The Paradox of Fundamentalism – The Washington Post

The rise of religious fundamentalism and ultra-orthodoxy has taken much of the West by surprise. But the shock is not limited to the world’s wealthy democracies.

For most of the 20th century, secular and generally left-wing proponents of national liberation in the Third World fought two battles: against Western colonialism and against what they saw as “backward” and “passive” religious traditionalists. among their own people.

Suddenly these so-called backward believers are no longer passive. They fight to reimpose the beliefs of their ancestors. And in its most extreme forms, religious repression is truly frightening. That the Islamic State is, in some respects, even more extreme than Al-Qaeda justifies our concern.

Ultra-Orthodoxy in milder forms is also on the rise in democratic countries with long traditions of religious tolerance. Marx derided religion as an opiate destined to disappear. What has happened to make faith one of the most dynamic forces in the world?

The political philosopher Michael Walzer spent an exemplary life struggling with the intellectual mysteries at the crossroads of modernity, religion, democracy and justice. His latest book,The paradox of liberation: secular revolutions and religious counter-revolutionsexamines the history and trajectory of national liberation movements in Israel, India and Algeria. It could hardly be better timed. He asks why secular revolutionaries, far from marginalizing religion in the private sphere through what they saw as “awareness,” actually produced a backlash, calling for often radical forms of religious affirmation.

National liberation, he writes, “is a secularizing, modernizing and developmental credo.” Its champions seek not only to liberate their countries from colonization, but also to liberate their own people from what they see as the burden of ancient religious understandings.

People don’t always want to go there. “Raising consciousness is a persuasive undertaking,” writes Walzer, “but it quickly turns into a culture war between the liberators and what we can call the traditionalists.”

Many of those who rose up against colonial rule were themselves shaped by ideas first propagated in the lands of their colonial masters – France in the case of Algeria, Britain in India and Israel. . The new rulers were both opposed to Western imperialism and fervent Westernists within their own societies.

“I am the last Englishman to reign in India,” Jawaharlal Nehru, the father of Indian independence, told John Kenneth Galbraith, the American ambassador to India in the Kennedy years. Indeed, Nehru was a product of some of Britain’s finest upper-class institutions – the Harrow School; Trinity College, Cambridge; and the Inns of Court.

Thus, while secularizing leaders were generally left-leaning and saw themselves as egalitarian, they were often viewed by the traditionalist and religious masses as elitists. The religious revivals that followed independence, Walzer writes, “were fueled by the resentment that ordinary people, pursuing their customary ways, felt towards these secularizing and modernizing elites, with their foreign ideas, condescending attitudes and grand schemes. “.

One of the many virtues of Walzer’s subtlety is that it helps us understand that while the ideologies of today’s fundamentalists and ultra-Orthodox are rooted in ancient or medieval ideas, these movements are, d in a particular way, resolutely modern. Their resistance to secularization “quickly becomes ideological and therefore also new: fundamentalism and ultra-Orthodoxy are both modernist reactions to attempts at modernist transformation”.

Reactionary religious politics was, in part, a response to the governing failures of secular ideologues who had been inspired by various forms of nationalism and socialism. But even where secularists have succeeded in building working societies (Israel and India), their ideologies lacked the deep cultural roots capable of inspiring the same level of loyalty that religious commitments can command. So over time, Walzer writes, young people “have drifted away, heading for the excitements of global pop culture or the fervor of religious revival.”

Walzer is too good a philosopher to write a simple manual of liberal renewal. Instead, he outlines a useful long-term project: Liberationists should continue to press for religious reform, but they must also reform themselves by seriously engaging with the religious traditions of the people they propose. to release.

This means challenging religious reactionaries for their support of various forms of oppression, including the subjugation of women, and maintaining a strong defense of democracy and freedom of expression. But it also means engaging traditions from within, acknowledging their contributions, and ending the cycle of pure acceptance or pure rejection of religious vision.

In combating extreme religious orthodoxy, liberal secularists will do better if they adopt a certain distrust of their own orthodoxies.

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