restricted access Breakthroughs in Faith
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Breakthroughs in Faith
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Ferdinand Reus

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. [End Page 7] 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)?

Religion, Culture, Territory

In reality, there is no "return of the sacred." What we're seeing now is the [End Page 8] 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...