Sunday, October 24, 2010

Scott W. Hibbard's "Religious Politics and Secular States"

Scott W. Hibbard is an assistant professor in the Department of Politics at DePaul University. He is the coauthor of Islamic Activism and U.S. Foreign Policy.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Religious Politics and Secular States: Egypt, India, and the United States, and reported the following:
The “Page 99 test” suits Religious Politics and Secular States extremely well. The book is a comparative study of religion and politics that focuses on the politicization of religion in three ostensibly secular societies: Egypt, India and the United States.

These states embodied the spirit of the modern, secular era during the 1950s and 1960s. It is surprising, then, that state actors in each nation sought to co-opt religion in the 1970s and 1980s. This trend is particularly surprising given the type religion that was being invoked. In each instance, mainstream political actors promoted a theologically conservative (or fundamentalist) interpretation of religion in order to marginalize the political left. Not only had state actors abandoned secularism, but they chose to ‘ride the tiger’ of an exclusive religious politics.

One of the key themes of the book is that all religions are defined by competing interpretations: literal vs. metaphorical, modernist vs. fundamentalist, tolerant vs. intolerant. These differing interpretations of religion, moreover, inform the political fault lines of society. The discussion on page 99 highlights this tension within Egypt.

The struggle to define religious orthodoxy in Egyptian public life was reflected in a series of assaults on intellectual freedom during the 1990s. Secular intellectuals and liberal (or modernist) religious scholars saw their books banned and their writings deemed blasphemous. Others had their lives threatened or suffered attack. The government’s complicity is discussed on page 99. On the one hand, the Mubarak regime supported the official ulema (religious scholars) of al-Azhar University in their effort to target religious and political thought deemed heretical. Page 99 specifically discusses the 1994 fatwa (religious decree) issued by the state that gave Al-Azhar the authority to ban books, films, and other forms of creative expression. In doing so, the state helped to institutionalize a conservative (or fundamentalist) interpretation of Islam in Egypt’s official religious establishment. The discussion on page 99 also highlights the political motivation behind the government’s efforts to regulate religion. As the 1994 fatwa notes, “the unity of the nation can only be cemented by ensuring unity of thought.”

In short, the discussion on page 99 highlights a central theme from the book: the state’s attempt to co-opt fundamentalist religion for political purposes helped to validate one interpretation of religion at the expense of all others. By weighing in on the debates over religious interpretation, ostensibly secular state actors helped to marginalize modernist religious belief and set the stage for the resurgence of religious fundamentalism that defined the post-Cold War era.
Learn more about Religious Politics and Secular States at the publisher's website and the official Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue