Radical Religious Politics: The last Utopia
An essay to investigate a widely and wildly misunderstood phenomena.
In the New York Times Sunday magazine, Mark Lilla wrote, “Today we have progressed thus far that our problems today resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over conflicting revelations, dogmatic purity, and divine duty.” In Lilla’s view, it is impossible to give a simple answer to the question why religion has come to the political forefront so strongly. All attempts to understand Islamic political theology in particular have failed due to the global inability to understand the history and current affairs of Muslim countries and cultures. Lilla tries to gain insight by examining the separation of church and state in European history. To many readers in Western Europe or North-America a brief look at the early 1980s will do.
Maureen Carney inscribed my copy of To Be a Revolutionary: The Explosive Autobiography of an American Priest, Missing in Honduras (1985), “With deep respect for your humanitarian work. My brother would have certainly loved you.” Her brother was Father Jim Guadelupe Carney. On page 441, Father Carney’s “creed” reads, “We, in this modern era, will have to learn what genuine communism could have been—a genuine Christian society, the kingdom of God, which I have described so very often in this book. The Socialism that we long for is a necessary step on the way to this Christian communism. In the 20th century there is not a “third way” between being a Christian and a revolutionary. Being a Christian is being a revolutionary. Whoever is not a revolutionary, is not a Christian! Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam! To the greater glory of God!’
This American Jesuit’s language and ideas may sound utterly extraterrestrial 20 years later, but in the context of the Central American struggle in the late seventies and the early eighties of the previous century, they were quite common. Christians in both Americas and in Europe then connected radical convictions of faith to equally radical socialist ideas. All that radicality was translated into actions, quite often by taking up arms against the then intransigent dictatorships. Religious and political languages were joined together in some self-evident way in a discourse aimed at the overthrow of the existing — brutally unjust — order. The 1982 Good Friday brochure that was published in Antwerp read, “This is roughly speaking the political context Jesus stood up to: a society that allowed the inequality of property due to the inequality of income, and thus consolidated the class contrast between the have-nots (of both production and consumption of goods) and the haves and allowed it to increase.”
Rebellion and resurrection, liberation and salvation, seemed interchangeable to the radical Christians a quarter of a century ago. No one seemed shocked by the images that cameraman Jan Van Bilsen and journalist Dirk Vandersypen made of a Eucharist in Esteli, Nicaragua, in 1984. The celebration dealt with the topic of peace for Nicaragua and was presided over by the Flemish priest Ludo Vandevelde. The offerings on the altar not only included bread and wine, but also a Kalashnikov. Defending the Sandinista revolution then was a Christian duty. Whoever was not a revolutionary, could not be a Christian.
Fast forward to 2007. On www.salafitalk.net, a website trying to spread the strict interpretation of Islam in a non-violent way, Saudi Arabian Abdulilah Rabah Lahmami posted an old Arab proverb, “The oppressor can sleep, but the oppressed stays awake all night and calls for the One who never sleeps. The oppressed one hopes for the victory of God, whereas the oppressor fears judgment for his actions.” The style and contents of the message seem to have hardly changed in 25 years, but the origin of it has, and so has the Western audience’s reaction to the message. The Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad draws on the same language for spreading his messianic policy. In a letter to George W. Bush, Ahmedinejad wrote in 2007, “Whether we like it or not, the world is attracted in the direction of the Almighty and of justice, and God’s will shall overcome all things.”
Ahmedinejad is, just like the Al Qaeda ideologists, a blessing to all those who wish to portray — and thus get rid of— all politically engaged Muslims as dangerous lunatics who want to take the world back to the Middle Ages. By the way, that medieval image refers mainly to the situation in Europe slowly becoming Christian in the time before 1200, not to the Islamic world then, where science and world trade flourished for centuries.
To most people, Islamic political theology is limited to the bombers associating with Al Quaeda, but the spectrum is much broader. There are religious thinkers who want to get rid of the corrupt and unjust regimes in the Middle East. There are historical dogmatists who are convinced that the principles of a just Muslim state can be found in the experiences lived out in Medina, the historic utopia of a community organised by the Prophet himself and therefore necessarily conforming to his revelation. There are mystically inspired thinkers who wish to clearly separate political acts of Muslims from their religion, because their experience has taught them that the necessary impurity of politics is contagious to a religion identifying with it. There are social thinkers who find inspiration in the main values of their faith, for political practice—religiously motivated and formulated. Etcetera.
Most commentators seldom see the breadth of the spectrum, but even those who do, do not seem capable of understanding religious politics or political theology. They often believe the return of God to the global political forum is due to a backlash in social development (‘They are in urgent need of their Enlightenment’), or consider it in the best case a cry from the heart of the poor and hungry which will be gone as soon as those masses get their share of the prosperity that has fed secularisation in Europe. Exclusion plays a role, but there is more to it.
In a special report on faith and politics in 2007, The Economist says that the rise of political theology has to do with the fact that religions have arrived at a global market of ideas. “The more people choose their religion instead of inheriting it, the greater the likelihood that they will make a fuss about it.” That certainly holds true of the Evangelical Christians in the USA, but also of converted youngsters in Europe, two groups in the vanguard of religiously motivated politics today. Elsewhere in the world, religion that has not been inherited constitutes a shelter to millions of people seeking safety from the overwhelming forces of the economic world market. In both cases, common belief dominates individual identities, and believers do not perceive it as oppression but as a reinforcement of who they are. No wonder they also wish to express that self-chosen identity in the political forum, in political projects, and in utopias that only have a value if one tries hard to turn them into real revolutions.
The utopia contained in those religions, seems threatening to many Europeans as it is steeped in Islamic convictions and metaphor, and as it is being used as an instrument for the emancipation of the lower classes that do not have historical roots in Europe. When religious utopias adopted the form of an anti-Socialist mass movement or of Christian liberation theology later on, the reaction was much less panicky. Liberation theology rallied young highly educated believers from middle class circles in both Latin America and in Europe for revolutionary projects. That should teach people nowadays that better education, a more secure life, and genuine opportunities for participation in a representative democracy will not necessarily calm the rallying power of a political-religious utopia.
Most religious utopias are not striving for the dawn of social justice. The major part of religious politics of the 21st century is involved with personal morals, cherishing the sacred conviction that the world shall be saved when alcohol, betrayal, abortion, and homosexuality have been fully rooted out. Christian, Islamic and Jewish hardliners wholeheartedly agree on one issue: the battle for social salvation or liberation begins with the female sex. “The Islamists set their political project in Europe going by forcing women to veil themselves and by forbidding them to have male doctors treat them. They begin with an attack on women’s rights, because they know that authorities do not want to risk social unrest solely for the defence of women’s interests,” warns Algerian Marieme Helie Lucas at the Religion and Politics in the New Europe conference at the European Parliament in November 2007.
At the same conference MP Alexandra Coolen of the Flemish extreme right-wing party Vlaams Belang pleaded for her version of separation of church and state, which would be an authority intervening as little as possible in personal morals and choices of its citizens. That means, as she admitted during the break, that she actually opposes a ban on veils, whereas that ban had been voted for in the Ghent city council that very same day and has been propoted by her very own party. Women not only have a right to work and emancipation, but also to conservative choices, says Coolen. Her conservative party obviously does not think so where Muslims are concerned.
The spokesmen defending a neutral state almost get paralyzed when engaging in arguments where religious politics is narrowed down to personal morals or to external symbols. Etienne Vermeersch, philosopher and former professor at Ghent University, in the Flemish newspaper De Standaard, said, “Imagine that as a citizen your requests are constantly being turned down in public services, until someone wearing a veil helps you. Then you will be inclined to make a positive association between that person and Islam. In that way, religion is being spread through a public function. So the better Muslim women wearing a veil do their jobs, the more dangerous.”
Politics based on worldviews, especially in utopian form, requires a very delicate balance of power. The higher or divine ideal is hard to combine with human limitations, constraints, not to mention cynicism and stupidity. Vermeersch’s neutrality turns out to be extremely partial. George W. Bush implements Christian salvation by means of an imperialist occupation policy, and the Islamic longing for peace is warped by Jihadis into suicide attacks on unarmed citizens.
Admittedly, the comparison is a little unfair as far as Vermeersch is concerned, but his reasoning is equally shocking to Muslims. They refer to the same internal contradictions, but it is clear that political theologians are causing more damage nowadays than secular ideologists.
The damage is beginning to weigh on the home front of religious radicals. Most victims of Islamic violence are Muslims, especially if we include Iraq in our count. When thousands of body bags and mutilated soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan to the USA, that cannot but eat at the missionary conviction of American patriots. The isolation the theocrats have gotten Iran into has gradually become unbearable to the poor and pious Iranians in particular.
Yet the genie of religious politics will not easily be driven back into the oil lamp. As long as hundreds of millions of people are excluded from a decent human existence and as long as all ideologies that promise liberation only go on producing new elites, the political message from the house of prayer will remain an attractive alternative. Moreover—and this is extremely hard for European rationalists to understand—hundreds of millions of people consider their relation to transcendent reality as a fundamental characteristic of their human existence. We can try to deny or suppress that, but that is likely to result in an even stronger conviction, and an even greater distance from political institutions.
It may sound paradoxical to Europeans, but the best response to religious politics might well be creating more space for faith in public debate. It is quite strange that Christiandemocrats, of all parties, refuse to acknowledge that. In their hopeless fight to stop time and to please their anxious constituents, they let themselves be passed by the Greens and the Social Democrats in connecting to religious minorties and new believers. O tempora, o mores.