Mark Juergensmeyer on global rebellion and religion

By Dennis Gruending

Mark Juergensmeyer, Globlal RebellionThe American sociologist and professor of religious studies, Mark Juergensmeyer is known and respected for his investigations into global religion. His latest contribution is a book called Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, from Christian Militias to al Queda. Juergensmeyer believes that the contemporary world is experiencing what he calls a “religious rebellion” and by studying it he hopes to offer proposals that will lead to an accommodation between radical religion and the secular world.

This matters to us in Canada where we cherish our reputation as a peaceable kingdom and the vast majority of religious adherents live out their faith in peace. But there are no tranquil islands in an increasingly globalized world of ubiquitous jet travel and secured Internet chat rooms. It is in Canada that radical Sikhs built and placed the bomb on an Air India jet that exploded over the Atlantic in 1985. That ugly act killed 329 people, including 280 Canadian citizens, mostly of Indian birth or descent. It was the largest mass murder in Canadian history. Mohammad Momin Khawaja of Ottawa has been convicted of participating in a terrorist scheme being planned in Great Britain to build a remote-control device that could trigger bombs. In Brampton, Ontario 11 members of the so-called Toronto 18 have pleaded guilty and been sentenced for plotting, incompetently as it turns out, to mount attacks on Parliament, military bases and nuclear stations. We are not immune to religious extremism, much of it now based, at least in part, on the war that Canada and other Western countries have been waging for nine years in Afghanistan.

Juergensmeyer says that religious forms of political protest have touched every tradition, including Christianity. He says, however, that it is not always easy to know if the root cause of conflict is religion or something other. Often disputes over land or resources will also have a religious dimension, as is the case in Israel and the West Bank. At other times, there may be a longstanding sense of grievance based on social and economic exclusion, but one that has religious overtones, such as that conflict in Northern Ireland, now hopefully resolved. The distinction here is important for future prospects of ending, or at least reducing conflict and violence. The claims made by religions can be absolute; those of politics are inherently more negotiable.

Rejecting secular nationalism

How did it come to this? Juergensmeyer writes, “The rise of a new, often strident, form of religious activism around the world has been provoked by a weakening of the nation-state and the collapse of faith in the European and American idea of secular nationalism. It is this rejection of the Western model of the secular state that has often taken a militant religious path.”

Secularization is the separation of the world into religious and temporal spheres – a movement that arose out of the Enlightenment and scientific revolution in Europe. Secular nationalism is an ideology where a citizen’s supreme loyalty is to the nation state rather to a religion or ethnicity. Liberal democracies, including Canada can be described in this way. While religion plays a role in the lives of many people, governing is a secular matter. Religion and religious leaders are not involved in governing, at least in any direct way. In fact, some argue that secular nationalism becomes a kind of religion of its own.

Juergensmeyer says that secular institutions have failed to deliver on their promise of political freedom, economic prosperity and social justice. People remain poor and hungry. The environment is being despoiled. There are too many thugs in power.  The public’s respect for secular institutions has been deflated. This is especially true in countries that were once colonies of the West and which later adopted secular forms of governments.

My observation is that governments everywhere have been undermined by globalization and neo-conservative politics, which have shifted power and authority away from the state and lodged it with corporations and international bodies such as the World Trade Organization.

Competing ideologies

Juergensmeyer says that secular nationalism and religion are competing “ideologies of order”. Each can give meaning, coherence and order to the day-to-day world. Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism are providing alternatives to secular ideologies in places such as Palestine, the Punjab, Iraq, Somalia and Lebanon. Juergensmeyer quotes a mullah in Baghdad, Jewish militants in Israel, Hindus, Sikhs and even Buddhist partisans – all of who say that we need a religious form of government. But he also quotes a Lutheran minister from Maryland who says that American needs a Christian form of government in order “to cleanse its soul.”

Juergensmeyer says, “The vision of religious activists has been appealing in part because it promises a future that cannot easily fail.” And if the promise of redemption and universal happiness is not delivered in this world, religiously inspired movements can promise it in the next. Secular institutions make no such promise.

Juergensmeyer says that secular nationalists have failed to accommodate religion in the public sphere. He points to contemporary Europe and North America but also to past leaders such as Nehru in India or Nasser in Egypt. Those leaders believed, much like their European counterparts, that religion was a regressive force. Secular nationalism was considered the natural successor to religion in an evolution toward a modern society. Nehru appealed to citizens to get rid of their “narrowing religious outlook” and to adopt a modern, nationalist point of view. On the other hand, many religious militants believe that society must be organized around religious principles and will not accept the idea of a secular state. This is a recipe for continuing conflict and violence. It was a radical fringe group of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, that assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981, and Sikh bodyguards who murdered Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India.

Tracing the uprising

Juergensmeyer traces the development of what he calls the religious uprising. He says that it occurred mainly within individual countries in the 1970s. Religious activists revolted against secular states that believed were both corrupt and inept. These uprisings include the Khalistani movement for Sikh separatism in India and the Muslim unrest in Egypt that led to Sadat’s assassination. Juergensmeyer places the 1979 Iranian revolution in this category as well. “The common element,” Juergensmeyer writes, “was an implicit moral critique of secular politics.”

In the 1980s, he says, the conflict became more international in scope. This is best symbolized in what he calls the “ad hoc coalition of jihadi Muslim radicals” that developed in the Afghan war against the Soviet occupation. “Afghanistan,” says Juergensmeyer, “became the crucible for creating the international Muslim political networks that would dominate global politics for the next two decades.” He says, as well, that Israel’s victory in 1967 over its Arab neighbours, helped to stimulate theological visions of a great new moment in Jewish history. The settlement movement, which has continually encroached upon Palestinian territory, has been driven by a extremist religious ideology. In turn, the Palestinian resistance movement, which had been largely secular under the leadership of Yassar Arafat, took on a religious character leading to the formation of Hamas.

Juergensmeyer says that the third stage in the gathering conflict was characterized by growing anti-American and anti-European sentiment in the 1990s. “The target of the religious activists’ wrath shifted from local regimes to the international centres of power.” With the fall of the Soviet Union, American hegemony appeared to be unfettered. As the Soviet Union faded, America, with its continuing military, economic and cultural prowess became in the words of Iranian revolutionaries, “the great Satan”.

I would emphasize that this era coincided with coincided with the onslaught of globalization, in which new technologies allowed investment, trade and culture to spread rapidly to even remote regions of the world. Religion became a form of resistance to the attack on tradition and community.

As evidence of the “gathering cold war”, Juergensmeyer points to the 1993 attack upon the World Trade Centre Towers in New York; on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; and on an American battleship in a Yemeni harbour in 2000. The even more deadly attack on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent American decision to invade both Iraq and Afghanistan elevated the struggle into what Juergensmeyer calls a “global war” that continues still. Americans launched a “war on terror”. Muslims construed it as a war upon Islam itself.

Hopes for accommodation

As Juergensmeyer catalogues the global conflict, one is left fearful that the clash of civilizations (secular and religious) will lead to enduring violence and war. He holds out hope that this will not happen. In some cases, he says, citizens are disgusted by violence done in the name of religion and militant groups are discredited. Religious activists also fall prey to divisions among themselves in ways that undermine their ability to challenge secular governments. In fact, many of these groups may oppose governments but often they have no alternate political program. Juergensmeyer says that Iran is the only example of a successful religious state.

In still other cases, he says, religious movements have been assimilated into the political process. He points to the negotiated end in 1998 of the protracted and violent struggle in Northern Ireland. In this case, he says, the more moderate activists on both the Catholic and Protestant sides moved into the public arena while extremists such as the Rev. Ian Paisley came to be ignored and isolated. But the record here is spotty. In Palestine, for example, Hamas has transformed itself into a political party that won a large majority in the new Palestinian parliament in the 2006 elections. In response, Israel, the U.S., the European Union, Canada and other countries imposed sanctions and suspended foreign aid.

Juergensmeyer concludes that Western countries will have to make more room for religion in the public sphere. This is difficult for most people in Western societies to accept although many of us may be comfortable with the political interventions of public figures such as Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King or Gandhi. None of these individuals, however, attempted to establish a political party or an alternative government.

Canadian as example?

The Canadian experience may well have something to offer as a model for the integration of faith movements into politics. The Protestant social gospel movement and religious figures such as J.S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas were instrumental in creating the CCF. The CCF-NDP, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the Liberal Party, have absorbed those religious principles and translated them into political programs. The Social Credit Party was also created by religious figures – including William Aberhart and Ernest Manning – and its foundational principles were carried forward by Preston Manning in the Reform Party and now by various Conservatives.

Their prescriptions vary significantly but in each case the evolution from movement to political party was made possible when people whose political motivation was mainly based on religious faith agreed to work in coalition with others who were secular in order to create a political parties with mass appeal. Preston Manning has, in his political retirement, been giving speeches about how religion is largely excluded from politics in Canada. Perhaps that is a debate worth having but I would argue that the religious impulse remains evident in our political life. That is a good thing but we should be cautious about how direct and prominent a role we want religion to play in politics.

2 thoughts on “Mark Juergensmeyer on global rebellion and religion

  1. An interesting article. But I think the situation is more complicated than just a religious rebellion against the secular state. Secular states got along for decades without engendering religious rebellion, so more is needed by way of explanation to account for today’s situation. Not all violent religious movements are the same. For some religion is a badge of ethnic identity (as in Sri Lanka and the Balkans). For others it is a standard against globalization (as with al Qaeda). For others it expresses the rage of a declining middle class (as in the US). If that is the case, then there is no one path to peace.

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your comment Bill. No doubt, I sell Juergensmeyer short due to the relative brevity of my piece. Much of his book deals with quite detailed case studies of various conflicts. And he does make the point that religion is only one of a number of reasons why rebellion (and violence) occurs.


  2. I think that the professor is behind the times. The conflict now is between the forces of globalization and those trying to promote justice, peace and truth. Many extremist religious groups are both needed and created so that so that those working for globalization can weaken national and individual rights. The national governments are now be used by multinational companies to implement there agenda. I think that you have it right Denis when you say that those who find there sense of justice comes from religious beliefs must work with those who find their sense of justice comes from within themselves.


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