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73nd Annual Summer Conference, August 5–8, 2004

Where Did the Current Resurgence of Religion in Political Life Come From?

Speaker’s Notes:
PETER BEYER, University of Ottawa

The story of contemporary religious revivalism begins for all intents and purposes with the Iranian revolution of 1979. By itself, it already attracted a great deal of attention simply because it was the first modern revolution with such a clearly religious, even theocratic, identity. Like the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, most people – including, by the way, most of the revolutionaries – had simply not expected this. The establishment of the Islamic Republic, however, might have remained a curiosity if a whole series of other quite powerful religio-political movements – and this, in effect is what we mean by religious revivalism – had not arisen almost concurrently in the late 1970s and early 1980s all around the world : the battle for a Sikh Khalistan in Punjab, the greatly increased prominence of religious Zionism in Israel and the New Christian Right in the United States, the key role of liberation theological priests in the Nicaraguan revolution, to name only the most obvious. In this context, the religious identity and motivation informing other conflicts of the same period appeared in a sharper profile. In Northern Ireland Protestants opposed Catholics, in Lebanon Maronite Christians battled Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, in Poland Roman Catholic inspired Solidarity challenged the Communist government , and in Egypt Muslim militants assassinated Anwar Sadat. These and other events around the world signaled renewed prominence or at least renewed attention for religion as a key force in a modern world of increasing global awareness. After the mid-1980s, such publicly powerful religio-political revivals continued to appear, including the rise to power of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India; a civil war in Sri Lanka pitting Sinhalese Buddhists against Tamil Hindus; the violent breakup of Yugoslavia along the religious fault lines of Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croatians, and Muslim Bosnians and Kosovars; and especially the explosion of Islamic militancy in diverse places such as Nigeria, Algeria, Chechnya, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Religious revivalism had become and was noticed as a truly global phenomenon.

In this brief presentation, I cannot address all the important questions that one might ask about these developments. I therefore restrict myself to three that may be most pertinent for this conference. First, why did they arise when they did? Second, what do they tell us about the place of religion in the context of contemporary global society? Third, what can we say about such revivals for the future? These three questions are of course interrelated and none has an unequivocal answer, but together they can perhaps point us to key features of the globalized world in which we all now live.

The question of timing is not as critical an issue as it may at first seem. Many of the instances of religious revival were in fact only the then latest episodes in movements that had a much longer history. For instance, the fight for a Sikh Khalistan had roots in Sikh separatist movements dating back to earlier part of the 20th century; the “troubles” in Northern Ireland dated back at least to the 1960s; the New Christian Right in the United States in many of its features hearkened back to American politicized Fundamentalism of the beginning of the 20th century; key Hindu nationalist organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) were founded already in the 1920s; and Islamic militancy was a notable presence in various earlier manifestations such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Jamaat-i Islami in Pakistan. In this light, some of the “revival” in late 20th and early 21st century religious revivalism has actually been more a “revival” of interest on the part of outside observers, notably various elites in the West and elsewhere who had become convinced that progressive decline of religion as a social force was an inevitable feature of the modern march of history. That said, the revival of attention itself, along with the more or less simultaneous upsurge of a combination of older movements and entirely new ones, makes it worthwhile to pursue the question of timing a bit further.

Each individual instance of religious revivalism has its roots in particular local circumstances, and understanding these is essential for appreciating why a movement arose when and in the form that it did. Nonetheless, the confluence of so many in a shorter period plus their occurrence in such diverse parts of the world suggests that more global factors have also been at play. The global economic slowdown that made itself progressively felt after the early 1970s, following more than two decades of global growth after the Second World War, is certainly one of these. What gives it its explanatory power, however, is not just that more difficult economic times can provide fertile soil for the rise of religious and other sorts of movements, but also that it points to a global economic system in which all regions are implicated. More broadly, the attention that religious revival movements have received since the 1980s and their roughly concurrent emergence are symptoms of an increasingly globalized social context. The world capitalist economy is one of its key structural features, but for the understanding of religious revivalism, probably not the most important one. The system of sovereign states, highly developed methods of communication, and the widespread resort to certain universalized models of identity and discourse are more directly relevant. These latter have included the notion that the world is composed of different cultures/ethnicities/nations/peoples/races/civilizations; socialist, neo-liberal, and more recently anti-globalization and postcolonial ideologies; and, most critically in the present context, religions.

It is no accident that the sorts of religious revival movements under discussion are in fact also political movements. One of their main aims has been to influence or take over one or more modern states, sometimes, as in the case of many Islamicist or Latin American liberation theological movements, as a means to broader aims of world transformation, sometimes, as for Hindu or Sikh nationalists, as an end in itself. Modern states have in fact become a globally available model for putting into effect collectively binding visions of the good life for its inhabitants. Historically, religion has been one of the more important factors for constructing the national identities that justify particular states. Religious nationalism or nationalism with a strong religious dimension has been a constant feature in the rise of modern states since the 19th century. During the 20th century, the global state system developed to the point that the legitimized states had divided up all the available territory on earth among themselves, meaning that religio-political movements had to seek to take over one or more of them, displacing whatever national vision(s) that had reigned there before. The question of timing is therefore in part one of understanding what kind of visions the religious movements have sought to replace. In this context, the decline and then collapse of state-centred socialism as a national and transnational ideology may well have been an important factor, even though in 1979 this option still seemed very much alive and even informed certain of the movements in question, such as the Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions. In general, as Mark Juergensmeyer has emphasized (The New Cold War?), the rise in religio-political movements may be directly related to disillusionment with dominant secular ideologies that were deemed unsatisfactory.

The increasing density of worldwide communication networks stands as another important factor in the timing and character of religious revivalism. Rapid and varied communication using methods such as air travel, print, and various electronic media increased the demonstration effect, notably of the Iranian revolution, which showed others in the Muslim world how it was possible and probably had an indirect effect on other movements such as the Sikh and Hindu nationalist ones. Communication technologies have also made it easier for movements to mobilize resources transnationally: Tamil Tigers in Toronto can rally support for the fight in Sri Lanka; the Ayatollah Khomeini could provide leadership for the Iranian revolutionaries from Paris; Latin American liberation theological activists could benefit from continent-wide networks and beyond; and more recent Islamicist militants use cellular telephone technology not only to communicate across great distances, but even on occasion to detonate their murderous devices.

Such communicative linkages, along with common economic and political context, are only part of the story, however. Religious revival movements demonstrate a much broader point, and that is how the contemporary process of globalization not only implicates all parts of the world in a single global society, but equally as importantly structures participation in that society on the basis of clear and declared differences. With their strongly normative bases in postulated transcendent dimensions beyond human disposition, religions offer potent ways of understanding the global social whole at the same time as they allow the structuring of that whole into fundamental differences. In this sense, religions are somewhat homologous with states structurally and with nations, ethnicities, cultures, sexes, ideologies, and – following Huntington (The Clash of Civlizations) – civilizations culturally: they tie humanity together on the basis of identified distinctions. Such identity in difference often occurs on an “ecumenical” basis in which religious, like national or cultural, differences are acknowledged and approved. Most religious revival movements, however, adopt a more oppositional and conflictual mode, identifying difference through stark and supposedly irreconcilable differences. They mobilize and identify themselves in opposition to critical global others, whether the enemy is godless communism (the “evil empire”), the Great American Satan, the “Crusaders”, global capitalism, another religious group (Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Christian Orthodox, Hindus, Buddhists), apostasy, secularists, or simply “the world.” From this perspective again, the timing and nature of religious revival movements makes them appear as successors or alternatives to the ideological opposition between “communism” and the “free world” that structured the global system during the Cold war period.

The ability of religion effectively to complement and even supplant other ways of structuring both the singleness of the global whole and critical differences within it marks it off as a rather special domain in global society. Religious revivalism demonstrates that, on the one hand, religion, like the notions of nation or culture, can serve to identify particular groups and serve as the basis of their claim to exclusivity and to inclusion in the power benefits of global society, and this both nationally and transnationally. On the other hand, religions can also offer universalist ideologies and prescriptions for action that, like the Cold War or neo-liberal and anti-globalization ideologies, can seek the allegiance of all people in the world, and not just one subgroup. Thus Sikh and Hindu nationalisms focus on the integrity and power of the group, liberation theological movements have for the most part been explicitly universalist, and Islamicist movements or the New Christian Right in the United States have structured both particular group identity and universalist vision. In this regard, it is perhaps noteworthy, that all the instances of religious revivalism that have attracted attention around the world have their basis not just in religion, but in particular self-identified and externally recognized religions such as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, or Sikhism. In cases that might seem to be exceptions, such as rights movements among indigenous peoples in various parts of the world, the absence of a basis in a particular religion gives them much more the appearance of national and cultural than religious revival movements. What links the two varieties, cultural and religious, is the degree to which the movements can and do claim roots in time-honoured tradition and the very local ways of life that are also independent of the movements themselves. Religions provide critical resources for the revival movements; they are not subsumed in them.

Religion has several advantages in the current global context. If offers deeply rooted and flexible structures, resources, and visions that can be as powerfully motivating as any secular ideology, and this without necessarily contradicting dominant globalizing structures such as state, economy, and scientific technology. Like national, cultural, gender, and ideological movements that offer their simultaneously universalist and particularist visions of the world in which we live, religious revivalism contests those forces and even seeks to use them to its advantage. It does not simply oppose them, let alone indicate a desire to return to some mythic or medieval past. To the extent that contemporary globalization is a chief consequence of modernity, religious revivalism demonstrates that religion can be and is as contemporary and modern a force as anything else.