Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Borderless Believers

Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Borderless Believers

Jonathan Laurence’s Coping with Defeat: Sunni Islam, Roman Catholicism, and the Modern State presents a detailed but incomplete comparison of the Islamic and Catholic political-religious empires.

Certainly, this phenomenon, which also may apply to Malaysian and Indonesian Muslims, does not conform to Laurence’s thesis.

Laurence also overlooks the Sunni populations of the former Soviet Union, both those within Russia and those in the Central Asian states. Russia’s Muslim population totals some 25 million, 90 percent of which are Sunni. Sunni Islam overwhelmingly dominates the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, with a combined population numbering about 75 million. Sunni residents of these states comprised a significant proportion of all foreign fighters in the ISIS forces. More than 2,500 of those fighters came from Russia; another 7,000 had resided in the Central Asian states. It would have been useful had he assessed the impact of the Ottomans, Czarist Russia’s historic rival, on Russia’s Sunni Muslim population and on the Sunnis residing in the Central Asian states as well as the motives that prompted these fighters to join ISIS.

Perhaps Laurence’s reasoning for not conducting interviews in Libya due to its instability might have applied to any research in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where interviews with Chechens, in particular, might have unearthed unflattering findings concerning Moscow’s conduct of its two Chechen wars. Perhaps, as well, Laurence might have also encountered difficulties when seeking to undertake research in at least some of the former Soviet Central Asian republics that have been ruled by authoritarian leaders. Again, he does not appear to have even made the attempt to conduct research in any of these states.

Laurence’s thesis—that because Islam became nationalized North African Muslims were prone to radicalization due to the attractiveness of the concept of an international emirate—overlooks the Afghan experience since the USSR attacked and occupied that country in 1979. Many foreign fighters who joined the Mujaheddin, including bin Laden, did so to fight and expel the Soviets, not necessarily to recreate the caliphate. Indeed, it was only in 1988 that bin Laden established Al Qaeda; his initial targets were America and Israel and he was of course spectacularly successful on 9/11.

Nevertheless, when the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996 and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, it did so without universalist ambitions, even if it did permit bin Laden to operate from its territory. The Taliban has never indicated a thirst for governance beyond Afghanistan’s boundaries, yet it continues to attract foreign fighters to this day. Clearly, there are other motivations for Muslims to be radicalized apart from a desire to support an international caliphate.

One such motivation, to which Laurence devotes far too little space, is the reason why the disorientation that afflicts younger European Muslims did not affect their elders to anything like the same degree. The previous generation of Muslims who emigrated to Europe generally accommodated themselves to their new environments, most of them by willingly joining the working class. This was the case with respect to the thousands of South Asians who moved to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s—a large number of whom had been expelled from Idi Amin’s Uganda, where they had long been the country’s merchant class.

On the other hand, French-speaking North Africans who moved to Belgium and France during and after the 1970s have found themselves alienated from the host population that tended to ignore them. They live in Muslim ghettos, such as the Paris banlieues, and suffer from poor educational facilities and high unemployment. Arguably, these factors have led to their susceptibility to the preaching of radical imams and the blandishments of radical websites as much, if not more, than a desire for a new supranational caliph. Unfortunately, Laurence does not evaluate the economic and social, as opposed to religious and cultural, variables that could influence the radicalization of young Muslims.

LAURENCE IS at his best when writing about the Catholic Church’s slow, tortuous, but ultimately successful effort to come to terms with the modern world. He clearly views Italian and French anti-clericalism with considerable distaste. For example, in discussing French efforts to control the church, he says nary a word about the Dreyfus Affair, which tore the country apart between those who defended the unfortunate captain and those, which included most church leaders, who bitterly opposed his vindication. He describes the Italian nationalist seizure of Rome in 1870 as “the latest wave of infidels to vandalize the city.” Similarly, he describes without comment Pius IX’s programs to strengthen the church’s educational and organizational infrastructure in the face of its loss of temporal power as an effort to “recover control from the nation-state—and to fend off competing religions and other modern ills [my emphasis].”

Laurence does provide a wealth of detail regarding the church’s evolution from the emergence of Protestantism through the secularization of Western Europe, from the papacy’s travails with staunchly secularist Italian governments to the emergence of the American church as a key player in Vatican affairs. He does the same with respect to the development of Islamic institutions in the four countries that are his primary focus. Indeed, he does so to such a great extent that one wonders whether the welter of detail is really necessary to buttress his case.

Withal, Laurence’s method is more descriptive than analytical. He rarely if ever challenges the assertions put forward by the various government officials with whom he has met. On the contrary, he takes their statements at face value, even those from religious ministers who clearly have a message they wish to convey, whether or not it is wholly, or even partly, accurate. In contrast, his list of interviews includes a relatively small number of non-governmental officials and an even smaller number of opposition figures or critics of any one of the four governments that are his primary focus. While he will sometimes quote government critics, he rarely does so by name, and even less so interviews; he relies instead on secondary sources. It is also rather frustrating that he does not always identify his interviewees: when he refers to a “government official,” the reader has no idea whether the person in question is a minister or merely a lower level functionary who is mouthing an official line rather than offering his or her own views.

COPING WITH Defeat is larded with throwaway lines that reflect either the author’s inability to come to terms with non-Catholic denominations and religions, or simply his inability to understand them. At times he is simply unaware of their specific histories. For example, he postulates that “other religious communities did not have their ideological networks scrutinized, as has happened with Islamic associations’ trustees, or faced a demand that they form an Einheitsgemeinde (a single united community).” He seems unaware that post-Soviet Russia, like the Soviet Union, not only carefully scrutinizes both Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but actively persecutes them; while Prussia, and then Bismarck’s Germany, for decades would only recognize a united Jewish community until the Orthodox Jews finally were able to obtain legislation that allowed them to form a community of their own.

Nor does he seem to understand the nature of Judaism when he asserts in the sentence immediately following that “most European citizens do not recognize any spiritual authority of the pope because they are Protestant, Orthodox Jewish or atheist” (my emphasis). To begin with, many European Jews, like those in America, adhere to other streams of Judaism, usually lumped together as Progressive Judaism. Or surely, he cannot mean that if a Jew is not Orthodox he or she recognizes the “spiritual authority of the pope” as such!

Indeed, Laurence’s attitude to Jews, Judaism, and, for that matter, the state of Israel is at best rather curious. In listing Napoleon’s unfriendly acts against the church, as a result of his annexation of the Papal States, Laurence lists emancipating the Jews alongside abolishing the Inquisition and shuttering convents and monasteries. He refers to the twentieth century’s “solution … to the Jewish question,” an awful-sounding term unless properly explained as the creation of the State of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Laurence does nothing of the kind, however.

Laurence also erroneously asserts that “at the turn of the twenty first century … there were no private Islamic spaces permitted to exist outside the home—that is, there was no religious civil society.” In fact, Indonesia’s Nahdlatal Ulama (NU) is the largest Islamic non-governmental organization in the world. Founded in 1926, the NU is a true civil society institution that funds schools and hospitals and assists the impoverished.  Most importantly, it advocates for a moderate version of Islam. Yet Laurence does not even mention the NU in his 575-page volume, although its 90 million members outnumber the populations of Turkey and equal those of the three north African nations combined.

ULTIMATELY, THE case that Coping with Defeat propounds simply is not proven. It falters because the book’s limited focus on but a few Sunni states and their diaspora in Europe is insufficiently broad for the vast scope of its argument. Readers interested in the recent evolution of the Catholic Church and the manner in which it came to terms with Europe’s secular reality certainly will find much in the book’s pages. So too will those who wish to learn the details of religious management in Turkey and three francophone North African states, and the efforts of these four countries to influence their former citizens now residing in selected parts of Western Europe.