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Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth

Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth
11th May 2010 ICSR Team
In FREErad!cals

Discussions of Islamic terrorism frequently draw a distinction between Salafi religious zeal – which may be quietist – and jihadism. Some even attempt to exonerate religious fundamentalism by claiming that it is precisely those who don’t know their tradition well, or are alienated from it in some way, that gravitate to violence. But the plain fact remains that the alleged Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, the 7/7 Bombers or the Algerian GIA were all religious fundamentalists. Their worldview is defined by a moral perfectionism which prescribes one model for human behaviour. All else is deviant and evil. As Mark Rieff notes, this totalising worldview characterises both quietist and politically-militant brands of fundamentalism, and one can readily tip over into the other. From chiliastic Shi’ism to ‘rapture-ready’ Protestantism, we have seen groups who once retreated from the world suddenly enter politics to change it. As Shiraz Maher points out with respect to Salafi-jihadis, many see their violence as a spiritual act. Salafi mosques are prime jihadi recruiting grounds. Maajid Nawaz adds that Wahhabism was born in bloodshed and can invoke that past at any point to legitimate violence. So we can’t neatly separate the quiet from the militant. Not all fundamentalists are terrorists but all jihadis are fundamentalists.
Religious fundamentalism is a reaction against the threat of secularism or syncretism, and tends to be associated with the modern period. Wahhabism, Deobandism, Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy and American apocalyptic fundamentalism all got their start in the nineteenth century. These theologies are characterised by the tendency to select the most world-denying aspects of both Scripture and commentaries. This takes a boundary-marking stand against secular modernity. The moral perfectionism of these creeds marks them out as uncompromising. Those who do not adhere to their strictures are derided as second-class, or worse. Framed in this way, nonmembers can readily be stigmatised by fundamentalist entrepreneurs: as backsliders, traitors, or even takfiris.
The Salafist Islamic revival, or Da’wa, which has swept much of the Muslim world since 1970 cannot be divorced from jihadism. (Here I use the term Salafi to cover Brotherhood, Wahhabi and Caliphatist strains) Nor can the battle for shari’a – and let us not forget that a majority in the Middle Eastern/South Asian core of the Muslim world supports shari’a law, at least in theory. Spiritual puritans can turn political very quickly, as we saw with Shariati and Khomeini, custodians of a centuries-old tradition of Shia quietism. Meanwhile, as the influence of religious fundamentalism increases in a society, a market is inevitably created for more radical, activist brands. As religious supply increases, new religious entrepreneurs seek to differentiate themselves from competitors and tap into the new demand, offering militancy and action in place of contemplation. Thus religious revival inevitably spawns militant offshoots.
In my talk at ICSR last week, I argued that those who study religion too often ignore the fact that most people get their faith the old fashioned way: through inheritance. This means that one of the big drivers of religious fundamentalism is demography. The tremendous population growth experienced in the Muslim world increased the Muslim share of world population from 15 to 20 percent between 1970 and 2000. It produced a youth bulge and a flow of pious and uprooted rural people into urban slums. As Gilles Kepel notes, this helped many Muslim societies overwhelm the small enclaves of western secular-educated people in the larger cities. But what is particularly interesting is that in large cities of the Muslim world, where there is no material incentive to have large families and where contraception is increasingly available, Muslim women most in favour of shari’a bear twice the number of children of those Muslim women least in favour. In Europe, the most pious Muslim women are 40 percent more likely to have 3 or more children than their least pious coreligionists.
The picture is even more extreme among Jews: in Britain, the ultra-Orthodox make up a mere 17 percent of observant Jews but three-quarters of British-Jewish births. In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox are now a third of the first-grade class in the Jewish school sector, up from a few percent in 1960. The ultra-Orthodox do not serve in the military, but religious zionists (typically modern Orthodox) do, and have family sizes that stand between the ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews. This is changing the composition of the Israeli Defence Force. As Yoram Peri notes in the winter 2006 issue of Dissent, the proportion of religious zionists in the IDF ‘grew exponentially…By 2005, half of the junior command and approximately 30 percent of the senior officers were religious, and, for the first time in Israel’s history, four members of the general staff wore skullcaps’.
As we enter a period of unprecedented demographic upheaval, in which the population gap between developed and developing world hits a peak (in 2050), demography will increasingly make its mark by expanding the proportion of religious fundamentalists in all faiths. This increases religious demand, which invariably spawns a growing fringe who are receptive to  jihadi, Gush Emunim, anti-abortion Protestant and other fundamentalist terrorism. The pattern will be most evident in modern contexts, such as Israel, the West, and the urban Muslim world. I go into more detail on all of this in my newly-released book, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth, and in associated talks and podcasts. More details can be found at:

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