Counter-secularism and Religious Revival
Assaf Sharon 31 October 2017

It was not very long ago that religion was regarded as a relic, at least as far as politics are concerned. Now this picture itself seems an artifact of history. With the gods once again afoot in the public square, religion has returned to occupy political actors and theorists alike. Especially salient, of course, is the nationalist brand of religious revivalism, unmistakably associated with the indiscriminate political violence that has become a fixture of contemporary life. Many nations, which until recently seemed to be proceeding along the path of liberal-democracy––an endpoint some had regarded as inevitable at the so-called “end of history”––have undeniably come under the reactionary spell of religious revivalism and nationalism.

The political resurgence of religion elicits three kinds of intellectual responses. One response, characteristic of some on the left, is militant and total rejection of both religion and nationalism. There is much to ponder regarding the theoretical merits of this approach. Setting such matters aside, suffice it to note that its political relevance is at best dubious. A century ago Carl Schmitt disparaged Marxist certitude about the inevitable demise of nationalism, observing that “the energy of nationalism is greater than the myth of class conflict.” A similar reaction now seems appropriate towards secularist triumphalism in light of the apparent resilience of religious energy.

A second intellectual reaction to religious revivalism is romantic fascination. Michel Foucault’s fanciful affirmation of the Iranian revolution is a case in point. His frivolous enchantment with “the introduction of a spiritual dimension into political life,”[1] seems at best naive. In the face of violent religious revivalism such romanticizing is clearly not an acceptable reaction.

The third response, increasingly popular among some liberals, is more nuanced. It advocates neither blind embrace nor blanket rejection of religion, but critical engagement with it. Religious traditions, on this approach, should not be ignored or dismissed from public life, but rather engaged, negotiated, and interpreted anew, in light of liberal, democratic and egalitarian ideals. The way to curb extremism, according to this conception, is through renewed engagement with religious traditions in the public sphere.

“If [the] religious way of life cannot find a normal play in public life,” Ashis Nandy argues, “it finds distorted expression in fundamentalism, revivalism, and xenophobia.”[2] Reza Aslan claims that the way to defeat Jihadists is “to allow for greater political participation, especially by religious nationalist groups that are willing to commit to responsible governance.”[3]

This line of thought typically proceeds from a view of modernism and liberalism according to which secularization is one of the root causes of religious revivalism. “It is the absolutism of secular negation that best accounts for the strength and militancy of the religious revival,” Michael Walzer recently wrote.[4] Secularization, on this picture, is a Western ideology, imported and imposed upon others by over-zealous revolutionaries who internalized Western scorn towards traditionalist cultures. Hoping to liberate their nations from their “old ways,” secular modernists were dismissive and even hostile to the traditions of their people. Blinded by their revolutionary zeal, they did not realize that the people they were trying to liberate continued to cherish their traditions. As the revolutionary fervor inevitably subsides, the old ways resurface, often reinvigorated by resentment towards the patronizing and alien modernizers.

Religious nationalist revivalism, on this account, is a predictable backlash, triggered by the condescension and militancy of secular modernizers. Had they been less militant, had they adopted a less hostile attitude toward religion and “aimed at a critical engagement with the old culture rather than a total attack upon it,” Walzer says, “the story might have turned out differently.” This, indeed, is the recipe for confronting religious revivalism today––critical engagement instead of negation. If unbending secularism is the root cause of revivalism, then its remedy must be counter-secularism. “Islamism,” Aslan writes, “can act as a foil to Jihadism.”

The approach is not limited to intellectuals. In his 2009 Cairo speech president Barak Obama said that the actions of Muslim extremists, like Al Qaeda and ISIL, are “irreconcilable with Islam.” Five years later he was even more explicit, asserting that “ISIL is not Islamic.”[5] His foreign secretary, John Kerry, urged accordingly that the way to combat the terrorist group is to “begin to put real Islam out there.”[6] One can dismiss these comments as the politically correct rhetoric of politicians. But they express both an intellectual and a political approach to religious revivalism.

This approach, sophisticated and attractive as it is, is in my view both politically and philosophically misguided. I will attempt to demonstrate this by looking at  Jewish religious revivalism, which, alongside Hindu nationalism and Islamism, is also the focus of Michael Walzer’s analysis. Far from proving the counter-secularist view, it seems to me that the resurgence of Jewish religious revivalism casts doubt on its basic assumptions. In fact, if there is a lesson to be learned from the Zionist experience, it is the failure of critical engagement to stave off religious revivalism and its tendency to inadvertently fuel it.


Counter-secularism involves a myth, a fallacy, and a misconception. The myth concerns the dynamics of national liberation and the profile of its protagonists. Their portrayal as dislocated universalists, who “had assimilated into the world of their oppressors and who viewed their own people with a foreign eye,” seems to be informed more by reactionary rhetoric than by historical reality.

With respect to early Zionists, at least, nothing could be further from the truth. Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, was an offspring of the Jewish enlightenment. The protagonists of the Jewish enlightenment, the maskilim, were not cosmopolitan atheist rebels, who sought to tear down Jewish identity along with the religious order. In fact, they saw themselves as opposing assimilationist Jews no less than the Orthodox clergy. Their aim was precisely what Walzer prescribes: “a partial demolition and a renovation of the rest—a renovation, that is, of values and norms.” This is also true for most early Zionists. They did not conceive of their nationalist project as an abandonment of historical Judaism, but rather as its renewal in a living, modern culture. To do so, they revised, criticized and sometimes rejected elements of traditional Judaism, just as critical engagement instructs.

One can mention dozens of individuals and countless incidents which demonstrate this. From Herzl’s futile attempts to accommodate the orthodox rabbis to Ben Gurion’s concessions half a century later, or the critical engagement of intellectual luminaries like Ahad Ha’am and Bialik. As Shlomo Avineri summarized: “there are hundreds of examples of such reinterpretation [of the religious tradition], which attest to  powerful synthesis of creativity and preservation” in Zionism. Even the paradigmatic examples of  radical negators of religion, like the Ukrainian born authors Micha Josef Berdyczewski and Yosef Haim Brenner, were in fact intensely engaged with the Jewish tradition. It is hard to find a single piece authored by either one of them which is not thoroughly immersed in traditional Jewish texts, ideas, and practices; reinterpreting, revising and criticizing the tradition, precisely as critical engagement seems to advocate. The claim that “the recognition of tradition as a ‘natural context’ for political engagement is missing in early Zionism,” is unfounded. The historical account of Zionism as a story of “radical negation” of Jewish tradition and culture is a myth.

What prompts this myth? From one perspective nationalist modernizers can be regarded as “radical negators.” This is the perspective of traditionalist reactionaries. In the Jewish case, modernizers like Ahad Ha’am, Berdyczewski, or Brenner, along with nearly every other Zionist thinker, rejected religious authority (what they called “the rule of the rabbis”) and the dominance of the orthodox way of life. In this sense they really did reject “the old ways.” But labelling them “radical negators” on the basis of this rejection involves a fallacy, an equivocation between different senses of negation.

Negation can mean disregard. It can also mean blanket rejection. Or it can mean critical, partial rejection. Early Zionists were not negators in either of the first two senses––they did not completely reject traditional Judaism and certainly did not ignore it. They do qualify as negators in the third sense––of critical partial rejection––but this is precisely what critical engagement apparently advises. As Walzer says: “Giving up negation doesn’t mean acceptance; it means … intellectual and political engagement.”[7]

If modernist reformers of this kind are seen as “radical negators” this can only be because the traditionalist reaction is taken as evidence that they were not in fact engaged; that they failed to connect with the traditional attachments of their people. But this rests on a dubious assumption: namely, that what traditionalist really care about are the external manifestations, the expressions, and the artifacts of religion. Not the substance of religious life, not even all of its forms, but primarily its symbols, its vocabulary, its texts (regardless of what they say), and its practices (regardless of the authorities they presume). On this assumption, it follows that there are bound to be ways to revise and interpret the tradition which are compatible with liberationist aims and which will not alienate their people. If they are met with hostility, this must be because the modernizers failed to engage. But, as the Zionist case shows, this assumption is false. Early Zionists did engage, but their engagement did not mitigate traditionalist opposition. The Orthodox clerics were––and still are––all for engagement, but never for critical engagement.

In fact, if there is one thing the conservatives despise more than secularists it is religious reformers. This has not changed from the burning of Jan Hus in Prague to the hanging of the Islamic reformist Mahmoud Mohammed Taha in Sudan a few years ago. One need only recall the hostility and sometimes violence leveled against Ahmedi Muslims in much of the Islamic world, or Reform Judaism, which earns more scorn from the orthodox rabbis than any secularist, to demonstrate the point. Engagement rarely redeems reform in the eyes of traditionalists.

The problem isn’t just futility. In an article on Third-World feminists, Uma Narayan, herself a feminist of Indian descent, mounts a powerful defense against the prevalent accusation of “Westernization,” namely the common dismissal of feminists as detached universalists, importing foreign ideas, alien to their people and to their culture. These disingenuous accusations, Narayan claims, are used not to engage feminist critics, but to “to undercut their very entry into [the] political dialogue.” They are “used to de-legitimize” feminists by conservative critics, who themselves adopt many aspects of Western modernity and modernize the tradition in their own ways.[8]

As Narayan convincingly argues, the accusation of cultural inauthenticity is more often than not merely a reactionary deflection mechanism. American conservatives often dismiss urban liberals as un-American cosmopolitans (notably, the same term used by Stalin, with more than a tinge of counter-semitism, at the initiation of his post-war purges). Adopting this terminology to criticize American liberals would rightly be resented for abetting conservative populism. Yet this is precisely what the advocates of critical engagement are doing when they rehearse the reactionary narrative, blaming nationalist, secular, liberal, feminist, and other reformists for the traditionalist reaction they encounter.


But critical engagement’s fundamental error is not equivocating between different senses of negation, but the misconception of religious revivalism which underlies it. To explain this, let me spell out the two key premises of the counter-secularist argument: The first premiss is that liberal and democratic ideas can be couched in terms of particular religious traditions. The second assumption is that promoting them on these terms is more likely to appeal to traditionalist masses. The conclusion that follows from these premises is that critical engagement with religious traditions can prevent revivalist reaction. Though not strictly false, both premises are, in the present context, deeply misleading.

It is certainly true that, as Amartya Sen wrote in The New Republic some years ago, “the championing of pluralism, diversity, and basic liberties can be found in the history of many societies.” The textual and intellectual resources of all great religions are undeniably rich and varied. Scripture, certainly the Old Testament, lends itself to a variety of widely divergent interpretations. But it is equally undeniable that many religious sources are straightforwardly intolerant, racist, chauvinist, superstitious, and violent. Even when more liberal, tolerant interpretations are available, they will have to compete with illiberal, intolerant ones. Writing about the limitations of Quranic exegesis, Ali Rizvi notes that “just as liberal Muslims use verse 5:32 [“whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely”] to legitimately support their argument that Allah frowns on killing people, ISIS uses the very next verse, 5:33  [“the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger … is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land”], to legitimately support murdering thousands.”[9] The same is true for Jewish extremists.

Consider two examples of scriptural interpretation with concrete political manifestations which demonstrate the point. The biblical tale of Samson––the mighty hermit who battled the Philistines––was the object of admiration by some early Zionists. Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leader of the Zionist right, or revisionist Zionism, wrote a historical novel based on the Biblical myth. It is a story of carnal lust, jealousy and betrayal, in which Samson is portrayed as a noble yet violent savage. Many decades later the renowned Israeli author David Grossman provided another reading of the story. For Grossman it is an oedipal domestic tragedy. The tormented romantic Samson, conceived in an act of infidelity, self-destructively struggles to mend this primordial betrayal only to reenact it over and over again.[10]

The fundamentalists of Israel’s extreme right also draw inspiration from the rogue Jewish Hercules. But what captures their imagination is neither his sexual appetite nor psychological excavations of his oedipal struggles. For them Samson embodies the idea of vengeance as a form of national pride. Unhindered by foreign, “degenerate” norms of due process or the rule of law, his explosive violence, and especially his unabashed zeal for revenge, are the highest expression of authenticity, vitality, and spiritual health.

In the summer of 2015, Jewish terrorists torched two houses in the West Bank village of Duma. One of the houses was empty. In the other, the Dawabsheh family lay sleeping. Eighteen-month-old Ali burned to death. His father, Saad, and his mother Riham died from their wounds days later. His Four-year-old brother, Ahmad, was severely injured, but survived. The attackers left their signature: a Star of David with the Hebrew word for “Revenge!” sprayed on the house wall. A few months later, in a wedding celebration of Jewish revivalists, dancers were waving guns and using knives to stab photos of Ali, the slain baby, while ritualistically performing “the revenge dance.” The dance, popular among the religious right, goes with a song composed of the biblical words of the blind Samson: “O Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me only this once, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.” As is common among the fans of this song, the word “Philistines” was replaced by the wedding celebrants with “Palestinians,” rendering the biblical verse a sanction for ethnic terror. Do the Jewish fundamentalist for whom Samson is a hero of terrorist vengeance have a lesser claim to authenticity than Grossman or Jabotinsky?

In his book Journey of the Jihadist Fawaz Gerges argues that “Blaming terrorism on passages from the Qur’an would be like blaming the Crusades on passages from the New Testament.”[11] This reminds me of the National Rifle Association slogan “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” This is true, but as the comedian Eddie Izzard said: “yes, but the gun helps!”

Or consider a less extreme example. As the state of Israel was being formed its rabbis were faced with the question of what status non-Jews should have in it. Their predicament was not simple: The state––which clearly would include a sizable portion of non-Jews––was going to be democratic, but Jewish law quite unequivocally proscribes granting non-Jews equal treatment. In particular, they are not to own land and may not be appointed to positions of public authority. Constrained by religious orthodoxy, the rabbis could not simply reject such dicta. On the other hand, they were confronted with a political reality they could not alter but did not want to seem discordant with. So they did what desperate conservatives often do––they interpreted some texts more liberally and ignored those they could not convincingly massage. In an impressive display of hermeneutic acrobatics, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, who was Chief Rabbi when the state was declared, ruled that non-Jews can be allowed to reside in the land of Israel. His ruling was based on a non-trivial re-interpretation of some passages of Maimonides, the great 12th century Halakhic authority. Besides the strained interpretation, he also had to disregard some passages, like the one which says that non-Jews must be killed unless they agree to be taxed and subjugated.[12] Leaving little room for interpretationist maneuvering, Maimonides explicated:

The subjugation they must accept consists of being on a lower level, scorned and humble. They must never raise their heads against Israel, but must remain subjugated under their rule. They may never be appointed over a Jew in any matter whatsoever.[13]

Herzog conveniently ignored these passages (which are a pretty straightforward rendering of Exodus 23 and Deuteronomy 20). But after 1967, as religious nationalism grew stronger, its rabbis began to tout them. Unsurprisingly, it is these parts that now shape the views of Jewish revivalists.

The general point is this. For every liberal-sounding verse there are a dozen racist, misogynist, intolerant, and violent ones. For every modern interpretation there are numerous conservative readings. The belief that the former will be chosen over the latter rests on blind faith. If the error of secular modernizers was their unbending faith in the inevitability of progress and secularization, in assuming that the masses will prefer liberal religion over reactionary religion counter-secularists are replicating this mistake.

This takes us to the second assumption––that traditionally clothed liberalism will be more appealing than either universalist liberalism or anti-liberal revivalism. It seems to me that this assumption rests on a misunderstanding of religious revivalism. An anecdote from Zionist history can help illustrate the point.

Asher Ginzberg (AKA Ahad Ha’am) was the quintessential Zionist critical engager. He opposed secular revolution and advocated cultural evolution.[14] His metaphor was old barrels which can be used to contain different wines: “The ancient barrel in its ancient form is holy, and whatever it contains becomes holy as well, even if it is occasionally emptied and filled with new contents.”

The Hebrew writer Micha Josef Berdyczewski challenged this logic. What if the old form will not take in new content? What if the old form itself, he asked, “is but a burden upon us, upsetting our spirit?” And Berdyczewski also raised the obvious objection: “You consider the barrel holy… but you won’t protect the wine?”

This century old debate touches the heart of the matter. The idea that traditionalists are attached to religious texts, and so can be made to adopt whatever content is forced into it, is getting things backwards. What draws people to religion is usually not its intellectual rigor, nor its historical authenticity, but its emotional intensity and its psychological comforts. Traditionalist forms of religious life offer the promise of transcendent meaning, absolute value, definite authority, and exceptional identity. Unsurprisingly, these thick forms of meaning and belonging are especially appealing to young people, often the disgruntled, the marginalized, and the alienated. But they are not limited to Islamists in Kabul or settlers on the hilltops of Samaria. Here is how one expert explained the rise of authoritarian populist parties in Eastern Europe: “They promise voters what liberal democracy cannot: a sense of victory where majorities—not just political majorities, but ethnic and religious ones, too—can do what they please.”[15] This should not be understood merely as a cynical defense of unconstrained majoritarianism in the service of self-interest. When it comes to revivalists, there is a genuine ideological, one might say spiritual, motivation. What they seek is intensity, integrity, and totality. This is precisely what liberal democracy can not and should not offer them. Yet they will also not find these exhilarating traits in liberal versions of religion.

Counter-secularists have a tendency to overlook this. Take for example the way Gerges summarizes his conversation with Kamal Habib, an Egyptian Jihadi incarcerated for his involvement in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. Gergez quotes the Islamic militant making proclamations like: “There is an organic link between Qur’anic law, sharia, and political authority . . . There will be no security as long as political authority is not based on God’s sovereignty.” Or: “I will do everything in my power to prevent women from becoming judges. They belong at home with the children.” And “I value communal rights more than individual rights. In an Islamic state, the individual is not free to do what he wishes. There are limits ordained by God’s laws, which supersede any human authority.” These assertions are quite unambiguous. Yet, Gerges immediately concludes unaffectedly that “Islamic democracy will not be a carbon copy of Western liberal democracy; it will be deeply rooted and colored by local traditions and values.” Surely, if Habib gets his way there will be neither Western nor Eastern, nor any other kind of liberal democracy in Egypt.

Jewish revivalists express similar ideals. Their most prominent spiritual leader, Rabbi A. I. Kook, was very explicit: despite what its protagonists might think, the essence of Zionism, he repeatedly asserts, is theistic. Religion must therefore inform and shape the politics of Israel. As one of his most influential contemporary successors recently wrote: “Religion in Israel guides not only the lives of individuals, but that of the entire state.” It is not for lack of more liberal articulations of the idea of Jewish statehood that so many nationalists adopt this view. It is because it offers them something those other options do not.

This has two important upshots. First, the universalist liberalism with which critical engagement seeks to infuse religious tradition is alien to the traditionalist, exclusivist sensibilities of the people it aims to address. They will not be fooled if this liberalism sneaks up on them under traditionalist dressing. As Ginzberg himself wrote at one point, “there is a latent contradiction, deep within the soul” between “the faith” and Zionism as there is between religion and enlightenment. Quoting scripture instead of Voltaire will not obscure this divide.

To be sure, devising liberal, egalitarian interpretations of religious traditions is a worthy endeavor in and of itself. But doing so instrumentally, with the aim of recruiting the traditionalist masses, is bound to fail. Moreover, it can backfire. By endorsing the denunciation of liberal reformists as lacking cultural authenticity, liberal engagers risk becoming unwitting hand-maidens of revivalists. The aspiration to appeal to traditionalists, inclines them to conceal the contradictions, to paper over chauvinist, misogynist, racist, superstitious, ignorant, and violent elements of religion, instead of actively and explicitly rejecting them.

This, then, is the second upshot: by extolling religion and granting it a role in public life, critical engagement might inadvertently fuel revivalism. Again, Israel is a case in point. For some two decades reengagement with the canonical texts and rituals of Judaism has been a dominant cultural trend. Dozens of non-religious institutions for the study of Judaism have been created and secular versions of religious rituals, from holiday ceremonies to prayer, have become ever more popular. Yet over the course of this very period the religious counterrevolution has been most triumphant.

This is not accidental correlation. Liberal ‘critical engagers’ have placed themselves in a bind. If they announce their aim––namely, liberal revision of religion––if they wear their negation on their sleeves, so to speak, they will lose their traditionalist appeal. On the other hand, if they wish to conceal their revisionism, they must refrain from negating what ought to be negated, thereby giving revivalism a crucial foothold. As the latter is often the course dictated by the Narodnik urge to “connect with the people,” the seemingly innocent demand for critical engagement ultimately reinforces the traditionalist claim to superior status.

In Israel, non-Orthodox institutions, created with the aim of fostering open, critical engagement with Judaism, have often become gateways to traditionalism and hyper-nationalism. If cultural authenticity is the criterion, the prospects of liberalism are not better, if not worse, than those revivalism. As one Jewish revivalist put it: “for some, being an authentic Jew is composing a new hassidic poem about love; for others, it’s attacking an Arab village.”[16]

Religious traditions can and should be engaged, but not with an eye to recruiting the masses. When they can serve to combat revivalists they should be employed, but when they can’t they must be confronted and openly negated. This will not appeal to those with traditionalist sensibilities, but this is as it should be. Most importantly, they should not be allowed to determine the space of legitimate political argument. Under conditions of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-faith citizenship, maintaining a decent society requires not only banishing religion from politics, but also entrenching the core liberal conviction that existential meaning, metaphysical purpose, and thick exclusivist associations must be sought outside the political sphere.

[1]  Janet Afary, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, p. 207.

[2]  Ashis Nandy, “The Twilight of Certitudes: Secularism, Hindu Nationalism, and Other Masks of Deculturation,” p. 167.

[3] Reza Aslan, Beyond Fundamentalism, p. 172.

[4] Michael Walzer, The Paradox of Liberation, p. 109


[6] “Kerry: We Must ‘Put Real Islam Out There’” Weekly Standard, September 16, 2014.

[7] Michael Walzer, The Paradox of Liberation, p. 127.

[8] “Contesting Cultures: “Westernization,” Respect for Cultures, and Third-World Feminists” in Dislocating Cultures pp. 32-3

[9] Ali Rizvi, The Atheist Muslim 181.

[10] Se’ev Jabotinsky, Samson; David Grossman, Lion’s Honey: The Myth of Samson.

[11] Fawaz Gergez, Journey of the Jihadist, p. 11.

[12] This is not very different from the Quranic notion of jizyah (see Surah Al-Tawabah 9:29)

[13] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars, 6,1.

[14] Ginzberg advocated cooperation between religious and secular Zionists, believing that the spiritual renewal must be organic, an evolution of the Jewish tradition, not a revolution against it. “Our question will find a complete answer only when a spring of new life to mend the hearts will erupt from an internal source, from Judaism itself,” he wrote.



Credit Gali Tibbon / AFP