Mark Juergensmeyer, professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has written another important work usefully integrating his previous conceptual contributions and insights on religion and political violence with some new empirical evidence. His detached analysis of vast amounts of ethnographic data across diverse geographic and cultural landscapes is a welcome change from the proliferation of “terrorologist” literature published after 9/11.
In Global Rebellion, Juergensmeyer seeks to explain why violent religious conflict has afflicted the world so profoundly in recent years. Comparing groups across religion and geographic regions, including Hindu Nationalists, militant Zionists, and Muslim extremists, he argues that the collapse of secular national identities and the loss of faith in the moral basis of the secular state have provoked religious activism around the world. He contends that globalization and the upsurge of religious political movements are contributing factors to the global rebellion, the violent manifestations of religious imperatives to establish a political order.
For Juergensmeyer, the fundamental political tension between secular and religious ideology has its roots in the history of modern nationalism. He sees religion and secular nationalism as rival “ideologies of order,” frameworks for understanding and justifying the social and political order. At their core, these ideologies look to different sources for what constitutes legitimate political authority. For a religious-activist ideal type, the ultimate source of legitimate authority is divine, possibly from a revealed text and/or its accepted interpretations. For a secular-nationalist ideal-type, the legitimate source of political authority and social order may be based on some combination of natural law, national-historical myth of peoplehood or popular will. Accordingly, these divergent sources may produce different boundaries of the political community.
The rejection of secular nationalism as the legitimate order is the driving force of religious nationalist rebellions since the end of the Cold War. As Juergensmeyer tells us in his first and highly influential book, The New Cold War: Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (1993), “religious nationalism” is the synthesis of religion and the idea of the nation-state. The readers of this journal will be particularly interested in how and why he locates the Middle East on the front line of religious rebellion. He suggests that the Middle East is somewhat exceptional in that the goals of these rebellions are both “national and transnational,” directed toward “both the local needs and a supranational ideal….The longing for a global state of religious harmony is an old Islamic dream” (p. 40). Groups such as al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, and the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria may have the local political goal to establish an Islamic state within the borders of their homeland as part of a broader, somewhat utopian goal of reuniting the Muslim community (umma). Adding another layer of nuance, Juergensmeyer points out that groups such as al-Qaeda envisage a transnational ideological state. Yet this categorization appears to test the limits of Juergensmeyer’s own working definition of nationalism. Al-Qaeda members and others with a similar ideology share a collective identity based on a religious community that transcends state borders. In contrast, he defines nationalism as “the expressions of identity based on shared assumptions regarding why a community constitutes a nation and why the state that rules it is legitimate” (p. 6).
If the Middle East is the front line of religious rebellion, the legacy of the Iranian revolution must be its heart. Juergensmeyer calls the Iranian revolution the paradigmatic religious nationalist rebellion because religious activists were able to realize their aim of establishing a religious state and society while appealing to a transnational or supranational community. The revolution inspired and impressed religious activists and figures across sectarian, religious, ethnic, ideological and geographic divisions. Attesting to the similarities among religious activist ideologies where one would not expect them, Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of Kach, the most militant Zionist organization, related that he felt closer to Ayatollah Khomeini’s thinking than to that of many secular Jews because of the relevance of religion for everyday life (p. 5).
Ultimately, two underlying questions motivate Juergensmeyer’s research agenda: Why have people turned toward religion, and what makes religion and politics such a deadly combination? He explains that religion provides a solution to the malaise associated with the failure of secular nationalism to protect one’s community’s moral, economic and social foundations (p. 254). Religion has become the ideology of empowerment and protest while serving as the vehicle through which violence is expressed (p. 254). At the individual level, Juergensmeyer asserts that religion enables one to overcome society’s normative constraints against killing by legitimating and justifying political violence. Religion can be used to demonize one’s opponent, and it can offer personal rewards through redemption, religious merit and heavenly luxuries. To explain the spiritual motivations for killing, Juergensmeyer reintroduces his well-known concept of “cosmic war” (Terror in the Mind; University of California Press, 2000). The idea is that the individual views religious violence as a ritual that enables him/her to symbolically participate in a cosmic war, a metaphysical struggle of good versus evil. Through a violent reenactment of an ancient myth or ritual, the individual is empowered to create some sense of order in this world by transcending.
At the end of the book, Juergensmeyer offers policy recommendations and thoughts about the future. He believes the future of religious rebellions will be determined by how they develop and how the United States and Europe respond to them: “If the rebels could perceive the West as changing its attitude — respecting at least some aspects of their positions — perhaps their stance would be less vindictive” (p. 260). The war on terror is framed as a battle of good versus evil, and many Muslims perceive it as a war against Islam.
Recognizing that many states facing violent rebellions lack sufficient political legitimacy, Juergensmeyer concedes that religion may be necessary to confer political legitimacy on challenged regimes in some parts of the world. Thus, he concludes that the revival of tolerant forms of religion may be the panacea for the excesses of religious extremism.
Juergensmeyer is correct to remind us that all is not lost if religious activists acquire more political power. First, most of them, even if they share a religious tradition, rarely cooperate. Second, there is ample empirical evidence that religious activists may actually become more moderate when they attain power (p. 263). Yet this guarded optimism should be countered by the fear that there will be “one man, one vote, one election.” No one knows what would have happened if the FIS had been allowed to take power in Algeria. Additionally, although Hassan al-Turabi's “Islamic model” in Sudan ultimately failed, the state became more radical, fought a brutal war in the south causing thousands of casualties, and became a safe haven for international terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and many others.
Resolving religious conflicts is, of course, another subject readers would like to know about. Juergensmeyer suggests that if the conflict over Northern Ireland could be solved, so could Kashmir and possibly the more complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It would not take a huge stretch of the imagination to think that they [violent situations] could, especially when the issue is largely over contested land.” This reviewer, however, holds a much more pessimistic view. In essence, Kashmir, and to a greater extent the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are battles over “sacred space,” a place with religious significance. Although the conflict in Northern Ireland has had a religious component, it was a national conflict over territory and not a religious conflict. In fact, Theobald Wolf Tone, the father of Irish nationalism, who led the bloody Irish Rebellion of 1798, was a Protestant.
The difficulty in resolving violent religious conflict over sacred space is that one group, whose membership is likely transnational, claims indivisible ownership based on a divine mandate. The epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a recent ethno-national struggle, is over Jerusalem. The sacred Old City contains the holiest site in Judaism, the Temple Mount, revered in Judaism, the location of the first and second temples. For Muslims, Jerusalem holds al-Haram al-Sharif, the location of the Prophet Mohammed’s journey to Jerusalem from Mecca and his subsequent ascent to heaven. But this holy place is also a painful reminder that it is occupied by Jews, not Muslims. While Kashmir is spotted with religious shrines for Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, the most important aspect of this conflict is that the land has become sacred space for Muslim extremists who believe they must obey a divine imperative to defend the umma and dar al-Islam through jihad. In contrast, the Irish conflict attracted mostly financial and some military support from the Irish diaspora, but it was not an international Catholic issue. Thus, the extent of involvement of a group’s diaspora is one indicator of the mobilization potential of a religious conflict over sacred space and a window into how battles over sacred space are easily framed as a cosmic war. These are significant challenges to resolving religious conflicts that cannot be disregarded.
An interesting question, perhaps beyond the scope of the book, is how the idea of cosmic war can become less attractive. When do religious militants become less violent? Presumably, when the needs that attracted them in the first place are satisfied. Juergensmeyer does not offer a complementary explanation for the conditions under which a religious group becomes less violent. For example, he briefly mentions the groups al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya and al-Jihad in the context of religious (national) rebellion in Egypt. He does not, however, tell us much about the violent insurgency from 1992-97 or why these groups renounced violence. While it is difficult to determine the extent to which brutal repression by the Egyptian state and harsh prison conditions affected the groups’ decisions, it is clear that a counter-ideological campaign played a significant role. Is there hope for reversing the appeal of religious political violence and cosmic war? How local governments respond, not just the United States and Europe, will also have a major effect on the trajectory of global rebellions.
This book is an important resolve for policy makers and academics. Juergensmeyer demonstrates that ideas, culture and perceptions are important currencies for political behavior and why religion, as a political ideology, must be taken seriously.