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Religions Resurgent

ISSUE:  Spring 1995
The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern World. By Gilles Kepel. Translated by Alan Braley. Penn State. $35.00 cloth, $14.95 paper.

Most Americans, when they hear the word “fundamentalism,” reach for their revolvers. The great buzzword of the media, fundamentalism is invoked as a source of global instability and the nemesis to the primacy of reason and tolerance. Overseas, we are told, it drives cabals of bearded men to place bounties on the heads of Westernized intellectuals; at home, it justifies the conspiracies of sandy-haired men who terrorize those seeking or working on behalf of abortion clinics. Fundament, fundus, bottom: the very word connotes something deep, resisting, unreasoning, ineradicable. Its roots run too deep, and they grow and knot while we sway in fear. But rather than looking for the gun, we should instead reach for Gilles Kepel’s The Revenge of God. The great merit of Kepel’s book is its analysis, reasoned and reasonable, of the factors in the resurgence of fundamentalism, and its ability to draw critical distinctions between its various manifestations among Jews, Muslims, and Christians. The work is an implicit celebration of the critical and inquisitive spirit—the very target these movements seek to destroy or restrain.

Isaiah Berlin has observed that most political thinkers of the 19th century dismissed nationalism as a temporary phenomenon, an atavistic reflex that would pass with time and progress. The irony, of course, is that nationalism is the sole ideology that abides; the others, from communism to socialism to liberalism, have frayed or cracked under the pressure of history. There is the same desire to underestimate fundamentalism. Confusing caricature with comprehension, commentators tend to wave aside the various expressions—political, intellectual, or social—uttered by fundamentalists. They are the crazy aunts in the attic of the world spirit, attracting our attention only when they begin thumping on the floorboards. Yet, at the same time, there is a growing uneasiness in the West, for the attic is becoming ever more crowded with these ostensibly loony relatives. Hence the importance of Kepel’s insistence that “what these movements say and do is meaningful, and does not spring from a dethronement of reason or from manipulation by hidden forces.”

As Kepel makes clear, fundamentalism, like contemporary nationalism, is both a product and a rejection of modernism. The crisis of modernism has, admittedly, become an academic mantra, a phrase grown smooth and familiar over time. Yet, as we approach the end of the millenium, it does point to a brutal reality. The compounding of geopolitical violence, the rise of deadly new strains of old diseases and the appearance of new plagues, the stagnant economies and collapsing infrastructures of young and old nations, the assault upon the world’s ecosystem: though the list runs on, it does not require an abacus to conclude that the sum of global misery is climbing. Whether suffering is, in fact, greater today than it was in the past is quite beside the point—if only because it contrasts so sharply with the West’s credo, which is liberal, progressive, and optimistic. This worldview, rooted in the Enlightenment, is not only increasingly seen as inadequate to the challenge mankind now faces, but is held to be the very cause of our current malaise. Thus there has taken place a change in registers, from the secular to the religious, in the search for a cleansed world, a better world.

There are two principle paths to achieve this goal: influencing or, better yet, assuming control of state institutions in order to remake society; or standing aside from such institutions and creating a counter-society informed by the precepts of one’s religion. These two approaches, Kepel makes clear, coexist uneasily in all three “Abrahamic” religions. For example, the author examines the ambiguous legacy of Sayyid Qutb, the chief theoretician of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. In the midst of the modernizing efforts of Nasser’s Egypt—a model envied or followed by most Arab states through the 1960’s—Qutb called for a radical break with all existing societies, including those which styled themselves as Islamic. The cleric called a pox down on all houses, for their foundations had rotted through and were heavy with jahiliyya, a term used by Muslims to describe the period of “ignorance” and “barbarism” before Mohammed converted the peoples of Arabia. As Kepel notes, “the symbolic import of this concept. . .was cataclysmic: in the eyes of Qutb and his disciples, jahiliyya was idolatry.” As no compromise was possible, a complete break with the world was essential. Herein lies the rub: did Qutb call for the creation of a pure Islamic society walled off intellectually from the world, or for the establishment of an “anti-society” in the desert which eventually would challenge the jahiliyya? Quitb did not live long enough to settle the confusion—he was executed by Nasser in 1966—and his followers have been debating his message ever since. Nevertheless, Kepel argues, it is the notion of a break that informs nearly all the movements of re-Islamization, for they all consider surrounding society to be blasted deserts of immorality and godlessness.

As befits a noted scholar of Islam, Kepel shows much confidence as he tours the contrasting landscapes of Muslim Society. He traces, in a few deft strokes, the history of the Jama’at al Tabligh (Society for the Propagation of Islam), established in 1927 by an Indian Muslim who feared his religion’s “contamination” from the surrounding sea of Hindus. The world’s largest Islamic transnational association by the 1980’s, the Tabligh has come to serve as the paradigm of re-Islamization “from below”: the breaking away from secular society and construction of an alternative community rooted in the values and beliefs of Islam. Through the dissemination of manuals based on compilations of verses from the sacred writings, the Tabligh defines and regulates the daily customs, practices, and habits of its followers. In essence, the organization has provided a guide to the perplexed. This is especially attractive to those Muslims who, immigrants to foreign and secular lands, find themselves in a situation similar to that of the Tabligh in India: a minority threatened by submersion in a foreign culture and religion.

Yet the Tabligh, a pietistic and apolitical organization at its inception, helped fuel the firestorm sparked by the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988.In a fascinating analysis, Kepel shows how the network of mosques, social centers, associations, and classes run by Muslim groups in Great Britain provided the tinder for the auto-da-fés upon which imams threw copies of Rushdie’s book. The “break” with the English jahiliyya assumed a certain geographical reality, as Muslims began to concentrate in specific areas, forming de facto ghettos. Bradford, which was the epicenter of the unrest, is a declining industrial town and has a particularly high population density of Muslims (and happens to be near Dewsbury, the European headquarters of the Tabligh). Bradford had already been the arena to a good deal of grassroots activity; in the June 1987 elections, a charter of Muslim demands was published, including the call that books depicting an “inauthentic” image of Islam be banned. Fatefully, Rushdie’s book was published the following year, serving as a catalyst for a movement and effecting a move of re-Islamization “from below” to a more ambitious effort “from above.”

Determined to touch as many bases as possible, Kepel also reviews the cases of Iran, the Intifada, and the Islamic Salvation Front of Algeria (though it is a pity that the World Trade Center bombing and its aftermath were not incorporated into the English translation). The book’s greatest interest, however, lies in its attempt to survey the similar return to basics among certain Jewish and Christian sects, and then suggest a single model to explain these various movements. Yet Kepel is not blinded by the quest for a unified field theory and is alive to the critical differences between these groups. The context is all important. Re-Islamization has occurred in societies only incompletely secularized, and the Koranic vocabulary remains accessible to all. Re-Christianization efforts, on the other hand, have most often taken place in societies which have been fully secular for centuries, reducing the language of Christian scripture to a handful of clichés. This fact, along with the democratic values and practices of most Western nations, have helped absorb the impact of Christian fundamentalists.

Absorb, but not muffle: the Catholic Church is capable of making quite a racket. Our historical distance (along with an omnipresent media) has created a sort of echo chamber, in which the grinding of dogma is greatly magnified. Yet we must not dismiss these deep and reverberating rumblings as mere sound effects, and the Pope as a kind of Wizard of Oz, furiously throwing levers and pulling handles that have no tie to reality. These sounds have great resonance with countless Catholics, dazed by the failures of secular thought, values, and politics. The revival of Catholic fundamentalism represents a widespread disenchantment with modernity, a reaction against the ambition of Vatican Council II, and a despair over the insufficiencies of categories of “enlightened” thought and reason.

This is a generation of Catholics that, in the words of Jean-Marie Lustiger, “has harvested the bitter fruit of a human reason that pretended to limitless sovereignty.” A Jewish convert to Catholicism during World War II, and now Archbishop of Paris, Lustiger is a Roman Catholic luminary, conservative intellectual, and staunch defender of the John Paul II’s policies. Along with the work of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Lustiger is cited by Kepel as exemplary of the Church’s brand of fundamentalism. He emphasizes that both men have rejected the historical separation of church and state, insisting that the former has a crucial role to play in the commonweal of society. In a passage from a series of interviews with Lustiger called Le Choix de Dieu (a wonderfully pregnant phrase, given Lustiger’s background), the cardinal observes that “constraints are deeply beautiful and a source of freedom. The day the painter is no longer limited by his canvas or a specific surface, he is lost. . . . When constraints disappear, anything becomes possible (cela donne n’importe quoi).” Clearly, Catholics like Lustiger and Ratizinger, as well as the young men and women of the “Communion and Liberation” movement in Italy, all believe that it is the Church’s role to provide these barriers against the excesses of rationality which have given us the Gulag and Auschwitz. As Kepel writes, “if the Cross is to defend humanity it must not, it cannot, be relegated to the private sphere by a secularism that in the last resort proceeds from the same totalitarian source.”

As with his treatment of Islam, Kepel tries to be as wide-ranging as possible in his survey of the revitalization of Catholicism: his ports-of-call include Poland and Czechoslovakia (though Russia and the former republics of the Soviet Union are slighted). In every instance, Kepel shows himself to be an empathic observer, keen to comprehend and reluctant to judge. When he reaches the shores of the United States, however, in order to investigate American fundamentalism, the strains on his empathy quickly become evident. To this reader’s ear, there is a hint of Gallic astonishment, a discreet and morbid fascination as he quotes one true believer after another who had been snookered by the televangelists, a vague sentiment that “Jim and Tammy” could be made only in America. Yet, truth to tell, there is something specifically American to the phenomenon of televangelism and prolonged contact with it does lead to a kind of intellectual vertigo.

Beyond the clatter of airwaves, amusement parks, and grand juries all devoted to the excesses of some of its leading lights, beyond the running mascara and spray-bombed hair of many of its representatives, American Protestant fundamentalism shares some stunning similarities with its Muslim peers. First, it appeals to a youth which, though more highly educated than their parents (a substantial proportion of these young men and women, both Muslim and Christian, have been trained as engineers and researchers), has been uprooted and pushed from the countryside into cities and suburbs. Many members of this generation of déracinés, suddenly confronted with the anomie of urban life, have returned to the fundamental verities held out by religion. Second, both Muslim and Protestant fundamentalists have formed “counter-elites,” challenging the values and standards of the cultural and political establishments in their respective countries. Third, rather than rejecting technology as godless, “both re-Christianization and re-Islamization aim to break the link between modern technology and the dominant cultural standards of the civilization which produced it.” Its sole significance being its instrumentality, technology becomes a tool to propagate and defend one’s beliefs. Thus the emphasis at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University upon media studies, or the photo-ops of Muslim women whose veils betray just enough space to allow them to peer through microscopes.

The moral weightlessness of our age, the ethical neutrality of technology, the disenchantment with secular philosophies and disappointment in millenarian ideologies, the recoil from unbelievers and effort to salvage lapsed believers: these are some of the traits which are also found among Jewish fundamentalists. Their rejection of the Haskalah— the Jewish Enlightenment of the 19th century—is analogous to the denial of a reasonable and rational faith, one that seeks to assimilate or compromise with the civil society, among Muslims and Christian fundamentalists. Kepel surveys the haredim (literally “godfearers,” is the generic term for the various orthodox sects) in both the West and Israel. The author presents helpful summaries of the Hasidim, who represent a mystical and pietistic reaction to formal Judaism, and the Mitnaggedim, who tend to be more scholarly, though no less opposed to the legacy of the Haskalah. Whereas these communities were initially apolitical and devoted to re-Judaization “from below,” there is also the example of the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), which came to represent the same process “from above.”

Born in 1973 and the sobering aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, the Gush has sought “to supersede secular Zionism by substituting the Biblical concept of the Land of Israel (Eretz Israel) for the State of Israel.” Their worldview issued from the writings of Rabbis Avraham and Zvi Kook, the father and son who advocated a form of religious Zionism. Their position was somewhat peculiar: though repulsed by the irreligiosity of the Zionist movement, the rebbes held that Zionism nevertheless advanced the messianic redemption of the Jewish people. Voices in the wilderness for the first half of the century, the Kooks were “justified” by the Six Day War of 1967.As Kepel notes, their eschatology offered a framework for a “transcendent” interpretation of Israel’s victory and the enlargement of the borders to roughly those of ancient Israel. A full year before the war, Zvi Kook refered to these Biblical borders and declared “Every single inch, every square foot. . .belongs to the Land of Israel. Do we have the right to give up even one millimeter?”

For the Gush, the answer is obviously no. The settlement strategy of creating “facts on the ground” on the West Bank, their influence on the Likud governments and the role they have played in the pivotal National Religious Party are one side to the coin of re-Judaization “from above.” The other and nastier side has been embossed by the conspiracy to dynamite the mosques on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in 1984, the bombings of Arab busses and maiming of West Bank mayors, and, most recently, the unspeakable tragedy in Hebron, where a follower of the Gush Emunim murdered more than a score of Muslims. The apocalyptic enthusiasm of these Jewish terrorists, who were convinced that their act would hasten the messianic redemption of Israel, mirrored the mentality of the Muslim extremists who assassinated President Sadat of Egypt in 1981: both one and the other were trying to find the shortest path, regardless of the blood spilled and bodies mangled, back to god.

And so we lurch to the end of the millenium, our fratricidal tug-of-war reminiscent of Dr. Seuss’s creature, the Pushme-Pullme: part of us is pulling toward a hazy future, the other part of us is lunging to an idealized past. Kepel avoids any sweeping conclusions—the mark of a trustworthy guide.(Unhappily, his translator was less trustworthy. There are gratuitous references to French translations of American texts, such as a French edition of American Supreme Court decisions. The text is also larded with a number of franglisms: “baba cool,” “cadogan,” “Thirty Glorious Years.” Any American reader who has neither studied French nor modern France will find these terms opaque, as they will the occasional anglicism, such as “cockshy.” Yet other phrases, such as “whingeing,” “wrong-footed,” and the “Caudine Forks of politician’s politics” will, I think, prove indecipherable to English speakers on either side of the Atlantic. Let us hope that these errors are corrected in the second printing.) Yet, while reminding us of the significant differences between these movements, Kepel does insist upon a crucial parallel. They all seem to share a “logic of conflict,” one which pits men who prize the values of secular society against those who are haunted by god and “make the reaffirmation of their religious identity into the criterion of truths that are both exclusive of others and peculiar to themselves.” The ride to the millenium promises to be a rocky one.


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