Introduction: Islamic Activism as an Inner Journey: Thinking Religion as a Psychological Category

By Brigaglia, Andrea | Journal for Islamic Studies, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Islamic Activism as an Inner Journey: Thinking Religion as a Psychological Category


Brigaglia, Andrea, Journal for Islamic Studies


The public resurgence of religion in general and Islam in particular has taken multiple forms over the last decades, and scholars have grappled with the problem of trying to interpret the significance of such a resurgence for individuals, state and society. There is unanimity amongst most scholars of religion that late modern and post-modern religious revival does not entail a return to traditional roots, but a number of subtle and profound transformations, which occur at the level of both individual and collective meaning. Much more, however, has been written on the social and political significance of these transformations than on their personal, psychological dimension.

In reaction to the secularization perspective that was dominant until the late 1970s, many studies in the anthropology and the sociology of religion have pointed to the social significance of religious revival in global politics and collective identity formation1 James Beckford, for example, has argued that the revival of religion is one of the possible responses to the questions posed by post-modernism.2 Similarly Renato Ortiz, looking at the transformation of religion in the long term, has argued that globalization has provided an opportunity for ethical engagement beyond the bounds of particular national borders. Ortiz sees an uneasy competition between the social function of religion and the culture of modern nationalism. Globalization - he argues - has weakened the power of the nation, thus providing grounds for religion to re-emerge with a focus on ethical questions.3 Located at the intersection of the personal and the political, of the intimate and the public, ethical issues are central to understanding the processes that sustain the postmodern resurgence of religion. Some studies on Islamic militancy have pointed to the role of similar ethical aspirations among members of Islamist organizations.4

The preoccupation of the above authors with the new sociology of religion may be contrasted with the tendency to elaborate a critique of the very formation of a religious discourse in modern times. Talal Asad's ground-breaking Genealogies of Religion may be regarded as a milestone in this regard.5 Asad regards religion as a discursive strategy rather than a symbolic code: "Religion has been part of the restructuring of practical times and spaces, a rearticulation of practical knowledges and powers, of subjective behaviours, sensibilities, needs and expectations in modernity."6 The same line of analysis has been followed by a number of other authors who have attempted to deconstruct the use of the category of religion and religious discourse in modern politics. Religion - they argue - does not represent a resource to which one turns, but an opportunity to construct one's engagement in public life.7

Both the new public roles of religion and their discursive use beg the question as to what is happening with religious commitment and engagement at the individual level. What does religion really mean for individuals engaged in various forms of religious activism? More particularly, what does religion mean to committed actors when the religious terrain itself is rapidly changing? How do activists in religious movements use religious discourses to navigate the terrain of politics?

The papers published in this collection stem from a conference hosted by the Centre for Contemporary Islam in Cape Town in October 2012. The conference aimed to critically looking at the category of 'Islamism' by closely examining the biographies of individuals who have been involved in one or more Islamic revivalist groups over the last few decades. Participants were asked, in particular, to capture attempts by 'Islamists' to self-reflexively narrate their engagement, their doubts, and their transformations. The discussion focused on critically interrogating the discursive and psychological dimension of the subjects' personal participation in movements characterized by a social and political activism expressed in religious terms. …

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