That the true intentions of a religious organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, would become the most hotly debated issue surrounding the overthrow of Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, would have garnered guffaws among Western intellectuals only four decades ago. At that time, virtually all of them—all of us—were in the grip of secularization theory: the belief that religion was a dying supernova, enjoying its final glow before disappearing from history.
America's foreign-policy establishment is still under the theory's spell. On February 10, the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, told a Congressional committee that the Brotherhood is a "largely secular" organization. With equal glibness, other analysts have declared the Brotherhood an extremist sect intent on establishing a violent theocracy. When David Ignatius, of The Washington Post, was in Tahrir Square for a "Victory March," he found the sight of Egyptians staging mass prayers "unnerving." Such is the subtlety of our secularist outlooks. We regard religious people as either not truly religious or as irrational, violent, and scary.
But if American foreign-policy makers want to promote democracy and stability, they must come to realize that secularism is a poor analytical tool. The great surprise of the past generation has been the resurgence of religion's influence. Despite a powerful array of secularizing regimes, ideologies, and social trends, religion has not only outlasted its most ferocious 20th-century rivals, but in many cases, it also appears poised to supplant them. The Brotherhood is a perfect example: An organization that survived decades of harsh repression is now in a position to wield considerable influence in Egypt.
- The rise of Shia political activism—a theological, doctrinal movement—leading to the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the establishment of a theocratic regime.
- The dissolution of the USSR and its East European satellites, in part resulting from the efforts of John Paul II, a Polish pope who exposed the soullessness, illegitimacy, and corruption of those regimes.
- The Muslim-extremist attacks of September 11, 2001, the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and, a year later, the London bombings.
- The proliferation of nongovernmental organizations, particularly faith-based organizations (FBO's). Britain's Department for International Development estimates that as much as half of all health and education services in sub-Saharan Africa are provided by FBO's.
What explains religion's resurgence? Ironically, it has been empowered by three trends that secularization theory predicted would bury religion.
The first is modernization. Religion was supposed to wither as people became "modern"—i.e., socialized into an industrialized, urban society in which individuals exercise control over their own fates. In 1968 the great sociologist of religion Peter Berger predicted that communities of faith would dwindle, and that religious folks would be isolated, "huddled together [in small sects] to resist a worldwide secular culture." Berger has since retracted his thesis. Even in advanced industrialized countries, more than 60 percent of people claim that religion remains important to them (the global average is just above 80 percent).
The second trend is democratization, which took off in the early 1970s. In contrast to many authoritarian regimes, which sought to eradicate or subjugate religious actors, democracies typically allow religious groups to enter the political arena. In 48 of 78 countries that witnessed democratic progress between 1972 and 2009, religious groups were vocal opponents of repressive governments. And even where religion has played a more minor role, its influence has increased when political systems opened up. In the current "Arab spring," religious actors have not always played a leading role, but their effect has been significant.
The third trend is globalization. People and ideas now travel across the globe at much greater distances, at much faster speeds, and in much greater volume. As transnational actors, religious groups have been uniquely well positioned to harness new technologies, from the Internet to text-messaging to Twitter.
The global resurgence of religion is a reality. But is it good or bad? Is, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood's rise in Egypt to be feared or welcomed? Two factors are critical when assessing whether religion is more likely, on balance, to yield peace or terrorism, democracy or authoritarianism, reconciliation or civil war.
The first is the political theology of the group. Does it include the need or right to challenge political authority? If yes, does the group legitimate the use of force? In recent decades, for instance, religious leaders like Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, of South Africa, tapped from their traditions a theology of reconciliation that brought unity among warring peoples.
The second critical factor is the degree of freedom that religious actors enjoy vis-à-vis state authority. What we have consistently found is that marginalized groups, those with little freedom of action, are more likely to resort to violence. The roots of Al Qaeda are not global, but they can be traced to its founders' relationship with particular repressive regimes in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia.
The corollary is also true: Religious groups that enjoy a semblance of freedom and independence have played peaceful and accommodating roles, advancing democracy and stability in conflict-ridden societies. In Indonesia, for instance, two major Islamic movements were the only civil-society actors able to maintain a modicum of independence under the three decades of Suharto's dictatorship—and they played a robust role in midwifing democracy in the late 1990s.
If U.S. foreign-policy makers better understood religion, they would become more adept at working with religious groups to promote democracy, development, and stability. For example, close attention to the Muslim Brotherhood's deeply rooted political theology reveals that it has extremist strands that threaten Egypt's women and minorities as well as regional peace. But a nuanced understanding of the Brotherhood's historical trajectory and relationship with the Egyptian state suggests that it is a complex organization that has renounced violence, strives to renew religious faith among Egyptians, and seeks to do so democratically insofar as it is afforded space to participate in politics. In a democratic setting, the success of the Brotherhood will depend on its appeal to a broad swath of Egyptian society.
It is also possible that the Muslim Brotherhood could splinter as it shifts from being an opposition movement to a political participant. Indeed, this process began abortively in the 1990s when the Wasat (Center) Party split from the Brotherhood to advance a more moderate agenda. The effort was short-circuited when the Mubarak regime refused to license it. Now, however, that party can compete with the Brotherhood because it won official legitimacy from the new government on February 19—the first party to be granted such status after Mubarak's overthrow. There are precedents. Many analysts were rightly concerned about the rise of the Hindu-nationalist BJP, or Bharatiya Janata Party, in India in the 1980s, but the BJP has both fragmented and moderated its agenda over time.
Religion is far from being the only or even the most decisive factor in global politics. But it has played—and will continue to play—a key role. The 21st century has brought us a world radically different from the one secularization theory promised. We have no choice but to build new theories and devise fresh policy strategies for the religious age we live in, God's Century, not the secular age that never came.