Understanding Religious Resurgence: Devotion, Reform, Sacrifice - A Response

Description: NECF Malaysia Cross-Currents Consultations
        Author: Lim Siew Foong

The global resurgence of religions, often the fundamentalist movements over the last decades has recently caught the attention of the world, especially the West, after the September 11 incident in the United States. In Malaysia, a noticeable consciousness raises among the Malays towards searching for the true Islam and cleansing their culture of their non-Islamic elements, with the genuine drive to become better Muslims. One can see that tradition and folk element of the Malay culture has been weakened or close to being eliminated by forces calling for more orthodoxy among the religious adherents.

What is the driving force behind religious resurgence? The standard and still most respectable answer is modernity... (p.3)
In the case of modernity, religious resurgence is seen as related to public choice to challenge cultural modernity. Modernization that began in 16 & 17th centuries called for radical transformation in social, political, and intellectual revolutions, with the development of an entire different concept of truth. The assumption that old form of faiths no longer work, radical religious change became necessary. For this reason, the fundamentalists are calling for a reestablishment of religious knowledge based on the scriptures as the absolute, i.e. the only valid standard source of knowledge. For this reason too, the Islamic fundamentalists are believed to be contesting the Western knowledge. Does that mean modernity is the driving force for the predation of religious fundamentalism?

The processes of structural globalization and cultural fragmentation have been moving simultaneously, hand in hand. The scholars were perhaps religion-culture-blind in failing to recognize it in the past because they took for granted the universality of Western values and norms, and took little or no interest in ethnicity, religion and culture which were only considered to be the terrain of anthropologists. But we must acknowledge that it is precisely this ongoing process of the religious and cultural revival in non-Western civilization that modernization has failed to travel beyond its original boundaries. If we say the driving force of religious resurgence is modernity, wouldn't it be also correct to say that the driving force for modernity is religiosity, on the flip side of the same coin?

As Steven has pointed out that the process of globalization has "reduced religion to individual and private level," because modernity is based on the principle of subjectivity, it itself is a man-centered religion that creates new dimensions of powerlessness and thus leads to the loss of identity. The fundamentalist movements are responses to such crisis. These new dimensions of powerlessness became the source for the revitalization of religious traditions as well as for the formation of new religious groups and movements. At the same time, religions have been used to ignite conflicts in the contemporary world politics.

In view of the above, religious resurgence can be divided into two kinds of movements with different emphasis: religious revivalist movement and religious fundamentalist movement. The former may focus on returning to the religious authenticity for psychological and spiritual comfort, the latter calls for revolutionist movement to carry out serious and radical attempt for religious political entity.

According to Bassam Tibi, fundamentalism is not an expression of a religious revival but rather a confident declaration of a new order because of its emphasis in politicization of religion. It does not address religious belief but rather a sociopolitical worldview that concerns about the nature of the state, society and world politics. It is a defensive- cultural response to global issues. In South East Asian countries, fundamentalism appears to be a major trend of political opposition in the Muslim world such as Malaysia and Indonesia. "These fundamentalists see themselves as actors in an eschatological drama unfolding in the mind of God and directing the course of human history." The politicization of religion is a response to penetrating dilemma occurring on both nation-state level and in global structures and dynamics. While the challenge of religious fundamentalisms in the non-Western civilizations should be taken seriously in the search for a new world order, one cannot overlook the anti-Islamism that is emerging in the West. Fundamentalists, be it of differing and often contrasting religious systems (Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity & Islam), seem to bear unusual similarities in ideas and behavioral patterns according to Marty & Appleby:

  1. Armed forms of spirituality, which emerged as a form to a perceived crisis; and
  2. Engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem hostile to religion itself.
  3. Regard a battle as a cosmic war between forces of good and evil
  4. They fear annihilation
  5. They try to fortify their troubled identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past.
  6. To avoid contamination, they withdraw from mainstream society to create a counterculture
  7. They absorbed the pragmatic rationalism of modernity, and under the guidance of their leaders, they refine these "fundamentals" so as to create an ideology that provides the faithful with a plan of action.
  8. Eventually they fight back and attempt to resacralize an increasingly skeptical world.

Among all, Islam may be the major challenger to the West for one simple reason: different from Hinduism, Islam is strongly transnational or trans-state. Islamic fundamentalism is a universalism.

Religious faith is all engrossing and all encompassing. It represents a theory of life. Erik Erikson, in his biographies of Gandhi and Luther, indicate that religions are important influences in successful personality development because they are the primary way that cultures promote the virtues associated with each stage of life. Religious rituals facilitate this development. Therefore, religion should be resilient, adapting to change, and a driving force for social reform. Ironically, history proves that religion has been intolerant towards others and has often been the cause of genocide, riots and hostility. It has been used as "the opiate of masses" and as hindrance to human betterment. Individuals, dominant groups and nation-states exploit religions to preserve their hegemony and to resist change.


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