- Religion and Politics in the Middle East: Identity, Ideology, Institutions, and Attitudes
Readers of Robert Lee’s new book should be drawn to his common-sense observation that “careful investigation of national histories show religion and politics intertwined in so many ways … that it is impossible to make any single judgment about the impact of religion on politics or the impact of politics on religion” (p. 44). They may wonder, then, why he devotes so much of the book to fitting what is a fluid and nuanced relationship into the straightjacket of deductive social science by framing “testable” hypotheses designed to illuminate the causal relationship between the two “variables.” Indeed, as Anne Norton cautions in her recent work on method in the study of politics, “the discourse of variables implicitly invests each variable with an abstract conceptual integrity and autonomy. The use of variables thus tends to diminish, where it does not foreclose, the recognition of causal reciprocities.”1 In other words, Lee’s ultimate argument that the relationship between religion and politics is mutually transformative, multidirectional, and highly contingent is undermined by the organization and structure of the book.
This may be because Lee is trying to meet his interlocutors on their own ground. The research tradition against which Lee is writing—Modernization theory, in general, and its secularization hypothesis more specifically—sets forth bold propositions about the relationship between religion, politics, and social change. Many of these propositions have not held up to empirical scrutiny, and much of Lee’s book is devoted to falsifying the hypotheses of his adversaries. [End Page 321] But falsification as a strategy misses the opportunity to tell a better story—to move beyond illustrations of what is not true or convincing, to what might be truer or more convincing. Alternatively, for many who see the study of politics as a science (which this reviewer surely does not), our knowledge of the world is seen to progress “by bold speculation followed by hard, conclusive refutations, followed again by still bolder, new, and at least at the start, unrefuted speculations.”2 It is in the still bolder speculations—not the falsification of hypotheses—where this book could be most compelling.
Lee’s ultimate thesis appears to be that “in the short run, religion may influence the course of political development, but in the long run the shape and character of religion in a single country seems to depend more on political events and decisions than the character of the political sphere depends on religion” (p. 11). By the end of the book, he has simplified this conclusion to hold that “politics comes to explain more about religion than religion can explain about the condition of politics …” (p. 269). However sympathetic the reader may be to this general claim, it suffers from some conceptual fuzziness, since the author never quite defines his terms. Religion and politics may seem like transparent terms in need of no clarification, but to evaluate claims about mechanisms, about how religion and politics shape or are shaped by one another, the reader needs to know more. In practical application, the case-study chapters—which are enjoyable to read and highly accessible—suggest that religion and politics can refer to ideas and ideologies (whether orthodox, heterodox, or syncretic), institutions (from agencies of the state and political parties, to charities and non-governmental organizations), and individual actors who embody specific interests (Kemal Ataturk, for example, or David Ben Gurion). This makes it particularly difficult to tease out the mechanisms at work in Lee’s account, or to understand with precision how an underspecified notion of politics shapes religion and vice versa.
If the causal relationship between this broad range of ideas, institutions, and practices is as he claims, with each functioning as both cause and effect at different times and under different conditions, one wonders whether the language of causality ought to be set aside in favor of telling...