Breakthroughs in Faith

From the Winter 2011/2012 Faith issue

By Olivier Roy

FLORENCE—Faith made a sudden breakthrough into contemporary global politics with the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. From the Taliban to al-Qaida, the following three decades have been full of international tensions where faith was a leading factor, but this unease has by no means been restricted to the Muslim world. The Catholic Church found a new visibility under the leadership of John Paul II, shaking the communist grasp on Eastern Europe. Millions of converts from Catholicism to Protestantism are reshaping domestic politics in Brazil and other Latin America countries.

Conversions from Islam to Christianity have created diplomatic hurdles in Malaysia and Afghanistan, while foreign missionary activities came under state scrutiny in India, Russia, and France. The Falun Gong sect waged an international campaign to pressure the Chinese government to remove a ban on the group. The affairs of Salman Rushdie and the Danish cartoons seemed to pit the Muslim world against the West, while the rise of Islam in Europe has raised anxieties in the United States and Israel, with the spectre of a looming Eurabia haunting urban neighborhoods and diplomatic corridors alike.

Nevertheless this recent awareness of a “return of the sacred” has been expressed in a fashion that misses the religious factor at the core. The dominant explanations are based on the clash or dialogue of civilizations theory. And even if the proponents of the clash theory feud with supporters of the dialogue, both share the same premises. Religion and culture are intimately intertwined, they are territorialized (Poland is Catholic, Middle East is Muslim, America is Christian), and that is what we call a civilization.

So religion is understood in terms of transmitted identity, rather than a chosen faith. This has important consequences today. The “clashists” think immigrants bring their pristine culture to host-countries (with which they inevitably clash). On the other side, “dialoguists” engage with foreign governments, traditional religious leaders, and established churches to build an “intercultural” or “interfaith” dialogue to solve rising tensions, overlooking the growing gap between grassroots believers and official religious establishments.

This prejudice has had direct strategic consequences. The reaction of the West after 9/11 was typically based on this clash of civilization analysis. Al-Qaida was widely seen as a typical Middle Eastern organization, fighting to free the Arab soil of foreign influence. As a result, the war on terrorism was primarily dedicated to reshaping the Middle East. The debate among Western governments was not on the Arab nature of radicalism but on the strategic priorities. Should the focus be on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, seen as the main cause of Muslim wrath, or should all so-called radical elements (Hamas, Hezbollah) be targeted while trying to foster regime changes, beginning with Iraq in 2003? The West ignored the fact that al-Qaida was a global organization with only the shallowest social roots inside the Arab societies. Most European countries preferred to support existing dictatorships, convinced that such regimes were the only bulwark against Islamism, showing a profound contempt for the ability of Muslim societies to adopt democratic institutions.

After the Arab Spring, both sides of this debate were baffled. Arab youths called for democracy without bothering to answer the obsessive question asked by the West—is Islam compatible with democracy (or secularism, or human rights, or women’s rights, or even modernity)?


In reality, there is no “return of the sacred.” What we’re seeing now is the emergence of new forms of religiosity that have transformed the links between religion, culture, and territory. The religious movements that are shaking the world order are not traditional, culturally rooted religions. Instead, they are more recent forms of religious revivals. Evangelicals are descendants of the Awakening movements that surged in the 18th century, and Muslim Salafis are heirs of the Wahhabi reform movement that arose in the same century (which also saw the birth of Jewish ultra-Orthodox Haredi movements). So when secularization became the leading motto of the march towards modernity, many religious movements isolated themselves from the dominant cultures, perceived as having turned secular, if not outright pagan.

Fundamentalism is not the expression of traditional societies and cultures threatened by modernity. On the contrary, it is a product of the secularization of societies. By opposing the rising secular culture, fundamentalists distance themselves from the dominant culture and recast themselves as representatives of “pure” religion, claiming a return to the “fundamentals” sidelined by secularization. Conversely, many secular societies have lost the cultural knowledge of their religious roots. How many secular Europeans could define the Holy Trinity? Believers and secularists alike are losing their common culture. And the more visible and vocal fundamentalists are, the less they represent the society where their movement began.

Salafis as well as born again Protestants and the Jewish ultra-orthodox don’t believe they share any form of common culture with the “secular” people of their own community. Increasingly, they’re introducing new boundaries inside their societies. In the past, personal faith was not an issue as long as true believers, occasional church-goers, and even non-believers shared a set of values (on family and gender issues for instance). In recent years a “culture war” has erupted in many Western societies, Turkey, and the Middle East.

One central consequence of the Arab Spring could be the outbreak of “culture wars,” pitting the faith of true believers against their secularized (but not necessarily atheist) compatriots.

Even the Catholic Church, which has historically insisted on the link between culture and faith, is closing its doors to the occasional church-goers and is increasingly isolating itself even in countries where it was an intimate part of the national culture. The Irish government sent a strong rebuke to the Catholic Church in July 2011 after a report accused the Vatican of failing to report instances of sexual abuse. Amid the furor, the Vatican even recalled the Apostolic Nuncio from Ireland. Obviously the strong connection between Irish nationalism and Catholicism is in jeopardy. Hundreds of thousands of Germans and Austrians are leaving the church or calling it to return to the spirit of Vatican II, which means a greater opening to secular views, to other faiths, and to non-believers. The church’s growing isolation has led to an ideological hardening that influences both domestic and international politics.

Paradoxically, this de-culturation effect is even visible in countries where religion serves as a tool to construct a national identity. The Hinduism promoted by the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party has little to do with the complexity and variety of traditional Hinduism. By trying to homogenize the religion, nationalists have set up Hinduism as a “modern religion,” largely alien to traditions. Nationalists have accentuated the split with India’s other religious groups.

Because the new religious movements are not associated, or don’t appear to be associated with a given culture, they are also able to spread to many different societies. Evangelical protestants have engulfed Brazil. In Egypt, Salafism is challenging more culturally embedded forms of Islam, like Sufism. There is now a small but thriving Protestant evangelical church in Algeria and Morocco, comprised of converts from Islam.

“Imported” religions are also experiencing de-culturation. Islam has been rooted in Europe for decades through a huge wave of labor immigration. But the new generation of Muslims in Europe is experiencing a religious revival that seeks to reconcile its faith and values with western markers (halal fast-food or veiled executive women).

Indeed, the religious marker is floating, and there is no intrinsic link between it and the new cultural artifact or practice. So born again Muslims are often eager to exhibit religious symbols, while conforming to other patterns of a western way of life—a combination that stirs the most hostile reactions. In France, nobody objects to traditional ethnic Arab restaurants showing a certificate of halal food, but the popular Quick fast food chain caused a public uproar when it opted to serve exclusively halal meat.

Conversions also play a big role in delinking religious and cultural identities. Hundreds of thousands of Spanish-speaking migrants from Latin America converted to evangelical Christianity in Spain between 1992 and 2008. Converts and born-agains are more prone to push for the recognition of their religious identities in the public sphere than traditional believers, who are often happy to stick with the compromise built through history between state, church, and society.

New religious movements have spread globally (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, the Gülen movement out of Turkey via Pennsylvania).
The Catholic Church has been influenced by charismatic forms of religiosity, including Opus Dei, Legion of Christ, and even lay transnational movements like the Focolare, founded in Italy in 1943. Such non-territorial fraternities mainly recruit among lay believers rather than through clerical proselytizing. At the same time, Catholicism has stagnated as Pope John Paul II and later Benedict XVI began emphasizing the “Christian roots of the European culture.” Priests from Africa or Latin America are replacing the disappearing European priests in empty churches. While the new populist movements in Western Europe stress the Christian identity of Europe, it is an identity totally disconnected from faith, especially since their members seldom go to church. They stress belonging, not believing.
The gap between faith and identity is growing, not narrowing, even among populist movements.

The consequence is that religious movements are becoming international actors. This is nothing new for the Catholic Church. But we are confronted now with such international religious networks as the Deobandi Islamic networks, the Salafis, even a church as American as the Mormon Church is going resolutely global (while exporting barbecues, suits and ties, and English as the language of worship). The Catholic Church and the Muslim League push for changes in legislation (opposition to same-sex marriages and abortion) and for legal censorship of attacks against religions. The nexus of religion and politics continues to blur as religious networks go global.

Indeed, there is now a global market in faith, where individuals can shop around as never before for the doctrine most attractive to them. The Internet, the circulation of missionaries, travel, migrations, use of English, the homogenization of rituals and practices, as well as secularization have allowed better accessibility to previously exotic or foreign religions. But why should people change their religious affiliation?

This is connected with the spread of new forms of religiosity. Faith is now a personal choice and an experience. A newly veiled Muslim student in France can claim, “My body is my business,” using the idiom of Western feminism. Whatever rivalries and tensions between religions, they attract followers by offering the same products—realization of the self, individual faith, happiness, clear values and norms, and the warmth of a brotherly community. In fact, sharing the same religiosity may intensify competition between faiths while also pushing them to unite in confronting the secular society, as shown by the religious coalition opposing the legalization of same-sex marriage in California.

Secularization is no more a prerequisite for democracy than a “reformation” of Islam is a condition for rooting democracy in the Middle East. Fundamentalism and individualization can go together, which explains why a democratic movement can surge amid a wave of “re-Islamization” in Arab societies. It is the new primacy of the individual, not a liberal theological reformation that allows the new generation to combine faith and democracy. After this wave of re-Islamization, no institution or ideological movement has the monopoly on the religious reference. Today, both Egypt’s al-Azhar University, which dates to 970 A.D., as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, are powerful religious actors, but they are challenged by a considerable number of self-made preachers.

Of course, clerical leaders, even if they welcome the religious revival, may worry about its impact on their ability to monopolize the religious field. This reality alone helps explain why the leadership of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood may be more tempted to join a conservative alliance (with the army for instance) than to embrace the democratic wave. The Brotherhood’s leadership welcomes multipartism, a secular constitution, and state of law, but balks at absolute freedom of expression and does not accept the concept of a secular society. It wants to maintain Islam as a central reference. So the debate will sooner or later pivot around family law and the definitions of religious freedom, apostasy, and blasphemy. The Brotherhood’s leadership may be tempted to ally with other conservative forces, like the army or the business elite, which may have reasons to avoid democratization—maintaining their hold on power, or preventing labor conflicts.

But the ultimate risk is a generational schism, as is clearly happening in Iran. There, the close association between religion and a dictatorial regime has led to an in-depth secularization process among the new generations, who now associate (as was made clear in the suppressed demonstrations in summer 2009) secularization with democracy.


This whole process of individualization combined with de-culturation has another unexpected consequence—the concept of religious freedom as an individual human right, and not as the right of a minority in a specific historical or even national context. Freedom of religion as a human right has become a binding requirement across boundaries and regions, enhanced by UN institutions, international courts, and some nations. This pan-national concept has been pushed with particular vigor by the United States.

At the same time, the enhancement of religious freedom can ignore, bypass, or contradict national laws and practices, destabilize existing compromises between states and churches, and give a new public visibility to religion. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the State Department have pressed European countries to recognize the Church of Scientology as a religious denomination. The European Court of Human Rights ruled against the compulsory display of the crucifix in Italian classrooms—a decision reversed on appeal. And the EU commission has told Greece to drop the mention of religion on ID cards. These and a host of other initiatives risk altering the traditional balance and consensus on the place of religion in the public sphere, which differs dramatically across boundaries, cultures, and societies. Domestic courts tend, and are often bound, to apply these new international standards to redefine what a religion is supposed to be. These standards led to the granting of tax-exempt status to Jehovah’s Witnesses in France and a British appellate court refusing to recognize a Jewish believer by considering his mother’s religion.

Another issue will be the redefinition of religious freedom in the wake of the democratization movement in the Middle East, less in terms of protecting religious—especially Christian—minorities than in dropping the crime of leaving Islam for another religion. Acknowledging the freedom to convert is congruent with the democratic process and has been condoned by some Muslim political leaders, such as the dissident Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader, Abdel Moneim Abou el Fotouh, who declared last May, “Nobody should interfere if a Christian decides to convert to Islam or a Muslim decides to leave Islam and become Christian.”

Many states, including Russia, India, Iran, and China, are resisting consequences of the globalization, de-culturation, and individualization of religions, which have already had destabilizing effects both in domestic and international politics. Russia has listed “national religions” that are recognized by the state, while newcomers like the evangelicals are either banned or restricted. China wants to organize a “national Catholic Church” and persecute bishops appointed by the Vatican. Many states in India have laws restricting proselytizing, largely by Christians, and Iran forbids any conversions from Islam. But in all these countries, conversions are spreading, and new religious movements are flourishing.

Instead of focusing on an elusive clash or dialogue of civilizations, it is time to take religions seriously for what they are and not for what we think they might be or should be. Religions that are successful in the traditional sense of winning converts are necessarily transnational. Trying to keep them in a national box does not make sense. The reservoir for Catholic or Anglican priests is drawn increasingly from former colonial dominions, which makes any exclusive association between Europe and Christianity less obvious. Dealing with Muslim migrants through the lens of multiculturalism is also increasingly irrelevant. The second generation of émigrés doesn’t want to be associated with a pristine culture, they want religion in a modern context.

Freedom of religion should be understood in terms of individual human rights, not minority rights. This is increasingly true in the Middle East after the Arab Spring. Democratization supposes the individualization of the faith, the separation of religious institutions from the state, and the end of any monopoly given to such institutions. It does not make sense to demand religious liberalism or theological reform or a preliminary secularization as a requirement for making religion compatible with democracy. It suffices to acknowledge that the issue for born again believers and converts is individual faith, not cultural identity or belonging. In this sense there is no essential contradiction between religious revivalism and democratization.



Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute (Florence) and head of the ReligioWest research project, is the author most recently of Holy Ignorance (Columbia University Press, 2010).

[Photo: Ferdinand Reus]

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