Denunciations of “religious extremism,” always commonplace, have never sounded more persuasive as Islamic State and Boko Haram go on murderous rampages and sectarian killers enjoy political respectability in places such as Pakistan. Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken out a fresh lease on Christianity’s old compact with imperialism. Many prominent rabbis in Israel have ignored the 19th-century conflict between Judaism and Zionism to sanction the messianic aims of settlers in the West Bank.
Non-monotheistic religions do not seem to have fared much better despite their explicit commitments to diversity and pluralist practice. In the past two decades, Hindu nationalists have sought self-affirmation in grisly acts of violence against minorities. Buddhist monks have led lynch mobs in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and they have proudly turned out as soldiers in Thailand’s counterinsurgency campaign in the southern provinces.
If the “return” of religion shocks us, it is because we are too accustomed to reading its premature obituary. A range from European prophets, from Marx to Max Weber, shared the belief that democracy, economic growth, technology and mass culture would wean people away from reliance on the supernatural and usher them into a truly “disenchanted” secular world. As the process of modernization moved from the West to the non-West, religion would retreat from the public into the private sphere.
For much of the world’s population, however, religion has continued to provide the basic vocabulary for conversations about society, politics, law and the good life. In fact, the threatening incursions of the West and the modern world in the 19th century stimulated a reinterpretation of religious faith and identity in many Asian and African countries.
The calls for jihad against the British in India and the revolt of the Mahdi in Sudan are well-documented instances of Islamist mobilization against the all-conquering West. Many of the leading thinkers of the non-Muslim world – Han Yongun in Korea, Taixu in China, Anagarika Dharampala in Sri Lanka, U Dhammaloka in Burma, Swami Vivekananda in India – also hoped for a properly organized Buddhism or Hinduism to provide the basis for national strength, solidarity and identity in the modern world.
In many cases, their fondest dreams – and worst fears – have been realized. Buddhist nationalism is no longer an oxymoron in Sri Lanka. Fringe believers in “Akhand Bharat” or Undivided India seem to have hijacked the mainstream discourse of secular nationalism in India.
But then, modern nationalism itself has the symbolism and ritual of religion: a missionary belief in cultural distinctiveness, a political theology that includes declarations of independence and constitutions, and civic liturgies demanding reverence for the flag and founding fathers. Religious symbols and narratives have long permeated even the evidently secularized West.
Irish nationalism identified itself with Catholicism; the Welsh broke en masse with Anglicanism in the 19th century to define their own national identity. The American Revolution was preceded and followed by a great efflorescence of Protestant denominations.
Republican France, from which the creed of progressive secularization is drawn, has always been exceptional. Nevertheless, Nicolas Sarkozy revealed an unalterable fact when he claimed that Europe’s roots are essentially Christian.
Queen Elizabeth remains the head of the Church of England. Even today, Germany finances its churches and allows them to tax their members. The constitutionally mandated separation of church and state doesn’t prevent religion from influencing politics in the U.S. A sense of providential mission infuses the rhetoric of U.S. foreign policy.
Clearly, our faith in the miracle of secular modernization defies all evidence of the intensity, persistence and variety of religious belief in the West as well as the East. More fatefully, it hinders us from questioning whether there is such a thing as the purely secular.
Zionism was aggressively anti-religious in its European origins. But its basic goals – redemption of the “promised land” and revival of the Hebrew language – were informed by theological notions.
The Indian claim to an Undivided India, whose mythology-inspired map includes all of South Asia, has been advanced at different times by “secular” members of the Congress party as well as Hindu fanatics.
We have assumed too easily – and complacently – the moral superiority and eventual triumph of the “secular.” But Islamic State has more in common with the utopia of the fanatically secular Khmer Rouge than anything in the long history of Islam. We need fresher ideas to understand the great violence of our times, which is far from being explained by diehard secularists blustering against religious extremism.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist, author and commentator.