Was Weber wrong?

Malise Ruthven

  • The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern World by Gilles Kepel
    Polity, 200 pp, £39.50, December 1993, ISBN 0 7456 0999 6
  • Pious Passion: The Emergence of Modern Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran by Martin Riesebrodt
    California, 272 pp, £30.00, September 1993, ISBN 0 520 07463 7

In the Sixties it was widely assumed that politics were becoming divided from religion and that as societies became more industrialised religious belief and practice would be restricted to private thoughts and actions. The processes of modern industrialism, which Max Weber had seen as being characterised by depersonalised relationships and increasing bureaucratisation, were leading, if not to the final ‘death of God’, at least to the ‘disenchantment of the world’. The numinous forces that had underpinned the medieval cosmos would be psychologised, subjectivised and demythologised.

On the face of it, the 1979 revolution in Iran seriously dented this conventional wisdom. Here was a revolt deploying a repertoire of religious symbols that brought down a modernising government and placed political power in the hands of a religious establishment steeped in medieval theology and jurisprudence. Moreover, this was clearly an urban, not a rural, phenomenon – a response, perhaps, to ‘over-rapid’ or ‘uneven’ development, but not in any sense a peasant jacquerie. Some commentators (myself included) argued that the mix of politics and religion was peculiarly Islamic, or even uniquely Shi‘ite. Unlike Christianity, Islam, it was said, had a built-in political agenda: the Prophet Muhammad had combined the role of state-builder with that of revelator, and all who sought to follow his path must sooner or later be drawn into the political game. Shi‘ism was a variant on this theme: originally a protest movement against the usurping of Islam’s righteous empire by the worldly Umayyads, it developed into a tradition of radical dissent, one that oscillated over the centuries between quietism and activism, withdrawal and revolt. The Khomeini revolution – like the rise of the Hezbollah in Lebanon – represented the swing of the Shi‘ite pendulum towards activism, after decades of sullen acquiescence in ‘unrighteous government’.

By the early Eighties, it was becoming clear that religious activism was very far from being confined to the Islamic world and that newly politicised movements were appearing in virtually every major religious tradition. In America, the New Christian Right challenged and temporarily checked the steady secularisation of politics. Commenting on the growth of evangelical and fundamentalist churches, Peter Berger, doyen of Weberian theorists, was forced to admit that ‘serious intellectual difficulties’ had been created ‘for those (like myself) who thought that modernisation and secularisation were inexorably linked phenomena.’ Brushing aside the Muslim world, Berger offered a theory of American exceptionalism. Like India, the US was somehow irredeemably religious. Secularism of the sanitised, Scandinavian type, was confined to university campuses and other privileged cultural enclaves. When it came to religion, America was ‘an India, with a little Sweden superimposed’.

A theory of modernisation that excludes America, India and the Muslim world from its purview faces some major problems. One need hardly add that the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe has brought about a marked resurgence in public religiosity, while Latin America and parts of Africa appear to be undergoing far-reaching religious transformations, with Pentecostalism poised to replace Catholicism as the dominant tradition. With Japan and South Korea ranking high in the list of countries nurturing new religious movements, only secular Western Europe and Australia – areas that Martin Marty, the American historian of religion, calls ‘the spiritual ice-belt’ – appear to be conforming to Weberian predictions. And even in Western Europe, as Gilles Kepel’s study of neo-Catholic movements indicates, there are symptoms of spiritual thaw.

Is the whole world undergoing religious revival? Can such varied phenomena as the siege of the Branch Davidians in Texas and the Hindu attack on the mosque at Ayodhya, which brought Indian democracy to the brink of collapse, be subsumed under a common label of ‘fundamentalism’? In his survey of revivalist currents in the Abrahamic tradition, Kepel, a political scientist, avoids the term, preferring the more cumbersome ‘movements of re-Judaising’, ‘re-Christianisation’ and ‘re-Islamisation’. Coming as it does from the lexicon of modern American Protestantism, ‘fundamentalism’ fits uneasily into other traditions. It is widely applied by Western writers to Islamic movements, but there is no exact equivalent in the languages of Islam. Two widely used Arabic terms, salafi and ‘usuli (pertaining respectively to ancestors and roots) were adopted by previous reformers in the Sunni and Shi‘i traditions and have lost their radical bite. A similar difficulty faces attempts to attach a common fundamentalist label to neo-orthodox and ultra-nationalist Jewish groups, including both the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta, who regard the State of Israel as a monstrous impiety and refuse to participate in elections, and the Gush Emunim, who believe Israel’s right to the Occupied Territories to be divinely ordained. Each can be described as ‘fundamentalist’ in its own, diametrically opposite, way. But can a single term that embraces such different positions be analytically useful?

Students of comparative fundamentalism, notably Martin Marty, who has just completed a five-year investigation of the phenomenon for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, have tended to exclude Catholic movements of renewal from consideration, while including syncretic movements in Asia that combine elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism and Christianity. Yet as Kepel’s analysis reveals, the revolutionary Islam of Ayatollah Khomeini and Sayyid Qutb, lodestar of the Sunni militants, has more in common with the Catholic liberation theology of Gustavo Guiterrez than with the Protestant fundamentalism of, say, Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell. Similarly, much common ground can be found between the pietistic Jamaat-i-Tablighi, one of Europe and South Asia’s most rapidly growing Islamic movements, and Father Luigi Guissani’s Communione e Liberazione, a Catholic movement dedicated to countering the allegedly secularising agenda flowing from Vatican II.

Kepel makes an important distinction between movements seeking to achieve power or impose their authority ‘from above’, and those whose primary concern is to create communities ‘from below’. In the Abrahamic tradition the seizure of power ‘from above’ is frequently linked to a messianic eschatology that postulates some form of divine intervention. Many of those who supported Khomeini’s successful bid for power in February 1979 identified him with the Hidden Imam of the Shi‘a, who is expected to return as Mahdi, or Messiah, at the end of time. The murderers of Anwar Sadat in 1981 adopted a less chiliastic language, but clearly believed that the death of ‘Pharaoh’ would lead, more or less miraculously, to an Islamic uprising in which the existing order would be overthrown. The conspirators in Jerusalem who planned to blow up the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque in order to rebuild the Temple were convinced that the nudge they would give to the divine eschatology would of itself be sufficient to effect a transformation, or re-Judaising, of Israeli society.

More effective, and more long-term, are those movements seeking to reconstruct the religious society ‘from below’, not least because they are proof against short-term political failure. Paradoxically, the messianic impulse frequently leads to impressive feats of construction: the failure of God to bring about the promised kingdom supernaturally inspires believers to create the Kingdom themselves. Under the late Rabbi Schneerson, whose followers believed him to be the promised Messiah, the Lubavitcher Hasidic order built an impressive international network of schools and social centres stretching from Brooklyn to Melbourne. If the experience of Seventh-Day Adventism and other movements (including Christianity itself) built on the ruins of a Great Disappointment is anything to go by, the Rabbi’s failure to become the Messiah need not jeopardise these achievements. A similar shift from messianic eschatology to church-building, in which divine intervention is deferred in favour of human action, occurs in virtually every American Protestant tradition, where the promise of Kingdom Come is covertly replaced by the more tangible, tax-deductible project of building the Kingdom Now. In the grand narrative of Islam a comparable shift from pre-millennial pessimism to post-millennial optimism is marked by Muhammad’s hijra or migration from Mecca to Medina: the recalcitrant Meccan polytheists were subdued, not by the supernaturally-administered punishments threatened in the Qur’an, but by the tribal empire built by the Prophet in Medina.

Shared religious impulses do not necessarily lead to the same conclusions. The prospects facing today’s revivalists vary according to the very different political conditions in which they operate. In Europe, as Kepel explains, ‘the re-Christianisation movements appeared in societies most of which had been living a deeply secularised existence for more than a century.’ In France, the charismatic movement, which peaked in the late Eighties, never had more than 200,000 members. Even in Poland, where the Roman Catholic Church, as guardian of the national culture, was poised to replace Communism as the prevailing ideological force, ‘democratic aspirations proved stronger than the thirst for transcendence.’ In America, uniquely, constitutional separation of church and state is guaranteed by the churches, which since the Revolution have come to recognise a common interest in denominational diversity.

In the Muslim world, what Kepel calls ‘constraint by democracy’ barely exists. Muslim societies have, with rare exceptions, found it difficult to maintain democratic institutions. The artificial barriers, rooted in Christian ecclesiastical history, that separated private and public realms, estates and classes, corporations and individuals, were generally absent from a religious culture that acknowledged no intercessionary authority between God and humankind. The uncompromising belief in a single transcendent deity erodes denominational boundaries; the anathematising of shirk, the sin of idolatry, militates against cultic diversity. Despite recent episodes of Hindu fanaticism, secular, pluralist India, rooted in polytheism, has held the line for democracy a lot more successfully than monotheistic Pakistan. As the Imam Ali Belhaj, a leading preacher with the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, never ceases to remind his congregations, there is no Qur’anic basis for the idea of demos, the people as sovereign. Sovereignty belongs to God alone or those proclaiming the guardianship of His government. A collapse into theocratic totalitarianism seems likely in Algeria and Egypt – if not ‘from above’, by a pro-Islamist coup d’état, as in the Sudan, then through seepage ‘from below’, from what Kepel calls the ‘network of mosques and pietist associations’ whose tendrils have been ‘spreading through civil society’.

Kepel’s summary of the common features and differences underlying these movements is useful so far as it goes, but he has too little to say about the social forces involved. He notes that both American and Islamic militants are likely to be the children of urban migrants; in the Muslim world their parents were fellahin driven by the collapse of the rural economy into the sprawling shanty-towns surrounding major cities; in America, they come not from the small townships of the Deep South, as did many of their parents, but from the larger cities of the North, South (and, he might have added, the West, since Southern California, which gave birth to the original Fundamentalist movement, is still host to such key institutions as the Institute of Creation Research). Most American activists, unlike their parents, have had the benefit of higher education, ‘though not in the best universities’. A disproportionate number are qualified in the applied sciences, ‘just like the Islamist militants’. Many of the followers of Rabbi Schneerson are computer programmers, or, like the Rabbi himself, electrical engineers. Few appear to have graduated in disciplines that explore ambiguities of meaning and symbolism, or analyse narratives in terms of myth. The applied, unlike the ‘pure’, scientist can use reason without having to adopt a posture of epistemological doubt.

An applied scientist who espouses fundamentalism therefore need experience no sense of contradiction: Herman Branover, a leading Soviet authority on magneto-hydrodynamics who became one of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s most prestigious converts, writes of the difference between ‘science, which deals only with the interrelationships of phenomena, and religion, which reveals the essence and purpose of things’. Such a double perspective is easier for Jews and Muslims to sustain than for Christians, since for them behaviour, rather than belief, defines religious allegiance. Orthopraxy – in dress, food, ritual or family relationships – need not impinge on ideas about the ordering of the universe. The supernatural can be pushed aside without loss of faith or identity. Christians, stuck with a faith that demands acquiescence in a catalogue of physical impossibilities, are constrained to fight back against secularism by insisting on the historicity of events – such as the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection or the Creation in its Biblical version – that run directly counter to scientific rationality.

Common to all the movements examined by Kepel is a mood of disenchantment with the Enlightenment and its failure to produce a better world. For the religious intellectuals who spearhead the ‘Revenge of God’, ‘modernism produced by reason without God has not succeeded in creating values.’ Thus Cardinal Lustiger. Archbishop of Paris, the son of a Polish Jewish convert to Christianity, describes himself as belonging to ‘that generation which has plucked the fruits of Reason’s pretensions to sovereignty’. The end products of what the Cardinal calls ‘the arrogance of reason’ were the gulags and the Holocaust. ‘Reason idolises man; forgetfulness of God is the root of all social evil.’ Similar sentiments reverberate through the literature of the Islamic opposition groups in Egypt and Algeria, anti-abortion activists in America and the Jewish groups who inhabit the self-imposed ghettos of Meir Shearim in Jerusalem or try to sabotage the Palestinian peace process. Kepel concludes that all such movements have arisen ‘in a world that has lost the assurance born of scientific and technical progress since the Fifties. Just as the barriers of poverty, disease and in-human working conditions seemed to be coming down. Aids, pollution and the energy crisis burst upon the scene’, all of them ‘scourges’ which ‘lent themselves to presentation in apocalyptic terms’.

Disenchantment may be part of this story; but it does not provide a sociologically satisfying explanation. It places too much emphasis on the intellectual minority who articulate the new religiosity without explaining why they have become so influential. Martin Riesebrodt opts for a more limited but also more rigorous comparison between two specific movements: the original Fundamentalism of early 20th-century America and the Shi‘ite version which came to power in Iran in 1979. He identifies both as aspects of a common ‘patriarchal protest movement’. Though he refrains from drawing wider conclusions, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he is on the right track, not just for Iran and America, but for many other current outbreaks of public religiosity.

Both movements, Riesebrodt correctly notes, embrace elements of the modernity people wrongly suppose them to despise. Fundamentalism is a ‘traditionalism that has become reflexive’. Traditionalism becomes fundamentalism when its normal critique of society is transformed by religious intellectuals into a ‘systematic whole’ within the frame of a salvation history which both legitimises the critique and endows it with emotive force. For America’s fundamentalist preachers, most of whom are pre-millennialists, social ills like drugs, Aids, abortion and murder are confirmations that the Last Days predicted in Scripture are upon us. The Shi‘ite militants who brought down the Shah’s regime re-enacted the events of Kerbala, using the eschatological return of Khomeini as Hidden Imam to reverse the defeat inflicted on the Imam Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson, by the evil Umayyads – identified with the modern Pahlevis. Though harking back to an earlier, more virtuous past, free from the supposedly corrupting effects of modernity, ‘reflexive traditionalism’ is highly selective in its promotional methods and choice of targets. Far from being rejected, modern technology is actively enlisted into the cause Islamic fundamentalism, both Shi‘ite and Sunni, is remarkably free from the iconophobia that was part of popular Islamic tradition until this century. All the revivalist movements deploy modern mass communications systems and the full resources of modern transportation. Those engaged in actual conflict have achieved mastery over sophisticated weapons systems – with sometimes disastrous results, as in Afghanistan, since technical proficiency has not necessitated any advance in political organisation.

Common to both the movements studied by Riesebrodt is the challenge they pose to the Weberian agenda of bureaucratisation and depersonalisation. The struggle of traditionalists in America against ‘big government’, ‘big business’ and ‘big labour’ was carried into the churches, where pastors were becoming ‘church managers’ and the ‘scientific’ Biblical criticism emanating from the liberal-dominated seminaries was undermining hierocratic power. When theology allows scientific criteria to be applied to the province of Scripture – as in the Higher Criticism – the clergy simply become religious experts, tacitly abandoning their claim to be the exclusive purveyors of truth. In Iran, the clergy were allied to the traditional business or ‘bazaari’ sector, which under the Shah’s regime felt increasingly threatened by the growth of a more modern, ‘big business’ economy symbolised by the supermarkets and Westernised suburbs of North Teheran. Like their Protestant counterparts, whose vision of small-town America was rooted in the 19th century, the bazaaris and their clerical allies reacted to the loss of cultural prestige by drawing up a list of targets to be demonised and ‘traditional’ values to be reaffirmed.

Riesebrodt sees ‘Manicheism, xenophobia, religious nativism, a conspiracy mentality and a specific view of female sexuality’ as characteristic of fundamentalist ideology. American fundamentalists saw themselves as beset by Satanic forces, most of them imported: ‘liberal theology, atheistic philosophy, war, as well as beer and evolutionary theory from Germany; rum from the Catholics, bolshevism from Russia’. Modern Iranians are inclined to attribute most of their society’s ills to ‘Westoxification’ spread by the great American Satan. Sex, or more specifically, control of female sexuality, looms large in both movements. American fundamentalists like John Straton, writing in the Twenties, described the corrupting role of women in images strikingly similar to those to be found in the jeremiads of the Muslim militants. ‘The most sinister and menacing figure of our modern life is the cigarette-smoking, cocktail-drinking, pug-dog-nursing, half-dressed, painted woman, who frequents the theatres, giggles at the cabarets, gambles in our drawing rooms or sits around our hotels, with her dress cut “C” in front and “V” behind! She is a living invitation to lust.’ The revolutionary Fedayeen-i-Islam uses more dramatic, if less crudely misogynistic, language: ‘Flames of passion rise from the naked bodies of immoral women and burn humanity to ashes.’ More than half the provisions of a 1981 law codifying Qur’anic prescriptions governing personal rights are concerned with sexual activities, ranging from adultery and homosexuality to unrelated persons of the same sex lying naked under a blanket.

Riesebrodt sees the obsessive concern with sexuality common to the American and Iranian movements as a reaction to broader anxieties resulting from rural displacement and economic change. Fundamentalism is primarily ‘a protest movement against the assault on patriarchal structural principles in the family, economy and polities’. The symptoms of patriarchal decline manifest themselves in the spheres of the family and sexual morality. But the real causes may lie in those processes Weber regarded as integral to modernity: the expansion of large-scale ‘rationalised’ firms, entailing formalised relationships, at the expense of small businesses governed by paternalistic relations between employers and employees. In resisting aspects of modernisation that threaten these traditional structures, the fundamentalists can indeed be called ‘antimodern’, and they are buttressed by interpretations of the Abrahamic faiths that stress male dominance and female submission. But economic reality forces them to absorb many of modernity’s salient features. What they cannot prevent by way of structural transformation they attempt to impose symbolically. Gender separation – undermined by modern architecture and no longer sustained by traditional domestic arrangements, since women are required in the workforce – is indicated by sartorial coding: long hair and skirts for American women, ‘Christian’ haircuts (short back and sides) for their menfolk; the chador or hijab for Muslim women, the pious beard and trimmed moustache for men. The forms of religiosity mask, but do not reverse or even delay, the processes of secularisation.

If Riesebrodt had extended his analysis of American Fundamentalism beyond the Twenties to include the modern television preachers, he would have found even more material to vindicate his broadly Weberian approach. Secularism and disenchantment have crept into evangelical discourse itself, undermining its proclamation of the sacred ‘Other’. By preaching the ‘gospel of prosperity’ and the ‘theology of self-esteem’, Robert Schuller provides a Christian endorsement for materialism and individualism. By constantly harping on sexual display in his 700 Club television shows (for instance, by broadcasting the late Robert Mapplethorpe’s transgressive images in order to demonise them), Pat Robertson paradoxically domesticates sexuality and desacralises it, contrary to the fundamentalist purpose. Miracles, routinely re-enacted on his programmes, have the unintended consequence of banalising the supernatural. The same scenario, I have no doubt, is destined for the Islamic and all those other traditions where militant patriarchs are trying unsuccessfully to resist the tide of social change. In the global media market created by satellite television, where Robertson beams his messages to Africa and Pakistani mullahs sustain their anti-Western animus by watching Madonna on MTV, fundamentalism must sooner or later lose its teeth. The enemy of God is not Satan, but cultural and religious choice.