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Do Revolutions Give Rise to Religious Fanaticism?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-06-01 09:54:07
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Do Revolutions Give Rise to Religious Fanaticism?
A book-review by Dr. Emanuel L. Paparella

The Paradox of Liberation by Michael Walzer (Yale University Press, 2015)

In 2013 Professor Michael Walzer delivered the Henry L. Stimson Lectures at Yale University. After the death of John Rawls Walzer can be considered America’s greatest living political philosopher. His books     (27 of them) invariably deal with interesting issues such as exile and revolution, pluralism and diversity, just and unjust wars, the Hebrew prophets as critics of the flaws of their society. This latest book of his, a compilation of the above mentioned lectures, follows in that tradition and is well worth an attentive reading.

The book is an excursus into the ironies of political action and has as underpinning a fascinating but also controversial thesis, namely this: secular revolutions without intending it, give rise to religious fanaticism. To prove his thesis Walzer looks at three revolutions which took place in Israel, India and Algeria in the middle of the 20th century and then asks the question: Why did they do it? The three leaders of those revolutions are David Ben-Gurion, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Ahmed Ben Bella. Each of them led a nationalistic anti-colonial movement which they hoped would usher in a new and more just society. Instead, Walzer mantains, they prepared the ground for unbending dogmatism and second class status for women.. Those leaders were subsequently replaced by those who look backward rather than by those who look forward. That is indeed a truly paradoxical outcome.  How did it come about?


Walzer begins with Israel and an analysis of Zionism as a movement which turned its back on the religious traditions which had sustained Jewish life from time immemorial. It was not interested in prophecy but in geography, that is to say the Bible as a map of the land the Jews once held. Zionism’s confidence in this secular approach was such that it fully expect the religious traditions to die out. Instead, at the recent electoral triumph of Benjamin Netanyahu portends, the country is on the brink of scrapping its democracy in favor of orthodoxy, the orthodoxy on which Netanyahu depends in order to retain power. This turns Zionism on it head: while Zionism tamed the messianic element in Judaism, the ultra-Orthodox on the extreme right of the political spectrum, revived it with a vengeance. Walzer interprets this to mean that secularism lacks a rich sense of culture and tradition, the appeal to history.


The same problem, even more intractable, was faced by the movement for Indian Independence: like Ben Gurion, Nehru never recognized and appreciated the traditional religious tenets of the state he brought about which took the forms of Hinduism and Muslim. And this despite the fact that Gandhi, the main instigator of independence, was very sympathetic toward Hinduism, much more so than Zionism was toward traditional Judaism. Nehru, Walzer informs us, was dominated by a secular fear: that recognizing the religious communities would only strengthen them. After all, it was religious zeal that lead to the breakaway of those provinces which eventually became Pakistan.


Finally Walzer comes to Algeria. He takes notice that its anti-colonialism was inspired by the writings of Frantz Fanon, especially his The Wretched of the Earth which had a powerful influence on most liberationists around the globe. He is the most secular of all the figures mentioned in the book. For him, Christianity symbolizes external oppression, from abroad, while Islam is the homegrown variety. The leaders of the movement (The National Liberation Front) considered themselves secular socialists and aimed at a secular state which would be “sovereign, democratic, and social, within the framework of the principles of Islam. Obviously what separated the FLN from France was not religious fervor but left-wing politics. Given the authoritarian temperament of the early Algerian leaders unwilling to share power, a flourishing democracy was always unlikely and has remained a chimera. What complicated things was the militancy of the Islam Salvation Front which represented the religious opposition. So in the end we are left with political power dominated by the military, Muslim groups retaining a great deal of influence. The FLN remains one of the countries political parties. This is a bit different from what happened in Israel or India but does not in itself invalidate Walzer’s thesis which asserts that democracy in the end is the biggest loser when fanaticism, be it secular or religious, predominates. Plenty of food for thought and reflection in this short but lucid book.


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Leah Sellers2015-06-01 17:00:11
Yes Sir, and our American ForeFathers and ForeMothers recognized that fact, dear Sir. John Adams was correct when he said that the American Constitution and Democratic Republic was written for Folks who believed in a Higher Being and who were Moral. Just as there must be a Balance of Separation and State, there is a Balance that must be maintained between the Belief in a Higher Being, Morals and Ethics and the Secular. Just because one is more Secular does not mean that they must be less Moral or Ethical to Be so. And all too often, all are devoured at the so called Secular Altars of the voracious Individual and Societal Eating Disorders of Power and Greed !

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