Flashback on Pope’s speech: Understanding one aspect of the political in religious institutions

I was thinking about the Roman Catholic Pope’s infamous speech where he criticized “Islam” (notwithstanding the fact that he takes the term as a monolith) because it has mixed religion and politics (of violence) stating now is the time to embrace “rationality”. Anyway, horrible speech indeed but more importantly highly ignorant of the very facts of immediate history. It happens that I am reading about the Catholic Church influence in Latin America, and I especially liked reading about priests taking up arms and fighting in Nicaragua on behalf of the poor (and there are many other different cases of involvement in Columbia Venezuela, Chile, Peru, Brazil etc.).

I guess Mr. pope forgot about that. Or maybe he didn’t, maybe because at the time, the Catholic church witnessed a historically exceptional turn to the left, to the point where we used to speak of marxist bishops. These were good days for some people, especially the needy. And maybe he didn’t forget simply because Polish pope Jean Paul, the symbol of post-communism, made the Church turn back to the right (and with the current German baba even more to the right), undermining the foundations of grass root leftist Christian institutional formation in Latin America. In both cases, the Church’s influence institutionally and at least as a social mobilizer is just something Latin American states had to deal with when it came to policy making.

It’s just that in come cases, the Church was really close to the people not just accomodating with the desires of the upper classes. It is exactly what some “Islamists” are about in the Middle East. The religious institution (church, mosque, or hawza to use the more recent institution for mobilizing/educating used by Hizballah, oh and the synagogue, or simply the state of Israel: for some jews), whatever its creed is like any other political institution. First it is indeed political which character/influence/sphere depends on the structure of power relations in a specific setting. Second, it is oscillating between the right and the left, depending on its closeness/relation to the different social classes of a given setting.

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5 thoughts on “Flashback on Pope’s speech: Understanding one aspect of the political in religious institutions

  1. Well, the Pope is in a difficult situation because he is of a global institution. The anti-Communist tilt of the Church had to do with 20C European history and when the Soviets began disestablishing Orthodox and Catholic churches, it pretty much sealed the deal in terms of animosity. So you had this strange dilemma, where priests in Latin America were very much allied with Communist movements but the Church itself, at the metropole of its power – Europe — had political considerations that formed its anti-Communist line. There were great battles over the liberation theology movement, where the Vatican had to balance the contradictory needs …

  2. Also, the Pope is not a fascist … He is just the creature of a very large bureaucracy … Similarly, Sayyed Hassan is not a reactionary totalitarian when he talks about the “oumma” or a religious zealot when he talks about the “divine victory … All is political … The rhetoric is not the politics, but merely a reflection of the politics.

  3. You’re absolutely right and I beg to clarify.

    There is this underlying tension between the church and the wave of progressive priests that you had, although at the time in Nicaragua (and similar patterns were observed in Latin America) bishops from the Catholic hierarchy were pretty much aligned with the guerrilla, withtout actually taking the guns of course. If you think about it, it is the same with the new wave of Sheikhs and the traditional figures (of course it is different on other counts).

    The very interesting peculiarity of Hezbollah is that in itself, it is a mix of both and it is also none of the above. You have people like Nasrallah (black turban) who come from a traditional background. And others like Fadlallah (white turban) signalling a newly legtimized figure.

    Now even if you take the above into consideration it is interesting to see that the Shiite clerics in Lebanon (more so than in Iran) were drastically marginalized expecially if you look at the beginning of the XXth century.

    shrinking numbers of shiite scholars use to come back with no political or material backing, from Iraqi and Iranian schools and sometimes even turned Marxists (like Hassan Mroueh), and joined the ranks of the Lebanese Communist party.

    At some point there is a shifting process that started. The catalyst was Iranian help, but other major factor include the stumbling of the Communist and other socialist movements (also confessional like Amal) that used to claim to represent the interest of the population (namely Shiites here) in Jabal Amel. Shiite scholars grew in number came back to south of Lebanon and suburbs and through the Hawza could directly reach people’s demand. With the material help of the newly founded Iranian Islamic republic they could dedicate substantial effort to the strengthening of these social institutions. In a way, this is very similar to the “comunidad ecclesial de base”, a catholic institutional innovation in Latin America that enabled priests to have daily contact, discussion groups etc., with the most needy and try to address their demands. These are the same priests who in some cases fought alongside the guerrilla movements.

    Hizballah in this sense marks a clerical struggle to capture power and the means to mobilize resources. And it brilliantly succeeded for better or worse. It could borrow from already established structures (from religious ideological baggage, to institutional political heritage even if it was at the time in shambles).

    Now to go back to our main point (because I am here making several sub-points too as you can notice!), the main difference in Latin America, is that in many cases the ‘revolutionary’ priests could not either challenge the Catholic hierarchy, especially once John Paul II was in place (actually they were suppressed, financially especially). In the Middle East, the traditional clerical establishment that was co-opting with defunct corrupt regimes (just like in Latin America) could not hold the ‘revolutionary’ in check. This is especially due to the structure of Islamic institutions that are pretty much decentralized.

    Without going into a detailed explanation of that, suffice it to say, that there is not one guy in Sunnism nor in Shiism like a pope with a whole bureaucratic hierarchy like you said behind him, although Khomeini tried to do just that for the Shiite with his Velayet el Fakih and until now some of the latter disagree, not the least and interestingly enough, Fadlallah who not only does not come from a traditional clerical family (unlike Khomeini) but also is part of Hezbollah whose main sponsor are the “Khomeinist” regime.

    What does this mean? First of all one should take into account the fact that “Khomeinism” has no long-standing social roots unlike Hezbollah. In a brilliantly argued paper Asef Bayat shows that the revolution in Iran was no made by a social movement but by a sudden upheaval a “ras-le-bol”. Again the dichotomy between elitist and grass root clerics.

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