The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions

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Prices and offers may vary in store. A thought-provoking reflection on why secular national liberation movements are so often challenged by militant religious revivals Many of the successful campaigns for national liberation in the years following World War II were initially based on democratic and secular ideals. Once established, however, the newly independent nations had to deal with entirely unexpected religious fierceness. In his provocative, well-reasoned discussion, Walzer asks, Why have these secular democratic movements been unable to reproduce their political culture beyond one or two generations?

In a postscript, he compares the difficulties of contemporary secularism to the successful establishment of secular politics in the early American republic—thereby making an argument for American exceptionalism but gravely noting that we may be less exceptional today. About The Author.

Paradox or Pluralism? - Jewish Review of Books

Eminent political theorist Michael Walzer, an emeritus professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, served as coeditor of the political journal Dissent for more than three decades. Select Parent Grandparent Teacher Kid at heart. Age of the child I gave this to:. Hours of Play:. Tell Us Where You Are:. But neither millenarian nor traditionalist politics invites ideological commitment or long-term activism. Nor does either politics promise individual freedom, political independence, citizenship, democratic government, scientific education, or economic advance.

It is for the sake of all these that the national liberationist or revolutionary militants need to transform the people in whose name they are acting—and that transformation requires the defeat of the people's religious leaders and the overcoming of the people's customary way of life.

The Paradox of Liberation Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions

Naipaul, writing thirty years after Indian national liberation, perfectly captures the attitude of the liberators toward the religion of the people:. It has given men no idea of a contract with other men, no idea of a state. It has enslaved one quarter of the population and always left the whole fragmented and vulnerable.


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Its philosophy of withdrawal has diminished men intellectually and not equipped them to respond to challenge; it has stifled growth. National liberation, by contrast, is a secularizing, modernizing, and developmental creed. It is, as its opponents say, a "Western" creed, and to the nation about to be liberated, it is something entirely new.

Indeed, newness is the mantra of the liberators. They offer the oppressed people a new beginning, a new politics, a new culture, a new economy; they aim to create new men and women. Similarly, Frantz Fanon: "There is a new kind of Algerian man. The power of the Algerian Revolution We can gain some sense of what all this means from the history of the United States: what Ralph Waldo Emerson and his contemporaries called "the American newness" was achieved through the escape from Old World tyrannies and traditions.

In American history, as in the history of ancient Israel, the victory of the new required a geographic move rather than a political movement. Indeed, the American experience led Louis Hartz to argue that the "only really successful revolution is Of course, this newness encounters resistance, which begins as a stubborn allegiance to the-way-things-have-always-been but soon becomes ideological and therefore also new: fundamentalism and ultra-Orthodoxy are both modernist reactions to attempts at modernist transformation.

The slogan of Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy, "Everything new is forbidden by the Torah," is itself a new idea; it would have made the historic accommodation to exile impossible. Jewish survival required a lively adaptability and a readiness for innovation. But the slogan works well against attempts to bring the exile to an end, and one can find similar examples of opposition to the newness of national liberation in India and Algeria. What is more surprising is the reappearance of this opposition after the achievement of political independence, when the defenders of traditional religion, themselves renewed and modernized, begin the construction of a counterrevolutionary politics.

I had better tell a particular story now or at least provide a brief example of what I am talking about, to avoid too schematic an account. I will begin with the Algerian case because it is in several ways the outlier among my three. First of all, French repression in Algeria was more brutal than that of the English in either India or Palestine, and it was mirrored in the brutality of the National Liberation Front's internal wars, in the FLN's terrorist campaign against European settlers advocates of terrorism were marginal in India and a small minority among the Zionists , and also in the FLN's post-independence authoritarianism.

Second, the commitment to secular liberation in Algeria, although it finds an avid spokesman in Frantz Fanon, was probably weaker than in my other cases. The most visible leaders of the FLN were indeed secular and Marxist, or at least socialist, in their political commitment. But the movement's initial manifesto, read over Cairo radio in , called for an "Algerian state, sovereign, democratic, and social, within the framework of the principles of Islam.

In the early years, however, FLN militants displayed little interest in Islamic principles, and the Soummam Platform of , the work primarily of the internal FLN and its Berber leaders, actually left the principles of Islam out of its description of the movement's goal: "the birth of an Algerian state in the form of a democratic and social republic—and not the restoration of monarchy or of a theocracy.

In any case, the leaders of the FLN did not spend much time learning about the principles of Islam.

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Sitting in a French prison, Ahmed Ben Bella, the future first president of Algeria, read the leftist publications of the Paris publisher Maspero and studied the works of Lenin, Sartre, and Malraux. In the aftermath of independence, he argued for something he called "Islamic socialism," which was, as his Muslim critics claimed, more socialist than Islamic. His chief advisors as president were Trotskyists. Ramdane Abane, one of the FLN's leading intellectuals and a defender of terrorism, spent five years in prison —55 , where he "applied himself to a voracious reading of revolutionary studies, Marx and Lenin—and even Mein Kampf.

Many of the FLN militants, and a larger number of the intellectuals, were Francophone. The FLNers were certainly committed Algerian nationalists: "It's not with you but against you that we are learning your language," declares a character in a novel by an Algerian writer who wrote in French. At the same time, many of these nationalists were culturally Francophile or, perhaps better, Europhile: Hocine Ait Ahmed—a Berber and, along with Ben Bella, one of the "neuf historiques," the Historic Nine, founders of the FLN— concentrated in his prison years on English literature.

Although militants like Ben Bella and Ait Ahmed aimed at ending foreign rule, they were remarkably at ease in a foreign culture.


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Important Muslim scholars, organized in the Association of Algerian Ulama, condemned the eager reception of European culture by many Algerians, especially in the cities, and demanded the exclusive use of Arabic in Algerian schools. The association foreshadowed the Islamic revival of the s and s—whose militants fiercely opposed the bilingualism advocated by Mostefa Lacheraf, an old FLNer who was cultural affairs minister in the late s. As Cliffort Geertz writes about similar reformist groups in Morocco, "These were oppositional Muslims Into what had been a fine medieval contempt for infidels crept a tense modern note of anxious envy and defensive pride.

Muslim officials in Algeria were fully engaged in the politics of subservience; the Soummam Platform contemptuously described them as "domesticated, chosen and paid by the colonial administration. FLN radicalism helps explain the highly visible role that women were given in the movement, not in the leadership—an absence that signaled things to come—but on the ground, in military and terrorist activities.