Cover image for The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in the Modern World By Gilles Kepel

The Revenge of God

The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in the Modern World

Gilles Kepel

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$35.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-01314-5

224 pages
6" × 9"
1994
Co-published with Polity Press

The Revenge of God

The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in the Modern World

Gilles Kepel

“An astonishing book on one of the burning issues of the day.”

 

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In this translation of the best-selling French book, La Revanche de Dieu, Gilles Kepel, one of Europe's leading authorities on Islamic societies, offers a compelling account of the resurgence of religious belief in the modern world. His focus is radical movements within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Much has been written recently about the rise of fundamentalisms in contemporary religion. Kepel, however, finds the term "fundamentalism," which derives from the American Protestant experience, to be inadequate for understanding revivalist movements throughout the rest of the world. Ranging from America to Europe and the Middle East, from Protestant televangelists to ultra-Orthodox Jews, from Islamic militants to the "charismatic renewal," Kepel argues that each of these movements resists the spirit of modernity and secularism. Nevertheless, they cannot be dismissed simply as a reaction to modernity. In Kepel's words, "They are true children of our time." Each group contains a militant membership of young, educated, and modern people. Rather than retreat into the past, they seek to recreate society according to a set of symbols and values in accordance with their holy scriptures. Each group pursues both a strategy from above, attempting to seize state power and use state legislation to promote its ends, and a strategy from below, evangelizing the masses and seeking to take control of their daily lives.

According to Kepel, we have much to learn from today's religious movements. Like the workers' movements of yesteryear, they have a singular capacity to reveal the ills of society. Whether or not we agree with their diagnoses, they offer an important and perceptive critique of our society at the end of the millennium.

“An astonishing book on one of the burning issues of the day.”
“Stimulating, remarkably well-informed, and completely unpartisan, The Revenge of God paints a disturbing picture of our world at the end of the millennium when, once again, apocalyptic voices are making themselves heard.”
“This book is well-informed and written in a precise and accessible way. . . . Rather than take sides, Kepel concentrates on describing and analyzing a major phenomenon of our time.”
The Revenge of God examines religious revivalism in Islam, Christianity (both Catholicism and North American Protestantism), and Judaism. As such, it is almost unique and sorely needed. Arguing that the simultaneity of these revivals is not coincidental, Kepel suggests that they are reflections of widespread and profound disquiet with modernity. His description of these movements is sound, and the analysis is thoughtful and perceptive. It is especially interesting to read the impressions that Kepel, a French scholar of Islam, has of Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, and others!”
“This path-breaking comparative essay explores how popular movements since the 1960s in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity reaffirm for many believers the relevance of their respective sacred texts for personal conduct and political life. Kepel argues that these movements ‘from below,’ each claiming to possess its Truth, are distinctly modern and have major implications for the future of civil society. Fresh and insightful, Kepel replaces conventional wisdom with a convincing framework for understanding religion and religiosity in the late twentieth century.”
“Where most of us notice freak and isolated sparks, Kepel discovers a smoldering bonfire. In what most of us explain away as so many local deviations from the global trend, Kepel discerns a fateful twist in history. He calls us to treat the new religious fundamentalism seriously and to read carefully the message it carries since it is a serious and seminal message. A timely appeal, which deserves to be widely heard and followed. This study is truly eye-opening. It may well change the way we think of the direction our world is going—if, that is, we still believe there is a direction in the movement.”
The Revenge of God offers a powerful and persuasive antidote to those over-reductionist accounts of fundamentalism that see it exclusively as a reaction to modernity and secularism. This is not only a book for academic specialists within the social sciences; it is also for anyone seeking to understand those puzzling and parallel movements within contemporary religion that seem to be setting out to reconquer today’s world.”
“In the contentious admixture of politics and religion, Mr. Kepel is most unusual in not seeking to press a particular view. . . . He instead seeks intelligently to understand and to explain the influence religion is likely to have in the world in the foreseeable future. And he is persuasive when he concludes that, for better and worse, the political influence of religion will be much greater than it has been in the recent past.”

Gilles Kepel is a researcher at the CNRS and teaches at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. He is the author of Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh (1986).

Conclusion: Reconquering the World

Movements for the reaffirming of religious identity have undergone a considerable change between 1975 and 1990.

In fifteen years they have succeeded in transforming the confused reaction of their adherents to the 'crisis of modernity' into plans for rebuilding the world, and in those plans their holy scriptures provide the basis for tomorrow's society.

These movements have arisen in a world which has lost the assurance born of scientific and technological progress since the 1950s. Just as the barriers of poverty, disease and inhuman working conditions seemed to be yielding, the population explosion, the spread of AIDS, pollution and the energy crises burst upon the scene ë and all of these scourges lent themselves to presentation in apocalyptic terms.

During this same period the great atheist messianic ideology of the twentieth century, communism, which had left its mark on most of our social utopias, went into its death throes, and finally succumbed in the autumn of 1989 when its most potent symbol, the Berlin wall, was destroyed.

The Christian, Jewish and Muslim movements we have been observing are to be viewed in this dual perspective. Their first task was to fix labels on to the confusion and disorder in the world as perceived by their adherents, breathing fresh life into the vocabulary and the categories of religious thought as applied to the contemporary world. Next they conceived plans for changing the social order so as to bring it into line with the commands and values of the Old Testament, the Koran or the Gospels; for, as they saw it, nothing else could ensure the advent of a world of justice and truth.

These movements have a great deal in common beyond mere historical simultaneity. They are at one in rejecting a secularism that they trace back to the philosophy of the Enlightenment. They regard the vainglorious emancipation of reason from faith as the prime cause of all the ills of the twentieth century, the beginning of a process leading straight to Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism.

This radical challenge to the foundations of secular modernism is uttered by its own children, who have had access to today's education. They see no contradiction between their mastery of science and technology and their acceptance of a faith not bounded by the tenets of reason. In fact, people like Herman Branover consciously symbolize the fact that a 'godfearing Jew' can also be a 'great scientist'. And the self-image favored by Islamist militants is that of a girl student, muffled in a veil with only a slit for the eyes, bent over a microscope and doing research in biology.

All these movements agree that the modern secular city is now completely lacking legitimacy. But while Christians, Muslims and Jews all consider that only a fundamental transformation in the organization of society can restore the holy scriptures as the prime source of inspiration for the city of the future, they have differing ideas of what that city will be like. Each of these religious cultures had developed specific truths which, insofar as they provide the basis for a strong reassertion of identity, are mutually exclusive. All they have in common is a rejection of secularism; beyond that point their plans for society diverge and then become deeply antagonistic, with a potential for bitter conflict in which none of these doctrines of truth can afford to compromise, on pain of losing followers.

Their short-term prospects will depend upon the relationship between their base in society and their respective political objectives. For re-Islamization, re-Judaization and re-Christianization do not have the same impact, the same significance, in their respective societies ë despite the parallel courses they have followed since the mid-1970s. Their respective intensities can be gauged and their probable futures deduced by comparing the successes and setbacks experienced by movements 'from above' and 'from below', the methods of action they most favor, whether or not they accept that democracy as such has an independent right to existence.

In the 1990s the re-Islamization movements appear to have the greatest potential. The Muslim world of the Mediterranean shows signs of social breakdown that are causing deep discouragement, especially among teeming youth, on a much larger scale than is so far discernible in Catholic Europe, the United States or the Jewish world. In Muslim countries Islamic fervor usually gathers strength just when the generation born after independence comes of age and the first government of indigenous elites is in power. In Egypt twenty-five years elapsed between the rise of Nasser and the triumph of the Jamaat islamiyya in the universities of Cairo. In Algeria, which became independent in 1962, it was only after the 1980s that the Islamic Salvation Front achieved its first successes, with a crushing victory in the municipal elections of June 1990. In Palestine, occupied by Israel since 1967, the PLO leadership got along without much competition for two decades; only with the Intifada did the Islamic Resistance Movement mount a challenge to it.

The success of the Islamists are the clearest indication of the political, economic and social bankruptcy of the post-independence ruling elites. To criticize them in the name of the sacred writings of Islam was specifically to challenge the alien, Western-import nature of the modernity they had tried to build. It was a radical criticism that refused to borrow anything from a political system which it held to be intrinsically wrong. 'Democracy' itself is rejected out of hand, as is incessantly repeated by Imam Ali Belhaj, the spokesman of the contemporary Islamist movement in Algeria; there is no basis in the Koran for the idea of demos, the people as sovereign. On the contrary, it affronts the only legitimate sovereignty: that exercised by Allah over the umma, the community of believers, through a government which must implement the divine commands as found in the sacred writings of Islam.

Islamist condemnation of the democratic system is absolute on two counts. First, the 'democracy' to which the rulers of Algeria or other countries paid lip-service was only a meaningless catchword, because the military regimes and the one-party states were dictatorships, and the people knew it. Thus it is easy nowadays to cast 'democracy' as the ugly sister, because it has remained largely unknown in the Muslim world as an operative political system. But, in addition, the rejection of even a chimerical notion of democracy is actually inherent in Islamic religious doctrine, which, in its present-day militant reaffirmation, is fervently monist: there is only one organized principle in the world - God - and human freedom is reduced virtually to zero. In Islamic thinking there could be no room for autonomous political activity outside the control of the shar'ia, the Law codified by Islamic scholars from the revealed scriptures. To introduce democracy is to destroy the case put forward by the re-Islamization movements.

Thus there is very little chance of a democratic alternative that could mount a real challenge to the growing success of the Islamization movements in the deeply inegalitarian societies of the contemporary Muslim world. When unemployment is the most likely prospect for most young adults, the jihad seems more attractive than public freedoms.

The nature of these societies, combined with the specific characteristics of Islamic religious culture, also explains why movements 'from above' play such a lage part. Ever since the later 1970s groups wishing to act directly on the state in order to re-Islamize it have employed various forms of political violence, sometimes including armed conflict. The Iranian revolution has had its would-be imitators, and in those closed political systems such aspirations tend to become channeled into insurrection. Such insurrections have been severely repressed ë most of all in 1982, when the Syrian town of Hama was bombed during an uprising instigated by the Muslim Brothers. Violence, not only against 'ungodly' states but also against 'Westernized' Muslims or non-Muslims (from the Copts in Egypt to the hostages in Lebanon) has now become inseparable from our image of the Islamist militant.

© 1994 Polity Press

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