Donald Hannan Akenson, God’s Peoples: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel and Ulster (Cornell, 1992).

Gilles Kepel, The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern World (trans. Alan Braley) (Pennsylvania State, 1994).

“Ideas count,” Donald Akenson asserts in God’s Peoples, and “the ideas that count most are religious.” (353) Both Akenson’s comparative study of the similar covenantal “conceptual grids” underlying three settler-colonial societies and Gilles Kepel’s survey of resurgent movements within the three major Abrahamic systems take religious ideas with utmost seriousness. Kepel’s “working hypothesis,” for example, starts from the notion that what these religious movements “say and do is meaningful, and does not spring from a dethronement of reason or from manipulation by hidden forces” (11), such as a purely economic approach might indicate. Both authors situate themselves outside of the ideas, movements and societies they analyze, although not without a certain fascination and respect, especially in Akenson’s case, for the often stubbornly closed systems they encounter.

At the same time, both authors take great pains to historicize the religious ideas they examine as they attempt the difficult task of linking religious concepts to political structures across vastly different cultures and historical periods. The value of these books does not rest, for example, in any detailed history of the Muslim Brothers or of the Israeli settler movement, Gush Emunim. Instead, both Akenson and Kepel attempt to draw out intersections, parallels and patterns principally in order to comprehend underlying structural and ideological similarities between entirely disparate, even antagonistic, phenomena — a somewhat problematic endeavor. But both books begin to address what the present historical moment demands: the search for new approaches to understand the effects of transcendent belief systems on social and political actualities. For Akenson, “societies that took the Hebrew scriptures as their basic cultural code” — such as those of the Ulster Scots, Afrikaners and Israeli Jews — “were formatted just as firmly as a present-day computer disk.” (9) The Hebrew scriptures are not “nice.” They are inflexible, often cruel, yet powerful conceptual grids upon which startlingly coherent and cohesive settler societies have been built. Biblical notions of a chosen people’s covenant with God for land, along with the people’s escape from bondage and the necessity of blood sacrifice to receive God’s benefits, are central to the formation of each of these societies. The covenant establishes a divine economy, an if-then logic demanding strict adherence to standards of behavior in exchange for possession of the land. These societies are characterized by strong enforcement of social laws through religious congregations rather than civil jurisdictions. They incorporate particularly sharp definitions of enemies and a sense of being surrounded, enforced by unforgiving attitudes towards these enemies.

Another feature is the tendency to think of the deity in heavily anthropomorphized terms, particularly as a thoroughly warlike God capable of wrath at human deviance from divine plan, or of leading chosen people to victory over indigenous Irish, Africans and Arabs. The conception of the warlike God always operates in conjunction with a deep attachment to specific territories targeted for colonial appropriation. “This will not be mere land hunger,” writes Akenson, “but land will be seen as sacrilized, as holy, and as a Promised Land.” (42) The “pull” of holy land sensibility operates dynamically with the “push” of the emotionally charged motif of exodus, of escape from bondage. Finally, covenantal societies display deep anxieties concerning “group purity, either religious or racial or both.” (42)

With this conceptual grid — and I have offered here only the barest outline — Akenson recounts the establishment of Presbyterian “plantations” in Ulster until the current “troubles,” and the evolution of Dutch settlement from the 1936 “Afrikaner Covenantal Oath” until the last days of the apartheid regime. Regarding Israel, Akenson does not equivocate about the colonial nature of early or contemporary Zionist settlement, although he embraces Walter Laqueur’s egregious formulation that Zionism came to an end with the formation of the state, which leads him to assert that Israel emerged as a covenantal state only after the 1977 elections brought the Likud and the religious settler right to power. He notes how Jews were the last of these three peoples to embrace the notion of a covenantal state, despite the fact that Judaism preserved the legacy of the Hebrew scriptures; and how Zionism, as a militantly secular, colonizing offshoot of the Enlightenment, at first eschewed the religiously charged renderings that motivated Ulster Presbyterians and Afrikaner Calvinists. But as he recounts the rise of religious Zionism and the Israeli state’s concessions to religious sensibilities, he traces a process in which “the wiring of Israeli society” has recently led to “the gradual, but ineluctably accelerating, reintroduction of a covenantal worldview to the people of Israel.” (250)

I would challenge Akenson’s assertion that this process is so very recent. Zionism has traded in precisely a covenantal sense of identity, albeit secularized and mythologized, from its inception (and such a sensibility was not at odds with much Enlightenment thinking). Akenson’s focus on comparing the covenantal mindset rather than on other similarities in settler-colonial dynamics leads him to a somewhat restrictive definition of how chosen-people identities function, a definition, for example, that would not include the comparable New Jerusalem myth of America. Nevertheless, readers will not find gross distortions or apologetics about Israeli history or policy interfering with a refreshing analysis.

Akenson regards the breakup of these covenantal mindsets as a process fraught with danger and requiring a great deal of patience — especially since these societies thrive on isolation and a sense of threat on all sides. Although he writes before the collapse of apartheid, the recent peace overtures in Northern Ireland or the Israeli-PLO peace accord, he observes how several factors have contributed to breaking up such mindsets, particularly as these countries are incorporated within larger capitalist systems. Northern Ireland, for example, because of the formation of the European Community, is no longer on the edge of Europe. Similarly, the South African bourgeoisie lost interest in preserving a cross-class herrenvolk solidarity in favor of more customary class dynamics within a global economy. One can imagine similar arguments — regional integration, the pressures of capital flow — for why Israel could back away from its old-style maximalist stance in favor of the current agreements. At the very least, despite how little Palestinians benefit at this time, the peace process has had the positive effect of loosening the hold of many covenantal assumptions, such as the sense of constant threat among Israeli (and American) Jews, a shakeup that may help transform the conflict.

In The Revenge of God, Kepel examines contemporary religious revivals, thankfully casting aside the Protestant designation of “fundamentalism” in favor of “re-Islamization,” “re-Christianization” and “re-Judaization.” Kepel chose to write such an essay because the causes of conservative religious revival “were not peculiar to the world of Islam…. My purpose is simply to lay down some markers as a guide for thinking round the phenomenon as a whole.” (2-3) “Like the workers’ movement of yesteryear, today’s religious movements have a singular capacity to reveal the ills of society, for which they have their own diagnosis,” which must be heard “in the context of their social praxis in a process of mutual illumination.” (11-12)

Kepel’s scope, not only across religious bounds but within each faith, is breathtaking. He examines the Gush Emunim, Shas, Agudat Israel, the Lubavitcher Hassidim, other haredim, even the Neturei Karta, all under the rubric of movements for “re-Judaization.” Kepel manages to distinguish the different social contexts and relationships to Zionism of these groups. Still, such scope opens itself up to inaccuracies, oversimplifications, even the collapse of necessary analytical categories (which my own summarization here only exacerbates).

Nonetheless, The Revenge of God, precisely because of its insistently comparative framework, does much to highlight the similar attitudes, structural approaches and political strategies of these movements. Kepel delineates how most of them, despite their traditional roots, are relatively recent creations, responses to the “crisis of modernity’ — specifically, the 1968 failures in Europe and America, to the 1967 triumph and 1973 defeat in Israel, and to the bankruptcy of post-independence elites and “the alien, Western-import nature of the modernity they had tried to build” in the Muslim Middle East over the last two decades. (193)

These movements have a great deal in common beyond mere historical simultaneity. They are at one in rejecting a secularism that they trace back to the philosophy of the Enlightenment. They regard the vainglorious emancipation of reason from faith as the prime cause of all the ills of the twentieth century. (192)

Rejecting secularism, they have sought first “to fix labels on to the confusion and disorder” and then breathe “fresh life into the vocabulary and the categories of religious thought as applied to the contemporary world” by reasserting new visions of how societies could be reorganized according to sacred scriptures. (191-92)

According to Kepel, these movements seek a radical departure from contemporary societies and “official religions,” a separation from the “worldly” in favor of the Godly, such as Sayyid Qutb’s call for secularized states to break with the jahiliyya (idolatrous ignorance), and for the destruction of nominal Islamic states in order to establish real ones. While calling for a radical break from modernity — such as American fundamentalist rejections of “secular humanism” — these movements “see no contradiction between their mastery of science and technology and their acceptance of a faith not bounded by the tenets of reason.” (192) A number of leaders of these movements — Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, for example — have had elite secular educations; many are even scientists themselves (particularly electrical engineers).

Kepel devotes much attention to the political strategies of these movements for seizing power, usually a mix of reinserting religion from “above” and from “below.” He cites the single greatest example of success from “above” as the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the greatest failure as the Catholic Church in Poland, while he notes how Islamist groups in Egypt have succeeded in providing social services, education and other grassroots alternatives in order to organize from “below.” He traces how Jerry Falwell first sought, through the Moral Majority, to re-Christianize from “above” but, after Pat Robertson’s setback in 1988, he turned to his Liberty University in order to organize from “below.”

In his conclusion, when Kepel summarizes the contours of the movements within each faith and the prospects of their success, he unfortunately lapses into classic Orientalist chauvinism. “The rejection of even a chimerical notion of democracy is actually inherent in Islamic religious doctrine,” he writes, which, “in its present-day militant reaffirmation, is fervently monist.” (194) For both Islamists and haredi Jews “the sole principle of social organization is God’s revealed Law.” (196) Such a narrow assertion is marred further by Kepel’s more sunny representation of Christianity, which “nurtured the process which was to lead to modern democracy via the Reformation and the Enlightenment” and this provides a “democratic constraint” on movements for re-Christianization. (196- 97) Time will only tell how constrained Newt Gingrich and Pat Robertson remain. To say that “there could never be a Christian equivalent to the Islamic Republic in Iran” (197) seems a bit premature.

How to cite this article:

Hilton Obenzinger "God Power," Middle East Report 194-195 (July/August 1995).
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