The Paradox of Liberation

It is one of the geopolitical conundrums of our time: how modern nations, created by secular and democratic post-war liberation movements, have seen a sharp increase in religious zealotry that has only a fleeting acceptance of democratic pluralism. 

When it comes to clear thinking about such a pressing question it helps to have philosopher Michael Walzer as a guide. In his new book, The Paradox of Liberation, Walzer looks at three countries that at first might not seem to have a great deal in common—Israel, Algeria and India—and traces the paths that led them from their secular origins to a point today where religious parties either rule or have a dominant role in shaping political life.

In the decade and a half after World War Two one new nation, Israel, and two older ones, India and Algeria, successfully threw off the yoke of colonial rule and stepped, fully-formed, into the modern world. In these three countries, each dominated by three different religions, Walzer identifies core similarities in what happened over the ensuing decades.

In the early days of the liberation movements, revolutionaries faced two enemies: colonial rulers and the social institutions that allowed them to rule. Religion was a primary source of that accommodation with power. Religious teaching focused on the next world or the life to come, where liberation was clearly focused on the here and now. Walzer quotes Jawaharlal Nehru frequently and what the Indian statesman says about the role of religion is critical: religion “is a philosophy of submission… to the prevailing social order and to everything that is.” Indeed the literal meaning of the word “Islam,” the dominant religion in Algeria, is submission.

For Jews in exile, submission was necessary for survival. It was this very submissiveness that the early Zionists wanted to change. An essential part of that change was the creation of a secular identity. Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote of transforming the “Yid” bowed down in prayer and submission into a “Hebrew” who could look the world “straight in the eye.” 

In all three countries the fight against a culture of submission wasn’t easy; religion remained central to the national identity of the people of these liberated nations.  That is the conundrum in a nutshell: to throw off colonial oppressors everything had to be challenged, but in these new states religion remained a key element of identity. Today religion flourishes in all these countries (although in the case of Israel, the country he knows best of the three, Walzer is not sure that this flourishing will carry on forever). One early Zionist theorist said that thinking through the implications of Zionism for Jewishness and religion was like killing himself.

Walzer’s prose style is clear and he seems to be directly addressing the reader, rather than a committee of academic peers. I found myself conducting a conversation with him in my head as I read the book. I would love to ask him about the rise of religious fundamentalism in the US as a political force no less powerful in American politics than it is in Israel or India. Old-style nationalism is on the rise across Europe as well. Is it possible that the paradox he ascribes to national liberation is not a paradox at all but a broader trend that cuts across many countries: a trend created by the pressures of globalisation on our societies? 

Walzer’s book is concise, not quite 150 pages of text before the copious notes. You could read it in a day or two. The insights it offers will have you thinking much longer than that. 

This review appears in the Autumn issue of Jewish Quarterly.

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