Monday, January 15, 2007

The rise of religious fundamentalism=the failure of Secularism?

Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism, much was made of the hopes for a new era of peace and prosperity. The consignment of Communism to 'the ashbin of history' was not a victory of liberal-capitalism as some believed. Rather it's collapse led to what Huntingdon argued was a vacuum which allowed older ethnic and religious tensions to come to the fore (Huntingdon, 1996). It seemed that the liberal, nationalist and socialist 'projects for modernization' had failed in their promises to deliver economic prosperity and democracy; a disillusioned and impoverished Third World was resorting to religious fundamentalism and ethnicity in a rapidly globalizing world which brought with it elements of change and uncertainty (Haynes, 2002: 118).

We will begin by dissecting the question backwards, so to speak, by examining the terms modernization and religious fundamentalism. Mainly I wish to question some of the commonly held perceptions regarding the rise of religious fundamentalisms in the Third World and aims to display how attempts at understanding this allegedly new phenomenon have failed. This, it can be argued, is precisely because these secular projects for modernisation may have been, in part, applied outside of the historical and political context they emerged from in Western Europe and may not have been suitable to all the Third World.

Firstly, and quite importantly, the failure of modernization projects are discussed in the light of something which, in ideal circumstances, was supposed to succeed yet didn't. Was this due to a failure in applying standard 'rules', rules that, provided they even exist, would have led a Third World country to become a 'modernized state'? Central to the theme of modernization is the idea of the secular nation-state; a concept which arose out of the historic circumstances that shaped Western Europe and was finalised in the nineteenth century (Tibi, 1998: 6,7). The product of these historical circumstances led to the complete separation of the Christian Church in Western Europe from all matters regarding affairs of the 'State' (Scholte, 2001: 20-21). A process which, one could argue, led to the gradual decline of religion as a political force. This system had been spread throughout the globe as Western European imperialism declined in the 19th and 20th centuries and state structures were constructed out of the newly independent formerly colonised nations.

Along with this 'secularisation' of politics and government, another factor 'rationalisation' was thought to be correlated. The retreat of religion into the private domain and growing awareness that conditions can improve by “human agency” (Smith, 2003:46,47) is nurtured by improvements in technology and science. This theory was articulated by eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophers and sociologists attempting to explain the transition of societies from 'pre industrial to industrial society' as Smith put it. (Smith, 2003: 44,45). Rooted as it is in the historical peculiarities of Western Europe and its economic and cultural development, many scholars, such as Max Weber, became pre-occupied with what made the 'West' so different from other great civilizations. This “unique cultural totality”, as Giddens described it (Weber, 1976, x), may even be duplicated in less developed countries so that they too, can become modern. In effect, the transition from 'traditional' to 'modern' societies required similar processes to those experienced by Western Europe such as a 'Reformation' of sorts (Smith, 2003: 44,45). The outcome of modernisation was thus, the West, therefore all countries interested in 'modernising' must strive to this preferred goal and all that it would entail.

When it comes to religious fundamentalism, the phenomenon is by no means limited to any one religion, nor is it necessarily a terrorist one. As Haynes points out, the methods of religious fundamentalist movements varies widely from the ballot box to outright violence (Hayes, 2005: 251,252) and these movements receive varying forms of legitimacy. Unfortunately in recent years, there has been a certain 'topical narcissism' (a twist on Halliday’s phrase)(Halliday, 1996: 12-13), which has attributed an 'Islamic' image to the term religious fundamentalism.

Haynes attempts to describe religious fundamentalists as a group of people, usually in an urban setting, who wish to change their society more along the lines of religious laws and in effect have a more traditon-oriented and less modern society (Haynes, 2002: 123). In many cases however, religious fundamentalists have proved quite willing to utilise modern technology and techniques to organise and get their message across. This was notoriously the case with al-Qaeda operatives utilising the internet and modern technology to carry out their attacks on the United States or to broadcast their extreme form of religious fundamentalism. On a completely different spectrum, the religious fundamentalism which most would associate with Iran's theocratic government has been rather pragmatic in adopting modern technology to deal with the day to day requirements of its citizenry. Anything from Internet access, to plastic surgery is readily available, though regulated within perceived Islamic norms and boundaries (Guardian Online, 2005 & 2006).

Recently we've seen how the Iranian President Ahmadi Nejad has started to keep a blog, al Jazeera has run numerous documentaries on women taking part in sports as well as traditionally male dominated areas. In Lebanon, women play a pivotal role in the activities and resistance of Hezbullah most notably through its media channels and charitable work. Indeed, Hezbullah have a number of professionally made websites listing their speeches online and famously managed to continue broadcasting al Manar even after the Israeli's tried to bomb it during its 2006 "Summer War" on Lebanon. Increasingly, it appears that a different perception of religious activism, seperate from and indeed opposed to the traditional view presented by fringe groups such as al Qaeda, is emerging. This view is quite comfortable with technology, modernity and the role of women in an "Islamic" society and seems quite capable of utilising them. The perception of religious fundamentalism as a reactionary force aiming at 'turning back the clock', so to speak, may be valid in some extreme cases but on the whole the trend has been a marrying between religious belief and modern technological advances. From the above perspectives and examples, it can be argued that a level of technological modernisation and knowledge does not rule out religion, in most cases, as a form of political or ideological mobilisation.

The rise of religious fundamentalism in the Third World has come about due to very similar circumstances and pressures as caused the rise of dissident popular or protest movements in history. As Smith argues, there is a crisis of legitimacy for many of the governments of the Third World (Smith, 2003: 275) and along with other socio-economic problems, forms part of why peoples could be dissatisfied with secular forms of governments. This could certainly be seen in the example of the Iranian revolution. According to Halliday, tensions between tradition and modernity in a rapidly industrialising country boosted by oil wealth inevitably increased. Coupled with the perceived illegitimacy of both the Shah and his father, their support from foreign [Western] powers and other factors such as the economic crisis of 1978-9 all led to an atmosphere of discontent with the Shah's rule (Halliday, 1996: 50-55). In addition, the oppressive measures of the Shah's regime had, by 1979, eliminated most of the secular opposition, meaning the only avenue of organised resistance was increasingly channelled through religion. As a result, “Islam became a symbol and an organising centre” for the majority of people then denied secular outlets (Halliday, 1996: 58 emphasis added). However, I'm not sure how much beneath the secular surface religion had been submerged. Though there was an influential and westernised "middle-class" who had developed western tastes, the majority of the people who could not afford the frivolities and luxuries that surplus money can buy remained "traditional" or what I consider, non-Western, and so Iranian. It is they who provided the masses behind the revolution and when that came, adapted modern technologies previously available only within a Western framework and understanding, to their own culture and religious contexts.

Another commonly asked question is the role democracy has in a "religious" or "Islamic" form of government. In the Middle East in general, the rise of various versions of Arab, Turkish and Iranian nationalisms divided the Islamic world during the Twentieth Century, to the extent you can consider that there is an "Islamic World" and not worlds. Eventually however, the corrupt, secular governments that replaced the colonial occupation themselves became tools of oppression and sectarian control and followed very loosely their respective socialist, liberal or nationalist ideologies. The 1967 defeat by Israel disillusioned many peoples aspirations for their secular governments who seemed to be acting on the instruction of the West. A West which was to them, supporting Israel. When that happened, Islam emerged "as a vehicle of citizens' political aspirations.” (Haynes, 2002: 133 emphasis added). The rise of religion in politics raises an interesting problem, according to most scholars looking at this topic namely: Can democracy and religious politics (or fundamentalism) co-exist? In Algeria a potential election victory for the GIA was pre-empted by a military coup when it became apparent that democratic elections may be scrapped by the Islamic party, resulting in a decade long and bloody civil war (Haynes, 2002: 132), however, it is important to note that the civil war was not with the FIS which was about to win the election (their leadership and thinkers were disappeared or in prison following the coup) but mainly with the more militant and radical GIA. From such an example, we can see that this is where attempting to paint all religious fundamentalisms, or even religions, with the same brush as some scholars do (Haynes, 2002: 131-133) (Tibi, 1998: 12) (Halliday, 1996), brings up considerable problems.

In the world of Islamic discourse, there are no single accounts regarding democracy or what form a political entity should assume. Certainly one criticism of the democratic procedure put forth by Muhammad As'ad, an Islamic political thinker, is that the majority may not always be right in their choice, neither is the minority infallible (As'ad, 1985: 49). However, As'ad argues, in the absence of a better system devised for electing officials to government, a democratic system is indeed the most practical solution. Again, this does not represent the view of all religious fundamentalist groups, however, a common mistake most Western scholars do when writing about such subjects is they hardly ever consult the wealth of books and information which is produced by respected and well known Islamic thinkers. al Jazeera had held an interesting documentary where Sheikh Qaradawi had complained about exactly the same issue. He had written several books on the matter regarding Islam and the state but has never heard of any serious debate emerging from secular scholars regarding this. Islamic discourse is itself either knowingly or accidentally dismissed piecemeal.

In Iran, where a regular and fairly straightforward electoral system and consititutional form of government does exist (within an Islamic framework), pragmatism in politics and similarities to many other political systems emerge on the level of implementation. There is no attempt to return Iran to the stone age and as mentioned earlier, women in Iran actually have a greater range of freedoms than in Saudi Arabia. True there is much that one could disagree with in their model, but that is precisely what can be directed at any other political model, including that of the United States of America. Refusing to acknowledge that there are various forms of religious fundamentalisms and interpretations is akin, arguably, to equating all secular modernisation projects and politics only with European fascism as it existed in the early part of the Twentieth century. Recognising that there may be practical forms of religious fundamentalisms that could potentially emerge from the rich cultural and religious heritage in most of the Third World could help eradicate its more harmful manifestations.

Approaching this topic from the perspective of a “Clash of civilizations” as Tibi advocates (Tibi, 1998), does not allow the root causes, that secular projects for modernisation failed to alleviate, to be addressed in what may be the best way. It brings to mind what Jean Jacques Rousseau spoke of in “The Social Contract” with regards to Russia's Peter the Great and his people:

He tried to turn them into Germans or Englishmen instead of making them Russians. He urged his subjects to be what they were not and so prevented them from becoming what they might have been. (Rousseau, 2004: 51)

Rousseau may have been referring to nationhood and nationality in a Western European sense, but the meaning he conveyed can in many ways be applied to Western perceptions of the failure of secular ideologies in the Third World. Rather than perceiving it as a failure, it may be prudent to recognise where it can play a productive force in Third World countries and encourage its positive manifestations.

To conclude, we have examined how modernisation was a theory rooted in particularly Western European historic circumstances while religious fundamentalism is not restricted to any one religion. By using Islam as a case study, we find that technological modernisation, democratic institutions and pragmatic concerns do not necessarily clash with most forms of religious fundamentalisms. More importantly, religious fundamentalism, rather than being seen as a step back, could be viewed as an indigenous form of political expression which may be more suitable culturally and historically to parts of the Third World. This is not to say that all forms of religious fundamentalism are benign, on the contrary, catastrophic and sensational terror attacks have been one manifestation of this 'rise'. However, painting all politicised religious movements in the same aggressive tone or from a “Clash of Civilizations” perspective is counterproductive. If anything we can deduce that a more case by case study is required and that there is a possibility for indigenous forms of political expression, even if they are religious, for tackling the problems faced by the Third World. At the very least, stubbornly adhering to a Western 'Weltenschaung' may set up more limitations than opportunities for the future.



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