The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State


Will the religious confrontations with secular authorities around the world lead to a new Cold War? Mark Juergensmeyer paints a provocative picture of the new religious revolutionaries altering the political landscape in the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. Impassioned Muslim leaders in Egypt, Palestine, and Algeria, political rabbis in Israel, militant Sikhs in India, and triumphant Catholic clergy in Eastern Europe are all players in Juergensmeyer's study of the explosive growth of ...
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Will the religious confrontations with secular authorities around the world lead to a new Cold War? Mark Juergensmeyer paints a provocative picture of the new religious revolutionaries altering the political landscape in the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. Impassioned Muslim leaders in Egypt, Palestine, and Algeria, political rabbis in Israel, militant Sikhs in India, and triumphant Catholic clergy in Eastern Europe are all players in Juergensmeyer's study of the explosive growth of religious movements that decisively reject Western ideas of secular nationalism. Juergensmeyer revises our notions of religious revolutions. Instead of viewing religious nationalists as wild-eyed, anti-American fanatics, he reveals them as modern activists pursuing a legitimate form of politics. He explores the positive role religion can play in the political life of modern nations, even while acknowledging some religious nationalists' proclivity to violence and disregard of Western notions of human rights. Finally, he situates the growth of religious nationalism in the context of the political malaise of the modern West. Noting that the synthesis of traditional religion and secular nationalism yields a religious version of the modern nation-state, Juergensmeyer claims that such a political entity could conceivably embrace democratic values and human rights.

Author Biography: Mark Juergensmeyer is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the editor of Violence and the Sacred in the Modern World (1992) and the author of Radhasoami Reality: The Logic of a Modern Faith (1991) among other books.

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Mark Juergensmeyer is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the editor of Violence and the Sacred in the Modern World (1992) and the author of Radhasoami Reality: The Logic of a Modern Faith (1991) among other books.

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New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts Secular State

By Mark Juergensmeyer

University of California Press

Copyright © 1994 Mark Juergensmeyer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520086517

The Loss of Faith in Secular Nationalism

In the celebrations following the first stages of elections that threatened to bring Islamic nationalists to power in Algeria early in 1992, a jubilant supporter of the Islamic Front spied a foreigner on the streets of Algiers and grabbed her by the arm. "Please give my condolences to President Mitterrand," the Algerian said.1

Quoted in Kim Murphy, "Islamic Party Wins Power in Algeria," Los Angeles Times, December 28, 1991, p. A1. In February 1992, after the Islamic Party was crushed, an underground movement called The Faithful to the Promise vowed a jihad against the government that would be "in continuation" of Algeria's 1954 war for independence from France. Kim Murphy, "Algeria Cracks Down, Targets Islamic Front," Los Angeles Times, February 10, 1992, p. A10.

    Behind this amusing bit of sarcasm is an impression shared by many Muslims in Algeria: that the ruling party, the National Front, which came to power in the war of independence with France and which controlled the country afterward, is, in a cultural sense, an extension of French colonial rule. The independent Algeria that proudly came into being in 1962 has come to be seen as a vestige ofthe colonial past that is itself in need of liberation.

In the 1950s and 60s, when Algeria and many other former colonies in the Third World received their political independence, it was popular for Europeans and Americans to write with an almost religious fervor about the spread of nationalism throughout the world. Their zeal, however, was invariably for something secular: the emergence of new nations that elicited loyalties forged entirely from a sense of secular citizenship. These secular-nationalist loyalties were based on the idea that the legitimacy of the state was rooted in the will of the people, divorced from any religious sanction.

The secular nationalism of the day was defined also by what it was not: it was not one of the old ethnic and religious identities that had made nations parochial and quarrelsome in the past. For that reason, scholars viewed the spread of nationalism in a hopeful,almost eschatological, light: it was ushering in a new future. It meant, in essence, the emergence of mini-Americas all over the world.

Hans Kohn, his generation's best-known historian of nationalism, observed in 1955 that the twentieth century was unique: "It is the first period in history in which the whole of mankind has accepted one and the same political attitude, that of nationalism."2

Hans Kohn, Nationalism: Its Meaning and History (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1955), 89.

    In his telling, the concept had its origins in antiquity. It was presaged by ancient Hebrews and fully enunciated by ancient Greeks. Inexplicably, however, the concept stagnated for almost 2,000 years, in Kohn's account, until suddenly it took off in earnest in the seventeenth century in England, "the first modern nation."3

Ibid., 16.

    Today, he cheerfully observed, the whole world has responded to "the awakening of nationalism and liberty."4



Not only Western academics but a good number of new leaders—especially those in the emerging nations created out of former colonial empires—were swept up by the vision of a world of free and equal secular nations. The concept of secular nationalism gave them an ideological justification for being, and the electorate that subscribed to it provided them power bases from which they could vault into positions of leadership ahead of traditional ethnic and religious leaders. But secularism was more than just a political issue, it was also a matter of personal identity. A new kind of person had come into existence—the "Indian nationalist" or "Ceylonese nationalist" who possessed an abiding faith in a secular nationalism identified with his or her homeland. Perhaps none exemplified this new spirit more than Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Jawaharlal Nehru of India. According to Nehru, "there is no going back" to a past full of religious identities, for the modern, secular "spirit of the age" will inevitably triumph throughout the world.5

Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (New York: John Day, 1946), 531-32.


Donald Smith has written poignantly of the followers of Nehru after India's independence: "The Indian nationalist felt compelled to assert that India was a nation," even though there were some "embarrassing facts"—such as divisive regional and religious loyalties—that had to be glossed over.6

Donald Eugene Smith, India as a Secular State (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963), 140.

    The reason for this compulsion, according to Smith, was that such people could not think of themselves as modern persons without a national identity. "In the modern world," writes Smith, "nationality and nationalism were the basic premises of political life, and it seemed absolutely improper for India to be

without a nationality."7

Ibid., 141. Italics in the original.

    A similar attitude predominated in many other new nations, at least at the beginning.

Leaders of minority religious communities—such as Hindu Tamils in Ceylon and Coptic Christians in Egypt—seemed especially eager to embrace secular nationalism because a secular nation-state would assure that the public life of the country would not be dominated completely by the majority religious community. In India, where the Congress Party became the standard bearer of Nehru's vision, the party's most reliable supporters were those at the margins of Hindu society—untouchables and Muslims—who had the most to fear from an intolerant religious majority.

The main carriers of the banner of secular nationalism in these newly independent countries, however, were not members of any religious community at all, at least in a traditional sense. Rather, they were members of the urban educated elite. For many of them, embracing a secular form of nationalism was a way of promoting its major premise—the separation of religion and politics—and thereby avoiding the obstacles that religious loyalties create for a country's political goals. By implication, political power based on religious values and traditional communities held no sway.

The problem, however, was that in asserting that the nationalism of their country was secular, the new nationalists had to have faith in a secular culture that was at least as compelling as a sacred one. That meant, on a social level, thinking that secular nationalism could triumph over religion. It could also mean making secular nationalism a suprareligion of its own, which a society could aspire to beyond any single religious allegiance. In India, for example, political identity based on religious affiliation was termed communalism . In the view of Nehru and other secular nationalists, religion was the chief competitor of an even higher object of loyalty: secular India. Nehru implored his countrymen to get rid of what he called "that narrowing religious outlook" and to adopt a modern, nationalist viewpoint.8

Nehru, Discovery of India, 531.


The secular nationalists' attempts to give their ideologies an antireligious or a suprareligious force were encouraged, perhaps unwittingly, by their Western mentors. The words used to define nationalism by Western political leaders and such scholars as Kohn always implied not only that it was secular but that it was competitive with religion and ultimately superior to it. "Nationalism [bywhich, of course, he meant secular nationalism] is a state of mind," Kohn wrote, "in which the supreme loyalty of the individual is felt to be due the nation-state."9

Kohn, Nationalism, 9. My italics.

    And he boldly asserted that secular nationalism had replaced religion in its influence: "An understanding of nationalism and its implications for modern history and for our time appears as fundamental today as an understanding of religion would have been for thirteenth century Christendom."10

Kohn, Nationalism, 4.


Rupert Emerson's influential From Empire to Nation , written several years later, shared the same exciting vision of a secular nationalism that "sweeps out [from Europe] to embrace the whole wide world."11

Rupert Emerson, From Empire to Nation: The Rise to Self-Assertion of Asian and African Peoples (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), 158.

    Emerson acknowledged, however, that although in the European experience "the rise of nationalism [again, secular nationalism] coincided with a decline in the hold of religion," in other parts of the world, such as Asia, as secular nationalism "moved on" and enveloped these regions, "the religious issue pressed more clearly to the fore again."12


    Nonetheless, he anticipated that the "religious issue" would never again impede the progress of secular nationalism, which he saw as the West's gift to the world. The fact that in some instances this gift had been forced on the new nations without their asking was noted by Emerson, who acknowledged that "the rise of nationalism among non-European peoples" was a consequence of "the imperial spread of Western European civilization over the face of the earth." The outcome, in his view, was nonetheless laudable: "With revolutionary dynamism … civilization has thrust elements of essential identity on peoples everywhere. … The global impact of the West has … run common threads through the variegated social fabrics of mankind, … [and it] has scored an extraordinary triumph."13

Ibid., vii.


When Kohn and Emerson used the term nationalism they had in mind not just a secular political ideology and a religiously neutral national identity but a particular form of political organization: the modern European and American nation-state. In such an organization individuals are linked to a centralized, all-embracing democratic political system that is unaffected by any other affiliations, be they ethnic, cultural, or religious. That linkage is sealed by an emotional sense of identification with a geographical area and a loyalty to a particular people, an identity that is part of the feeling of nationalism. This affective dimension of nationalism is important to keep in mind, especially in comparing secular nationalism with religion. Inthe 1980s, the social theorist Anthony Giddens described nationalism in just this way—as conveying not only the ideas and "beliefs" about political order but also the "psychological" and "symbolic" element in political and economic relationships.14

Giddens, Nation-State, 215-16.

    Scholars such as Kohn and Emerson recognized this affective dimension of nationalism early on; they felt it appropriate that the secular nation adopt what we might call the spirit of secular nationalism.

Despite their admission that secular nationalism is emotional and that in many cases it superseded traditional forms of faith, scholars such as Kohn and Emerson and nationalist leaders such as Nasser and Nehru insisted that secular nationalism was superior in large measure because it was categorically different from religion. Yet it seems clear in hindsight that to believe in the notion of secular nationalism required a great deal of faith, even though the idea was not couched in the rhetoric of religion. The terms in which it was presented were the grandly visionary ones associated with spiritual values. Secular nationalism, like religion, embraces what one scholar calls "a doctrine of destiny."15

Arlie J. Hoover, The Gospel of Nationalism: German Patriotic Preaching from Napolean to Versailles (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1986), 3.

    One can take this way of looking at secular nationalism a step further and state flatly, as did one author writing in 1960, that secular nationalism is "a religion."16

Carlton J. H. Hayes, Nationalism: A Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1960).


More recently, Ninian Smart has enlarged on this way of thinking about secular nationalism and specified the characteristics that make it akin to a certain kind of religion—"a tribal religion."17

Ninian Smart, "Religion, Myth, and Nationalism," in Peter H. Merkl and Ninian Smart, eds., Religion and Politics in the Modern World (New York: New York University Press, 1983), 27. For another comparison of nationalism and religion, see Hoover, Gospel of Nationalism, 3-4.

    Employing six criteria to define the term, he concludes that secular nationalism measures up on all counts: it includes doctrine, myth, ethics, ritual, experience, and social organization. This structural similarity between secular nationalism and religion is complemented by what I regard as an even more basic, functional similarity: they both serve the ethical function of providing an overarching framework of moral order, a framework that commands ultimate loyalty from those who subscribe to it. A further point, one that will be explored later in this book, bears mentioning here: nowhere is this common form of loyalty more evident than in the ability of nationalism and religion, alone among all forms of allegiance, to give moral sanction to martyrdom and violence.18

This point is also made by Anderson, who, in observing the ease with which secular nationalism is able to justify mass killings, finds a strong affinity between "nationalist imagining" and "religious imagining." Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983), 18. It has been brought to my attention that other entities, such as the Mafia and the Ku Klux Klan, can also sanction violence; yet it should be pointed out that they are able to do so convincingly only because they are regarded by their followers as (respectively) quasi-governmental or quasi-religious cults.


For that reason, I believe the line between secular nationalismand religion has always been quite thin. Both are expressions of faith, both involve an identity with and a loyalty to a large community, and both insist on the ultimate moral legitimacy of the authority invested in the leadership of that community. The rise of secular nationalism in world history, as Benedict Anderson observes, has been an extension of "the large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which—as well as against which—it came into being."19

Ibid., 19.

    For that reason secular nationalism can be said to be a kind of "cultural nationalism" in the way that Howard Wriggins describes Sinhalese national sentiments.20

W. Howard Wriggins, Ceylon: Dilemmas of a New Nation (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960), 169.

    It not only encompasses the shared cultural values of people within existing, or potentially existing, national boundaries but also evokes a cultural response of its own.

The implication of this position—that secular nationalism has a cultural dimension—is that there is no such thing as a concept of nationalism that stands above culture. The Western notion of secular nationalism is precisely that, a Western construct. It may be true that in time, as Kohn and Emerson prophesied, the concept may spread throughout the globe, not because it is inherently universal but because it has been consciously adapted to particular situations and clearly accepted within certain regions as a legitimate expression of indigenous sentiments. In contrast, in the 1950s in many regions there was superficial acceptance of a concept that was promoted by leaders of new nations who may have genuinely believed in the idea of secular nationalism but who also found it useful in buttressing their own legitimacy at home and fostering economic support and political liaisons abroad.

The proposition that the Western notion of secular nationalism is a European artifact has been bandied about from time to time in Western intellectual circles. At least one scholar, a Christian theologian, has suggested that the idea of a secular basis for politics is not only culturally European but specifically Christian. In an arresting book, Christianity in World History , Arend Theodor van Leeuwen argued that the idea of separating out the things of God from the things of people in such a way as to deny the divine nature of kingship was first formulated in ancient Israel and then became a major motif of Christianity.21

Arend Theodor van Leeuwen, Christianity in World History: The Meeting of the Faiths of East and West, translated by H. H. Hoskins (New York: Scribner's, 1964), 331.

    As Christianity spread across Europe, it brought the message of secularization with it: "Christianization and secularization are involved together in a dialectical relation,"

van Leeuwen claimed.22

Ibid., 332.

    By secularization van Leeuwen did not mean secularism—the worship of worldly things—but rather the separation of religious and temporal spheres.23

Ibid., 334.

    The great liaison between the medieval church and state was something of a mistake, from this point of view, and the Enlightenment brought Christianity's secularizing mission back on track. In general, van Leeuwen proclaimed, "the revolutionary history of the West up to the present time is rightly held to have been a continuous, ongoing process of secularization"; and, he added, it is a process that "nothing has been able to halt, let alone reverse."24

Ibid., 331.


Van Leeuwen noted that the encounter between Western (implicitly Christian) secular culture and the traditional religious cultures of the Middle East and Asia "begins a new chapter in the history of secularization."25

Ibid., 333.

    Secular culture was, in his mind, Christianity's gift to the world, and he fully expected that as a result of the encounter Hindus would shed their "myth of sanatana dharma " (traditional duties) and Muslims their "myth of the all-embracing authority of the shari'a " (religious law), just as Christians had fled from pagan gods and the ancient Israelites had abandoned the Tower of Babel.26

Ibid., 418.

    This result was inevitable, van Leeuwen thought, for "once the ontocratic pattern of the pagan religions has been disrupted fundamentally, there can be no returning to a pre-Christian situation."27

Ibid., 333.

    Still, in the short run, van Leeuwen anticipated trouble: "Never in the past," he wrote, "has there been such an encounter" as the present one between Christianity "in such a thoroughly secularized phase" and "the great pre-Christian societies and the post-Christian Muslim world." Van Leeuwen concluded, somewhat darkly, "We do not know what may happen."28



As it turned out, the encounter between Islamic and other traditional religious societies and the secular West was as unpleasant as van Leeuwen feared. Van Leeuwen's thesis about the Christian origins of modern Western secularism is increasingly regarded as true, especially in Third World countries, by people who have never heard of van Leeuwen and who once were uncritically accepting of Western nationalism as the wave of the future. The finer points of van Leeuwen's argument are still problematic however. The idea that secularism was uniquely Christian can be challenged by the observation that most other religious traditions have as complicated a pattern of church/state relations as Christianity has. Inancient India and in many Buddhist countries, for instance, a distinction similar to that made by the ancient Hebrews and early Christians was drawn between priestly and secular authority. Moreover, the instances of religious complicity with the state are at least as frequent in Christian history as they are in the history of other traditions. Yet van Leeuwen is correct in saying that the particular form of secular society that has evolved in the modern West is a direct extension of its past, including its religious past, and is not some supracultural entity that came into being only after a radical juncture in history.

Van Leeuwen thus stated some years ago what today is taken to be a fact in many parts of the world: the secular nationalism of the West is a mask for a certain form of European Christian culture. This point of view is adopted increasingly by many who have never read van Leeuwen but who agree with his premise: the rise of specific political ideologies is part of a much larger unfolding of ideas in world history, ideas that in most cases are colored in particular religious hues. This position is frequently heard today among the religious and political leaders of previously colonized countries.

Secular nationalism is "a kind of religion," one of the leaders of the Iranian revolution wrote in a matter-of-fact manner that indicated that what he said was taken as an obvious truth by most of his readers.29

Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, The Fundamental Principles and Precepts of Islamic Government, translated by Mohammed R. Ghanoonparvar (Lexington, Ky.: Mazda Publishers, 1981), 40.

    He went on to explain that it was not only a religion but one peculiar to the West, a point echoed by one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.30

Interview with Essam el-Arian, medical doctor, member of the National Assembly, and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, in Cairo, January 11, 1989.

    Behind his statement was the assumption that secular nationalism responds to the same needs for collective identity, ultimate loyalty, and moral authority that religion has traditionally responded to and that this similar response makes secular nationalism de facto a religion. One of his colleagues went further and stated that the Western form of secular nationalism is Christian. He claimed that the West is "not as secular as it pretends," for it has "Christian governments."31

Interview with Ibrahim Dasuqi Shitta, professor of Persian literature, Cairo University, in Cairo, January 10, 1989.

    For evidence, he offered the fact that the word Christian is used in the title of socialist parties in Europe.32

Interview with Shitta, January 10, 1989.


Others have given a more sophisticated version of this argument, saying that although secular nationalism in the West may not be overtly Christian, it occupies the same place in human experience as does Islam in Muslim societies, Buddhism in Theravada Buddhist societies, and Hinduism and Sikhism in Indian society. Thus it is a religion in the same sense that Islam, Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism are. One might as well call it Christian nationalism or European cultural nationalism, they declare, and make clear what seems to many Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs to be perfectly obvious: that it competes in every way with religion as they know it.

Behind this charge is a certain vision of social reality, one that involves a series of concentric circles. The smallest circles are families and clans; then come ethnic groups and nations; the largest, and implicitly most important, are global civilizations. Among the global civilizations are Islam, Buddhism, and what some who hold this view call "Christendom" or simply "Western civilization."33

To some, Christendom and Western civilization are interchangeable terms (interview with Shitta, January 10, 1989).

    Particular nations such as Germany, France, and the United States, in this conceptualization, stand as subsets of Christendom/Western civilization; similarly, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and other nations are subsets of Islamic civilization.

From this vantage point, it is a serious error to suggest that Egypt or Iran should be thrust into a Western frame of reference. In this view of the world they are intrinsically part of Islamic, not Western, civilization, and it is an act of imperialism to think of them in any other way. One of the things that most exercised the Ayatollah Khomeini in prerevolutionary Iran was what he and others referred to as "West-toxification" or "Westomania."34

The terms Westomania and West-toxification are translations of the Farsi word gharbzadegi, coined by Jalal Al-e Ahmad. It is discussed in Michael C. Hillmann, "Introduction," in Jalal Al-e Ahmad, The School Principal, translated by John K. Newton (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica), 1974.

    According to Khomeini, Islamic peoples have been stricken with Westomania since the eighth century, and partly for that reason they easily accepted the cultural and political postures of the shah. More recent attempts to capitalize on Westomania, he maintained, have come from the insidious efforts of Western imperialists.35

Imam [Ayatollah] Khomeini, "Anniversary of the Uprising of Khurdad 15," in Imam [Ayatollah] Khomeini, Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations, translated and annotated by Hamid Algar (Berkeley, Calif.: Mizan Press, 1981; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), 270.

    The goal of the Islamic revolution in Iran, then, was not only to free Iranians politically from the shah but also to liberate them conceptually from Western ways of thinking.

When the leaders of some formerly colonized countries continue to impose on their people Western ideas—including especially the idea of secular nationalism—they are accused by other indigenousleaders of perpetuating colonialism. "We have yet to be truly free," a Buddhist leader in Sri Lanka remarked in reference to the Western-style government in his country.36

Interview with Uduwawala Chandananda Thero, February 2, 1988.

    In some Middle Eastern Islamic countries, the injury of the colonial experience was compounded with the insult of having lost their connection with a great Islamic power, the Ottoman Empire.

Islamic revolutionaries in Iran have also voiced anticolonial sentiments, even though Iran was never a colony in the same sense that many Middle Eastern and South Asian countries were. The heavy-handed role of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in Iranian politics and the force-feeding of Western ideas by the shah were regarded as forms of colonialism all the same. According to one Iranian leader, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the religious character of Western nationalism makes it a competitor with Islam. He claimed that Western nationalism suffers from a pretension of universality so grand it has religious proportions and this claim to universality makes its cultural and economic colonialism possible by allowing a "national entity" from the West to assume that it has "prior rights to the rest of the world."37

Bani-Sadr, Fundamental Principles and Precepts of Islamic Government, 40.


These leaders regard as especially pernicious the fact that the cultural colonialism of Western ideas erodes confidence in traditional values. For that matter, it also undermines traditional religious constructs of society and the state. Concerns over both these matters and over the erosion of religion's influence in public life unite religious activists from Egypt to Sri Lanka, even those who are bitterly opposed to one another. A leader of the religious right in Israel and a spokesperson for the Islamic movement in Palestine, for instance, used exactly the same words to describe their sentiments: "Secular government is the enemy."38

Interview with Rabbi Meir Kahane, former member, Knesset, and Leader, Kach Party, in Jerusalem, January 18, 1989; and an article by an anonymous author in the pamphlet Islam and Palestine, Leaflet 5 (Limassol, Cyprus, June 1988).


Some Western scholars also use bellicose terms to describe the relation of religious and secular political authorities in many traditional societies. In Islam, according to Bernard Lewis, "the very notion of a secular jurisdiction and authority … is seen as an impiety, indeed as the ultimate betrayal of Islam."39

Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 3.

    He goes on to say that "the righting of this wrong is the principal aim of Islamic revolutionaries."40


    For this reason, Lewis asserts, Islamic activists throughout the world have attempted to rid their societies of what they regard as the corrosive influence of Western secular institutions.

Some religious revolutionaries—although certainly not all ofthem—deny the possibility that secular institutions can exist in a religious society. According to a leader of the religious right in Israel, "Secular government is illegitimate."41

Interview with Yoel Lerner, director, Sanhedrin Institute, in Jerusalem, January 20, 1989.

    A similar sentiment was echoed by one of his rivals, a Muslim leader in Palestine, who declared that "a secular state is anti-Islamic" and that "no such thing exists in Islam."42

Interview with Yassin.

    Some would go so far as to denounce any form of secular thinking as illegitimate. When secular ideas are described in articles published by the Islamic wing of the Palestinian liberation movement, they are dubbed al muniya , which means "knowledge that does not come from Islam";43

Islam and Palestine. The meaning of this term was pointed out to me by Dr. Ifrah Zilberman, research scholar, Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, May 25, 1990.

    by implication, it is no knowledge at all.

One of the reasons secular ideas and institutions are so firmly rejected by some religious leaders is that they hold these ideas and institutions accountable for the moral decline within their own countries. The moral impact of Western secularism in Sri Lanka was devastating, according to the calculations of some leaders of Buddhist monastic organizations. One of them, in discussing this matter, carefully identified the evils of the society around him and then laid them fully at the feet of the secular government. "We live in an immoral world," the bhikkhu (monk) stated, giving as his examples of immorality gambling, slaughtering animals for meat, and drinking arrack (a locally produced alcohol that is popular in the countryside).44

Interview with Uduwawala Chandananda Thero, February 2, 1988.

    In each case the government was implicated: the state lottery promotes gambling, the state encourages animal husbandry, and it licenses liquor shops. The institutions of government were all suspect, the bhikkhu implied: "People in public office are not to be trusted."45

Interview with Uduwawala Chandananda Thero, February 2, 1988.


Interestingly, one of the concepts that disturbed the bhikkhu the most was an activity that most Westerners regard as a cardinal strength of the secular political system: the ability to respond impartially to the demands of a variety of groups. The political expediency of giving in to the demands of particular interests, such as those of the Tamils, was cited by the bhikkhu as evidence of the government's immorality. He felt that such politicians were incapable of standing up for truth in the face of competing, selfish interests, and their impartiality indicated that they ultimately cared only about themselves. The bhikkhu scoffed at secular politicians who attempted to cloak themselves in Buddhist rhetoric. "They are the enemy of Buddhism," he said.46

Interview with Uduwawala Chandananda Thero, February 2, 1988.


Secular nationalists within Third World countries are thought to be enemies in part because they are in league with a more global enemy, the secular West. To some religious nationalists' way of thinking, there is a global conspiracy against religion, orchestrated by the United States. For this reason virtually anything the United States does that involves non-Western societies, even when its stated intentions are positive, is viewed as part of a plot to destroy or control them. An example occurred in 1991 during the Gulf War; Islamic political groups in Egypt reversed their initial condemnation of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait when the United States sent thousands of troops to defend the Kuwaitis. These groups then felt it necessary to defend Saddam Hussein against the sinister plotting of the United States, which they regarded as the major obstacle to "the liberation of the Third World" and the establishment of a pan-Islamic consciousness that would unify Arab Muslim people.47

Quoted from comments of leaders of Egypt's Islamic Labor Party in Gehad Auda, "An Uncertain Response: The Islamic Movement in Egypt," in James P. Piscatori, ed., Islamic Fundamentalisms and the Gulf Crisis (Chicago: Fundamentalism Project, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1991), 116. The Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jama'at voiced similar suspicions about U.S. intentions in the Gulf War. Ibid., 119-20.


The most extreme form of this way of thinking is satanization. During the early days of the Gulf War, the Palestinian Islamic movement, Hamas, issued a communiqui stating that the United States "commands all the forces hostile to Islam and the Muslims." It singled out George Bush, who, it claimed, was not only "the leader of the forces of evil" but also "the chief of the false gods."48

Hamas communiqui, January 22, 1991, quoted in Jean-Frangois Legrain, "A Defining Moment: Palestinian Islamic Fundamentalism," in James P. Piscatori, ed., Islamic Fundamentalisms and the Gulf Crisis (Chicago: Fundamentalism Project, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1991), 76.

    As the communiqui indicates, this line of reasoning often leads down a slippery slope, for once secular institutions and authorities begin to loom larger than life and take on a satanic luster, the conclusion rushes on, inevitably and irretrievably, that secular enemies are more than mortal foes: they are mythic entities and satanic forces.

Perhaps nowhere was this process of satanization more prevalent than in Iran during the early stages of the revolution when both the shah and President Jimmy Carter were referred to as Yazid (in this context, an agent of satan). "All the problems of Iran," Khomeini elaborated, are "the work of America."49

Ayatollah Sayyed Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini, Collection of Speeches, Position Statements, translated from "Najaf Min watha 'iq al-Imam al-Khomeyni did al-Quwa al Imbiriyaliyah wa al-Sahyuniyah wa al-Raj'iyah" ("From the Papers of Imam Khomeyni against Imperialist, Zionist, and Reactionist Powers"), 1977, Translations on Near East and North Africa 1902 (Arlington, Va.: Joint Publications Research Service, 1979), 3.

    He meant not only political and economic problems but also cultural and intellectual ones, fostered by "the preachers they planted in the religious teaching institutions, the agents they employed in the universities, government educational institutions, and publishing houses, and the Orientalists who work in the service of the imperialist states."50

Khomeini, Islam and Revolution, 28.

    The vastness and power of such a conspiratorial network could be explained only by its supernatural force.

The process of satanization indicates that secular nationalism is seen as a religious entity, albeit a sinister one, and this view can be explained, in part, by the "fallen-angel" syndrome: the more vaunted the expectations, the more severe the recrimination. Many members of formerly colonized countries had had such high expectations of—such great faith in—secular nationalism that their disappointment in its failure was also extreme. Where anticipation of secularism's performance had assumed messianic proportions, the disappointment in the lack of performance reached satanic depths.

For that reason the loss of faith in secular nationalism is linked to another phenomenon: the perception that secular institutions have failed to perform. In many parts of the world the secular state has not lived up to its own promises of political freedom, economic prosperity, and social justice. Some of the most poignant cases of disenchantment with secularism are to be found among educated members of the middle class who were raised with the high expectations propagated by secular-nationalist political leaders. Some of them have now been propelled toward religious nationalism after trying to live as secular nationalists and feeling betrayed, or at least unfulfilled. Many of them also feel that Western societies have betrayed themselves: the government scandals, persistent social inequities, and devastating economic difficulties of the United States and the former Soviet Union in the 1980s and early 1990s made both democracy and socialism less appealing as role models than they had been in those more innocent decades, the 1940s and 1950s. The global mass media in their exaggerated way have brought to religious leaders in non-Western nations the message that there is a deep malaise in the United States caused by the social failures of unwed mothers, divorce, racism, and drug addiction; the political failures of Watergate, Irangate, and the Vietnam War; and the economic failures associated with recession and the mounting deficit.

But mass media or no, religious leaders in the new nations need not look any further than their own national backyards for evidence that the high expectations raised by secular nationalists in their own countries have not been met. "It is an economic, social, and moral failure," a Muslim leader in Egypt said, speaking of the policies of his nation's secular state.51

Interview with el-Arian.

    Other new religious revolutionaries

are disturbed not so much that an experiment in secular nationalism has failed as that a religious nationalism, except in Iran, has never been fully implemented.

The hopes for such a religious nationalism can be utopian. Christian revolutionaries in Latin America have spoken of instituting the "kingdom of God" promised in the New Testament. The "dhammic society" that the bhikkhu in Sri Lanka desired as the alternative to secular nationalism resembled a paradise: "The government would be supported by the people and trusted by them; it would uphold dhamma [moral teachings of the Buddha], and it would consult monks regarding proper policies."52

Interview with Uduwawala Chandananda Thero, February 2, 1988.

    In a Halakhic society, Jewish leaders in Jerusalem promised, Israel would become more harmonious than it is, all its aspects integrated under religious law. "Man can't live by bread alone," one of the leaders reminded his supporters; "religion is more than just belief and ritual, it is all of life."53

Interview with Kahane. A similar remark was made by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, a leader of Gush Emunim, in my interview with him in Jerusalem, January 16, 1989.

    Another contrasted secular rule with the rule of God: "Secularism lacks God and idealism," he said, pointing out that the state "only has laws, and that's not enough. There is a need to be in touch with the God behind the justice and the truth that secular society espouses."54

Interview with Levinger.

    The vision of religious nationalists is appealing in part because it promises a future that cannot easily fail: its moral and spiritual goals are transcendent and not as easy to gauge as are the more materialistic promises of secular nationalists.

Ultimately secular nationalism is perceived by many as having failed not only because its institutions and leaders have disappointed them but also because they have ceased to believe in it. In their own way, they are experiencing what J|rgen Habermas has dubbed a modern "crisis of legitimation," in which the public's respect for political and social institutions has been deflated throughout the world.55

J|rgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, translated by Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975), passim.

    Perhaps many religious leaders never did believe in the validity of secular nationalism; but they are now able to convince the masses of people within their societies of its invalidity, in part because great numbers of them no longer see secular nationalism as an expression of their own identities or as related to their social and economic situations. More important, they have failed to see how the Western versions of nationalism can provide a vision of what they would like themselves and their nation to become. Secular nationalism is seen as alien, at best the expression of only a small, educated,

and privileged few within non-Western societies. As both capitalist and formerly socialist governments wrestle with their own constituencies over the moral purpose of their nations and the directions they are to take, their old, tired forms of nationalism seem less appealing elsewhere.


Excerpted from New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts Secular State by Mark Juergensmeyer Copyright © 1994 by Mark Juergensmeyer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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