New Political Religions

New Political Religions

Stephen Schwartz

or An Analysis of Modern Terrorism.
By Barry Cooper

Read Time:
2m 33sec


or An Analysis of Modern Terrorism.
By Barry Cooper. Univ. of Missouri Press. 242 pp. $44.95

Wave upon wave of books about Islam and terrorism have been published in the West since September 11, 2001, but few have offered much new. University of Calgary political scientist Barry Cooper’s volume might have been one more rehash, because his sources are entirely secondary. Instead, Cooper draws useful parallels between the Islamist extremism now stalking the planet and prior forms of totalitarian ideology.

A belief in the intrinsic separation of the political follower from the rest of the world; faith in the capacity of the political creed to fulfill divine, historical, or natural laws—such characteristics are common to all forms of totalitarianism, including Nazism, Stalinism, Japanese militarism, Italian fascism, and the contemporary Japanese cult of Aum Shinrikyo, to which Cooper devotes substantial attention. But his main focus is on “Salafism.” That’s the polite term preferred by both militants and Western academics when discussing Wahhabism and neo-Wahhabism, the Islamic movements that inspire Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and their allies.

Classic Wahhabism, like Soviet, Italian, and German totalitarianism, has enjoyed the backing of a state: the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in which Wahhabism remains the official religion. Neo-Wahhabism is the product of thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb (1906–66), who introduced the concept of revolution into a religious milieu that previously had eschewed it as a form of sowing dissension, a major sin in Sunni Islam. Unlike the original Wahhabis in the Arabian Peninsula, who allied with the Christian powers for their own political ends, the neo-Wahhabis of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Pakistani Jama’at movement preached resistance against Christian domination as represented by British rule in their countries.

Cooper believes that the works of political philosopher Eric Voegelin, including Political Religions (1938) and The New Science of Politics (1952), provide a framework for understanding terrorism. Voegelin not only equated political extremism with forms of religious affirmation, he also perceived the role of crises in stimulating political developments. He read Plato and Aristotle as products of a crisis in ancient Hellenic society, while Augustine’s City of God grew out of the crisis of Rome and Christianity, and Hegel marked “the beginning of the modern Western crisis.”

And what crisis has stirred so much of the Islamic world to a radical if deviant attempt at religious revitalization? Everyone, Cooper included, seems to give the same answer: the encounter with that oft-cited but seldom defined deus ex machina “modernity.” Islamic revivalism stirred by non-Muslim success (and, let us add, colonial aggression) has given rise to “direct political action” in the form of terrorism.

Cooper’s book is marred by his reliance on secondary sources, including eccentric and marginal works that seek to locate the crisis of Islam in the religion itself. Even so, New Political Religions is clearly written, and it includes enough basic information, and enough fresh understanding, to be recommended to all newcomers to the discussion.

—Stephen Schwartz

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