Over the last few decades many Western nations have become less religious, but countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East—even the United States itself, in fervor if not in numbers—have seen the rise of a religious revivalism that is dramatically reshaping politics. Societies in which religion appeared to have been overcome as a political force only half a century ago are witnessing what political philosopher Michael Walzer calls a “return of the negated.” Of course, as Freud says of the repressed, the negated does not return unaltered. Today’s religious revival is not a resurrection of the traditionalist opposition to secular nationalism but a new form of hyper-nationalism underwritten by religious eschatology.
Traditionalist revivalism tends to evoke three types of responses. One is fascination. Michel Foucault’s embarrassing embrace of Iran’s Islamic revolution is a prime example. Another, typical of revolutionary Marxists and scientistic atheists, is militant rejection of religion as such. A third is more nuanced, advocating neither reckless romanticism nor blanket rejection but critical engagement.
Walzer advances a powerful case for the third position, which has been gaining popularity among leading intellectuals. His latest book, The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, studies the rise of religious revivalism as a political force in Israel, Algeria, and India, three countries created by movements of national liberation that were “committed . . . to an explicitly secular project.” Yet in the states these movements created, “a politics rooted in what we can loosely call fundamentalist religion is today very powerful.”
What explains this unexpected trajectory, according to Walzer, is a tension inherent to national liberation. Liberation requires not just removing the yoke of foreign oppression but also transforming the consciousness of the liberated—“a struggle against, rather than an ‘exaltation’ of, the existing nation.” Consequently,
But many among the liberated cling to traditions, rituals, symbols, and habits as wellsprings of meaning and identity. After the revolution subsides and its exhilarating heroism is replaced by the inglorious business of ordinary politics, the cherished old ways resurface, fuelled by resentment of the modernizing elites. In all three of his case studies, Walzer concludes that the secular nationalist revolution failed because “the culture of liberation was apparently too thin,” and it was too thin because it cut itself off from the tradition. Had the founders of these modern nations adopted a less hostile attitude toward tradition and “aimed at a critical engagement with the old culture rather than a total attack upon it . . . the story might have turned out differently.”
Walzer’s recipe for combating religious revivalism is critical engagement. “Alongside the ongoing work of negation,” he writes, “the tradition has to be acknowledged and its different parts ingathered” so they can “become the subject of ongoing argument and negotiation.” This is primarily an intellectual endeavor, focused on textual and cultural interpretation. As Walzer has written elsewhere, “The texts of our tradition are important, not holy. Every generation must read them again, and must debate them, to choose some and reject others,” with the aim of developing democratic, egalitarian versions of traditional texts and customs. Some years ago Kwame Anthony Appiah advanced a similar plea with respect to Africa, arguing that “ideological decolonization is bound to fail if it neglects either endogenous ‘tradition’ or exogenous ‘Western’ ideas, and that many African (and African American) intellectuals have failed to find a negotiated middle way.” Others advance such an approach with respect to Hinduism and to Islam.
Although Walzer’s analysis of the complexities of national liberation is characteristically insightful, his diagnosis of its effects and his prescription for confronting it are wrong. Of his three case studies, Zionism is clearly the one in which he is most invested and about which he is best informed. The same is true of us. A closer look at the religious counterrevolution in Israel reveals the errors in his account and the shortcomings of the approach he advocates.
Adapted from http://bostonreview.net/forum/avishai-margalit-assaf-sharon-confronting-religious-revivalism