God and the Political Planet
RÉGIS DEBRAY is a French writer and philosopher.
He was a top foreign affairs adviser to French President François
Mitterrand and is a frequent contributor to NPQ.
Paris-In Cairo, Tunis and elsewhere along the
rim of the Mediterranean, the first headway made by Islamists in the student
world occurred initially in technical institutes, then in engineering
faculties and finally in scientific universities-in other words in the
most modernist sectors and those most exposed to the outside world.
But did our sociologists not tell us that all things religious emanated
from the soil, from history and from tradition? Had our historians and
philosophers not proclaimed a century ago that technological and scientific
progress, industrialization and communications would without doubt erase
nationalistic and religious superstitions? Don't we daily speak about
the "opposites" inherited from the 19th century: the sacred
vs. the profane, the irrational vs. the rational, archaism vs. modernity,
nationalism vs. globalism?
Apparently, we got everything wrong. Our modernist vision of modernity
has itself turned out to be only an archaism of the industrial age. The
anachronistic and the archaic all have their place in modern politics
because "modern" does not designate a location in time but a
position in the terracing of influences, or determinations: not the outmoded
but the substratum; not the antiquated but the profound; not the outdated
but the repressed. It is not by mere chance that such a large number of
contemporary cultural mysteries can only be penetrated through the x-rays
of primitive societies.
In fact, terms that are antithetical in the mind of modern sociology appear
instead to be in correlation with each other. Every imbalance caused by
technological progress seems to lead to an ethical readjustment. Hence,
the confusion between the homogenization of the world and assertion of
differences, between intellectual knowledge and emotional roots, between
economic imperatives and spiritual aspirations.
When the birthplace becomes blurred, the threat of death looms large.
We no longer know "where we are" for we no longer know whence
we came. People discover they are lost and the list of "believers"
lengthens. There is an intrinsic relationship between the disappearance
of points of reference and the rise in myths of origins.
It is true that industrialization is antireligious because it relocates
peoples through the rural exodus, the shift in employment, the immigration
and emigration of foreign labor, the increased social mobility and the
loosening of moral codes dependent upon close community.
But it is because of this very dislocation that, in industrialized countries,
the pursuit of relocalization of the imagination is relentless through
movements seeking regionalization or ethnic affinity. Even the ecological
ethos of the age is "think global, act local."
In agrarian countries subjected to industrial rape, a no less convulsive
return to presumed sources of identity destroyed by technological standardization
takes place. The Shah's Iran liberated by Khomeini comes immediately to
mind. In short, the modernization of economic structures leads to a rise,
rather than a decline, in archaic attitudes of mind.
One Planet | Planetary reunification has, in a sense, indeed taken
place: The world is one, and the interconnection between its parts is
ever more apparent. But at the very moment that economic life has become
planetary, cracks are appearing in the political planet. There are surprising
cross-currents: An obsessional neurosis concerning territory confronts
the increasingly free flow of commerce; the freer flow of information
begets cultural self-assertion.
Our village is, at the same time, ever more planetary and chauvinistic.
One exists because of the other; that is why we are experiencing the age
of nationalism, separatism, irredentism and tribalism whose hidden face
is that of segregation, war and xenophobia. The urge toward division which
principally threatens large multinational states of a federal or confederal
nature has not spared even the earliest "civilized" and centralized
states of Europe.
The combination of the economic integration and political disintegration
of the world calls for a deeper examination of the interdependence of
the two. The rise in religious fervor can be interpreted as a backlash
against leveling in the economic sphere, leaving the field open to the
imposition of cultural boundaries, both as an outlet for the expression
of differences and as a brake on technical uniformization. Identity lost
in one field is regained in the other. Imposed globalism incites pre-meditated
particularism as an antidote to homogeneity. The macro-spaces of dispossession
lead to a loss of the sense of belonging, made up for by the micro-space
Splintering politics counter-attack integrating economics. The transfer
of skills to external, uncontrollable decision-making centers gives rise
to a compensatory tilt toward withdrawal and internal autonomy. Globalization
must be appreciated under its twin aspects of withdrawal and redeployment,
of contraction and expansion, of deculturalization and re-culturalization.
In Europe this was all manifestly clear in the debate over the Maastricht
Treaty on integration.
The appearance of localisms does not negate globalization. On the contrary,
it is a product of globalization. Each new device for uprooting liberates
a mechanism of defensive territorial implantation, necessarily of a sacred
nature. The soil and the sacred go together.
It is as if there were a thermostat regulating collective identification,
a mysterious anthropological mechanism that, through extremism, heals
the wounds inflicted by dislocation on the cultural integrity of human
The Spiritual Pendulum in History | The 20th century saw an unprecedented
infusion of religions into politics, mostly through the great secular
mythologies of class struggle and nationalism. Since the failure of our
utopias and substitute millennarianisms with a universalist claim, we
have witnessed the offensive of the old, local millennarianisms. The latter
are trusted as far more consistent and less prone to "falsification."
The disinvestment in the political field by those who have been disillusioned
is now opening the way to investment in the "City"-in the ancient
sense of a tribal grouping-by the revealed religions according to their
natural, territorial inclination. This can be seen as a backward swing
of the spiritual pendulum in history.
The liberal, mercantilistic and minimalist state is, therefore, playing
into the hands of the clergy who will not relent until the universal secularism
of modern times gives up completely. "We destroy only that which
we replace," Auguste Comte prophesied.
Religion turns out after all not to be the opium of the people, but the
vitamin of the weak. How is it possible to divert the poorest of the poor
from taking recourse to this vitamin if democratic states have no mystique
to propose other than material improvement?
We must see that it is precisely due to the lack of a freely granted civic
religion, the lack of an agnostic spirituality, the lack of credible political
and social ethics that, once again, clerical fanaticisms are prospering.
Today, the greatest ally of obscurantism is the spiritually empty economism
of our prosperous liberal societies. If our cynics up there at the apex
of power were less concerned with the Dow Jones Index there would undoubtedly
be fewer devotees, down here, in the mosques and basilicas.