Wednesday, June 06, 2007


Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz

Sometime in the late 1980s, Tom Wolfe, chronicler of the movement of love and leftwing politics that had painted a rainbow across the drab post-Eisenhower era, tried to set down in writing how the dream had died. He wrote that all religious movements -- and he considered that decade-long summer of love one -- inevitably passed through several phases. First comes one energized by revelation, mystic knowledge and emotion. Then all this gets codified, and passed on not by emotional experience but by verbal command, and then the bureaucrats take over. At some point another era of emotion emerges, and challenges the ossified bureaucracy.

Now whether or not this process explains the 1960s, it certainly sheds some light on the great waves of religious fervor which, emerging every few centuries, sweep across anything in their path with all the force and suddenness of a tsunami. Luther, Calvin, Knox and the emergence of Protestantism is one such wave, and the Puritanical movements of the 1820s in England and America another. (The Amercan part of the tale is told in Revivals, Awakenings, and Reforms (1978),by William G. McLoughlin.) Lately, a new religious fervor based on the mystic acceptance of Christ has emerged on the plains and praries of the American hearland.

And if one studies the long long history of Hindu India, one finds outbreaks of religious revival every few hundred years. The earliest, and most influential, gave us Buddhism, and Jainism too. But there are many others, strange and often sadistic cults that arose in the 9th century AD, only to disappear a few years later and then, around 1100, far more influential, the influence of Madhvacharya and Ramanuja, the Bhakti and Vedanta movements all energized and deepened Hinduism.

Islam has known such times, and in fact its beginning may be considered such a time, as its armies swept across Africa and Asia, carving a crescent from Morocco on the Atlantic to, ultimately, the Bay of Bengal and beyond. And there have been many since, the emergence of Sufism (a gentle Jihad indeed) during the secular, politicized days of the Abbasid Caliphate, the work of the Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiya, who in the early 14th century condemned all governments not ruled by Islamic law, the Fulani Jihad that raced across West Africa in 1810, the emergence of Salafism in Cairo and Wahhabism in the harsh lands of Arabia.

Many if not most of these movements have challenged the legitimacy of the secular governments of the time, which they viewed as effete, corrupt and ungodly -- which most of them were. And so it was to be expected that the most recent of such reform movements, which began about 80 years ago with the Muslim Brotherhood and continues to this day, would do the same. For a time, it did. In the early 70s, it fought King Hussein in Jordan, and a few years later challenged Assad in Syria; forced underground in Iraq, it loomed as a constant threat to secular Saddam. All of these dictators squelched it ruthlessly, killing tens of thousands, in the Hama massacre in Syria and Black September in Jordan.

When I first read about these movements of religious reform, I thought it would be wonderful to see one. And now I have but sad to say it's become diverted (and strange how so many Populist groundswells become diverted, channeled into xenophobia and racism, perhaps by the ruling classes they threaten), not purifying Islam, not attacking the corrupt and tottering dictatorships of the Middle East, but wasting its time attacking America. What a shame. Though perhaps its leaders are right to recognize Coca-cola consumerism as the biggest threat to religious fervor.

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