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GOD'S CENTURY/ God's Partisans Are Back

The 21st century has brought us a world radically different from the one secularization theory promised. Religion has played—and will continue to play—a key role in global politics

Published by W. W. Norton & Company (2011) Published by W. W. Norton & Company (2011)

That the true intentions of a religious organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, would become the most hotly debated issue surrounding the overthrow of Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, would have garnered guffaws among Western intellectuals only four decades ago. At that time, virtually all of them—all of us—were in the grip of secularization theory: the belief that religion was a dying supernova, enjoying its final glow before disappearing from history.

America's foreign-policy establishment is still under the theory's spell. On February 10, the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, told a Congressional committee that the Brotherhood is a "largely secular" organization. With equal glibness, other analysts have declared the Brotherhood an extremist sect intent on establishing a violent theocracy. When David Ignatius, of The Washington Post, was in Tahrir Square for a "Victory March," he found the sight of Egyptians staging mass prayers "unnerving." Such is the subtlety of our secularist outlooks. We regard religious people as either not truly religious or as irrational, violent, and scary.

But if American foreign-policy makers want to promote democracy and stability, they must come to realize that secularism is a poor analytical tool. The great surprise of the past generation has been the resurgence of religion's influence. Despite a powerful array of secularizing regimes, ideologies, and social trends, religion has not only outlasted its most ferocious 20th-century rivals, but in many cases, it also appears poised to supplant them. The Brotherhood is a perfect example: An organization that survived decades of harsh repression is now in a position to wield considerable influence in Egypt.

• The rise of Shia political activism—a theological, doctrinal movement—leading to the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the establishment of a theocratic regime.

• The dissolution of the USSR and its East European satellites, in part resulting from the efforts of John Paul II, a Polish pope who exposed the soullessness, illegitimacy, and corruption of those regimes.

• The Muslim-extremist attacks of September 11, 2001, the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and, a year later, the London bombings.

• The proliferation of nongovernmental organizations, particularly faith-based organizations (FBO's). Britain's Department for International Development estimates that as much as half of all health and education services in sub-Saharan Africa are provided by FBO's.