CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


organized by CESNUR, Center for Religious Studies and Research at Vilnius University, and New Religions Research and Information Center
Vilnius, Lithuania, April 9-12 2003  

Religion and Democracy After the Iraqi War

by Massimo Introvigne
Concluding Remarks at the Conference Banquet, CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania

imgAlthough we did not have papers directly addressing the war on Iraq at this conference, some general themes debated here may have a direct relevance to the task of assessing our roles as scholars of religion in a changed world, after 9/11 and the Iraqi War. Three methodological principles seem especially important.

Firstly, religion matters. We already believe it, or we wouldn’t attend this kind of conferences. However, even those of us less influenced by Marxism maintain somewhere in their mind an inclination to see things as Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) suggested in his 1878 Anti-Dühring: when confronted with an ostensibly religious phenomenon, look for the “real” economical or political causes behind the religious mask. Accordingly, we were told for decades that the First Crusade was caused by a demographic surplus among European aristocracy; that the Reformation was an urban struggle against the landed gentry; that the Great Awakenings were a protest againts the industrial revolution; and so on. Each of these theories has been disproved by historians. But we still have a tendency to look for the “real” economical motivations behind Islamic fundamentalists, or suicide bombers who claim to act because of religion. Of course, nobody would deny that sets of complicated events have a number of different causes. But religion matters, and most of the incidents which appears to be religious appear, in fact, when carefully examined, to be largely motivated by religion.

A second point is that we inhabit a different world with respect to when CESNUR conferences started in 1988. While natural scientists debate whether dogs see in black and white, or green and white, for several decades we saw geo-political events in red and white. It was comparatively easy to understand problems in faraway regions – or so we claimed. We all became instant amateur experts of, say, Nicaragua or Burkina Faso. It was enough to know who was supported by the U.S., and who by the Soviet Union. Based on our political preferences, we all had in our pockets our small flags “Better Dead than Red” or “Yankee Go Home”, ready for immediate use in case of conflict almost everywhere in the world. After 1989 and 1991, a wall also fell before our eyes, and we now see the world more or less as it is, with the one million plus colors promised by any self-respecting manufacturer of computer monitors. And many of these colors have a lot to do with religion.

Finally, fundamentalism seems to be the new thing to be concerned about. We hear less about sects and cults, and a lot more about fundamentalism. For many in the media, this is simply the new four-letter word (in fact, slightly longer) to replace “cults”. “Bad” religion, which used to be called “cultic”, is now labelled “fundamentalist”. In a TV talk show, I have heard even Scientology included under the new general derogatory buzzword “fundamentalism”. In this conference, we have heard that defining fundamentalism is an important, yet extremely difficult task, and that many of us disagree with the monumental Fundamentalism Project which in many ways defined the field in the 1990s. Certainly, some predictions in the last volume of The Fundamentalism Project, published in 1995 as Fundamentalisms Comprehended (edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press), announcing that fundamentalism was being increasingly marginalized, and retreating to cultural and political enclaves, already appear as prophecies that failed, after less than ten years. On the other hand, the task of defining fundamentalism remains with us. Social scientists may perhaps return to truly fundamental issues about the relationship between religion and culture, something quite larger than the mere relationship between religion and politics. Fundamentalism, thus, appears as the attempt to derive culture, and politics, from religion without mediation, often regarding any cultural mediation as blasphemous. At the other extreme of the spectrum, secularism is the attempt to erect a wall of separation between religion and culture, so impenetrable that bringing unashamedly religious values to the cultural and political arena is effectively prevented. Somewhere in the middle, there is something that has been called “secularity without secularism”, and occasionally simply democracy (languages other than English at times offer a wider variety of options). It calls for a distinction (rather than a separation) between religion and culture, which would not prevent religious organizations and individuals to bring their explicitly religious ideas to the free market of culture and politics, while acknowledging that this market has to remain independent of any centralized control, including controls exerted in the name of religion, as a pre-condition for remaining free. These are, of course, Weberian idealtypes, occasionally quite difficult to apply. Discussing this kind of concepts is, however, crucial, in a world where “fundamentalisms” are increasingly important in world politics as much as they are in the academic study of religion.

Excellent papers in this conference have applied these principles to Islam, and I would not attempt to summarize them. Let me simply repeat that not all Moslems are fundamentalists (although fundamentalism is an important mass movement within Islam), and not all Moslem fundamentalists are terrorists: many fundamentalists pursue their aims through peaceful means, although some don’t. From the fundamentalist idealtype, Gordon Melton’s paper on al-Qa’ida in this conference led us to Islamic fundamentalism, as a moden movement dating back to the foundation of the Moslem Brotherhood in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949) in Egypt and of the Jama’at at-i Islami in 1941 by Sayyid Abul Al’a Maududi (1903-1979) in the Indian subcontinent. It is also important to identify who is not a fundamentalist in the Islamic world. Fundamentalism itself (as Johanna Pink reminded us in one of the sessions’ discussions) was shaped by opposition to it by a centralized, secular state, in Egypt and elsewhere. Nationalism, whether in the shape of Nasserism, Baathism, or Marxism, was often the anti-fundamentalist framework for promoting secularism in many countries with a Moslem majority. Finally, the third position – a democratic secularity without secularism – encounters peculiar difficulties when it tries to emerge within Islam, but is not unknown: Julia Howell mentioned several contemporary Indonesian thinkers and reformist movements which are interesting in this respect, and one may also add (without jumping too rapidly to conclusions in their respect) the debates originated by the work of authors such as Rachid Gannouchi or Tariq Ramadan.

Would all this offer a template to interpret what Pierre-Jean Luizard has called the Iraqi question, a question obviously pre-dating Saddam Hussein? Perhaps yes. Religion, as Luizard reminds us in his books, is a very important component of the Iraqi question. For Sunni Moslems, present-day Iraq was where the Caliphate was for several centuries. Shi’a Islam originated in Iraq, and all its four original sacred cities (Karbala, Najaf, Kazimayn and Samarra) are within the borders of the present Iraqi state. Well before Sunni fundamentalism was organized as an international movements, Shi’a clerics launched in the early 1920s what authors in the Fundamentalism Project called “clerical fundamentalism”. Khomeinism was originally elaborated by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1901-1989) in Najaf, Iraq, a sacred city regarded by many as the “Holy See” of Shi’ite Islam. Because Shi’ites were regarded as “fundamentalists” even before the word existed, the British (continuing in turn an Ottoman policy) created modern Iraq as a state with a Shi’ite majority run by a Sunni elite. The fundamentalism/nationalism template helps interpreting what happened next. On July 14, 1958 (not coincidentially, on the anniversary day of the French Revolution) a coalition of secularist forces overturned the Iraqi monarchy, killed King Feisal II (1935-1958) and his family, and created a secular regime. In subsequent coups, the Baath party (the quintessential secularist party in the Arab world) eliminated its partners in the coalition, until in 1968 a faction of that party under General Ahmed Hassan al-Baqr (1914-1982) seized the power. Al-Baqr was the cousin of Saddam Hussein’s mother, and Saddam quickly emerged as the real power behind the newly installed president. Again not coincidentially, Saddam liquidated al-Bar and formally became president in 1979, a few weeks after the Khomeinist revolution in Iran. Almost immediately, Saddam launched a bloody war against Iran, coupled with severe persecution of the Shi’ite majority within Iraqi borders.

In fact, Saddam was both supported and applauded by the West. He ruled and made war with the help of German chemical know-how, French key atomic and oil technology and components, Italian financial assistance, and a general blessing by the U.S. Making money in Iraq was surely part of the deal, but Saddam was supported because he proclaimed himself the champion of secular values in the region, and the only man capable of stopping the export of Iranian fundamentalism abroad (only after the Gulf War, Saddam would try to mobilize Islamic jihadist resources, but that would happen much later). Support to Saddam in the 1980s is an egregious example of what I have called elsewhere “Voltaire’s syndrome”, the Western idea that in the non-Western world the worst secular leader is at least preferable to the best “fundamentalist” politician. The West has consistently supported for decades ruthless and torture-happy regimes in several countries, from Algeria to Indonesia, as long as they were believed to be the only secular alternative to the rise of “fundamentalism”. Voltaire’s syndrome is more than policy; it is a state of mind. We often read in the Western media that problems in the Islamic world would quickly be solved if only somebody would do to Islam what was once done to Christianity, by introducing secular education in public schools and “debunking” the Quran in the way Enlightenment and rationalist criticism “debunked” the Bible. My immediate reaction to this theory is: being there, done that. This strategy has been tried in Turkey by almost eighty years of secularist rule. The result has been that, as soon as the local military stopped interfering (an euphemism) with the electoral process, “fundamentalist” religious parties won the crucial 2002 elections. The same strategy was tried in Iran by the last Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1919-1980). There, again, as soon as the U.S. intelligence looked the other way, the 1979 Khomeinist revolution happened. Secular education had simply failed to produce secular citizens.

Of course, I am not advocating the opposed fallacy, a sort of “inter-religious dialogue syndrome” where every leader of a religious party or movement in the Islamic world, even with known terrorist connections or sympathies, would be regarded as better by definition than its secular counterparts. This is occasionally happening, and it is not less dangerous than Voltaire’s syndrome. Acknowledging the risks of Voltaire’s syndrome, on the other hand, calls the West to recognize that in several countries secularists make wonderful participants to international cultural or political conferences abroad, but have no real following at home, and can only rule through the power of tanks and guns. One thing secularists excel in doing is entertaining a confusion between fundamentalism and a democratic “secularity without secularism”. Religiously motivated political leaders and movements who advocate a role for religion in public life in the Islamic world, yet are not fundamentalist and certainly not terrorist, are indispensable partners for any meaningful effort aimed at a peaceful solution of more than one post-Cold War international crisis. Limiting Western strategies to looking for palatable secularists is no longer good enough.

After September 11 and the Iraqi war, two previously neglected categories had their field day in TV talk shows: retired generals and scholars of religion. While retired generals may possibly go home, without being too much regretted, with the end of the Iraqi war, scholars of religion may try to remain relevant. As scholars of religious movements, we have an exciting future, mapping religious movements (some of them, in fact, “new”) within Islam or Hinduism in the same way as we mapped religious movements within Christianity, or in the Western world. As we achieved some success in persuading some governments that “cult” is a tricky word, and not all groups labelled “cults” are criminal, we may now start a similar work in deconstructing the category of “fundamentalism”, urge caution in the use of the label, and explain that not all movements calling for a political role of religion are “fundamentalist”, and that not all “fundamentalists” are terrorists – although some are. Perhaps we can even go back, showing that the cavalier use of “fundamentalist” has a lot in common with the previous cavalier use of “cult”. We will not be popular in all quarters, but then we never were. We will however help, not necessarily to answer all the global political and religious questions about “fundamentalism”, but at the very least to formulate them.

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