The Resurgence of Religion: Interview with John L. Esposito

UNESCO Courier, September 1996 | Go to article overview

The Resurgence of Religion: Interview with John L. Esposito


Religious revivalism often has political and social overtones. What is its role in modern pluralist societies?

* The resurgence of religion is one of the most powerful forces to have influenced culture and development in recent times. When did it start? In what parts of the world is it prevalent?

John L. Esposito: Iran's Islamic revolution in 1978-1979 threw light on a reassertion of Islam that had been going on for more than a decade in some Islamic countries. Since then Islam has re-emerged as a major force in political and social development. Certain movements have engaged in campaigns of terror in attempts to destabilize or overthrow governments. Moderate Islamists have emerged as social and political activists, espousing the re-islamization of society.

In Latin America, Catholic liberation theology has informed attempts at social and political reform. It emerged shortly after the Medellin conference of Catholic bishops in 1968, which reflected the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, and its message was re-emphasized at the 1979 conference of Catholic bishops at Puebla, with its emphasis on Christianity's "preferential option for the poor". It has been accompanied by greater recognition of the role and participation of the laity in the Church, and a greater emphasis on the relationship of the Church to the world, in particular to issues of justice and equality. In Eastern Europe, Christian churches played a significant role in the fall of communism and the emergence of a democracy movement.

In Sri Lanka, conflict between Sinhalese (Buddhists) and Tamils (Hindus) has had devastating consequences during the past decade. India, an ostensibly secular state, has experienced multiple communal conflicts, often motivated by the challenge of religious nationalism. Clashes between Muslims and Hindus at Avodhya, where Hindus seized a mosque claiming it as an ancient Hindu religious site, and conflict over family law have heightened tensions between the two communities. In the southern Philippines, militant Muslim factions have agitated for autonomy from the "Christian dominated" government. In the former Soviet Union, emergent religious nationalism in Central Asia is matched by new religio-political impulses of the Russian Orthodox Church.

All these events remind us of the potential force of religion in the developing world in particular. They reveal the fragility of many nation-states and the issues of identity and legitimacy that contribute to the vulnerability of many governments.

* What forms do these movements take?

J. L. E.: Revivalist movements are communities within communities. They view themselves as just societies established within broader unjust societies. They tend to be manifestations of popular religion, that is, organizations that are born from populist movements rather than from the official or institutional church or clergy. These organizations create a new religious consciousness and sense of identity and mission. Religious beliefs and rituals are reinterpreted to provide direction, as the faithful combine their quest for happiness in the next life with a determined effort to create a better life in the here and now.

* What are the causes of religious revivalism in the developing world?

J. L. E.: The new and better world promised by modernizing elites and development experts has not materialized for many. The modern nation-state with its secularism, consumerism and unfettered individualism has often produced societies in which the needs of the majority are subordinated to those of a minority. Maldistribution of wealth, corruption, unemployment and housing shortages have become endemic. Modernization and urbanization have resulted in overcrowded cities, social dislocation and culture shock, urban slums and barrios of shattered expectations, a breakdown of the family in the midst of the more "permissive and foreign" ways of the city.

The development of non-Western countries was based upon a theory of modernization that equated development with the progressive westernization and secularization of society. …

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