Beyond belief: “Strong Religion”

The authors’ technique of explaining fundamentalism in historical and cultural terms enables us to cope with it in the future

Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World,” by Gabriel A. Almond, R. Scott Appleby and Emmanuel Sivan [translated into Hebrew by Zvia Nardi, published by Ben-Gurion University and Yedioth Ahronoth], $19

The era in which a single interpretation was offered for the phenomenon of religious fanaticism in general and Islamic radicalism in particular is over. In the past, the world’s media convinced us that fundamentalism was rooted in poverty and unique to Islam. Academic studies that tried to refute this international cliche were unable to go beyond the parameters of universities and research centers.

Fortunately, scholars over the past decade have shown their dissatisfaction with prepackaged explanations of something that has become a global phenomenon and has thus become the subject of studies by anthropologists, sociologists, historians, social historians and, most recently, psychologists. The events of September 11 convinced those who had previously been skeptical – such as political science scholars – that religious fanaticism is a political phenomenon, that it must be studied with the contemporary tools used by these scholars and that there might even be a need to invent new, innovative tools capable of teaching us how to deal with a phenomenon that is so conscious and so modern.

“Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World” tries to fill this role. First and foremost, it derives its strength from its three authors, world-renowned scholars from different disciplines: Emmanuel Sivan of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s history and Islamic history departments; Gabriel A. Almond, one of the founders of modern political science; and the University of Notre Dame’s R. Scott Appleby, an expert in Catholic history.

The first innovation that these three scholars of fundamentalism introduced is methodological. To study and analyze the world’s three monotheistic religions as well as Hinduism and Buddhism, they use the comparative technique, borrowed from philosophers of science such as Karl Popper, Abraham Kaplan and Ernst Mayr, and from comparative political science – a field that has until recently shown little interest in fundamentalism. Unlike most previous studies, which dealt with only one instance of fundamentalism in a defined time-place context, the book’s authors checked and compared nearly 80 religious movements, cults and orders around the world – in a variety of countries and cultures. Previously, scholars tended to examine the link between religion and state, both from the state’s standpoint (the means used to exist with or without religion) and from the religious standpoint (how fundamentalist groups respond to the challenges of a modern state expanding at their expense).

“Strong Religion” takes several steps forward in an attempt to develop a new explanation and disengages itself from the first aspect of the old technique, the state’s reaction to fundamentalist groups, although it does adopt the second part – examining the reaction of fundamentalist movements to secularization and to the modern state. This is the book’s central issue.

The scholars raise new, complex questions: Why has the fundamentalist movement developed in the present period? Why now and not previously? Why in the bosom of one religion and not another? To deal with these questions, the authors try to explain fundamentalism in historical and cultural terms, and to do so, they have chosen new tools. Therefore, they consider the fundamentalist phenomenon longue duree, to use Fernand Braudel’s term – that is, a process requiring long-term answers and research. This technique enables us to learn not only about the phenomenon’s history and its modus operandi in the here-and-now, but also how to cope with it in the future. The concluding chapter deals with this point.

The inclusion of a non-monotheistic religion in the research study is a brilliant move because it enables a wider perspective and a more incisive ability to draw comparisons; however, the number of incidents examined is so large that confusion sometimes arises. The all-embracing approach at times causes the study to lose its equilibrium precisely because it seeks to apply a single theory to a maximum number of incidents. Moreover, the book’s central theses and its judgmental statements were written, in most cases, with respect to large, familiar fundamentalist movements. Thus, it might have been more prudent to focus only on the major fundamentalist movements involved in the primary disputes with which we are familiar; such a focus would have enabled a less strenuous research effort and would have permitted a more intensive investment in an analysis of the central movements that are today threatening world peace.

Protecting the faith

Islamic radicals reject the term “fundamentalist” because of its Christian origin, and it can be expected that fanatical religious movements in other religions will do the same – as if this imprecise semantic definition exonerates them from the requirement of being fundamentalist. The book solves the problem through the definition it assigns this term and through the necessary conditions that must be present for its application to a given movement: Fundamentalism protects religious faith, and a movement that does not do so cannot be called “fundamentalist.” The authors also supply four ideological features and four organizational ones that they consider characteristic of fundamentalism and that turn a social movement into a fundamentalist one. The necessary condition for the development of such a movement is the link between ideology and politics by means of religion; religious faith itself (Islam, Christianity, Judaism or Hinduism) is not enough.

Fundamentalist movements can develop in any place, any period and, of course, any religion, if three factors are present (they can be considered requisite conditions, whereas the very existence of a connection between them is sufficient): structure, chance and choice. The authors use “structure” to refer to broad, long-term contextual factors such as social class and standing (affluence, income distribution and social ranking), the state’s organization and the degree of its involvement in daily life, education (content and dissemination) and cultural and subcultural differences. The authors use “chance” to refer to chance, short-term variables, such as fluctuations in manufacturing levels, in commerce, and in international and local security; strikes; demonstrations; etc. The authors use “choice” to refer to the extent of the leaders’ creativity and to that creativity’s impact on collective mood swings.

To illustrate, let us take an example familiar to Israeli readers: Gush Emunim. Its structure is the movement’s place in relationship with society and the kind of regime under which it operates. In Gush Emunim’s case, “chance” means the Six-Day War of June 1967, which provided the marginal group associated with the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva with a golden opportunity when Israel “liberated” “Judea and Samaria” (the West Bank). This chance incident turned Gush Emunim’s theory of redemption into a factor that attracted the entire religious Zionist movement, especially its youth movement, Bnei Akiva. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 was an additional chance incident that drove the movement to act because of the war’s traumatic effect and because movement members understood that redemption is not given and must instead be seized. Less than a year after the war, in 1974, Gush Emunim began an intensive program of settlement activity against the government’s expressed wishes. Finally, “choice” was the choice made by the movement’s leaders. Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook chose an ideology suited to the reality of 1973 and merged it with a critique of secular society, thereby constructing a bridge between the movement’s members and Israel’s secular majority – a bridge that enabled Gush Emunim to resume its settlement activity and reinforced its ties with the National Religious Party.

Limited comparisons

When the authors want to be explicit and precise, they avoid comparisons between marginal, little-known movements. They even limit the scope of comparison to no more than three or four movements. The comparison between Asian-Hindu fundamentalist movements and Gush Emunim demonstrates that fundamentalism requires three conditions: charismatic leadership (choice); long-range change, such as secularization (chance); and oppressing part of the population and distancing it from the political game (structure). In my view, the first two are of paramount importance.

The authors describe fundamentalist movements as enclaves within society. The first chapter, “The Enclave Culture,” explains the creation and development of fundamentalist movements as a result of external pressure from society and the modern state. Society distances the enclave’s members by ridiculing the principles they cherish, especially religious ones, while the state prevents them from participating in the modern games – political, technological and scientific – it initiates. Thus, the radical religious group digs in its heels within the enclave of its walls – whether physical or virtual – not just for self-defense, but also for offense, which sometimes even expresses itself as a declaration of total war against the surrounding society.

However, it would be misguided to think that the enclave fortifies itself within an ivory tower. Quite the contrary: It maintains close ties with society in order to recapture it. The authors divide fundamentalist movements into four categories: “world conquerors,” such as Al-Qaida, Iran’s radical Shiites, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, the fundamentalists in Northern Ireland (Ulster), the Protestants in the United States (The Millennial Kingdom, The Moral Majority), Gush Emunim and Meir Kahane’s Kach movement; “world transformers,” such as Protestant fundamentalists in the U.S. and Italy’s Comunione e Liberazione; “world creators,” such as the Lubavitcher (Chabad) Hasidic movement; and “world renouncers,” such as ultra-Orthodox Jews. These categories are relative, not fixed. A group can shift from one category to a second, even a third. For instance, Hamas, according to the authors, began as a world transformer and later entered the category of world conqueror.

The supreme goal of the enclave’s members is earthly as well as spiritual. Even among the members themselves, the line between the divine and the mundane is unclear. The results in the afterlife and the love of the enclave’s members for one another are not determined by heaven or the enclave, but rather on the home turf of the surrounding society from which they have ostensibly disengaged themselves. Thus, there is a dialectical and dangerous relationship between the enclave culture and the (secular) dominant culture of the rest of society.

The level of solidarity between enclave members is very high, and the cement that bonds them is provided by absolute holy scriptures, which are considered relevant for any place and any period. Here one can ponder and ask the following question: If God’s word is the enclave’s ultimate source of authority, why did the authors decide to include in their book religions that do not have holy writings, such as Hinduism and Buddhism? They distinguish between two universal groups: homogeneous, namely the world’s three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), and syncretist, where the ethno-cultural and ethno-national components take precedence over, or are an integral part of, the religious one, as in Hindu fundamentalism. In a fascinating comparative analysis, the authors note the similarities and differences between the two groups and the areas where they overlap.

Here, as well, questions are raised that must be considered. Judging from the above distinction, it can be understood that an enclave created under a monotheistic mother-religion is based solely on holy scriptures and has no ethno-cultural or ethno-national component. However, if we take a homogeneous enclave from the authors’ own sampling, such as Hamas or Gush Emunim, can we really say that it has no ethno-cultural or ethno-national components? If the term “ethnicity” has a racist flavor, we can dispense with it and ask: Besides the religious aspect, do cultural and national components play a role in the ideology of Hamas and Gush Emunim? Certainly.

One general conclusion is that these movements, whether homogeneous or syncretist, are a conscious, contemporary reaction to the modern political and social context in which they have developed and which they fight using that context’s own tools, which are absolutely modern. The hallmark of these movements is the reductionism to which they subject their holy scriptures and the many divine commands at their disposal. Their method is essentially selective: A human hand selects from among the divine commands whatever is most suited to the needs of the moment and to human interests (practical, material and daily), as if God wrote these commands with human inspiration. Radical Catholics in North America concentrate on abortions, as if Christian theology is concerned solely with that issue; similarly, Gush Emunim in Israel concentrates on the holiness of territory, raising it to a level almost equal to that of God’s holiness, as if the Bible and Talmud are concerned solely with the Greater Israel issue. The same can be said about Muslim extremists, who concentrate on a cruel, uncompromising war against those who threaten their religion from within and without, as if all the Koran’s and Sunna’s instructions are concerned with only that issue.

The problem’s complexity is inherent in the link between the agenda of religious fanatics and their identity, as individuals and as a group. It would have been logical to assume that their identity would derive its content from their religious faith and from their holy writings but, surprisingly, their identity is rooted in the level of their practical day-to-day activities. What draws them closer to God is not just their prayers and fasts, but also what they do in the field, day in and day out, to fight the corrupt, immoral, secular, modern, heretical Manichean world. Ultimately, the spiritual identity of these groups is dependent on material, political goals – secular goals, in the final analysis.

However, the fundamentalists’ secularism is not expressed at the expense of their religious faith. Needless to say, secularization neither denies nor invalidates religious faith. Religious fanatics are prepared to realize their (secular) goals through modern, secular and religious means. Their sacred aim is the political system, whether they can dominate it – that is, whether they can Judaize, Christianize or Islamize it – or whether they can participate in it. If neither option can be achieved, the third possibility is to shatter it.

As we can see, a fundamentalist movement can shift from one category to another or can move to greater radicalism or greater moderation. The question is how an enclave can be softened or returned to the bosom of the mother-society. The method that the authors recommend is democratization, the introduction of economic and political reforms, and opening the door to the participation of the enclave’s members in these processes: in the political game, the economy, elections, the justice system, freedom of expression. In short, they must be allowed to enjoy all civil rights.

However, what if the mother-state does not believe in democratic principles and is not interested in democratization? What if the regime in which the enclave exists is a military dictatorship? The authors draw our attention to fundamentalist movements in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. They argue that these movements “softened” because they understood that violence was a dead-end street and that, if given the option, they will choose peaceful methods and democracy.

This point, which is introduced at the end of the book, is unclear and is not explained. It is presented as a premise, as a common-sense hypothesis. The authors do not favor an iron-fisted policy against such organizations because violence and suppression do not solve the problem. Evidence supporting this argument can be seen in the fact that the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did not prevent that organization from growing stronger and spreading throughout the Middle East. The sympathy that the organization enjoyed among the members of the general population was a direct result of the mother society’s neglect of social and political agendas. Had a civic society been created and had all the country’s citizens been allowed to participate in the political game, they would not have identified with the enclave’s members. Those who were unable to join the enclave – that is, the majority – identified with it. To prevent the general population from identifying and sympathizing with an enclave, the authors propose democratization and economic reforms in the mother society, because an enclave cannot exist without a mother society, even if the enclave has totally severed its ties with it.

To neutralize the enclave, the mother society must be “captured” through democratization. The enclave would then either remain isolated without any power to influence or would decide to return to the mother society’s bosom. Osama Bin Laden, the authors argue, is not interested in conquering the world. He wants to capture the heart of the mother society with which he has severed his ties – namely, (religious and secular) Muslims who do not believe in and do not agree with him, and who live outside his enclave. They must be redeemed through democratization and the market economy.

This is the point where the book ends, without revealing the dangers and prospects. For example, the war in Iraq and the recent elections in Afghanistan have proved that the implementation of democratization is not a self-understood process. Nonetheless, the book is an excellent guide for a historical and cultural understanding of fundamentalism and opens the door to additional research studies on this subject.

Samir Ben-Layashi is a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
Ha'aretz, Israel
Dec. 10, 2004
Sami Ben-Layashi

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This post was last updated: Friday, May 9, 2014 at 1:22 PM, Central European Time (CET)