Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a steady stream of academic literature began to appear in Europe and the US positing that religion was going to make a comeback in the West.

But the initial installments of this literature were overshadowed by academic literature that claimed that the ‘collapse of communism’ would usher in a dawn of global democracy. Indeed, many dictatorial regimes did begin to erode. And most countries did begin to adopt democracy.

However, by the early 2000s, it became clear that the new democracies were not evolving into becoming liberal democracies as hoped, but into systems of ‘illiberal democracy’ — a term coined in 1997 by the American political commentator Fareed Zakaria. Some also dub this phenomenon as ‘electoral authoritarianism’, in which elections do not stand up to democratic standards of being free and fair, and are only held to give dictatorial personages ‘democratic legitimacy.’

While the optimistic, post-Cold War theory of the global proliferation of liberal democracy fell on its face, the quality of democracy in various established bastions of liberal democracy, in Europe and the US, also began to alarmingly decline.

By shrinking secular spaces and expanding ‘Islamic’ influences, many Muslim states have fragmented under the pressure of proliferating radicalisation. There’s a lesson in that for the West as well

In the 2010s, with the outbreak of populism in established Western democracies, the debate has now turned inwards to investigate the causes of the decline. And since there’s also an element of ‘Christian fundamentalism’ attached to this populism, debates have also brought forth studies that had predicted the rise of religion in the absence of a global communist counterweight. Numerous books and studies are emerging on the revival of religion and this phenomenon’s links with politics in the US and Europe.

Read: Smokers' corner — The lethal mix of religion and politics

In the early 20th century, the influential German sociologist Max Weber had predicted that an emphasis on science and reason would completely push religion into the private sphere. He based his prognosis on the speed with which economic and political modernisation had taken place, and the manner in which the secularisation of politics and societies was gathering pace (ever since the 18th century).

The idea of ‘developed’ countries is based on Weber’s ‘Modernisation’ theory, which posits a model of transition, from pre-modern to a modern society. Modern societies, in this context, are secular and sustained by modern modes of economics.

Weber’s theory became a prominent paradigm in sociology, and for good reason. Till the 1960s, there was enough evidence to conclude that most transitional or ‘developing’ regions were aspiring to adopt the modernisation theory. However, from the 1980s onwards, some academics began to question the theory’s claim that the modernisation model would completely make religion a private affair.

In 1984, Richard J. Neuhaus, in his book 'The Naked Public Square', declared that America had entered a ‘post-secular age.’ Much of Neuhaus’s observations were based on the growth of the influence of and the politicisation of Christian evangelicals in the US, during the conservative Ronald Reagan presidency.

By the early 2000s, men such as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (in his magnum-opus A Secular Age) were positing that secularism had become extremely pluralistic and did not discourage co-existence with religion in the public sphere, as it did till the 1960s. Scholars writing on the post-secular condition also began to investigate Islamic revivals in the Muslim world.

But the question is, why did it take so long for most post-secular theorists in the West to investigate something that had already begun to take shape in various Muslim countries years ago? Indeed, from the 1940s onward, a majority of newly formed nation-states in Muslim regions had enthusiastically embraced economic and social modernisation models, even if not their democratic dimensions.

Secularism, or at least modified versions of it, came with the modernisation package. But, by the late 1960s, such models in these regions began to crumble, mainly because of economic mismanagement, losses in wars, a refusal to introduce democracy, and, ultimately, the consequential frustrations of these countries’ increasing populations.

For example, in Egypt and Pakistan, the modernisation model was adopted and applied after placing it in the context of Arab nationalism (Egypt) and Pakistani nationalism. But it began to erode from the late 1960s. Egypt suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of archenemy Israel in 1967, and Pakistan at the hands of archenemy India in 1971.

The trajectory of both the countries towards Islamic revivalism would be similar. First, the shock and humiliation of defeat gradually saw more and more people increasingly ‘Islamising’ their personal lives and then, a steady increase of people visiting mosques to pray. Islamist political groups, which had been suppressed or sidelined, surfaced and got more opportunities to print and publish their propaganda literature. They demanded a stop to ‘enforced modernisation’ and the imposition of Shariah laws.

A defeated state started to concede more and more space to the Islamists, even co-opting and turning many declarations of the Islamists into policy. The same thing happened in socialist-secular Somalia when it lost a war to Ethiopia. And then, in 1979, Iran’s ‘Islamic Revolution’ erupted as a radical expression against the Shah’s ‘tyrannical modernisation policies.’

The anti-communist insurgency in Afghanistan by Islamist militants in the 1980s provided further momentum to Islamic revivalism’s evangelical and social dimensions. This, then turned revivalism into a poignant political expression.

By the 1990s and 2000s, most Muslim regions were being ravaged by Islamist terrorism. States were struggling to establish their wavering writ, despite ‘Islamising’ themselves. Modernisation models might have failed, but their Islamist alternatives continued to decant into chaos.

A plethora of Muslim states that had tried to co-opt Islamist influence by shrinking secular spaces and expanding ‘Islamic’ influences, found themselves entrapped. They felt trapped because their policies not only failed to stem the tide of Islamist radicalisation, but also halted any attempt by the states to return to a more moderate disposition, let alone a secular one.

There is much to be learned by post-secular scholars in the West from this example. Taylor believes pluralism is healthy and will eventually lead to a peaceful co-existence of the sacred and the profane in public spaces.

It just might, because the established democratic systems in place in Europe and the US are believed to be strong enough to neutralise a possible rise of religious militancy. But recent studies have also suggested that some major democratic systems in Europe and the US are facing serious existential crises and degradation.

Those concerned should keep an eye on how an increase in religiosity in Muslim regions eventually mutated to not only pressurise states to become more and more radical, but also began to tear these states apart.

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 19th, 2021

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