THE REVENGE OF GOD

Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- It was in the spring of 1966 that Time magazine shocked a lot of readers with a black cover with the white question: "Is God Dead?" The article, much debated, defined a new and more secular world.

Wrong! It turned out He was only resting. And not for long. In the 1970s came "La Revanche de Dieu" -- "The Revenge of God" -- the title of a book by a French political scientist, Gilles Kepel.

Kepel, whose work was published in 1991 and translated into English three years later, began by chronicling the events of the 1970s, a decade many of us remember only for bad hair and polyester style. What Kepel saw was a new fervor in all religions, not just in Islam, as Samuel Huntington did in his book, "The Clash of Civilizations." What Kepel focused on was change everywhere. He saw the election in 1976 of an American president who trumpeted his Baptist faith and his one-on-one relationship with God. Six months later, in May of 1977, the socialist and essentially secular Labor Party in Israel lost, for the first time, its power to organize the Jewish state's government. The new Israeli leader was Menachem Begin, a favorite of his country's more religious voters.

Little more than a year later, the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church elected a Polish pope, John Paul II, noted for his hardline, old-fashioned religious ways -- and pushed the church back into politics in a big way, particularly into anti-communist politics in Eastern Europe. Then in February 1979, what appeared to be a secular revolution in Iran evolved almost immediately into a theocracy under the Ayatollah Khomeini. That same year there was an attack on Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, by fundamentalist fighters. The religion of Muhammad also was going through what amounted to a political uprising over unemployment, oppression and corruption in other Muslim countries -- Indonesia, Malaysia and the southern Soviet Republics.

Much of the new Muslim rhetoric, as interpreted by Kepel, then rejected the idea of "modernizing Islam" in favor of "Islamizing modernity."

Back in the United States, the Moral Majority began to successfully contest local board of education elections in the early 1970s and then moved on to state political offices. By the end of the decade, Moral Majority leaders had decided that President Carter was too secularist and threw their political power and rhetoric to Ronald Reagan, who talked the talk of "rapture and Armageddon."

Kepel is an interesting man, who put his career on the line when he published "Jihad: Expansion and Decline of Islamism" in 2000, arguing that Islam "as a cohesive ideology was doomed to decline because it bore a fault line between irreconcilable trends." Jihad Islam has failed, he argued, so that, as we were to see in Egypt and Tunisia, the calls of the streets were for "freedom," "democracy," "sovereignty." "They (Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood) couldn't beat the democrats, so they joined them."

No doubt Islamists and Jihadists will have their say in the new Arab revolutions, but the call will not be only for Allah. After 9/11, that book caused critics to demand that Kepel be stripped of his academic position at Sciences Po, the premier French school of political thinking.

Now, as he wrote in last week's International Herald Tribune, Kepel considers the turmoil in Egypt and Tunisia as phase one of a revolution: "toppling the dictators." Phase two, he says, will be built around this challenge: "The parlance of democracy and human rights in which they coined political mobilization now has to deal with pressing social issues and address huge cohorts of unemployed young people."

No one knows yet where all this will lead, perhaps it will turn back to God despite Kepel's secular optimism. Finally, he paraphrases an American, former House Speaker Tip O'Neill: "All Arab politics are local." Listen to the street.

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