Response to Review of ‘Religious Politics and Secular States: Egypt, India and the United States’

Millennium today features a special guest post from Scott W. Hibbard (Depaul University), responding to a recent review of his book featured in Millennium 40.3.


I am writing in response to your published review of Religious Politics and Secular States: Egypt, India and the United States.[1]  I feel compelled to write because the review largely skips over the central point of the book – that state policies towards religion changed dramatically between the 1950’s and the 1980’s – and, in part, because the review reflects many of the assumptions that characterize the conventional wisdom regarding contemporary religious politics.

To begin with, the key argument of the book is that there was a dramatic shift in state policy towards religion in each of the cases under review (Egypt, India and the United States).  While in the 1950s and 1960s, state elites consciously sought to promote a secular vision of national life – and in the process repressed theologically conservative renderings of religious belief – this changed in subsequent decades.  In the latter period, state elites saw conservative religious actors as a constituency to be courted, not a threat to be marginalized.  This changing attitude towards conservative (or what I refer to as illiberal) religion marked a sharp break with previous practice.  It also reflected a shift in government priorities: state elites abandoned earlier commitments to social justice and an inclusive social order, and chose instead “to ‘ride the tiger’ of an exclusive religious politics.” (P. 246)  This was very much rooted in the ideological politics of the Cold War, and in a belief that conservative religion would serve as a bulwark against socialism and leftist ideologies.

The heart of the book, then, is an effort to document this transformation. During the 1950’s and 1960s, state actors sought to promote a vision of society (and the nation) that was religiously tolerant and respected minority (particularly religious minority) rights.  This was never an easy task, however.  It flew in the face of majority demands for ethnic and religious preference, and was opposed by the political right.  In the 1970’s and 1980’s, then, individuals such as Anwar Sadat, Indira Gandhi and Richard Nixon each abandoned these earlier commitments to an inclusive politics in favor of the more politically expedient appeal to majoritarian wishes.  This “changing orientation” of state elites towards conservative religion is crucial to understanding the changed political fortunes of previously marginalized fundamentalist groups. By consciously seeking to co-opt exclusive religious ideas, state actors helped to empower illiberal religious activists at the expense of their liberal counterparts.

A key question, of course, is the issue of causality.  What, in short, is causing what?  Many – including the reviewer – argue that the religious resurgence would have occurred regardless of state policy, and that state actors were simply adapting to a changed environment.  In other words, state actors were not causal agents; rather, religious ideas and activists were.  This is a claim with which I simply disagree. To begin with, the assumption that religion emerges autonomously from society – and, thus, drives politics – is a common, but misguided, assumption.  The central failing of this alternative is that it does not account for the agency of political actors. While state elites may not have been the only causal agents in this process, their actions certainly had ramifications. Second, the assumption that “religion” is the driving force assumes that religion is a monolithic entity, and that it is antithetical to secular norms and ideas.  Not only does this misunderstand religion, but it also misses the point of secularism.

Let me expand on each of these last two points.  First, in regard to the issue of causality, the book does not argue that state elites created religious fundamentalisms, or that there were no other factors influencing the religious politics of the 1980s and 1990s.  One can certainly attribute a high degree of agency to Islamic activists or Hindu nationalists or the Christian Right.  But, that is only part of the story.  As I note in the introduction, the central claim of the book “is that the efforts to draw on – and exploit – illiberal interpretations of religion had an enormous impact on the political fortunes of the ideas and activists associate with them.” (p. 12)   In other words, the viability of the Muslim Brotherhood changed dramatically when the Egyptian state stopped imprisoning its membership, and, instead, provided them preferential treatment and material support (as happened under Sadat).

Second, secularism should not be equated with hostility to – or the eradication of – religion. On the contrary, secularism at that time was understood as state neutrality in matters of religion and belief, and was perceived as consistent with modernist – and ecumenical – interpretations of religious tradition.  Despite the claims of the modernization theory (and its corollary, the secularization thesis), then, religion remained a central feature of both social and political life throughout the mid-twentieth century. This is evident in the ecumenical Christianity inherent in the “civil religion” of the Eisenhower/Kennedy/Johnson era, the tolerant Hinduism at the core of Nehruvian secularism, and the modernist Islam promoted by the Nasser regime.

A central part of the book, then, is a focus on the displacement of modernist religion as a dominant social force with illiberal or fundamentalist religion, and the role of state actors in facilitating this transition.  As I argue in the book – and illustrate through the case studies – religion has always been a part of nationalist ideologies, both shaping collective identity and legitimizing state authority.  The question, then, is why did the liberal renderings of religion give way to the illiberal?   The answer is manifold, but one of the key elements is that it served the political interests of the status quo.  More to the point,  “the communalism inherent in exclusive interpretations of religion fit more readily with the ideological requirements of the modern state than does the ambiguity of liberal religion.” (p. 247)  Fundamentalist religion, in short, was better suited to the exclusive tendencies of the modern nation state, and the hierarchical patterns of social life which conservative political elites sought to promote.

This last point, then, gets to my central concern with the review: its dichotomous approach to religion and politics.  Modern religious politics is not about tradition versus modernity, religion versus secularism or religious activists versus secular states.  On the contrary, these categories obscure more than they reveal.  Religious ideologies – particularly their illiberal variant – are thoroughly modern phenomenon.  Moreover, modern states are hardly secular, and the nationalist narratives from which they derive their legitimacy are infused with religious imagery and symbolism.  Moreover, as noted above, neither religion nor secularism is monolithic.  Secularism can be alternately interpreted as neutrality in matters of religion or as hostility towards religion (and this changes over time).  Similarly, religion is a multifaceted phenomenon that is interpreted – and mobilized – in different ways to achieve different ends.

What I have sought to do in Religious Politics and Secular States is to captures this nuance, and provide a theoretical framework that accounts for the politicization of religion as well as its ambiguous nature.  I have also sought to ground this theory in three in depth case studies. Unfortunately, the review fails to reflect this nuance, and appears to reject the central argument of the book not because the empirical data is incorrect, but, rather, because it does not fit into a pre-conceived understanding of modern religious politics.

Scott W. Hibbard, Associate Professor

Department of Political Science

DePaul University

Chicago, IL


[1] Mehmet Ozkan, Book Review, Milennium Journal of International Studies 2012 40:694.

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