Comparing Islamism to Protestantism – The trajectory of reformation, pluralism, democracy, and public influence

Yesterday I highlighted some of the changes in the Arab world that are leading to the democratization and secularization of politics. What is particularly striking about the phenomena is that it is not the growing acceptance of western values or of liberal theory that is driving the change. Rather, it is the development of competing and evolving forms of Islamic practice, including Islamic fundamentalism.

The great example is Egypt. Despite the surge in influence of conservative Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, Egypt has not followed the path of the Iranian Revolution three decades ago. Rather, various Islamic groups are competing with one another, and with the military and other parties and movements, to shape an evolving quasi-democratic state. In the process, Islamist leaders are more concerned about pandering to popular values concerning, say gender and sexuality, than they are to imposing their own revolutionary agendas. In short, religion and democracy are allies here, not enemies.

It is still unclear where all of this will lead, but what are particularly striking are the various points of analogy with the western, particularly the Protestant, experience of modernity.

To be sure, Christian political theology has always been more conducive of the separation of church and politics than has Islam. There is something about the proclamation of a kingdom that is not of this world that creates the concept of secularity, the idea that certain institutions and practices are limited in their significance to this world. The state is one of those institutions, and politics involves such practices.

But the fact is, the West did not immediately pursue the way of democracy. Although Christian political theorists and theologians articulated theories of self-government, of representation, of rights, and of the separation of powers long before the Enlightenment arrived, these developments took place within the context of serfdom, monarchy, and empire, and only eventually of small scale aristocratic republics. They never questioned the establishment of religion or considered how government might recognize religious pluralism because there was little need to do so.

It was the various social, political, and religious developments that came with and followed the Reformation that changed all of this. All of a sudden nations like the Netherlands found themselves bitterly divided between Catholics and Protestants, while countries like England found their populations fracturing into a multitude of Protestant sects and eventually denominations, groups that defined themselves according to belief and commitment rather than cultural or ethnic identity. In fact, it was the religious pluralism that became so dominant in the American colonies, particularly in the middle colonies, that gave rise to the separation of church and state, and to the largest scale experiment in democratic governance the world has ever known.

And yet something profoundly unexpected to many religious zealots then took place. In precisely the country where church and state were separated, religion thrived, and in the continent where governments refused to give up the establishment of religion, Christianity withered. During the Second Great Awakening it was the most evangelical and democratic forms of Christianity that won the allegiance of the masses. And it was in the context of both exponentially multiplying religious pluralism and of widespread cultural and political influence – what historians have called the Benevolent Empire – that Protestantism experienced its disestablishment from political power.

The pattern was arguably repeated in the 20th Century. The Mainline denominations that were so culturally and politically prominent gradually declined in number as their theological moorings collapsed. On the other hand, the Fundamentalist and Evangelical groups most isolated from political power and most faithful to their conservative creeds thrived. By the end of the century it was these groups, not the Mainline denominations, that represented mainstream Christianity, and it was these groups that had the most moral, social, and political influence in the country. Even more interestingly, the political significance of these groups (i.e., the rise of the Christian Right) appeared only in the context of the increasing secularization of government and the growing pluralism of the country.

What is the connection with the Islamic experience? Note some of Olivier Roy’s conclusions once again:

Fundamentalism, by disconnecting religion from culture and by defining a faith community through believing and not just belonging, is in fact contributing to the secularization of society… In such a context, any endeavor to restore traditional norms through laws and regulations will fail. After all, you cannot change a society by decree. [Think of the impact of the Reformation on the understanding of the church, and the gradual shift away from the coercion of the true religion in Protestant countries.]

The growing de facto autonomy of the religious arena from political and ideological control does not mean that secularism is necessarily gaining ground in terms of culture and society. Yet certainly a new form of political secularism is emerging… What is at stake is the reformulation of religion’s place in the public sphere. There is broad agreement that constitutions should announce the ‘Muslim’ identity of society and the state. Yet there is similar agreement on the proposition that shari’a is not an autonomous and complete system of law that can replace ‘secular’ law. Instead, shari’a is becoming a loose and somewhat hazily defined ‘reference point’…. [Think of the growing recognition among Protestants that the Torah could not directly be applied to modern civil law, and a willingness to wrestle with the complexity of applying biblical law to modern societies.]

The recasting of religious norms into ‘values’ helps also to promote an interfaith coalition of religious conservatives that could unite around some specific causes: opposition to same-sex marriage, for instance. It is interesting to see how, in Western Europe, secular populists stress the continent’s Christian identity, while many Muslim conservatives try to forge an alliance with believers of other faiths to defend shared values. In doing so, many of them tend to adopt Protestant evangelical concerns, fighting abortion and Darwinism even though these issues have never been prominent in traditional Islamic debates. In this sense, the modern neofundamentalists are trying to recast Islam into a Western-compatible kind of religious conservatism. [Here the comparison to conservative Christianity in America – in both its Catholic and Evangelical forms – is obvious.]

It’s all very fascinating. Note again the points of analogy:

1) It is in the context of the revival and reformation of religion that a new emphasis is placed on individual faith and commitment. The group of disciples is distinguished from the cultural or ethnic people group.

2) The inevitable result is religious pluralism, the competition between various religious sects or denominations.

3) Religious pluralism makes it impossible for any one religious group to dominate the cultural or ethnic people group theocratically. Politics must necessarily be secularized and democratized.

4) It is by appealing to broadly accepted religious values, or by translating religious commitments into more widely accepted moral commitments, that religious groups maintain their political and cultural influence.

5) Groups that refuse to play according to the democratic game, or to accept the secularization of politics, are marginalized.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on September 7, 2012, in Islam, Politics, Religious Liberty, The Reformation, The Secular and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Comparing Islamism to Protestantism – The trajectory of reformation, pluralism, democracy, and public influence.

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