The politics of religion in post-Christian Europe

Recent years have seen a startling rise in the political salience of religion. This seems to hold true in every corner of the globe, from the 9/11 atrocity in the U.S., to the embrace of Orthodoxy by Russian President Vladimir Putin, to the attacks on Muslims by militant Buddhists in Myanmar. And now, we have the brutal assaults on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and kosher market in Paris to add to the list.

Yet at the same time, religious belief and participation in religious rituals at the level of the individual has steadily declined. In the European Union, according to a 2005 Eurobarometer poll, only 52% of respondents agreed with the statement “I believe there is a God.”

How is one to explain this apparent paradox: the gap that has opened up between the politicization of religion at national level even as it recedes from the life of most individuals?

The answer lies in political changes, and the impact of globalization on the capacity for collective action at the national level.

The 1960s saw the onset of a sharp decline in church-going in Europe and the U.S. Hugh Mcleod, a historian at Birmingham University in England, explains that this was a result of multiple factors, from changes in family structure – including more rights for women – to a weakening of national identity. In subsequent decades the arrival of large numbers of non-Christian migrants forced European states to adapt by cutting state ties to Christian churches, changing school curricula, and seeking a new narrative of collective belonging.

While in France the state doubled down on assimilation (banning the wearing of the hijab in public schools), Britain opted for multiculturalism. Previously, the overwhelming majority of citizens had been baptized into the Church of England and had compulsory bible class in all state schools. But now British schools teach a world religions curriculum – or a Moslem curriculum, in certain Moslem-majority areas, as a recent scandal revealed.

Daniel Loss, a historian at Harvard, argues that this enabled the Church of England to find a new role as part of a national dialog on how to incorporate the new religious communities and preserve social unity. The Archbishop of Canterbury continues to play a prominent role in moral debate, even though less than 5% of the population are regular attendees at Anglican services. Religion shifted from being founded in a direct relationship between individuals and the state, to a question of communal group representation.

Some religious believers pushed back against the secularization trend by turning to more radical or dogmatic expressions of their faith. The 1980s saw a revival of religious activism in the U.S. and many other parts of the world, often through grass-roots organizations that had weak ties with the state. Examples range from the evangelicals in the U.S. to the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt. These groups became more prominent in part because mainstream congregations were continuing to shrink.

In the most extreme cases, the movement that grew in response to the secularization of the 1960s turned to violence. In Britain, the wake-up call showing the limits of the state’s multiculturalism strategy was the London bombings of July 2005. This has triggered a lively and as yet unresolved debate about how the state should respond. In France, the assault on Charlie Hebdo is the equivalent of the 7/7 bombings. In both cases, the perpetrators were home-grown, born and raised in Britain (three of the four) and France respectively, so the attacks could not entirely be blamed on foreign radicals. Both the British and French terrorists cited the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a reason for their anger. (This despite the fact that the French government at the time, under conservative President Jacques Chirac, had vociferously opposed the U.S.-led invasion.)

The shift to political violence arose because of a sense of frustration and powerlessness. Faith in democracy has been declining faster than faith in religion. The increased flow of people, ideas, and power across national borders undermined the democratic model of communities making collective decisions about their fate. Increasingly, decisions about a country’s economic policies or political direction seemed to be made in Brussels or Washington, and not in the national capital. This has caused the Christian and post-Christian majority populations to drift into apathy, consumerism, and alternative religions – and to offer their vote to populist and nationalist parties.

As for the ethnic minorities, majoritarian electoral systems and winner-take-all economic conditions made it increasingly unlikely that their voice would be heard – unless it was amplified through demonstrative atrocities. Radical Islamists see democracy as a threat to Shariah law, so they want to hasten its demise.

The rise of politicized religion is thus a product of deep and varied developments in the international political economy; it is not caused by some flaw in Islamic theology. Finding a solution to the problem will be equally complex and protracted.




Putin’s Caucasian knot

Grozny Attack Is Another Headache for Putin

Arbi Zubairaev / Reuters

The terrorist attack in Grozny on Dec. 4, the day of President Vladimir Putin’s state of the nation address, was a brutal reminder that the problem of unrest in the Muslim republics of Russia’s North Caucasus remains a mortal danger to the stability of the country in general and Putin’s regime in particular. Fifteen years ago, Putin rose to the presidency pledging to “restore constitutional order” in the then-breakaway republic of Chechnya.

The nine gunmen on Dec. 4 arrived in the center of Grozny in the dead of night, where they were stopped by a police patrol and forced to take refuge in nearby buildings. All were eventually killed, at the cost of 14 police lives and 30 wounded. The fact that the group did not succeed in killing a large number of civilians is testimony to the effectiveness of the security regime of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, which relies on a blanket police presence and ruthless hounding of dissidents.

In the wake of the assault, Kadyrov announced that family members of those who took part in the attack will be expelled from Chechnya, and their houses will be leveled. Such punishments are not allowed under Russian law, but that has not proven an obstacle to Kadyrov’s actions in the past.

Evidence thus far released suggests that this was a locally recruited gang, part of the Caucasus Emirate, and not loyal to a more far-flung terrorist network, such as Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. The last major attack sponsored by the Caucasus Emirate was the suicide assault on Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport in January 2011, which killed 37.

However, it seems clear that large numbers of young men from the former Soviet Union have been drawn to the fighting in Syria and Iraq — just as they have been recruited from Britain, Canada, France and elsewhere. There are reportedly 1,000 Russian-speakers fighting on the side of Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria — split among the various rival factions — including many Chechens.

There has been some speculation that Ukrainian radicals might try to make common cause with anti-Russian Islamist terrorists. Chechens have been fighting on both sides in eastern Ukraine — some among the Russian “volunteers” supporting the separatists, and others supporting the Kiev government — such as a group led by Isa Munayev, a veteran of the Chechen independence wars. This development is manna to Russian propagandists and their narrative of the evil intentions of their opponents in Kiev.

However, the more serious problem that the Grozny attack highlights is domestic rather than international — the risk that the pro-Moscow rulers in the North Caucasus will lose their ability to control the situation in their respective republics.

It is not only that threats of terrorist violence emanate from the North Caucasus: The financial subsidies that Moscow pays to keep the republics in line are a drain on the Russian federal budget. Russian oppositionists complain that in return for Moscow’s support, the leaders of the Caucasus republics shamelessly rig elections to deliver absurdly high votes for Putin and United Russia.

In December 2011, Chechnya delivered an implausible 99.48 percent of its votes for United Russia, while the national average was 64 percent. In neighboring Ingushetia 91 percent voted for United Russia, and in Dagestan 83 percent. In the March 2012 presidential election, Chechnya voted 99.76 percent for Putin, while Dagestan voted 92.8 percent and Ingushetia 91.9 percent. The millions of votes in the North Caucasus could prove decisive in ensuring a Kremlin victory in a future close-run federal election.

With the Kremlin under strain from a declining economy and unsettled standoff in eastern Ukraine, instability in the Caucasus is the last thing they need, since it brings attention back to the thorny question of whether the North Caucasus will in fact remain part of the Russian Federation in the long run.

The politics of nationalism in Bangladesh

The undergraduate students in the Nationalism class that I taught this past semester all prepare a 10 minute i-movie on a topic of their choosing.Saarim Zaman prepared this report on Bangladesh, showing how since independence the two rival parties (the Awami League and the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party) have adopted differing narratives of national identity: ethno-linguistic Bengali nationalism versus territorial and religious Bangladeshi nationalism.