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Past Religious Populism

Religion Creeps into Politics

The Hagia Sophia. In its almost 1500 years of existence, it has been a a highly politicised symbol for different abrahamic religions and sects.
The Hagia Sophia. In its almost 1500 years of existence, it has been a a highly politicised symbol for different abrahamic religions and sects. Photograph: Daniel Gerlach

When politicians use simplistic ideas about Islam and Christianity, who really wins?

Around the world, religious ideas are creeping back into politics with the goal of legitimising those in power, along the lines of: We are here, they are over there. With its new version of Confucianism, China is trying to legitimise its Communist Party. In India, the Hindu government is creating a nationalist narrative which consciously shuns Muslims. In Russia, Vladimir Putin pits Orthodox Christianity against the supposed decadence of the free Western democratic model. Turkey’s Erdogan has ditched the secular narrative of the republic and links being Turkish with being Muslim.


In the US, a populist president is seizing the opportunity to reawaken a sense of American exceptionalism, as well as adopting a utopian, quasi-religious founding myth. In Europe, Christianity is being rediscovered as the unique selling point of the Western world, and such talk colours electoral campaigns in many countries in the Old World.


Globalisation and digitisation haven’t simply changed our economy; they also pile pressure onto individuals, societies and the social framework.

That implies that cultural areas are defined by their religion – Confucianism, Hinduism, Russian Orthodox Christianity, Sunni Islam, the notion of the chosen people, Latin Christianity. But nowhere are the characteristics of governance as understood in democracies taking centre stage – characteristics like the parliamentary system, constitutionalism, human rights and the separation of powers.


Rather, religious heritage, newly readopted and reinterpreted, is being used to give people a sense of identity, one which takes shape through fixing boundaries. The search for identity is currently a global phenomenon, and I suggest we are living in an ‘era of identity’. Globalisation and digitisation haven’t simply changed our economy; they also pile pressure onto individuals, societies and the social framework.


This is most visible in the Islamic world. Muslims in Nigeria today know how Muslims in Malaysia live. There are pervasive questions on issues like: What is the true Islam? What is the correct interpretation of the religion? What is its future? In addition, the encounter with Western modernity, with the non-Islamic world, remains a challenge. So a double pressure is weighing on Islam, from both outside and within.


As a result, Islamist terrorism, the fruit of an anti-modern Wahhabi Islam, above all targets the Islamic world in all its diversity, attacking Muslims themselves. The Muslim world has the highest number of victims from this strand of terrorism. The terror is directed at the plurality of the Islamic society and is against religious and ethnic minorities as well as new interpretations of the religion. The future is nothing more than the application of an oft-repeated past. That explains the intellectual paralysis of the Arabic world, as described in the United Nations Development Report back in 2003.


The diversity of both the outside world and the inside world is met with a violence-prone simplicity, a narrative which is singular rather than plural and which describes itself as a monolith. In this respect, the Islamic world is far from alone. The same rhetoric is found in Moscow and Delhi, in Ankara and Beijing, in Budapest and Washington. We will continue to look toward the Western world, which with its emphasis on Christianity remains fixed in separating itself from the East, from the Arabic-Islamic and the Turkish-Islamic cultural worlds. Since the demise of the Roman empire, the concept of Christianity has served to legitimise Western rule – legitimacy delivered by history, not through elections.


History in the West isn’t what happened; rather, it is the meaning of what happened. Christianity brings to the world the notion that history is the story of salvation. Therefore, God’s constant interventions in the world give meaning to the passing of history, and it is down to us to recognise and reveal that meaning.


The Western philosophy of history, which builds upon that foundation, loves to speculate about the meaning of the world. GWF Hegel’s Philosophy of History is being updated to the present day: Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West forms part of this tradition, as does Francis Fukuyama and his talk of the end of history. Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ resembles Hegel’s historical speculation in structure and development.


And the religious force of European reflection on the meaning of history has recently grown a new branch: the utopian idea of progress, essentially a secular-religious belief in pushing for a better, progressive future, a belief in the ability to seize control of life and to improve it. In Europe, this manifests itself above all in Karl Marx’s theory, which seeks to return their place in history to alienated people. The strongest offshoot of this modern belief, which stems from the Christian history of salvation, is the American ‘manifest destiny’, which believes in an obtainable utopia, a new Jerusalem in the New World – a vision of a city on a hill, as rich in glory and light as that heavenly Jerusalem in John’s Revelation.


Most explainers of European modernity see Christianity’s value, if any, in its role as offering a code of values, as a teacher of morals.

This modern development has freed Christianity from the grip of the medieval form of legitimisation. No longer is the pope or the king the earthly manifestation of leadership, or the guarantor of divine intervention. It is now history itself, as a place of political activity, which becomes a sphere of divine intervention. Therefore, the West has a political theology, a political Christianity totally unrelated to the spirituality or religious practices of the pious Middle Ages.


This has given rise to secular contemporary times. A large majority of Europeans say they live their lives according to Christian values, but that number is far higher than the number of people attending church on Sundays. Most explainers of European modernity see Christianity’s value, if any, in its role as offering a code of values, as a teacher of morals.


The Christian West, especially in Catholic parts of the continent, is still seen as spiritual and religious. There desire for identity has often been linked with a longing for medieval times, which in the nineteenth century gave rise in the era or romantic: a resurgence of medieval church music and the construction of Neo-Romanesque and Neo-Gothic churches, concert buildings and town halls. Back then, as it happens again now, dramatic technological and economic upheavals propelled people to search for an identity and a homeland. An answer was often found in reverting to the past.


In Protestant European countries, historic speculation is often more political than spiritual. The political understanding of the Western culture is often largely exclusive, meaning that it excludes non-Christians, especially, nowadays, Muslims. From the 19th century on, those standing in opposition to the West are those coming from the East, were labeled as the barbarians. In the twentieth century, that generally referred to godless and communist Russia, which followed in the footsteps of the Huns, the Asians who once ravaged Europe.


Contemporary political movements which highlight the Christian West operate in a similar fashion to those in other parts of the world which I mentioned earlier; they have an inflated sense of themselves, in order to leave no room for others. China is Confucian, Russia is Orthodox, Turkey is Islamic and Europe is Christian. This monolithic approach is far removed from historical reality, and often rather an expression of ahistorical thinking. Yes, Europe is Christian and Christianity is an important driver of development in this continent, as is Islam in the Arabic world. But what are the results of such an approach? What will it mean for life in today’s societies influenced by Christianity and Islam?


The West needs the East; the East needs the West. They need each other as a mirror image, as a challenge and as a counterpart. In the East, we can recognise the origins of our own culture, Jerusalem as the crib of the world. Only Athens – the crib of philosophy, of tragedy, of the art of politics and rhetoric – can stand alongside Jerusalem. From our perspective, Athens lies in the East, just as antique Greek sources say Europe and the West, viewed from the Greek perspective, lay in dark obscurity, in the truest sense of the phrase.


The Occident and the Orient both formed part of the Roman kingdom, as the West and the Byzantine empire. Only the Arab expansion in the seventh century after Christ’s birth ended this integrated world view. Mare Nostrum, as the inhabitants of the Christian world referred to the Mediterranean, was no longer surrounded by one kingdom, but two. At the same time, Greece’s legacy lived on and was reinterpreted in this new cultural world. Many say Thomas Aquinas would never have become a renowned scholastic thinker without Arab translations of Aristotle.


Rome’s legacy – that of eastern Rome, to be precise – continued in the notion of the empire of the old Islamic world. The Ottomans saw themselves as descendants of Rome, and the invasion of the old capital Constantinople gave this claim a symbolic stamp of legitimacy. Antique ideas of philosophy and politics lived on in both the Christian and the Islamic world, and were developed further in both places.


Jerusalem, as an emblem of monotheism, remains a focal point for eschatological hopes and the two world religions’ earthly claims of truth. At the same time, both religions are – and will remain – called into question by Judaism, which as the oldest monotheistic religion has the oldest spiritual claim on this conflicted spot.


Through history, the stories of Christianity and Islam have drifted further and further apart, and both religions have long moved away from the geographic contours of their antique realms. The majority of Christians now live on the American continent, and the majority of Muslims are in Malaysia and Indonesia. Rome, Jerusalem and Mecca retain their importance in the globalised state of the world religions. The burden of history weighs heavy; beneath this weight, the narratives of irreconcilability have migrated and have become entrenched in the new world.


A new approach to each other from the West and the East, from the Occident and the Orient, must form the start of a new chapter, a new narrative of the cultures which live around the Mediterranean. In the era of identity, it is the equal duty of the West and East to formulate an offer that doesn’t proffer salvation by repeating the stereotypes and demonisation of the past. Only in that way can they both stand the test of time.

Alexander Görlach is an Affiliate Professor to Harvard University College, where he serves in the "In Defense of Democracy"-Program by the F.D.Roosevelt Foundation at Adams House. Alex is also a senior fellow to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, and a fellow to the Center for the Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge, UK. He holds PhDs in linguistics and comparative religion and is the publisher of the online-magazine

Alexander Görlach
Photographies by: 
Daniel Gerlach