By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
It seems that the global trend of political and social developments assert the return of the rising role of religion in all aspects of public life. In the 1960s, secularism reached an unprecedented peak, however, the trend toward religion was growing in varying degrees in many parts of the world since the 1970s. It was not confined to the “Islamic Awakening,” which included wide parts of the Muslim world, rather it widened to include Christians and people of other religions. In the past few years, this trend started growing socially and politically in Europe, the US and other places.
The Road to “Post Secularism”
Issue #29 of Future Report, published by the think tank Future for Advanced Research and Studies (FARAS), discusses post secularism and the return to religion. It surveys this phenomenon globally, and presents a number of examples.
The report demonstrated that the enlightenment and modernity age was based on the revolt against the church and its control of the intellectual, political, economic, and legal spheres in Europe. It was then that the notion of “God is dead” arose. Later it was expounded on by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), who focused on the centrality of human reason in the movement of history, and on abolishing the restrictions imposed on thinking by the church.
The concept of secularism was established on the notion of the separation of religion from public life. It became synonymous with modernization, while religion was viewed as traditional and reactionary. It was expected according to the advocates of secularism that modern society will meet all the individual’s material and moral needs without resorting to religion, and that education and knowledge will provide logical answers to everything. Secularism, especially in the Western world, did not act against religion or attack it directly; however, it expected or assumed the decline of religion and its disappearance over time. However, this prediction was not realized. Even in countries that imposed secularism and openly fought religion failed in this endeavor.
Communism, which came to power in the Soviet Union and China, did not only aim at minimizing religious influence, but rejected religion in itself, considering it a barrier preventing the working class from revolting and demanding their rights. “Religion is the opium of the people” was a central tenant of communist thought, and as such led to shutting down religious institutions, fighting their symbols, and hunting down all forms of religiosity. However, communism failed, and religion is still around.
On the other hand, the post-modern confusion, which resulted from the great destruction left by two World Wars, at the hand of the “secular man” and modern “secular” regimes, triggered a “nihilistic strain of thought,” which was further developed by Michel Foucault, who spoke of the “Death of Man,” i.e., the loss of belief in the ability of the individual to make rational choices, which lead to the betterment of human societies.
German philosopher Jurgen Habermas attemped to explain the return of religion in light of history, speaking of “post-secular societies.” He stated that the return of religion to the public domain cannot be stopped, and that a new status for religion must be accepted, in which secular societies are developing into societies composite of religious and secular elements, with “post-secularism” being a synthesis of the two. The interest of the constitutional state is to respect religious beliefs and sources of morality, while “post-secular” society frames religion in the public sphere according to principles such as tolerance and pluralism within a “secular” framework.
Public Manifestations of the Return of Religion
There are many manifestations of religion’s return, extending into wider areas of the social and political spheres. Most important of these, according to the Future Report, or to what we can add:
1. In early 2000s, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist system, Russia relied on “religion” to build its new identity, consolidating the “Russian world” under the banners of Orthodox Christianity and the common Orthodox history. This has enabled Russia to extend beyond its borders and interfere in Ukraine and Georgia. As a result, “religious legitimacy” and Moscow being the center of the Orthodox Church became one of the dimensions in the struggle for influence that President Putin was interested in. Furthermore, when Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula, Putin claimed that it is where “our people live” and where “the Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized [in the tenth century] before bringing Christianity to Russia,” which “was a powerful spiritual unifying force that helped involve various tribes and tribal unions of the vast Eastern Slavic world in the creation of a Russian nation and Russian state.” Therefore, in December 2018, when the Orthodox church in Ukraine gained formal independence from Moscow after 300 years of control, it was considered a historical decision that has a political dimension, due to the political conflict between Ukraine and Moscow.
2. In Europe, according to a survey by Pew Research Center, most adults surveyed still consider themselves Christians, even if most admit that they are “non-practicing” Christians. In the UK, 73% consider themselves Christians out of which 18% are church-attending; while in Italy the percentage rises to 80%, where half of them (40%) are practicing.
In Central and Eastern European countries, people are more religious than in Western Europe. In Russia, the share of the population who identify themselves as Orthodox Christian is up significantly from 37% in 1991 to 71% in 2017. In Ukraine the percentage went up from 39% in 1991 to 78% in 2017, while in Bulgaria, it went up from 59% in 1991 to 75% in 2017.
3. On the other hand, there are still in the European countries surveyed, majorities (50%–75%) say “religion” should be kept separate from “government policies,” except for Armenia and Georgia where the percentages are only 36% and 44% respectively. Therefore, religious tendencies are still to a certain extent dominated by a secular frame.
4. Fears have been amplified and were politically used in Europe, due to the decline in the Christian European population and growth of the Muslim population, as a result of the natural increase or the increase in the waves of immigration. These fears have reflected on the European social and political spheres, when searching for the Christian identity. In the 2010–2015 period, the number of deaths exceeded the number of births among European Christians by about six million. In Germany alone, and in the same period, there were an estimated 1.4 million more Christian deaths than births. Whereas the increase among the Muslims in Europe was exceeded by about two million. The number of immigration applications to Europe, in the same period, was estimated at three million, most of whom are Muslims.
As a result, anti-Muslim animosity (Islamophobia) increased, and far-right populist groups have risen demanding the halt of the “Muslim invasion” of Europe. These groups found in the Christian identity their lost cultural and historical identity, such as the Alternative for Germany party, Sweden Democrats party, the Freedom Party of Austria, the Italian Lega Nord (Northern League) party, and the French National Rally party (previously named National Front).
The main effective ruling parties in Western Europe adopted the “Christian” discourse, and consequently the role of religion grew, considering it a basic component of the European identity and corresponding to the concerns of white Christians. Noting that, since their establishment in the 1990s, the Christian parties of Eastern Europe have merged the Christian and nationalistic components in their identities, discourse and actions.
5. For example, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán won the 2018 elections, adopting an anti-Muslim and migration rhetoric, introducing himself as the defender of Hungary and Europe, in the face of the Muslims who threaten to “Islamize” Europe, and stressing the need to preserve Christian values. In Germany, the Kreuzpflicht (crucifix obligation) law was adopted, which states that every public building in the state of Bavaria is required to display a Christian cross at the entrance to greet visitors, and it came into effect in June 2018.
6. In the US, the increase in practicing religion has become widely known, and it became more prominent since the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was elected president, religious movements have grown, as well as the conservative right movement and the neoconservatives. This rise was also manifested in the conduct and policies of some US presidents, such as George W. Bush, and in the pro-Zionist project policies, which have religious, cultural and political backgrounds in addition to the US strategic interests, and recently in the attitude and decisions of President Trump and his team.
7. In China, which is still ruled by the Communist party, the state recognizes the religions of Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam. The ruling regime have maintained its animosity towards religion. However, despite all the ruling regime’s procedures, in the past few years religion regained its vitality. Unofficial reports by the Freedom House organization indicate that in China there are 350 million religious believers, while the International Religious Freedom Report estimated that there are 650 million Chinese religious believers. As for lately, the Chinese government has become more tolerant and accommodating in dealing with the religious phenomenon; however, it is still adopting harsh and repressive measures towards Muslims, especially the Uyghur minority, continues.
Based on the above, it seems that religion is on its way back to public life to varying degrees in the world, and that “post-secular” societies in western countries, east Asia and Russia… are compelled to make room for it.
What about the Muslim world?
The Muslim World
When discussing the Muslim world (including the Arab world), we may focus on the following selected issues:
1. The Western world has formulated its political theories from its historical and intellectual experience, and from within its political and religious spheres, Therefore, applying western theories to the Islamic environment lacks the scientific and methodological bases, for there are no common religious, cultural, civilizational, historical or political components. However, nothing prevents putting Western science and experiences to good use, as long as it suits the Muslim environment, culture and identity.
2. The causes of revolution on “religion” in the western world or its isolation from public life, are inapplicable to “Islam.” For Islam urges Muslims to learn, settle, understand the norms of the universe, and interact positively in developing their life in the earth, furthermore, in Islamic civilization and history there were no religious acts similar to those perpetrated by the church, such as its monopoly on truth and science, accusing scientists, the discoverers of scientific facts, of blasphemy, and imprisoning and punishing them. Islam is a comprehensive religion that addresses all aspects of life, relevant in all times and places, compatible with people’s material, moral and spiritual needs, and it is balanced when dealing with these needs. If there is any blame for the backwardness of Muslim regions, it is because the Muslims are not religiously observant, the regimes are kleptocratic, autocratic and tyrant, the Muslim scholars’ interaction of jurisprudence with contemporary issues has declined, and the dynamics of presenting suitable solutions have been disrupted for a long period of time. Furthermore, in Islamic regions and throughout history, the revolutions and change movements have usually sought to face aberrations with the return to the Islamic paradigm, rather than the departure from it.
3. Despite facing challenges and wars, and despite the Muslims’ backwardness and the wretchedness of their political systems, Islam has remained the most attractive religion in our contemporary world, especially when offered in a free environment. As millions become Muslim in Africa, Islam is also spreading fast in Europe and the US, especially among the educated class. This means that Islam offered satisfactory answers, when other religions and different schools of secularism couldn’t, despite the high educational and material positions they reached. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. The Muslims, who number now 1.8 billion, totaling 24.1% of the global population (the Christians are 31.2%), are expected to make up 31.1% of the world’s people in 2060 (Christians are expected then to be 31.8%), and will likely surpass Christians by 2070.
4. Religion is inherent in the Muslim world, and still plays a major role in the lives of its population, despite the western colonial period, and decades of secular rule, which tried to isolate religion from life. In general, when the masses live freely and witness fair competition among parties, they advance Islam, its values and the movements calling for its return, to the forefront of political action. For they see no contradiction between “religion” and “politics,” although they realize that the Islamic discourse varies between one place and another.
5. The “Islamic Awakening” in the Muslim world has preceded the phenomenon of return to religion in the Western world and the rest of the world, because the regimes in Muslim countries imposed secularism from above, which was artificial and imported. The “Awakening phenomenon” arose in the 1970s, and it was a continuation of the renewal and reform movements that the Muslim world witnessed in the second half of the eighteenth century (Wahhabism in KSA, Senussism in North Africa, Mahdism in Sudan, al-Afghani and his school worldwide, Nursism in Turkey, Masyumi in Indonesia, Muslim Brothers movement worldwide, Jama‘at-e-Islami in the Indian subcontinent, Association of Algerian Ulama in Algeria… and others. As for the Shi‘ah, there were the Constitutional Revolution (Mashrutiyat) and the Islamic revolution in Iran…). The Muslims did not need two hundred years of secular experience to return to religion, because it was always present in their identity, culture and conscience, despite the attempts made by the regimes to forcibly make it disappear or subdue some of its parts to their interest.
A study in the above mentioned “Future Report” indicate that 93% of the “Middle East” population are Muslim, and that 78.4%–97.3% of them admit that they are observant or somewhat observant (Lebanon 78.4%, Tunisia 80.8%, Algeria 88%, Palestine 92%, Morocco 92.2%, Egypt 96.6% and Jordan 97.3%).
6. Islam played a major role (if not the major role) in preserving the nation’s (Ummah) identity, facing colonialism and expelling it from Muslim countries and it was a major component of national movements that fought for independence. It still has an effective role in the confrontations and resisting normalization with Israel. The Islamic ideology-based resistance is the most effective among armed resistances, and the Ummah’s attachment to al-Aqsa mosque, Jerusalem and Palestine is the main reason behind the future hope of unity, revival and liberation project that would end the occupation.
Finally, to those who insist on anti-religious political application for the Muslim world, and on isolating Islam and the Islamic movements from political life, we say: Stop trying, for Islam is inherent in the depths of this nation. It is more of a priority to reconcile with the nation and its doctrine, and to look for the most suitable mechanisms that would return to Islam its effective reviving civilizational role in shaping the history of the Ummah and its future.
 Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly, site of the President of Russia, 4/12/2014, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/47173
 Being Christian in Western Europe, site of Pew Research Center, 29/5/2018, https://www.pewforum.org/2018/05/29/being-christian-in-western-europe/
 Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe, Pew Research Center, 10/5/2017, https://www.pewforum.org/2017/05/10/religious-belief-and-national-belonging-in-central-and-eastern-europe/
 The Changing Global Religious Landscape, Pew Research Center, 5/4/2017, https://www.pewforum.org/2017/04/05/the-changing-global-religious-landscape/
 Why Muslims are the world’s fastest-growing religious group, Pew Research Center, 6/4/2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/
This article was originally published in Arabic on Arabi 21 on 9 and 21/6/2019.