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Political Theology and Counter-secularization: A Weberian look at Political Islam and Hindu Nationalism


Renaud Fabbri queries the assumption that political Islam and Hindu nationalism are anti-modernist: “...whereas European counter-revolutionary political theology could be interpreted mostly as a passéistic reaction against modernity, the new political religious movements of the Middle East and India obey a different dynamic aimed at the production of new forms of “religious modernity.”

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Fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage. (…) No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or weather at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas or ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrifaction, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism


Since the end of the 1970s, the world has witnessed the rise of “new religious political movements”[i] that have been challenging the secular state, sometimes prompting communal violence and terrorism. There is probably no need for the readers of this website to be reminded of the history of the Islamist movements in the Middle East. In India, in the wake of the political crisis opened by the emergency declared by Indira Gandhi, the 1980s were marked by the beginning of the rise to power of the Baratiya Janata Party (BJP), the political branch of the Sangh Parivar. The Hindu nationalist movement finds its direct origin in the xenophobic writings of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar who in the 1920s conceptualized the notion of Hindutva, a ‘Hindu essence’ rooted in the history of the Indian subcontinent since the Vedic Age. As communal tensions were escalating in the pre-partition period, he perceived Indian Muslims as a threat to the Hindu Self. He inspired the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing paramilitary organization founded by Keshav Baliram Hedegwar in 1925 and headed for decades by the charismatic Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar. It was a former member of the RSS who assassinated Gandhi, and the Sangh Parivarthe RSS but also its religious branch the Vishva Hindu Parishad—has been involved in a series of incidents of communal violence, such as the destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 and, more recently, the attacks on Christians in Orissa. From 1998 to 2004, Atal Bihari Vajpayee served as the first Hindu nationalist prime minister of India.

Whereas a considerable amount of attention has been paid to the security threat these movements represent and to their geopolitical destabilizing effect, the theoretical analyses of their discourses tend to be undermined by simplistic assumptions about their ideology. According to one of these assumptions, these movements oppose modernity and instead cultivate some form of traditionalist nostalgia. In this respect, their perspective would be closely akin to the counter-revolutionary political theology that flourished in Western Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution. What the latter envisioned was a return to the blessed age of Saint Louis, to a Christian monarchy under the paternal watch of the Church and under the guard of a feudal aristocracy. At a less sentimental level, these late political theologians initiated an intellectual offensive against the very foundations of political modernity, namely the idea of popular sovereignty. According to Joseph de Maistre, the Godfather of all the European counter-revolutionaries, the French Revolution was the last chapter in the history of the insurrection by the fallen man against God. All the constitutions, written by men and inspired by the philosophers, are doomed to collapse because political legitimacy needs to proceed from Above. De Maistre rejected the idea of democracy and advocated a return to “divine right” monarchy. According to the 19th century Spanish politician Donoso Cortes, all the modern political ideologies from liberalism to socialism and anarchism can be traced back to a religious heresy already condemned by the Church. This was a radical thesis that prompted the German jurist Carl Schmitt to write that all the important concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts. As Hans Blumenberg argued, this strong version of the “theorem of secularization” amounts to an attempt to delegitimize modern times by calling into question their claims to a radical departure from tradition.

However, is it true that the new political theologies that have emerged in the Middle East and in India serve the same anti-modernist purpose? At first glance, they share a lot in common: conservative if not reactionary values; a mysticism of the Golden Age (the prophetic community of Medina or the Vedic Age); a rejection of secularism and the pretension of man to build a world outside of a Transcendent norm. Joseph de Maistre’s metapolitics even finds a quite direct equivalent in the core idea of classical Islamist discourse from Abul Ala Maududi to Sayed Qutb, namely the unconditional assertion of “divine sovereignty” (hakimiyya) against the tyranny of the human rules of the Jahiliyya. One needs to remark though, that in the Indian context, the ideology of the Hindutva is more comparable to the later manifestations of the counter-revolutionary tradition. The Action Française of Charles Maurras and the German Conservative Revolution clearly moved away from theocratism and converted to a religious nationalism in which religion is simply valorized as a part of a cherished cultural heritage. Charles Maurras was notoriously an agnostic and so was Savarkar. The attitude of Hindu nationalists toward religion and their tendency to openly instrumentalize the Sanathana Dharma for political purpose have prompted negative reactions from Hindu traditionalists like Swami Karpatri.

The assimilation of the new political theologies of the Middle East and of India to European counter-revolutionary anti-modernism proves, however, to be misleading, if we want to understand the meaning of their ‘political theology.’ Contemporary Islamists and Hindu nationalists do not originate in traditionalist circles but, on the contrary, come from the reformist discourse of the colonial period: for Islam, Jamal-al-Din Afghani, Muhammad Abduh and Muhammad Iqbal; for Hinduism, Ram Mohan Roy, Maharishi Dayanand Saraswati, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo. Both groups depart from the positions of the traditional hierocracy in their attempt to “rationalize” religious beliefs and practices. Neo-Hinduism in particular was very much influenced by the protestant and utilitarian criticism of Hindu polytheism, its superstitions and the caste system. At a deeper level, they all share a new activist outlook that may be betraying their fundamental modernity. Building on Marcel Gauchet’s revisiting of Weber’s notion of the “disenchantment of the world,” I argue that the most distinctive feature of the modern age is that man, even if he continues to harbor religious “values,” has become “producer of his own world.” He no longer expects a supernatural intervention to change the meaning of life on earth. In Hinduism, thinkers like Vivekananda have started to reflect on the possibility of a “practical” vedantic ethic, and later, in the reformist commentaries of the Bhagavad Gita (those of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Aurobindo in particular), we witness a renewed interest in the religious and political significance of the path of action (karma-marga). Building on this legacy, the Hindu nationalists have ended up secularizing the sectarian religious model and the ideal of individual deliverance (moksha), transforming it into an ideal of intramundane collective progress. In Islam, modernists like Iqbal have looked down with suspicion at Sufism, which they reproach for having turned the best minds of the community away from this world. Thinkers like Hassan al-Banna and Qutb later put a new emphasis on political activism and the role of a vanguard capable of seizing the state or working for the re-Islamization of society. They have thus tended to displace the heart of historical Islamic religiosity from extramundane mysticism to the political and ethical sphere, at the risk of making it degenerate into an obsessive moralism.

To properly measure the modernity of the Islamists and the Hindu nationalists, one also needs to take into account the influence of Western “secular religions” and later postmodernism on them. Although Hassan al-Banna was apparently deeply critical of fascism as an extreme form of European imperialism and of Nazi anti-Semitism[ii] (something that contemporary discussions about Islamo-fascism too easily overlook), he wanted the Muslim Brothers to emulate fascism’s militaristic and hierarchical organization and its propaganda techniques. As far as they were concerned, Savarkar and Golwalkar saw in the Nazi regime a model of national renewal, the latter even applauding its treatment of the Jews as a model for dealing with the Muslim minority. In Iran, Ali Shariati sought to realize nothing short of a synthesis between Marxism and Shiism, and his Islamo-socialist legacy did not end with the revolution. The post-modernist critic of the enlightenment project has also attracted much attention among the new religious political movements. Islamists have repeatedly played the card of “cultural relativism” in order to challenge the western hegemonic discourse about human rights and liberal feminism. In India, Hindu nationalists pushed the logic even further in the name of “decolonizing the Hindu mind.” They contended that if scientific objectivity is a myth and if all sciences are ultimately socially and culturally constructed, then “Vedic creationism” is equally valuable as Western science. Building on Western eco-feminism, Hindu nationalists have attacked the achievements of the Green Revolution from the Nehru and Indira Gandhi years. On the contrary, they have celebrated the organic traditional way of life of the rural communities and women’s “closeness to nature” while remaining silent about enduring caste tensions and patriarchal forms of domination in Indian villages. In the end, the same discourse that in the West has served to empower the oppressed is used by Hindu nationalism to find a new legitimacy for traditional and yet contemporary power relations.

As we begin to see, whereas European counter-revolutionary political theology could be interpreted mostly as a passéistic reaction against modernity, the new political religious movements of the Middle East and India obey a different dynamic aimed at the production of new forms of “religious modernity.” They do partake in the century-old phenomenon of the disenchantment/rationalization of the world, but the end of the process does not seem to be an “exit from religion” but a rationalized and politicized religion, a disenchanted but not a secularized state of society. It is very important to remark here that this Weberian notion of disenchantment of the world should not be confused with a teleological discourse about the progress of reason in history. In Weber’s mind, it simply refers to a transformation within religion, the replacement of the magical means of salvation by ethical means, and to the gradual autonomization of the political, economical, esthetical and erotic spheres from religion. Weber speaks about a “polytheism of values” that reaches its summit with modernity. As such, disenchantment and secularization are connected, but the two concepts should not be collapsed on one another, as they often are, especially if one seeks to understand the meaning of contemporary new political religious movements.

Jean-Claude Monod has distinguished between three meanings of the concept of secularization. It can refer to the liquidation of religion that loses more and more control over human life. In a second and older sense, secularization can mean the realization of the promises of religion by modernity. That is the idea behind the Hegelian philosophy of the Spirit. Finally, secularization can indicate a more or less unconscious transfer of elements from the religious sphere to the secular sphere. We have previously referred to Carl Schmitt’s theological genealogy of the modern state, a question later pursued by Ernst H. Kantorowicz in his famous book, The King’s Two Bodies. For another author, Karl Lowith, the idea of progress amounts to a secularization of the theological notion of providence. We could multiply the examples. It seems that with Islamic and Hindu political theologies we are witnessing an inverted process of counter-secularization. With perhaps the exception of the Afghani Taliban before 9/11, none of these movements seriously want to liquidate modernity as such, as they are too fascinated by the means of control and domination that it provides. But they claim that religion can realize the promises of modernity that Westernized elites, those of the time of Arab nationalism or Nehruian socialism, failed to materialize. But for religion to fulfill these expectations, elements from the “imported” modernity need to be borrowed and transferred from the secular sphere to the religious sphere. Counter-secularization as a realization leads to counter-secularization based on a transfer.

In the case of the Islamists, they have sought to de-secularize the rational and bureaucratic state, the “mortal God” of Hobbes that in the West has contributed more than anything else to curb the power of the Church. Whereas the Islamic modernists wanted to build nation states, beginning with Muhammad Rashid Rida’s neo-Caliphatism, we have been witnessing attempts to Islamize the “imported state.” The State was seen more or less as a child of necessity by the traditional Islamic jurisprudence, an epiphenomenon for the Ummah. But for Maududi and Qutb, its establishment on the basis of the Islamic law as its constitution was raised to the level of a religious duty for Muslims. In recent years, faced with the failures of and disenchantment with the Islamic State, moderate Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood (like Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi but also post-Islamist thinkers like Abdolkarim Soroush), who are rediscovering the legacy of the 19th century reformists, have advocated a new form of “Islamic democracy” which seeks to reconcile the language of religion and the language of rights. It is not obvious, however, how they can resolve the contradiction between the idea of divine sovereignty and the idea of popular sovereignty without having to make the hypothesis of a natural and enduring religiosity among the Muslim masses. We should also point out an interesting parallel between the Iranian reformists and social Catholics like Hugues Felicité Robert de Lamennais. Both emerged from theocratist circles (for Lamennais, Joseph de Maistre’s ultramontanism; for the Iranian reformists, the legacy of Ruhollah Khomeini) but, in a similar manner, they ended up defending political freedom and the separation between state and Church in the name of religion and faith.

Although Deendayal Upadhyaya’s “Integral Humanism,” the official philosophy of the BJP, continues to present the state as subordinated to the Dharma and to the nation, Hindu nationalists have often advocated, at least rhetorically, the instauration of an Hindu state (Hindu Rashtra), sometimes building on the myth of the Rama Rajya. But in their case, they could not operate in the same manner as the Islamists because the secular state and democracy benefit from a high level of popular support and have been remarkably successful, when compared to most countries of the Middle East, in dealing with complicated issues like massive poverty and ethno-religious separatism. As a result of that, the process of counter-secularization through transfer has taken a different form among the Hindu nationalists. They have sought to re-enchant the Indian polity, to restore its numinosity by injecting religious symbols and values into it. The question remains open though: Have Hindu nationalists been able to change the system more than they have been changed by the system themselves? With the electoral defeat of the BJP in 2004, the Hindu nationalists seem to be divided between those afraid of the prospect of ideological dilution and who want to return to hardcore Hindutva, and those more willing to be co-opted by the institutions and to play by the democratic rules, even if it is at the price of transforming the Sangh Parivar into simply a conservative movement.

This too brief comparative examination of the Islamists and the Hindu nationalists suggests at least that none of them can be reduced to the reactive anti-modernism epitomized by the counter-revolution, now almost an extinct species in Europe since at least the 2nd World War. In both cases, we are confronted with the same paradox: “Conservative utopias”—to take the expression from Karl Mannheim—claim to return to a Golden Age of religion but, in the end, they produce radical forms of novelty that challenge, even more than the secular discourses, the traditional order of society. The study of these movements should also force Western social scientists to question the reassuring assumptions, now more and more challenged, of a secular convergence of societies and theories of secularization that too often confuse the dynamic of disenchantment that is planetary and probably irreversible with the phenomenon of an “exit from religion” that may only reflect the experience of Europe.

[i] I am borrowing the term from Nikki R. Keddie.

[ii] On the topic see I. Gershoni James P. Jankowski, Confronting Fascism in Egypt: dictatorship versus democracy in the 1930s, Stanford University Press, 2009.

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