders and outsiders, as they define their mission in spiritual terms, usually with “apocalyptic urgency,” and always with practices that set them apart from mainstream culture (regimented lifestyle, rigorous norms of clothing and moral purity)


The book Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement offers marvelous case studies on Salafis in Sudan, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Yemen, Palestine, the Netherlands, Britain and France. Let me just illustrate the appeal of Salafism as a religion of enclave from the French context.

Mohamed-Ali Adraoui is a French political scientist whose research on Salafi youth reads much more like sociology. Don’t be surprised: add anthropology to the mix and you will find three social science disciplines that greatly overlap in their research methods.

Adraoui starts by pointing out that even before 9/11 discussions about the resurgence of Islam dominated public debate. This is because so many French Muslims define themselves as Muslims first and foremost, and hardly at all as French. Another reason is that the religious market for Islam in France is thriving. There are dozens of organizations and currents to choose from, and all compete vigorously for potential recruits – though none so energetically as the Salafis, advocates of “absolute” or “pure” Islam.

Finally, though maybe only one out of five French Muslims actually practices his or her faith, Salafis are the best at recruiting from the young underclass – the youth who live in the poor suburbs of the big cities (the banlieus), who are for the most part unemployed and often on the wrong side of the law. Why are the Salafis so attractive? Adraoui explains:


“Salafi Puritanism exerts a strong attraction on Muslims who feel alienated and who contest the dominant national ideology of republicanism and laïcité [an extreme gulf between religion and state] that requires assimilation. The appeal of Salafi Puritanism lies in its ability to provide a way of not only opting out of society but of creating an alternative, superior community based on the unity of God (tawhid)” (p. 366).


So you become a true believer, you submit to God and your leader, and you fight all forms of heresy, which includes the beliefs and practices of just about all the other Muslims. This pays off psychologically for someone on the margins of society: “Salafism empowers these ‘dropouts’ by providing them with a transcendental dimension, a holy identity, and the belief that they are chosen.” It also involves a veritable revolution in their lives. Adraoui goes on,


“Instead of being passive ‘followers,’ they have become active ‘models’ for others. Where before the migrant lived on the fringe of society (mentally rather than effectively), as a Salafi he now stands at the centre of the world and embodies a sacred history. Morally and symbolically the migrant has climbed up the social ladder and is able to look down on the rest of society” (p. 367).


Naturally, this attitude will not likely endear him to his neighbors. In the Salafi worldview all the pride of Paris – its history, culture, wealth and values – is nothing more than kufr (“unbelief,” but stronger: already blazing in the flames of hell!). In fact, he is no longer supposed to interact with them. Culturally, he is now aligned with the Arabian Gulf. Wearing his long white robe (qamis) and his baggy trousers that stop at half his calves, he also becomes a hard worker and usually manages to make a good living – mostly in business, and never in banks (because of the ban on interest). Some even travel to Dubai, Qatar and Saudi Arabia through their Salafi contacts and come back with money to invest in other businesses.

Much more could be said, of course, but I would like go back to the issue of Salafis in Egypt. Adraoui sees three main divisions of Salafis: the purists (which his chapter focuses on), the Jihadi-Salafis like Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda, or the political Salafis, the ultraconservative version of the Muslim Brothers (but with no political experience). Some have been known to move back and forth along this scale. In fact, people’s theology and practice evolve with a changing context, as the next section illustrates.


The Salafis and the Arab Spring

Egypt’s Salafi movement, holed up for years in its Alexandria fortress and active in Cairo’s poorest neighborhoods, remained fiercely apolitical. For Salafis traditionally, there was to be no political involvement unless the state adopts Sharia wholesale or a global Islamic caliphate is in the wings. This kind of unbending, take-all-or-nothing mentality, coupled with an unforgiving focus on dress codes, male dominance, and silent submission to leadership in all matters – all this was fine under the ironclad dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. So the Salafis were singularly unprepared for the January 25 Revolution of 2011.

In its wake, the strict enclave mentality with its rigorous policing of community boundaries took a big hit. First, some of the young leaders joined the protests in Tahrir Square, drawing lots of younger men with them. This happened with both the Brotherhood and the Salafis. Second, they realized that Egyptians were elated about the revolution toppling Hosni Mubarak. If they didn’t get on the political bandwagon, leaders were thinking, they might lose their chance to counter the secularist tide and the second amendment to the previous constitution might be deleted (“Sharia is the main source of legislation”).

Though some Salafi groups remain opposed to any contact with democratic politics (the “purists” want no part of the devil incarnate), many preachers have taken to the streets, haranguing crowds under tents and offering amenities to their followers. The airwaves, both radio and TV, have opened up to lots of new channels, most of which are religious. And now three Salafi political parties have formed, with Al-Nour in the lead.

All this flurry of activity both preceded and followed the turning point of the spring, the March 19 referendum. This is when people came to the polls to decide on whether to hold early elections in 2011 or not. A hotly debated issue, everybody knew it was about religion in Egypt’s political arena. The Muslim Brotherhood, by far the most organized opposition group, stood to gain handsomely. But the other Islamic parties – and the Salafis in particular – were not going to cede the ground to these liberal Muslims who play fast and fancy with the established dogma, at least as they see it.

The referendum drew large crowds of enthusiastic supporters for the early elections, which have now begun. Egypt is, after all, a very religious country. And though the ultraconservative Salafis will probably never beat the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood in any election, they are not far behind, and they represent more than any other group the secularists’ biggest fear. Regarding their views on women and for the literal application of Sharia penalties (see “Severe Punishments”), I can understand. But as for the use of violence and their willingness to play by the democratic rules, think again.

Take Abbud al-Zumar, for example. A young intelligence officer in Anwar As-Sadat’s army, he had taken part in the conspiracy to assassinate him. One of many in the military who were secret members of the Gama’a al-Islamiyya (the “Islamic Group”) whose aim was to overthrow the regime by force, he spent nearly thirty years for this act. Now this spring he was among the many political prisoners released after Mubarak’s fall. Some rumors have it that the army is hereby using a scare tactic, so that with the ensuing chaos of the transitional period, they will be called in to rule for the long haul.

If Abbud al-Zumar is any indication, there will be no such chaos. Out of prison, he now identifies with the Salafis who are running for office. In an April interview with the New York Times, he asserts confidently,


“The ballot boxes will decide who will win at the end of the day. There is no longer any need for me to use violence against those who gave us our freedom and allowed us to be part of political life.”


No wonder he and many other Salafi leaders are engaged politically these days. These elections will determine who will sit and write the new constitution. A lot is at stake. So al-Nour leaders, faced with the run-off elections, are doing everything they can to rein in the preachers who have issued some of the more "outrageous" fatwas (legal rulings), from the forbidding of high heels for women (even if they are all covered up), to virulent statements about Christians, to a ban on voting for anyone who is not a practicing Muslim.

Still, you have to wonder at how radically and quickly these movements changed their minds. As journalist Neil MacFarquhar writes,


“But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Islamist campaign was the energy invested by religious organizations that once damned the democratic process as a Western, infidel innovation masterminded to undermine God’s laws.”


A revolution just took place that, as everyone could see, would have momentous implications for the future of the country.


Ideologies evolve, as do the readings of sacred texts

The “New Salafism,” as Khalil al-Anani recently put it (in a discussion on the sociology of Islam listserv), “is a mere ‘bubble’ and shallow phenomenon in Egyptian politics, whether in terms of ideological or religious rhetoric or their structural and organizational settings.” A political scientist at the University of Durham, al-Anani writes on these topics for the Egyptian press and elsewhere. With precious little political experience, they’re still part of the much wider islamist spectrum; yet because of their ultraconservative lifestyles and rhetoric, they grab the headlines.

All of the groups loosely belonging to “political Islam” have evolved their way of imagining a “truly Islamic society” – what it looks like, and what it might take to bring it about. On the other end of the spectrum you would have to include the ruling AKP party of Turkey, and in Egypt, the Wasat party, formed in the mid-1990s by a group of young, disillusioned Muslim Brothers. Following the ideology of the Brotherhood’s second General Guide, Hasan al-Hudaybi (see my blog, “Seek the Peace of the City”), they elected a Coptic Christian as their head and advocate building an Egypt that reflects the best in human values as found in both Muslim and Christian texts.

The authors Almond, Appleby and Sivan in Strong Religion (2003) speak of how islamist leaders have continually “ransacked the tradition’s past, retrieving and restoring politically useful doctrines and practices and creating others in an effort to construct a religiopolitical ideology capable of mobilizing disgruntled youth into militant cadres or into grassroots political organizations” (p. 10). I call this “doing theology” – what people of faith (and especially leaders) do all the time. Here it’s about recruiting young people to the cause. As everywhere, they are the ones most likely to join and commit.

Think again about the Egyptian Brotherhood under Mubarak. As they attempted “to provide a compelling alternative religious alternative to the state,” “they found themselves participating in a common discourse about modernization, development, political structures, and economic planning” (p. 12). As groups like this got more directly involved in politics – as islamists and Salafis are doing just now in Egypt – with time they realized that “[p]olitical involvement . . . tends to alter the exclusivist, dogmatic, confrontational mode of the fundamentalist to such a degree that the word fundamentalism or its cognates is no longer appropriate” (12).

Simply put, when people of faith dive into politics, ideals get trimmed down to what actually can be done right now. Pragmatism sets in and in discussing issues with others one’s horizons begin to widen. Think too about the US Religious Right that exploded under Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in the early 1980s. By the mid 2000s it had lost much of its steam, and in 2008 young evangelicals were voting for Obama in droves. [I have a blog coming up showing how evangelicals concerned about the environment have the ear of the younger generation – with all kinds of implications both theologically and politically].

An Arab journalist for the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya (the same TV network on which Barack Obama was interviewed) perused the Al-Nour party platform and scratched his head. These Egyptian Salafis, he writes, are sending shock waves throughout the global Salafi movement. They contravene at least four basic tenets shared by various factions worldwide:


        1. Full obedience is owed to the Muslim ruler and democracy is an evil invention of the west – yet Al-Nour is a political party

        2. The Sharia is the only acceptable constitution – yet their charter echoes the present constitution by only stating that “the higher reference will be for the Islamic Sharia”

        3. Classical Islamic law classified Christians as a “protected minority” (dhimmi) – but they declare that Egyptian Copts should enjoy exactly the same rights as their Muslim compatriots (citizens of a civil state)

        4. Salafis despised and castigated the prestigious Al-Azhar University as a pawn of the Mubarak regime – now they are calling for its independence from the state and for transparent elections among its scholars so as to designate its next Grand Shaykh


Granted, Al-Nour is the most moderate of the three Salafi-leaning parties formed this last summer. But it’s also by far the most influential and its platform is nothing short of revolutionary.

So where might the Salafis be headed? I would venture to guess that, as happened to other religious groups who dove into politics, their ideology will moderate the nearer they get to power. But because of their lack of political experience and their own internal divisions, they are not likely to get very far. Still, many of them have already started to read their texts in more inclusive ways – and even recognize that some legal norms of the past need to be revisited in the light of changing sociopolitical conditions. Maybe revolutions do shed new light on our sacred texts and traditions . . .

20 December 2011

The dark side of empire

I'm a patriotic American, grateful to God for the many achievements of our nation -- its democratic ideals of freedom and equality, the prosperity it has afforded so many immigrants over the last two centuries, and its willingness to engage in self-criticism (think of the Civil Rights movement). If you've read Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, you will know how much I opposed the Iraq invasion before it happened and the war there and in Afghanistan as they progressed.

Our last troops pulled out of Iraq this week (Dec. 17, 2011). I wished our President had not declared the war a success -- he of all people! But this is the logic of empire. With almost 1,000 army bases worldwide and a defense budget that nearly equals the combined military budgets of all other countries, we project massive, indeed colossal power. As a follower of Jesus, I take the phenomenon of human sin seriously, and huge concentrations of power terrify me. Yes, power can be used for good; but look around you today and throughout human history. Evil can so easily infiltrate it, and often hijack it entirely.

This is a small vignette of an instance in US history when power was badly misused (an excerpt from my book, Ch. 11). I bring this up because humantrustees is about building on global networks of faith and peacebuilding. In the ensuing dialogue, therefore, we must be be honest with ourselves, ready to recognize our own faults before we attempt to highlight anyone else's. As Jesus said, "take out the log from your own eye before mentioning the speck in your brother's eye." This works for us individually; but it's also good to remember while we interact as citizens of many different countries.

Steven P. Blackburn, scholar and librarian at the Hartford Seminary, wrote the first review of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. It came out in October 2010 in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. I will be posting three other reviews shortly.

15 December 2011

The Bethlehem Call 2011

“The existence of international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns and other forms of non-violent resistance is an established fact. . . . The severity of the Palestinian situation makes comparisons with apartheid in South Africa superfluous and almost irrelevant. The benchmark is international law and not South Africa.” This excerpt from the Second Kairos Bethlehem Conference document, The Bethlehem Call, is an angry yet hopeful statement by over 60 seasoned activists from 15 countries, including prominent Palestinian church leaders on Dec. 13th.

I say “angry,” because prophetic statements are always angry in the face of persistent and systematic injustice. Listen to what 8th-century BCE prophet Amos intoned before a stunned Israelite audience:

“This is what the Lord says:

‘The people of Israel have sinned again and again,

and I will not let them go unpunished!

They sell honorable people for silver

and poor people for a pair of sandals’” (Amos 2:6).

Then again:

“Listen to me you fat cows living in Samaria,

you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy . . .

The time will come when you will be led away with hooks in your noses” (4:1, 2).

Or again this:

“I hate all your show and pretense – the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. . . . Away with your noisy hymns of praise! . . .

Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,

An endless river of righteous living” (5:21, 23, 24 NLT).

The statement was forwarded to me by veteran Christian activist, Tom Getman, through the auspices of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU), an organization I have long followed. Tom was World Vision/Palestine Director in 1999 when I conducted my 5-week research project in Hebron, staying at the Bethlehem Bible College. He is now CEO of an NGO that networks with the UN on issues of justice (the Getman Group), based in Washington, DC.

In his email to several friends and colleagues, he had this to say about this 3-day meeting he just attended in Bethlehem:

“Amazing experience of encouragement even if not optimism in the midst of deep darkness. Not so different from the first Christmas Light in the midst of the Roman Empire. And the Palestinians are choosing exuberant hope with non-violent response rather than being victims even now that 87% of the West Bank is under Israeli control (along with all the forests and 47% of the wells).

I suspect this will turn out to be historic in the nature of the Barman Declaration, South Africa Kairos 1985, and the Dr. King Letter from the Birmingham Jail. The Church is on notice!”

Please read this document for yourselves. I only want to highlight two aspects of it: its call to dismantle the oppressive chains of global Empire; and its connection to American evangelicals.

The brutal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, now in its 45th year, continues unabated, abetted by international silence. Palestine is indeed “a global issue” – one of many instances of how political power and economic clout converge to trample the rights of the poor and weak. In the words of the document,

“Today, the illegal regime and illegal forms of the Israeli occupation of Palestine assumes dimensions of systemic injustice whereby the unthinkable and unimaginable becomes globally accepted, supported and normalized. This is an example of Empire (global domination) at work . . .

As witnessed with our own eyes, the treacherous conditions imposed by the Israeli occupation on Palestinians and their land have reached a level of almost unimaginable and sophisticated criminality. This includes the slow yet deliberate and systematic ethnic cleansing and the geo-cide of Palestinians and Palestine as well as the strangling of the Palestinian economy. . .”

This is also a Christian statement, though clearly worded to include other faith traditions. Its tone is raw. Irritation and resentment are palpable among the lines of this collective litany. These men and women are back from visiting Palestinian villages and refugee camps, having witnessed first hand the marks of an increasingly cruel apparatus of control. Listen to this passage explain that “God takes sides for justice against injustice”:

“In the deep pain of the Palestinian people in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, of Palestinian refugees and of Israeli Arab citizens, we witnessed the tears of God. God keeps the flame of faith alive, as the darkness of despair closes in. God lives and breathes in the lament of those whose future has been stolen. In the cries of the dispossessed we have sensed the passion of God for right to prevail.”

That is my second and last point. It's a language that people of many faiths could call their own, from MLK to Gandhi, and surely the Dalai Lama (for whom “God” is a religious symbol he deeply respects). Plainly, it's also the language of the Hebrew prophets, which Jesus reappropriated, and never more vividly than when he chased the money changers from the Jerusalem Temple courtyard.

I know that my friend, the Rev. Naim Ateek, who was canon of the St. Georges’ Cathedral (Anglican) in Jerusalem during our family’s stay there in 1992-1996, had much to do with this conference. I had the privilege of working closely with him while teaching in Bethlehem. More than anyone, Naim has tirelessly brought together Palestinian Christian leaders in Jerusalem all across the traditional gamut around a contemporary reading of the Bible. This is the mission of Sabeel, the Center for Palestinian Liberation Theology, which he founded (see his Justice, and Only Justice)

Yet among all the mainline Protestants, those along the spectrum of historic Orthodox churches and Roman Catholics, all of whom gratefully acknowledged his efforts, there have also been many evangelical Protestants from several countries – like Tom Getman and myself. I mentioned EMEU, and there are many others in a fast-growing network of evangelicals who look back with gratitude to the pioneering efforts of Jim Wallis and Ron Sider in the 1960s. You would have to add to this list many Mennonites and Quakers (the historic “peace churches”) and evangelical spin-offs like the “emerging church” movement represented by Brian McLaren (A New Kind of Christianity) and young activist/authors like Shane Claiborne (The Irresistible Revolution).

I will write more about these issues, mostly because of the ignorance and hence, prejudice that surround them in most peoples’ minds. For now, I direct you to my piece on Christian Zionism in “Resources,” at the end of which you’ll find a list of books and a couple of amazing DVDs as well. We evangelicals, especially since the late 1970s, are guilty of much theological distortion, which sadly has resulted in fateful political alliances. I join many other voices in saying, “enough!”

In light of this week's broadly ecumenical manifesto, I'll end with “A Franciscan Benediction,” the chosen conclusion of the Bethlehem Call. In this precious time of Advent, waiting in our hearts for the coming of the Son, we gather hope – believing that even in Bethlehem, where Christ was born two millennia ago, his peace will change once again our broken, violent world.

“May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, at half truths and superficial relationships so that we may live deeply within our hearts. May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation. May God bless us with tears to share for those who suffer in pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world so that we can do what others claim cannot be done. And may the blessing of the God of Abraham and Sarah, and Jesus born in Bethlehem of our sister Mary, and of the Holy Spirit, who broods over the world as a mother over her children, be upon us and remain with us always. Amen.”

10 December 2011

Whence the Salafis?

As you read the papers these days, you hear that “the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis” are the parties most standing to gain from the elections taking place in Egypt. We’ve covered the Muslim Brotherhood, but who are the Salafis?

Salafism is about a new, international and self-absorbed subculture that is completely obsessed with legal norms and rules that are traced back to the Prophet himself. Here the Sunna overshadows the Qur’an in importance. It fits to the tee Olivier Roy’s picture of the religious community of the twenty-first century – what he calls “neofundamentalism” – in which young people who are reacting to the traditional piety of their parents (or lack thereof) come under the sway of charismatic religious teachers, join their tight-knit, high-commitment community, while feeling certain and proud that they are followers of the “true” faith.

The phenomenon of the religious enclave of born-again believers huddled together against a hostile world is found among all religious traditions in one form or another. For the Salafists in particular, the appeal is enhanced even beyond its offer of a new community to join and a strong sense of identity and purpose. Indeed, the Salafi message is even more attractive because of its deep roots in Islamic history.


A very, very old reflex

The Arabic adjective “Salafi” comes from the plural noun salaf, that is, the ancestors, and more specifically here, the righteous forbears who were companions of the Prophet. Depending on who you ask, the salaf could include all the leading lights of the Islamic past; but Salafis have a more narrow focus: the salaf are the first leaders of early Muslim community, the first four “rightly guided caliphs,” and those pious companions who passed on reports (hadiths) of Muhammad’s words and deeds after his death.

Preoccupation with hadiths is what most sets Salafis apart from other Muslims. This too is what characterized the earliest Muslim reformers. To be pious, or to earnestly seek the path of faith revealed in the Qur’an, one had to know the teaching of the Prophet. He was the only one who could rightly interpret the meaning of the sacred text. Also, less than ten percent of the Qur’an is about the dos and don’ts believers consult on a daily basis. The Sunna (the “perfect example” of the Prophet, as found in the most authentic collections of hadiths) is what fills out the blanks left by the Qur’an.

Hence, the first properly religious movement in Islam was the ahl al-hadith, “the people of hadith,” who emerged in the second and third century after the Prophet. As I said, the early exemplars of piety made careers of studying hadiths – going from one Islamdom city to the next, sitting at the feet of the greatest hadith scholars, who would have memorized thousands of these reports. They in turn, once they had amassed sufficient knowledge, would become teachers for the next generation of hadith seekers.

After the first Islamic dynasty, the Umayyads, was replaced by the Abbasids, who moved their capital from Damascus to Baghdad in 757, a class of Muslim intellectuals appeared with a thirst for learning. They had inherited a sophisticated imperial realm (a mix of the former Byzantines and Persian Sasanians), in which Christian and Jewish scholars were reading and translating Greek texts of philosophy, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and more. Famously, Caliph al-Ma’mun in the early ninth century CE, founded the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, which instantly became the world’s greatest center of learning. Now the many texts in Greek and Syriac were being translated in Arabic, with Christians, Jews and Muslims working side by side.

This marks the beginning of Islamic civilization as we know it, its classical period which gave birth to the explosion of science and philosophy. It also produced the science of hadith criticism and qur’anic interpretation, both of which led to the rise of the main schools of Islamic law. Often catalyzed by vigorous debates with Christians and Jews, Islamic theology made its appearance at this time too. But it was the next century (10th cent. CE) that witnessed the rise of the dominant school of Sunni theology (still today), Ash’arism, which found a middle path between the rationalists (Mu’tazilis) and the text-only advocates (Qur’an and Sunna, with emphasis on the latter), heirs of the ahl al-hadith.

Yet the conservative, textualist Sunni trend lived on – always patrolling the theological and legal waters in order to denounce and eradicate any “innovation” (bid’a), or any recourse to human reason to explicate the texts, and especially any import of Greek philosophy! “Just stick to the texts,” was their motto, starting with the Sunna. [For a brilliant and feisty treatment of today’s Salafi Puritanism, read UCLA scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl’s The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (HarperOne, 2007)] Its earliest and most famous standard bearer, Ibn Hanbal (d. 855), spent quite a few years in prison, and mostly under the watch of caliph al-Ma’mun. He bravely taught that the Qur’an was eternal and not created – the official state-sponsored Mu’tazili doctrine at the time. A jurist of some repute as well, Ibn Hanbal was later honored as the founder of the Hanbali school of law, the strictest and most literal of the four main Sunni law schools, and the official legal school of Saudi Arabia.


The Wahhabi revival and its 14th-century roots

Actually, the Salafi reflex turned up most famously in two other conservative reformers. The first was the 14th century jurist Ibn Taymiyya, whose eventful career (he too went to prison several times) is mostly remembered by some fatwas (legal rulings) related to the Mongols who had conquered Baghdad, along with a good part of the Middle East of the time, and who by then had converted to Islam. Unconvinced, Ibn Taymiyya declared them “unbelievers” – i.e., non-Muslim, and therefore legitimate targets of military action. To be fair, Ibn Taymiyya was a great theologian with a surprising breadth of knowledge and intellectual sophistication. Sadly, starting with the writings of Syrian Rashid Rida in the 1920s, he has became the patron saint of all the radicals who tend to declare their moderate coreligionists kuffar, or infidels.

The second Salafi reformer was the Arabian theologian of the 18th century, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who focused on Ibn Taymiyya’s narrowest views, like his zero tolerance for the veneration of saints and their tombs, and for all other Muslims who did not adhere to his rigid, puritanical rules – all in the name of God’s Oneness (tawhid). You guessed it: he was obsessed with the Sunna, but only following its most rigorous interpretations. Politically, he judiciously allied himself with an ambitious tribal leader, Muhammad Ibn Saud, which meant that, after they had conquered most of the peninsula by the next decade, his religious ideology was passed down to future generations. His name, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, gave rise to the shorthand “Wahhabism,” which is the official legal/theological doctrine of today’s Saudi Arabia.

The literature on Wahhabism is abundant. Let me just state three characteristics here that are particularly relevant to our discussion. Each one carries with it tensions that are exacerbated in the present era, especially since 9/11.

First, it started as an activist movement – militaristic, in fact. Today, wealthy as the Saudi state is, its monarchy holds on to power mostly because it can afford to lavish financial benefits on its citizens. That is wearing thin, of course. Still, it mostly manages to keep a lid on political opposition groups. So until now, Wahhabism is officially promoted as apolitical, as focused on building an Islamically righteous society.

Second, the qur’anic notion of “commanding right and forbidding wrong” and its traditional tool hisba has been actively enforced since the 1920s in Saudi Arabia through the ubiquitous religious police, who make sure, among other things . . .

      • that women are wearing their full body black coverings
      • that unrelated and unmarried men and women are not alone in the same car, on the street or in a mall
      • that male pilgrims for the Hajj are not wearing any gold jewelry
      • that that no one in Medina prays in the direction of Muhammad’s tomb (even the Prophet cannot be venerated as a saint, or, heaven forbid, as an intercessor).

 Finally, Wahhabism has evolved from a sectarian, parochial and regional movement at home in traditional Arabian tribal culture to a state ideology awash with petro-dollars and imbued with immense political clout globally through the international Islamic bodies it founded (including the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, or OIC), and of course through OPEC and its American and western clients. As a result, it decided early on to spread its narrow Sunni ideology throughout the Muslim world, building mosques and schools and disseminating its literature everywhere it goes. As such, Wahhabism is directly related to the Salafi revival of the last forty years. In some places it has help spread this puritanical ethos; in others, Salafis have openly denounced Wahhabis. Either way, both movements are linked.

But in order to tell that story, we have to first examine the modern pedigree of Salafism.


The unlikely evolution of modern “Salafism”

Those readers who know about the great modernist reformer of the nineteenth century, Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905), will be scratching your heads about the definition I gave earlier of “Salafi.” Indeed, it was Abduh, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, who first coined that phrase in the modern era, with a quite different meaning. Though he had no sympathy for the excesses of Sufism either, Abduh saw himself as representing the best the Islamic heritage had to offer. For him, all the great qur’anic commentators, the sharpest legal and theological minds of the past should be consulted – but not in a slavish way. One also needed to take stock of the best of western modernity and make good, judicial use of our God-given powers of reason.

Suffice it to say here that two main currents developed from the influence of this exceptional modern reformer: 1) a mostly secular-leaning current; and 2) a much more conservative one, starting with his colleague Rashid Rida (the one who resurrected Ibn Taymiyya in the 1920s), Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the current I’ve mentioned before – 20th-century islamism.

Ironically then, the Salafis emerged from Abduh’s desire to create a modern Islam in the late nineteenth century. His “back to the sources” slogan was taken by the majority as a return to the Qur’an as read through the prism of the Sunna – a betrayal, to my mind, of Abduh’s teaching. Many local groups formed in the Muslim world (Egypt and Indonesia are good examples) in the 1920s and 1930s aimed to reform society in a more traditionalist Muslim way. For instance, a movement born in India developed its own devotional literature and sent its missionaries two by two, going door to door. Within a couple of decades they had encircled the globe with their brand of conservative piety. Still today you can find clusters of Tablighi Jama’at wherever you travel.

All these groups were adamant about staying away from politics. By contrast, it was the politically engaged, the islamists who captured the limelight – right until the end of the last century. Best known among these is the Muslim Brotherhood, of course, which after its great 1954 “persecution” at the hand of Egypt’s military junta (Gamal Abd al-Nasser was beginning to emerge as the head) renounced violence and stood the course until now.

Those who grabbed the attention of the media, however, were the smaller offshoots, whose theology and practice were more radical. And most of those, like the student-based Gama’a al-Islamiyya, used violence to achieve their goals. Nevertheless, some leaders were emerging at the time that can only properly be labeled “Salafi,” as we read in the recent book, Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement. The Albanian-born scholar Nasir al-Din al-Albani (d. 1999), for instance, taught in Saudi Arabia for years, but not without wrangling the Saudi authorities on many points. His focus was strictly on hadith study.

A famous Saudi legal scholar, Salih Ibn Fawzan al-Fawzan (b. 1935), exemplifies the Salafi love of doctrinal purity and loathing of all of those who disagree when he wrote that Muslims in non-Muslim countries should emigrate to Muslim countries, since rubbing shoulders with unbelievers will lead one to form loyalties with them – something strictly forbidden in these circles. Even more radical are the views of Palestinian-Jordanian jihadi-Salafi Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who took that doctrine a step further and declared the Saudi state apostate. Bin Laden, no scholar he, was greatly influenced by al-Maqdisi.

Beyond the Arab world, Nasir al-Din al-Albani’s influence can be seen in large Salafi movements in Indonesia (around Jafar Umar Thalib), in Ethiopia and in France. As I said, Saudi oil money has undoubtedly contributed to this spread of conservative Sunni theology and practice.

On the other hand, it’s no secret that for decades some of the most influential ulama (religious scholars) of Saudi Arabia have been teaching a more activist and politically-minded ideology, which can easily be linked to Bin Laden and many other Salafi-jihadi groups. Truly, Wahhabism is in the balance.

[2018 edit] Today the crown prince who effectively holds the reigns of power in Saudi Arabia, the 32-year old Muhammad bin Salman (known as MBS] has embarked on an ambitious reform program, giving women the right to drive and other symbolic freedoms, and significantly setting out to curb the power of the Wahhabi ulama. The religious police is all but disbanded, for instance.He is promoting his plan to wean the Saudi economy from its dependence on oil (the 2030 Vision), but at the same time is hellbent on rooting out any dissent. Numerous journalists, bloggers, and others with critical views of his rule have been imprisoned. There will be no "Arab Spring" on his watch!

In the end, with or without Wahhabism, Salafism is likely to endure as a hodge-podge of contentious movements, often very hostile to one another. What links them, however, is this reflex of going back to the Prophet’s example and teaching, in order to make sense of today’s world and find a way to live as faithful Muslims – in spite of it (for the quietist Salafis), or in order to change it (for the Salafis who in Egypt this year have formed three political parties, hoping to cash in on the February revolution).

But there’s a lot more to Salafism than its historical roots, theological hobbyhorses, and present manifestations, contradictory as they might be from place to place. Through the lens of sociology, Salafism fits within a wider pattern observable among many religious movements the world over. That will be my next blog post, as I try to come full circle in my observations about the sociology of religion.

I highly recommend this site, initiated and directed by Hofstra College anthropologist Daniel Varisco, with the participation of many other scholars from various disciplines. Along with an extensive and easy-to-use catalog of several thousand previous blogs, this site offers accessible yet scholarly commentary on many aspects of this part of the world and the Islamic tradition.



Only two Muslim scholars in the US come close to being recognizable public intellectuals. The closest candidate is Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the Iranian-American philosopher and religion scholar at George Washington University who in a series of lectures in 1967 was the first to address the ecological crisis theologically – Christian theologians trailed him.

The second might be the former British ambassador to Pakistan, the anthropologist Akbar S. Ahmed, who was the third to occupy the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University (also in Washington, DC). Check out a review of his recent book is Journey Into America.

But if you live in the UK, you will certainly have heard of physicist Ziauddin Sardar (b. 1951, Pakistan), one of Britain’s top 100 public intellectuals, according to Prospect magazine. With over forty-five books in print, hundreds of articles, he edits the journals Futures and Critical Muslim. Sardar is both a university professor and a journalist of great repute, and a broadcaster. His most recent work is a three-part documentary, “The Life of Muhammad,” for BBC2.

Sardar’s latest book, Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam was published this year by Oxford University Press. Though he's neither an 'alim (a classically trained Islamic scholar) nor an Islamicist, I highly recommend it to you. It’s a fascinating introduction to the Qur’an and a captivating window into how one influential thinker reads it.

Here I only deal with the first five verses of the second sura (just skipping verse one, with the mysterious letters A.L.M.) – the longest chapter of the Qur’an and the one that, for Sardar, nicely summarizes the central themes of the Qur’an as a whole. I will then draw some quick parallels with Christian teaching.


2. This is the Book, wherein is no doubt, a guidance to the God conscious

3. Who believe in that which is beyond the reach of human perception, are steadfast in prayer, and spend of what We have provided them;

4. And who believe in the Revelation sent to you, and sent before your time, and know for certain there is an afterlife.

5. These are truly guided by their Lord, these are the ones who prosper.


Earlier in the book, Sardar had asserted that a Muslim, by definition, is “someone who accepts the Divine origins of the Noble Reading” (5). Put otherwise, the Qur’an is the Word of God. [By the way, Christians would not capitalize “word” if referring to the Bible; Jesus is the Word of God, as in John 1:1, for example]. As Sardar has it, “This is the Book” means “it is the direct word of God”; and that, in turn, “is the foundation of faith and the most basic belief” (71).

This Book, asserts the Qur’an, is “a guidance to the God conscious.” In Arabic, it is “a guidance to those who have taqwa – one of the most repeated Qur’anic words. The older translation was “fear of God,” but Sardar’s preference is “God consciousness.” He explains,

Taqwa is consciousness, an awareness of the certainty, reality and presence of God that is experienced intellectually, spiritually, emotionally. It is the realization that, as the Qur’an says, God is nearer to us than our jugular vein” (72).

This guidance is meant to steer us in our daily lives, enabling us to stay on the “straight path” (as stated in Sura 1, the Fatiha, or “Opening”). So it’s a dynamic guidance, stirring us to action: “Taqwa may be the basis of faith, the certainty on which belief is founded, but the real challenge is to incorporate it into all our thoughts and actions.”

What is more, God consciousness “shapes the way we conceive the world around us.” Thus taqwa is our God-given capacity to reason and probe both the world and the sacred text. For that reason, doubt must be part of the process. It is here connected to our perception of the Qur’an and it recurs throughout the book:

“[Doubt] is presented as a continuum which stretches from being an essential aid to belief all the way to a blinkered determination not to believe under any circumstances. Doubt is a function of our free will: we are free to accept or reject belief in God” (72).

As a result, “Doubt and certainty are not diametrically opposed.” We have to push through the fog of doubt through the use of reason and reflection in order to arrive at certainty. At the same time, warns Sardar, the self-proclaimed skeptic (see his 2005 autobiography), “[c]ertainty that is never questioned, that ignores or is not tested by doubt, can become prejudice, complacency, the blind following of tradition that undermines the meaning and spirit of the very guidance that should be applied to our daily circumstances in the conditions of the times in which we live” (73).

This connects to another theme of the Qur’an: taqwa, this process of “reasoning consciousness leads us to apprehend al-ghayb, or as Sardar has it, “that which is beyond the reach of human perception.” Literally “the unseen,” al-ghayb stands for all that relates to God, his being and his activity in the world.

I think immediately of the key New Testament passage about faith:

“Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1 NLT).

Hebrews 11 then proceeds to list all the great men and women who obeyed God in their generation – often at great cost to themselves – and thereby displayed faith. Take Moses for instance:

“It was by faith that Moses left the land of Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger. He kept right on going because he kept his eyes on the one who is invisible” (v. 27).

The Qur’an then states that these people who believe in the unseen are “steadfast in prayer.” More than just the ritual prayer (salat, one of Islam’s “five pillars”), for Sardar it is connected to the Qur’an’s repeated exhortation to study God’s “Signs” in creation. So prayer cannot be divorced from worship in the form of “experimenting with the material world, promoting thought and learning” – science, in other words.

Moreover, those who remain conscious of the unseen “spend of what He has provided them” – another key Qur’anic theme which Sardar is keen to emphasize. It’s all about distributive justice, he writes, about making sure that the more fortunate share with those who have less. In his words,

“Other people have a claim on our resources, economic, intellectual and creative, social, cultural or emotional. People are not absolute, exclusive owners . . . It is by distributing, putting to work, sharing the bounties that come our way that we ‘prosper’” (75).

As the Qur’an teaches a few verses down, humanity was created as God’s trustees, called to manage the earth’s wealth in His stead and care for one another in His name. So prosperity is not just about material wealth, but especially about the richness of compassion and love we display for one another.

Notice too that those who “believe in the Revelation sent to you” also believe in the revelations sent before. Sardar is a passionate religious pluralist (to be explored in a later blog). For him, the messages sent by God to humanity from Adam to Muhammad are all of equal value. No one has a corner on the truth. Sadly, he notes, Muslims along with people of other faiths have been guilty of “turning the commonality and continuity declared by the Qur’an into an exclusive and excluding identity.” Instead, we should be drawing together the common threads of the various religious traditions that will enable us to change society for the better:

“There is a shared rationale for finding the means to work together to make the world a better place, a place of peace and peaceful cohabitation based on transformative change. In a globalized world of increasing interconnection, there is no separately sustainable way of seeking, let alone establishing, justice, equity, dignity and well-being for all. The message from God is not and should not be a brand name, certainly not a ‘holier than thou’ arrogance that divides Muslim from Muslim, and all Muslims from members of other faiths” (74).

I come back to the Epistle to the Hebrews, near the end of that faith chapter. The parallels to Sura 2:2-5 are striking:


“For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come.

Therefore, let us offer through Jesus a continual sacrifice of praise to God, proclaiming our allegiance to his name.

And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God” (Hebrews 13:14-16).

As Muslims and Christians we won’t agree on some central tenets of our respective revelations, but we certainly can celebrate – and hopefully put into practice – a God consciousness that empowers us as God’s trustees to shape our world in a way that brings honor to His name.

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.

A reader of my previous blog, “McCarthyism Returns in the 2010s,” asked a very reasonable question [when it was first posted on the Peace Catalyst website]. He or she had wondered how accurate my placing Robert Spencer among the “purveyors of hate and misinformation” actually was. I like this. I want feedback and the opportunity to promote an honest and transparent conversation. What is more, I write this answer trying to emulate the Apostle Paul by “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

I used “purveyor of . . . disinformation” as a blanket statement on the heels of Fear, Inc.’s Chapter 2 title, “The Islamophobia Disinformation Experts" (get the pdf from here). In that sense, this covered Spencer and several others, including Frank Gaffney and Daniel Pipes.

Besides his writing books and blogs, Spencer is a tireless and effective activist. He founded Jihad Watch and continues to direct it, with the goal to correct “popular misconceptions about the role of jihad and religion in modern-day conflicts.” He also co-founded with blogger Pamela Geller Stop Islamization of America and the American Freedom Defense Initiative.

Yet Spencer is the most prolific of all these anti-Muslim warriors – a dozen books on Islam, including the 2005 bestseller, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), with hundreds of newspaper articles and blog entries to his name. He’s written nonstop on Islam since his Masters Degree in 1980 (Religious Studies, University of North Carolina), and though he’s accumulated a good deal of knowledge, his sources are either secondary or translated into English.

For this blog I have carefully combed through two of his more recent books, as I discovered that his works do overlap a fair amount. I also glanced at a large volume he edited in 2005, The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: How Islamic Law Treats Non-Muslims. None of the authors of that volume are scholars with academic posts, and they are generally considered too biased to be taken seriously by Islamicists in the academy.

Nevertheless, two of these writers have international reputations. Bat Ye’or, who has specialized in the historic treatment of the dhimmis (“protected minorities”) under Muslim rule, authored seventeen chapters in The Myth of Islamic Tolerance; and Ibn Warraq, the pen name for a former Muslim from Pakistan who writes scathing critiques of Islam, contributed the Foreword and a chapter on apostasy. As the other contributors to this volume, they clearly have an axe to grind.

Spencer’s mostly accurate research

In his two books, Religion of peace?: why Christianity is and Islam isn't (2007) and Stealth jihad: how radical Islam is subverting America without guns or bombs (2008), Spencer accurately quotes dozens of Islamic sources and cites many historical events – and all of this carefully footnoted. The second book, in particular, references dozens of current events that at least seem to be based on credible media sources.

Let’s start with Religion of Peace? In his Chapter 5, “Cherry-Picking in the Fields of the Lord,” he admits that on the subject of violence, “the evidence of the Qur’anic text itself goes both ways” (p. 71). From the Meccan period, when Muhammad was leading a small, battered and often persecuted fringe group, we find many conciliatory verses – don’t argue, goes the text, God will judge on the Last Day (but he fails to mention that the famous “freedom” verse, “no compulsion in religion,” comes from the early Medinan period).

Then there are texts that command defensive war when under attack. Here he is careful to emphasize all the most unsavory texts, like the injunction to make no prisoners until the land has been “thoroughly subdued”; permission to take the wives of the slain as one’s concubines (Q. 33:50); and the statement that “the highest rank” of believers “in the sight of Allah” are those who “strive with might and main in Allah’s cause, with their goods and their persons,” a clear reference to military jihad (Q. 9:19-20). And finally, he mentions the famous “sword verses” (Q. 9:5, 29), adding some rather dark commentary over the centuries gleaned from Ibn Warraq (75-81).

As I wrote in my two blogs on jihad, the Islamic legal understanding of these verses in the classical period (10th-14th centuries) was indeed that the later verses abrogated the earlier more peaceful verses, and that the world was divided between the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War. I then added that mainstream Islamic scholarship and leadership had moved on in the modern period to a strictly defensive view of jihad. Spencer won’t acknowledge this.

Also correct are the data he presents on Islamic anti-Semitism over the centuries. It is true that there are harsh passages in the Qur’an about Jews – though he fails to mention that this was in the context of the three Jewish tribes in Medina either in sympathy or in outright collaboration with the Meccan enemy during the war years (624 to 628). Still, there is no shortage of hateful literature aimed at the Jews in the course of Islamic history, including today.

Then in his second book, Stealth Jihad, Spencer quotes all manner of media publications about incidents related to Muslims in the US – some people being tried for terrorism, and others allegedly linked to terrorist organizations. But here is where I want to draw a line: the outline of what you “recount” might have a factual basis, but your “spin” might weave a story line that gravely distorts the actual facts.

The ideological divide

Here I have to point out that the debate, especially in the United States, is fraught with strident ideological clamoring. As you gathered from my previous blogs and from your own browsing on the Internet, this polarizing does have clear political overtones.

A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution highlights a polarized America on the issue of Islam and Muslims largely along party lines. Among the number of respondents who doubt whether Islamic values are in any way compatible with American ones, the numbers are much higher for Republicans (63%) and Tea Party affiliates (66%). A majority of Democrats (55%) and Independents (53%) disagree with this view.

People also divide according to the news channels they tend to watch. Thus, two-thirds of those who say they trust Fox News agree that Muslim values are at odds with those cherished in the United States. Yet only 37% of viewers of CNN and public television shared those views. “The divisions are along partisan and ideological lines,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI in a recent interview. He added this,


“We’re seeing just as polarizing divides around this issue as we’ve seen in such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage. That’s one of the new things that this survey shows. We may be living with this as a new front in the culture wars” (Lesley Lathrop in the Portland Examiner).


This happened during the previous presidential elections too. The 2007 documentary “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War against the West” was produced by a heretofore unknown entity (Clarion Fund) and distributed to 30 million US homes in the spring of 2008. Clips of suicide bombings were juxtaposed with clips of Hitler haranguing the crowds in 1930s Germany. It was a glossy, fear inducing, lavishly funded piece, meant to sway voters to the Republican side.

Distorting the facts

Spencer accurately quotes many classical and current Islamic sources, but he also twists the facts in a couple of ways. First, he peppers his book with blanket statements to the effect that “Islam” is, no matter what Muslims may say, a fascist ideology.

In the first chapter of Religion for Peace? (“No, Virginia, All Religions Aren’t Equal”), he enunciates his book’s thesis:


“Islam seeks the conversion, subjugation, or death of not only Christians but also all other non-Muslims. Thus it is imperative that all the victims and potential victims of Islamic Jihad – Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, secular Muslims, and all others – recognize that, in the immortal words of Benjamin Franklin, we must all hang together, or we shall indeed all hang separately” (9).


This comes after several pages of quotes by al-Qaeda figures, and in particular, of the American terrorist, Adam Gadahn, who in a 2006 videotape lambasts Christianity and ends with the following invitation: “Isn’t it time for every Christian, Jew, pagan, and atheist to cast off the cloak of spiritual darkness which enshrouds them, and emerge into the light of Islam . . . ?”

Plainly, Spencer is projecting the ideology and doctrine of the most extreme (and tiniest minority) elements of the Muslim community onto the whole. On page 25 he offers his justification for this: “Nowhere in the world is there a significant anti-jihad, anti al-Qaeda, or anti-bin Laden movement.” But this is simply not true – from all the largest Muslim organizations globally, which have condemned terrorism in the strongest terms, to the hundreds of respected Muslim scholars and leaders who signed the Common Word document and continue to promote it.

A second way Spencer distorts facts is by choosing them selectively. Hence, in his chapter on anti-Semitism he reports how four thousand Jews were massacred in Granada on December 30, 1066. He quotes from historian Richard Fletcher’s book Moorish Spain (University of California Press, 1992).

I looked up the passage in Fletcher’s book and the very next paragraph reads: “This was an isolated outbreak. By and large the eleventh century was a time of peace and prosperity for Spanish Jewry. It was also a time of cultural vitality” (Fletcher, p. 97). Spencer was definitely not quoting the passage in its context.

I have no room to illustrate this same kind of selective quoting from various sources in his book Stealth Jihad. But to give you an idea, here is one example:

“Islam is a religion of the sword and there are, by even the most conservative estimates, more than one hundred million active jihadists seeking to impose sharia not only in the Islamic world, but in Europe and ultimately in the United States” (209).

Here Spencer a) makes a sweeping statement; b) is plainly using an inflated, undocumented number with emotionally charged words (“jihadi” and “imposing sharia”), ostensibly to instill panic in his readers’ minds.

The crux of Spencer’s own anger

Right from the start, the reader is confronted with animus and venom, and the outraged tone runs from beginning to end. Yet the root of his anger is not just Islam and its terrorist threat, but Islam as the arrogant denier of the goodness and truth of Western Judeo-Christian civilization, and thus forging an alliance with the no less hated phalanges of the political Left.

This perceived double attack led by a secular, even atheist Left, in conjunction with the forces of “Islamofascism,” seems to have thrust Spencer and his ilk into a siege mentality. We cannot limit our attacks to Islamic terrorism, he warns; we must also fight to regain our Judeo-Christian heritage, which has “two legs: The Christian and the Jewish one. Europe rises or falls with the fortunes of Israel” (Religion of Peace?, 10). This sounds strangely similar to the writings of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian far-Right activist – turned mass killer – who, as it turned out, quoted copiously from Spencer.

Spencer also laments what he sees as the “establishment media” floating naïve platitudes designed to placate a determined enemy. After 9/11 President Bush “summed up mainstream assumptions” by declaring that “Islam is a peaceful religion” and that the terrorists “have hijacked a great religion” (Religion of Peace?, 14). But the truth, intones Spencer, is that we are living on the edge of disaster, and Western internal squabbles only make it easier for Muslims to achieve their sinister goals. This is because Islam, to be truly “Islam,” necessarily includes what he calls “supremacism,” i.e., taking over the world either militarily or by other means – the “stealth jihad.”

What is “truth” in a democratic society?

Free speech includes the right of people to engage in conspiracy theories. But is it ethically defensible to devote all one’s energy to attack another religious group? When I played for my Interreligious Dialogue class a CNN clip in which Spencer’s colleague Pamela Geller debates with a Muslim journalist the desirability of housing the Cordoba House two blocks from Ground Zero, the reaction was strong and unanimous. Students used “embarrassing,” “outrageous,” and “totally contrary to our democratic American values” to describe Geller’s speech.

Truth in a democratic society has an ethical component, particularly for people of faith. If every person has inherent dignity as created in God’s image and empowered to be his trustee on earth, then we must commit to speaking the truth so as to build up our fellow human beings and co-citizens. I am free to dig up all the dirt I can on the “other,” but how does that foster a sense of solidarity and constructive engagement with that “other,” so that we might tackle together the very real problems of our world?

I began by saying I wanted to “speak the truth in love,” as I believe Jesus would want me to. I believe that any scholarship stemming from venom and hate should be questioned. It’s both wrong and counterproductive. Here I tried to glean truth from Spencer’s work, but at the same time denounce the hate and prejudice, and as a result, the glaring lies.

This is a small excerpt from Chapter 10 of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, which seeks to trace the Christian and Jewish exegesis of Genesis 1 and 2 over the centuries, particularly on the issue of humanity in the image of God (often referred to in Latin: imago dei) and God's mandate for humankind to rule over the earth in his stead. For the Jewish side, I was blessed to discover the following book:

Cohen, Jeremy. "Be Fertile and Increase, Fill the Earth and Master It”: The Ancient and Medieval Career of a Biblical Text (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Universtity Press, 1989).

Then in a conversation with ethicist Glen Stassen (Fuller Theological Seminary) a few years back I found out that he had written about the Puritan roots of the human rights concept. By the same occasion I want to recommend his pioneering work on "Just Peacemaking" -- a concept now that has caught on in several parts of the world.




  • Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love
    Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love

    This book is now published and available as an ebook. Unfortunately, with the current COVID-19 pandemic, the publisher cannot send out the actual physical books. Read a summary for each of the 6 chapters and buy it on the publisher's page. Here's the abstract, or précis:


  • Earth, Empire and Sacred Text
    Earth, Empire and Sacred Text

    This book seeks to construct a Muslim-Christian theological discourse on creation and humanity, which could help adherents of both faiths work together to preserve our planet, bring justice to its most needy inhabitants and contribute to peacebuilding in areas of conflict. For more information or to purchase (now also in paperback!)