Retreat and Resurgence: Religion in 2013

The latest polls confirm what many have already recognized:  Religion is becoming less important to Americans, particularly young Americans. In the last five years, the number of those with no religious affiliation has grown from 15% to 20% of the American public, as reported by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.  The figure for young Americans is even higher:  One/third of those under the age of thirty are unaffiliated. A similar trend can be seen in Canada where polls put the number of religiously-unaffiliated Canadians at 25%.  What is clear is that the trend towards secularization, a trend first seen in Europe, is accelerating at a rapid pace on this side of the Atlantic. 

Interesting statistics, you might say, but so what?  This is what:  With the growing secularization of society, fewer and fewer Americans and Canadians are taking religion–any religion–seriously, and therein lies the problem:  While religion may be in retreat in the West, just the opposite is occurring in the world’s “hot spot,” the Middle East where, thanks to the so-called “Arab Spring,” there has been a resurgence of religion of the Islamist kind.

This resurgence is due–in some measure, undoubtedly–to President Barack Obama’s 2009 Cairo Speech “A New Beginning.”  The Obama administration insisted that at least ten members of the Muslim Brotherhood–an organization banned by Mubarak and his predecessors–be allowed to attend the President’s speech.  They were invited, and given front row seats.  One wonders whether the Obama administration ever questioned why the Muslim Brotherhood had been outlawed all those years. The Muslim Brotherhood started out as a religious movement created by a Sunni Muslim, Hassan al-Banna, in 1928 as a kind of boys’ club to promote moral reform in the Arab world. What began as a boys’ club evolved into a political organization, now found worldwide.  Adopting as its slogan, “Islam is the solution,” the Muslim Brotherhood began calling on Muslims everywhere to return to their purest religious roots, to reestablish the Caliphate, and to resume holy war or jihad against the non-Muslim world.  A long-standing member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, has just been elected president of Egypt.     

In the nearby Gaza Strip, HAMAS, an outgrowth of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, wields power after winning a democratically-held election in 2006.  HAMAS is the Arabic acronym for ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’.  The organization was founded in 1987 by the blind Sunni Sheikh Ahmed Yassin as the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.  In its 1988 founding charter, HAMAS sets out its aims in unambiguous language:  “Allah is its goal, the Prophet its model, the Qur’an its Constitution, Jihad its path, and death in the cause of Allah its most sublime belief.”  Recently, the Obama administration used HAMAS to broker a truce between Gaza’s rocket-firing ‘militants’ and Israel, thus giving HAMAS new respectability and clout in the region.  In order to compete with HAMAS’s growing influence, particularly in the Westbank, the organization Fatah, under the leadership of Mahmud Abbas, is taking on a new religiosity.  Fatah was created by Yasser Arafat as a political and paramilitary organization.  Over time it came to be the largest group within the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).  The gap between Fatah and HAMAS in terms of the role of Islam is narrowing considerably, observers have noted recently. 

Then there’s the political party Hezbollah, the ‘Party of Allah’, in neighbouring Lebanon.  A Shi’a creation, founded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards originally as a militia, Hezbollah takes its ideological inspiration from the teachings of the late Ayatollah Khomeini.  The party’s current leader, Hasan Nasrallah, is a former seminarian, having studied at the Shi’a Seminary in Baalbek, Lebanon and later teaching at a religious school.  In its 2009 Manifesto, Hezbollah calls for all Arabs and Muslims “to do what their religious and humane responsibility calls them to do towards their holy land of Palestine.” 

There are more political-religious organizations that one could name, with many of the same goals as the Muslim Brotherhood, HAMAS, and Hezbollah–goals in some cases which pose a direct threat to us in the West.  With the growing secularization that we in the US and Canada are witnessing, I fear that there will be even fewer people inclined to take a serious look at the religious underpinnings of the groups and leaders assuming unprecedented power in the Middle East and other parts of the world. Take the case of James Clapper, director of US National Intelligence who, at a House Intelligence Committee hearing in February 2011, described the Muslim Brotherhood as a “largely secular” organization.  No one with an understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood would ever make such a statement.  It makes me wonder how many other “Clappers” are out there!  While we in North America may be increasingly indifferent about religion, people in other parts of the world are not; in fact, when it comes to religion, growing numbers are “dead serious,” a trend sure to continue in 2013.     















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