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?

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