ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Greys of Religious Bigotry

Reading Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her

Religious fundamentalism has been gaining currency in myriad forms, often defining itself as a legitimate aspect of modernity. Nisha Pahuja's The World Before Her tries to address this conundrum.

Storming through Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has “resurrected” the Caliphate, declaring the group’s chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the new caliph and calling on Muslims around the world to swear loyalty to him. This latest outcome of the Arab Spring is one that western commentators did not predict. At the outset, the Arab Spring was welcomed for overthrowing autocratic governments. It was also almost implicitly assumed that these governments would then be replaced with secular, liberal dispensations modelled after present-day western polities. After all, this was what modernity was all about, right? As it turns out, this belief in the absolute telos of modernity was quite misplaced and the Arab Spring turned not to “European” secularism but to Islamism.

This in itself was a much condensed version of a debate which played out amongst sociologists from the 1950s to the turn of the century. In The Sacred Canopy (1960), for example, Peter L Berger, argued for a theory of secularisation which stated that as societies became industrialised, religion would die out. In other words, secularisation and modernity were necessarily coupled together. While this thesis held for western Europe, when applied to larger, global data sets, it didn’t really do all that well. The United States (US) was an early outlier, where evangelical Christianity and modernity grew side-by-side. The same held for the Chinese, where industrialisation did not necessarily translate to society becoming less religious. By the 1990s, Berger had himself admitted that this theory of secularisation was simply incorrect.

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