The Lius of Shanghai
Olivier Roy, a professor of social and political theory at the European University Institute, in Fiesole, Italy, has the exceptional ability to bring religion, globalization, and politics to his discussions of political Islam and its role in European and Islamic societies. In his latest book, Holy Ignorance, he puts this talent to good use to explore a critical question about the modern world: "Does the expansion of a religion go along with the spreading of a new culture . . . or does it expand, on the contrary, precisely because this religion has nothing to do with any specific culture?" The answer is important because if religion is dissociated from culture, religious fundamentalism will become both more globalized and more diluted, and mainstream culture will become even more secular. If the two are not dissociated, religious fundamentalism may increasingly penetrate societies and erode their secular and democratic practices.
Like many other books about religion and modernity, Holy Ignorance describes a myriad different new religious movements -- Protestant evangelicalism, Haredi Judaism, Islamic Salafism -- against the backdrop of secularizing societies, highlighting the changing relations between culture and religion as globalization intensifies. In the first part of his book, Roy displays an impressive grasp of the innumerable permutations in these relations over history's long arc. He organizes the variations into four broad categories: deculturation, acculturation, inculturation, and ex-culturation. Deculturation occurs when religion tries to eradicate paganism (as European Christianity did in North America and orthodox Islam did on the Indian subcontinent). The best example of acculturation is the Jews' adoption of mainstream values during the Enlightenment. A religion's attempts to position itself at the heart of a given culture (for instance, liberation theology in Latin America) is a form of inculturation. And ex-culturation is the more modern process whereby a religion disassociates itself from mainstream culture.
Throughout this discussion, Roy's thesis is clear: the major religious movements of today -- Pentecostalism, Protestant evangelicalism, and Islamic Salafism -- are setting themselves free from their cultural moorings. These religions have not lost their importance, but they have become universal and less affiliated with any one territory, and more personal and private, increasingly embodying a spiritual search for self-fulfillment. Although they acknowledge what Roy calls "floating cultural markers -- halal fast food, eco-kosher, cyber-fatwa, halal dating, Christian rock, transcendental meditation" -- he claims that they are fundamentally separating from the cultures in which they developed.
In the second part of the book, Roy argues that globalization has increased this distancing of religion from culture by promoting scripturalism and fundamentalism, erecting a barrier of doctrinal purity to fend off secular attacks. Religious advocates say that their faiths are becoming purer as a result: returning to sacred texts is one way to speak to the faithful outside of any particular cultural context. And globalization is the conveyer belt on which this purer religion travels. But Roy says that in rejecting their grounding in national cultures, these global faiths are becoming a form of "holy ignorance." The phrase evokes the Pentecostal "speaking in tongues" and the associated belief that the relationship between God and individual believers need not be mediated. The truth of God's word necessitates no knowledge -- cultural, linguistic, theological, or otherwise. As Roy points out, several Christian revivalist movements, many Islamic groups, and even some Jewish organizations (such as the Shas party in Israel) only selectively engage with past theological debates. The result, for Roy, is a sort of degradation of religious knowledge. This observation leads him to make an important assertion: that all these movements -- the Christian right in America; the various Islamic movements in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province; and the ultra-Orthodox in Israel -- are losing steam.
Holy Ignorance is an elaboration of the theses of Roy's earlier works, especially The Failure of Political Islam and Globalized Islam, in which he argued that the fundamentalist Islamic religious movement, by virtue of being extraterritorial and decultured, was becoming "oblivious to its own history" -- or, to put the point differently, undergoing a form of secularization as a result of rising fundamentalism. In his latest book, he expands the claim to include other forms of fundamentalism -- especially Christian strands such as Protestant evangelicalism -- to demonstrate, first, that the phenomenon is widespread and, second, that it cannot last. Fundamentalism has become a global market for religious goods without any labels indicating a culture of origin. Individuals throughout the world are being presented with a religious market in which they can choose whatever product they want. With so many easy options available, people frequently convert to other religions or beliefs. This is nothing new: mass conversions occurred in the past thanks to conquests and colonial expansion. But according to Roy, people find it easier to convert today, especially from Christianity to Islam and vice versa. Given this, Roy's thesis is a tacit rebuke to Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations."
ALL RELIGION IS LOCAL
Roy's view is basically optimistic: the implication of his argument is that fundamentalism cannot last. He claims that the influence of religion on culture is doomed to wane as religion becomes simultaneously more individual and more globalized. By focusing on global religious movements (rather than, say, national Islamic politics) to illustrate his thesis, however, Roy is in effect downplaying the important matter of how religion shapes social, political, and economic life -- and overlooking religion's widespread and transformative influence. American Christian evangelicalism and Islamic fundamentalism are not only aspiring to global expansion; they are also interested in bringing about cultural transformations in narrower, that is, local and national, contexts. Consider how American evangelicalism developed: it did so thanks to the convergence of several intellectual currents; their battles against Darwinism, philosophy, and liberalism; and the particular social and political exigencies of the post-World War I era. More recently, the discourse of American evangelicalism has been about how to influence American society and politics. In the words of the American evangelist Jerry Falwell, "For too long, we have sat and said, politics are for the people in Washington, business is for those on Wall Street, and religion is our business. But the fact is, you cannot separate the sacred and the secular." The whole purpose of much of the evangelical movement in the United States today is to shape the culture of the country. Throughout the world, in fact, religion continues to engage with culture and the state, whether to validate or threaten them. And recent converts often become involved in the public sphere and adopt politically contentious positions regarding social and cultural issues. When religion is no longer inherited but chosen, its adherents are much more willing to relate it to all aspects of life: social, cultural, and political; and they more readily engage in the public sphere. In the United States, for example, the religious right has been pushing for the reform of school curricula.
According to Roy, the importance of culture is declining both because those who choose fundamentalism are in effect replacing culture with religion and because globalization is diluting local cultures everywhere anyway. But this argument hinges on his minimalist definition of culture as "the production of symbolic systems." This characterization allows Roy to claim that culture and religion are distinct and that culture is declining, but it is much too narrow. Culture is more capacious than a set of symbols; it is a web of meanings that people attach to their lives and use both to order their world and to interpret it. Culture is not in decline these days; as ever, it is adapting and transforming, integrating the new and the old. Anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz and Michael Gilsenan have described how Islam has adapted to different cultural, political, and socioeconomic contexts -- and been successful as a result. Today, the struggle between fundamentalist movements and secular forces everywhere is about who will get to define both current events and their historical antecedents in the public sphere. It is, in other words, a cultural struggle.
But Roy pays little attention to the work of Geertz and Gilsenan or to that of the anthropologist Talal Asad, who has argued that Islam is a discursive tradition that moves back and forth between widely accepted foundational texts and the beliefs, practices, and politics of Muslim communities in specific times and places. And yet the Islam of Indonesia does not resemble that of Saudi Arabia. In both countries, religion is at once the product and the producer of cultural values, but it is also recognizably and self-avowedly Muslim. Roy acknowledges this as being true only in the past. But even today, religions cannot exist in a vacuum. If globalized religions employ the tools of global culture, such as the Internet, they also aim to influence particular national cultures.
Roy sees the separation of the religious from the cultural as a symptom of secularization and the success of fundamentalist movements as a defense against secularism. But it is also possible that the success of fundamentalist movements stems instead from their capacity to appropriate secular culture and render it more religious. And at the same time that religious groups engage secular culture to reform it, they themselves become more secular.
This mutual transformation is most visible in places where religious groups have reacted to the secularization of society by engaging in politics. Entering the public sphere has forced Islamists, for example, to adopt modern forms of organization, rationalize their thinking and practices, and revise their positions in historically contextualized ways in order to become more relevant and more effective. The results have been very different in democratic political cultures compared to in authoritarian settings. In countries as distinct as Turkey, Indonesia, and Pakistan, the emergence of religious political movements has made those movements more secular and at the same time has re-Islamicized the public sphere.
In Turkey, the rise of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) a decade ago occurred against the backdrop of an Ottoman culture that had never integrated, much less institutionalized, rigid interpretations of Islam and that for most of its tenure had maintained a diverse culture and a policy of inclusion. With the advent of the Turkish republic in the early 1920s, the role of religion was redefined and constrained by a strong secular and democratic political culture that basically hid Islam from the public sphere. The AKP succeeded in bringing it out again, effectively deprivatizing religious discourse and practice, and all the while adopting a modern democratic discourse on social and political rights.
In Indonesia, Islamic politics have spread with democratization, but within a culture of tolerance and respect for religious pluralism. The two major Indonesian Islamic organizations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, have argued against a strict interpretation and application of the Koran, opposed the creation of an Islamic state in Indonesia, and helped develop many social movements, such as youth and women's rights organizations.
Even in the more contentious case of Pakistan, as Humeira Iqtidar, a research fellow at Cambridge, argues in Secularizing Islamists?, Islamists have inadvertently facilitated a kind of secularization. This may seem counterintuitive, but Iqtidar demonstrates how, even as the Islamists have forced a rethinking of the boundaries of politics, their engagement in mainstream politics has brought about a conscious, critical, and ultimately rationalized definition of religion in contemporary Pakistan. To understand the constant interplay among religion, culture, and politics, one need only look at Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring. Various factions within the Muslim Brotherhood are trying to figure out the right way to enter Egyptian politics. They are not only calculating how to increase their odds in the election scheduled for the fall; they are also looking for an approach that speaks to the democratic youth movement that emerged in Tahrir Square.
The fact is that as religion reenters, more or less forcefully, the public sphere, modernity is coming to many countries. Most important, religion is adapting to political cultures, including democratic cultures, everywhere, be they in western Europe or Islamic states. The most significant aspect of the evolving relationship between religion and culture is not their disengagement from each other thanks to globalization, as Roy claims, but the close interaction of religious movements and national politics. Some forms of religious fundamentalism may well be disappearing into the ether of abstraction, but in most cases, religion, culture, and politics are still meeting on the ground.