Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Analyzing Religion in Revolution

March 14, 2011

“Revolution is about myth and myth hooks up to religion, and that’s the link,” said Nathaniel Berman, Brown’s Rahel Varnhagen Professor of International Affairs, Law and Modern Culture, at the most recent Religion and Internationalism Colloquium. Professors and graduate students from various disciplines came together last week to discuss the overlapping, divergent, and shifting connections between religion and socialism, bringing into question the role of religion in revolutions and social movements in general.

In reaction to the start of the wave of revolutions currently riddling countries in the Middle East and North Africa, the colloquium chose to discuss an excerpt from Marxist philosopher Michael Löwy’s The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America, and two of Iranian revolutionary Ali Shariati’s essays, “What is to be Done” and “Humanity between Religion and Marxism.” These works are less about revolutions, and “are more directly related to the thinking through the boundary lines between religion and secularism, questioning those boundaries, situating those boundaries historically, and seeing the way in which they’ve been questioned in different parts of the world,” said Berman. 
During the course of this vigorous discussion, Connecticut College Religious Studies Professor David Kim defined the ways in which Marxists are engaging in religion – be it for the critique, for the sake of higher ideals, such as emancipatory principles, or for a more functionalist reasoning, in which religion engages Marxism to address the needs of the poor and the concerns for justice. Drawing upon the Turkish experience, Watson Institute Visiting Fellow Nukhet Sandal fueled this complexity and addressed the contribution of Marxist socialist movements to the political Islamic discourses. “There are many imams who actually read Marx, Engels, and other Socialists from Eastern Europe,” said Sandal. However, instead of reading these because they were socialist, “they read it to rediscover their identities, the principles that are embedded in religion like egalitarian governance and social justice.”

Colloquium participants were conscious of the dangers of being reductionist, or trying to understand these complex concepts by reducing them to simpler parts. Brown Religious Studies Associate Professor Thomas Lewis challenged the claim that one cannot draw on certain Marxist analytical concepts without accepting Marx’s entire philosophical system. Essentially, there is a tradeoff between examining the segmentations of potentially global systems, such as Islam and Marxism, and taking these concepts comprehensively.

Every month, the colloquium brings together scholars with interests in religion in the public sphere. Contact Nukhet Sandal (nukhet_sandal@brown.edu) to be part of the monthly roundtables and related research initiatives.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Kaori Ogawa ‘11