The revenge of God 

The resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern world


Gilles Kepel














The Pennsylvania State University Press


….ways of breaking with one’s society.  These ways are precisely codified; they govern the process of ‘withdrawal’ by the faithful from their ‘godless’ environment down to the smallest detail.  They relate to everyday life, to ways of eating, dressing, praying, relations with the opposite sex and children, education, and so on.  Their ultimate aim is to re-Islamize society as a whole, but in the meantime they allow networks of communities to be formed which already live according to the shar’ia in its strictest interpretation.  This honey-combing of small areas of society through space and time is meant by ‘re-Islamization from below’. 

            This approach owes its origin to a pietistic association that was founded in India in 1927, the Jama’at al Tabligh (‘Society for Propagation of Islam’).  Its founder, Muhammad Ilyas, was disturbed at seeing Muslims, who formed a minority on the subcontinent, ‘contaminated’ by the Hindu society around them.  Unless something drastic happened they would soon become undistinguishable, and Islam would disappear in an unacceptable syncretism.  In order to combat this process of assimilation, the Tabligh redefined the Islamic ‘break’, the radical differentiation between ‘Muslims’ and ‘the strayed’ (khasirun’), as a literal imitation of the conduct and attitudes of the Prophet.  Pious Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohammed is the supreme incarnation of the virtues of Islam, and that everyone must try to be as like him as possible.  (p. 34)


…A member of the Tabligh reorganizes the whole of his life by the most scrupulous mimicry of this, the only legitimate model.  Conversely, everything in the legal organization of society that differs from this archetype has to be rejected a sin and corruption.  (p. 35)




…re-Christianization—as set forth by Cardinal Ratzinger, for example—openly claims to supersede communism.  It is no longer simply anathematized, as formerly, but is seen through Christian eyes as the very manifestation of totalitarianism, the negation of freedom and human rights, because it denies the existence of God.  Indeed, communism, as the inevitable culmination of the process of the Enlightenment and the supreme argument against it, provided negative proof of the necessity of the re-Christianization.  (p. 80-81)


            But when the free elections were held and as a market economy was progressively introduced, democratic aspirations proved stronger than the thirst for transcendence; the wish to express differing opinions proved stronger than acceptance of revealed truths—understandably so after forty years of subscribing to other truths said to be just as unassailable.  Even in ultra-Catholic Slovakia the rumour that, if the Christian Democratic party won, crucifixes would have to be put up in all schools and workplaces (a replacement of portraits of Stalin?) helped to take many good Christian voters out of that particular lobby.  (p. 81) 


            …in the very places which saw the death throes of totalitarian communism, and where believers in re-Christianization hoped that ‘Christina society’ could come to birth, this strategy clashed with the democratic aspirations of some Catholics.  They held that in this world the expression of ultimate Truth, of which the Church is the guardian, is subordinate to men’s search for their freedom; no “Christian party’ has the prerogative of establishing a social order modeled on a Truth of which it believes itself to be the sole guardian.  This ‘constraint by democracy’ does not at present exist in the filed of re-Islamization.  But,…, it is present—though in rather different ways—in the sphere tenanted by the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists of the United State.  (p. 99)




            Mayer Schiller’s The Road Back….calls the modern era an ‘age of anomie’.  This can be traced back to the Enlightenment, when ‘man cut himself adrift from his firm moorings in a theocentric universe, and was inextricably swept out by the current of secular ideology into the bizarre and hostile sea of doubt where he now flounders…’  Here the Enlightenment represents the supreme expression of human pride, which tries to emancipate reason from faith; and reason left to itself cannot but engender totalitarianism, of which the French Revolution was the first significant manifestation and Nazism the end result.

            This is reminiscent of Hannah Arendt, and it echoes a line of reasoning that appears in the writings of Cardinal Ratzinger and Cardinal Lustiger, who trace the ‘pagan’ manifestations of Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism back to the Enlightenment and its French offspring.  The Italian Catholics of Communion and Liberation took a similar line, regarding the Enlightenment world view as the source of secularism, the enemy in chief. 

            The Jewish world also had its Enlightenment, the Haskalah, in which the intelligencia emancipated itself from the tutelage of the rabbis and set about shedding the ghetto mentality.  This way of thinking had been violently condemned by orthodox Jews, who regarded it as culpable departure from the Law.  But the rise of Zionism, offspring of the Haskalah, had rendered that polemic obsolete.  Now, however, with the teshuvah—return and repentance—it recovered its force and relevance. 

            Mayer Schiller belongs to this orthodox strain, but he represents its most modern conceivable expression:  his book is intended as a critique of secularized society from a dual standpoint, sacred and profane.  Unlike the traditional haredim (ultra-orthdox), who cultivate a pious ignorance of worldly knowledge, the author has taken the trouble to aquire such knowledge in order to find therein arguments likely to appeal to the assimilated Jews, his intended audience, whom he wants to bring back to the teshuvah road.  (p. 143-144)


            The idea of blowing up the mosques on the Temple Mount had been canvassed in certain restricted religious circles ever since the Israelis had retaken the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967.  The chief rabbi of the Israeli army had called for the ‘cleansing’ of the area but Moshe Dayan, at that time Minister of Defense, would not hear of it.  Nearly all the orthodox yeshivoh and the leading Israeli rabbis took the view that the halakah, the Jewish law, forbade Jews to go on the temple Mount before the return of the Messiah.  Therefore they felt no urgency about getting rid of the mosques that had been built on it.  Nor did the founders of Gush in1974 pay much attention to this objective; they were obsessed with settling the Occupied Territories.  Only when peace talks were begun with Egypt, in 1977, did bitter disillusionment with the State of Israel and the Negin government begin to fester among them.  It engendered the idea of taking more radical measures, giving an irreversible thrust to the process of re-Judaization. 

Rav Kook had thought that the secular Zionist state, despite its impiety, was unconsciously fulfilling God’s purpose.  Was it still carrying out that mission now that it was preparing to sign a peace treaty with Egypt involving withdrawal from Sinai, part of the land promised to the Chosen People?  Should it not be stopped from signing that treaty, at all costs?  Perhaps it was time to do something much more spectacular than establishing more or less illegal settlements on the West Bank, something which would make peace with the Arabs, and territorial concessions forever impossible.  (p. 164-165)




Thus, despite their similarities, the re-Islamization, re-Judaization and re-Christianization movements ‘from above’ differ significantly in their attitudes to the state, the law and the constraint of democracy, and these differences have their origin in their respective religious doctrines.  They are exacerbated by the political and social context of the societies in which these movements are developing.  The Muslim world, with its closed political system and bleak economic outlook for young people, naturally induces a resort to various form of violence, and a marked intolerance fed by a monist conception of the universe.  Israel combines an open political system with a monist religious doctrine taken to extremes by (for example) Gush Emunim, which has directed its violence only against non-Jews.  In Christian Europe and America, the democratic constraint resulting from a dualism inherent in the religious doctrine itself has steered the movements from re-Christianization towards the reacquisition of public legal status and an attempt to loosen the grip of secularism.  This has not led to violence, even under communist regimes in which there was no scope for free expression. 

            In each of these three cases, the movements ‘from above’ reached an impassible threshold in the mid-1980s, after which movements ‘from below’ came to the fore.  Sometimes these were different groups, different militants; in other situations the group was the same, but the strategy has changed.  Movements ‘from below’, whether Islamic, Jewish or Christian, set to work on the individual in similar ways:  he was induced to break with the values and customs of the surrounding society and acclimatized to a new society within communities of believers.  These communities live by commands or values drawn from their scared writings, interpreted literally, and they aim to influence the whole of society in the long term.  (p. 198-199)


It is in the Jewish world that the consequences of ‘return’ and ‘repentance’ (teshuvah) are most visible.  Both in Israel and in the diaspora, the haredim (ultra-orthodox) groups have built up an extremely large network of closed communities based on the most uncompromising observance of the mitsvot (the sacred duties and prohibitions).  The haredim, with their network of religious schools and colleges (yeshivot and kolellim), their efficient distribution of strictly kosher food and their highly fertile endogamic system, have pushed the break with the customs and values of the surrounding society to the limit.  Their attitude is grounded in a culture of separation and refusal to assimilate that has enabled the ‘Chosen People’ to remain distinct throughout the centuries of the diaspora.  (p. 199)


…Life in a community system of this kind plays down as far as possible ideas such as citizenship shared with American or French non-Jews, or a shared nationhood.  For example, in Lubavich primary schools in Paris, French and mathematics are the only ‘profane’ subjects taught.  History, geography, civic education and other ‘mind-broadening’ disciplines that shape the world view of other French boys and girls are replaced by the learning of Hebrew and the reading of the Bible and the Talmud.  Cultural interaction with the non-Jewish world is reduced to its most basic terms:  you learn to read and add up.  Here we see the communal phenomenon at work in its most absolute expression.  (p. 200)


In the Muslim world, movements ‘from below’ do not draw their sustenance from a religious culture of perpetual separation from the environment, as does re-Judaization.  There is no wish to rescue a Chosen people from the dangers of assimilation; here the aim is to participate in a dynamic process of spreading Islam to the while of humanity, while defending an identity that is under threat during temporary ‘phases of weakness’.  The pattern provided by tradition is that of the Prophet Mohammed, whom one must imitate to the letter in all aspects of behavior so as not to lose one’s way and risk seeing one’s religious identity adulterated by the surrounding ‘ungodliness’.  …To imitate the Prophet in his way of dressing, eating and looking at the world, of treating his wife (or wives) and educating his children, is to break with the social environment in France, Germany or Britain, as manifested in education, housing and so on.  It is to build a self-sufficient world, subject to a corpus of prohibitions and constraints rather like those of the re-Judaization movements, but directed towards a different end.  The re-Islamization equivalent of the ghetto is not an end in itself:  it must expand as soon as it can, first to embrace ‘strayed’ Muslims and then to win over the rest of humanity.  (p. 201)