As PhD students in political science at Harvard some twenty years ago, two of us (Shah and Philpott) had to take an introductory course on comparative world politics, and the first book we distinctly remember reading in that course was The Passing of Traditional Society, by Daniel Lerner. This was a classic, highly influential study of the coming of modernity—modern values, modern education, modern organizations—and how the juggernaut of modernity was inexorably, inevitably revolutionizing the traditional societies and cultures of the Middle East. Reading that book in the early 1990s, we vividly recall Lerner’s sweeping conclusion about what modernity would mean for religion and traditional culture and for Islam. He concluded that Islam in the Middle East is “absolutely defenseless” in the face of the rationalist and positivist spirit of modernity. The modernization, urbanization, and industrialization of Egypt and other Arab countries in the Middle East would inevitably bring the secularization of Egypt and the countries of the Middle East.
We don’t know exactly how many of our graduate school classmates went on to work in the State Department or the Defense Department or the Rand Corporation or the White House or Capitol Hill. We don’t know exactly how many of them went on to study and teach Middle East politics to other people, including people who would then go on to work in the State Department or the Defense Department or the Rand Corporation or the White House or Capitol Hill. But we know that some of them went on to jobs in government, and some of them went on to jobs as professors of political science at major universities. But wherever they went, the view of global politics in which they were immersed—in which we were immersed—was, we’re sorry to say, the poorest possible preparation for the era of global politics in which we now live—the era we call “God’s Century” in our new book by that name: God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics.
All of our Harvard classmates (and in Monica Toft’s case, University of Chicago classmates) who entered, say, the State Department had lots of political economy, or political sociology, or international security, or theories of democratization, crammed into their heads, and were well prepared to analyze almost any conceivable global political problem. But the one thing they did not have crammed into their heads was any understanding of religion, or even any expectation that religion might be an important factor in shaping global politics.
Though Islam was supposed to be “absolutely defenseless” in the face of modernity, here we are today, mesmerized by the events of the current Arab Spring. Right now, in country after country, the central issue is what kinds of regimes, what kinds of systems and societies, will come next—now that so many authoritarian lids are being blown off, from Egypt to Libya, from Yemen to Bahrain. And in all these cases, whatever the ultimate political outcomes may be, the various Islamic groups right now flooding into the foreground are going to have a major impact on determining the future of these societies. In other words, as we grapple with the central issue of what the future in the Middle East will look like, a central task becomes understanding an Islam that some of our most influential social scientists told us was supposed to be “absolutely defenseless.”
As we address some of our most central geopolitical challenges, we must delve into the details of religion and religious actors. What is their real organizational capacity? What are their real political intentions? What are their theologies of politics? What is their religious inspiration? What is their religious agenda?
Of course, religious groups—such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Islah Party in Yemen—may not always be leading the pro-freedom charge. Still, the religious leanings of the masses have been visible almost everywhere, as when the conservative Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi addressed the praying crowds of Egyptians in Tahrir Square at the enormous victory rally on February 18th. He praised the “youth of the revolution,” which “has lifted the head of this country and made us proud once again." And he called the young people who made the revolution “the new partisans of God.”
Sheik Qaradawi was right. Demonstrably religious young people, Muslims and Coptic Christians alike, were very much partisans of God in their consistent invocation of religious slogans, signs, and symbols. And it was these religious people who, rather than having been secularized by the revolution of modernity, actually made a political revolution that our secular, sophisticated political science did not anticipate.
And this revolution raises questions for which our secular policy frameworks have few, if any, answers. On the contrary, our policy frameworks condition us to believe either that groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood do not matter or that such groups are an utterly alien and abnormal force that should make us panic.
Which is to say that we, along with all of our Harvard- and Chicago-trained classmates, were rendered far worse than ignorant. It’s not just that religion was not on the syllabus. It is that we were trained to think that religion could not matter; our mental maps were wired to screen religion out as powerless, as something that would just roll over in the face of modernity, and therefore, as something that required no theoretical or practical attention.
But where are we now? Now, the true character of the Islam that was supposed to be “absolutely defenseless” in the face of modernization has become a central issue—if not the critical issue—as we navigate the new Middle East. And yet, right now, how many of our analysts of international relations, our makers of foreign policy, have the education, the background, and the tools for developing a fine-grained analysis of these “partisans of God”? How many of our State Department’s staff and the writers of the President’s daily briefs can think clearly and knowledgeably about the resurgence of religion that has so surprised us?
How many of us are remotely ready for God’s Century? After all, the very fact that the 21st century is as religious as it is is a shock. The century most of us thought was coming was supposed to look very different. It was supposed to look like the last century, only more so—a 20th century, as Lerner and so many others suggested, in which religion was put on the defensive by modern forces, movements, and ideologies. In many ways, it really was the case that in the 20th century, the world’s most cutting-edge and consequential political forces were anything but self-proclaimed “partisans of God.” On the contrary, the cutting-edge agents and actors sweeping global politics in the 20th century were, more often than not, the opposite of self-proclaimed partisans of God and were far more frequently the self-proclaimed enemies of God. This may sound like an exaggeration. It’s not.
Consider Mexican politician Tomás Garrido Canabal. In many ways, Tomás Canabal was an apt symbol of 20th-century politics. In the mid-1920s, about ten years after the radically anti-clerical Mexican Revolution, Canabal became the governor of the state of Tabasco, in the south of the country. He made it such an important plank of his political platform to rid Tabasco of what he called "clerical opium" that he made it illegal to wear a crucifix or to say "adios"—because it had "Dios" in it. He even proudly handed out little calling cards that described himself as "the personal enemy of God”—a habit that would have limited his networking opportunities, one would think, but he was a man of strong conviction.
Though this sounds outlandish, it’s a pretty good exemplar of political ideologies and trends that became increasingly common and influential in global politics, from the time of the anti-clerical French Revolution of 1789 until they became a largely spent force by the time of the pro-clerical Iranian revolution of 1979.
Beginning in the 19th century, secularist movements and ideologies were more the norm than the exception in world politics, and they swept over every part of the world in the 20th century, peaking in influence and reach between 1917 and 1967. Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution, Ataturk’s Turkish Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Nasser’s Pan-Arab Revolution, the Shah of Iran’s White Revolution, the viciously anti-religious Cambodian Revolution—the list goes on and on, of ideologies and movements that were successful, at least for a time, in attacking or at least containing the power of religion.
Even in the United States, various cultural, legal, and political forces worked together to promote a kind of secular separationism that exerted a powerful influence from the 1920s into the 1970s. Court cases, the ideas of influential thinkers such as John Dewey and Carl Becker, Protestant opposition to the alleged rise of Catholic power in American society and politics—these often encouraged a view that politics and public life were not supposed to be interfered with by “sectarianism.” If religion did not disappear, it should be closeted. As Carl Becker said at Harvard in 1931, "We may still believe in Zeus; many people do. Even scientists, historians, philosophers still accord him the customary worship. But this is no more than a personal privilege, to be exercised in private."
Indeed, the success of these political enemies of God helped to make it seem that secularization was the wave of the future. They made it seem that religion was a dying supernova, enjoying its penultimate glow before disappearing from history. They made it easily forgivable to think of the 20th century as the “Godless Century,” at least as far as politics was concerned, making it increasingly common to ask whether God was dead, as Time magazine famously did on its cover in April 1966. They made it possible to view religion as absolutely defenseless in the face of modernity.
Today, however, most of these political ideologies and movements are a spent force. Today, the politics of secularization has less of the world in its grip than, perhaps, in any time since the early 19th century.
Yet if the politics of secularization has gone into steep decline, the theory of secularization is remarkably stubborn. There is evidence that it still has much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment—trained at lingering bastions of secularization theory—very much in its grip. More on that on May 18th, in part II of this essay.
Timothy Shah is Assistant Professor in the Department of Government, Georgetown University. Daniel Philpott is Associate Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame. Monica Toft is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. They are the authors of the recently published God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics and continue to collaborate closely as associate scholars of the new Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, Georgetown University.