Coping with Defeat: Sunni Islam, Roman Catholicism and the Modern State

Coping with Defeat
Sunni Islam, Roman Catholicism, and the Modern State

Jonathan Laurence

Princeton University Press | June 2021

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“How do centralized, institutional religions make peace with the modern state’s displacement of their traditional prestige and power? What are the factors that can promote the mutual acceptance of religious communities and the secular rule of law?

These are the questions posed in Jonathan Laurence’s new book, which argues that Roman Catholicism and Sunni Islam have trod surprisingly similar paths in their respective histories. Contemporary Roman Catholicism and Sunni Islam both descend from religious states and empires, the Papacy in the case of Catholicism and the Caliphate in the case of Islam. As religio-political orders, the Western Church and the Islamic Caliphate ruled vast territories and populations. Each set of religio-political institutions made law, controlled land, and governed people for roughly four centuries. Yet both suffered three similar upheavals and challenges: the end of empires, the rise of the modern national state, and significant outward migrations from the “home base” of the religious tradition.

Laurence suggests that the historical experience of Catholicism offers a useful model for those concerned about the contemporary Sunni Muslim leadership’s attitude toward the modern state. Just as Catholicism worldwide benefited from the survival of the Vatican micro-state and its ability to exert guidance over the religious belief and practice of Catholics worldwide, so (argues Laurence) Muslim-majority states should continue exert control over mosques, imam-training, and religious education — to reconcile Islam with the rule of law and thus with the authority of the secular state. This book is based on prodigious archival research in Vatican and Ottoman Archives and on interviews conducted with senior officials responsible for Islamic affairs or public religious education in Algiers, Ankara, Casablanca, Istanbul, Oran, Rabat, Tunis; and with senior interior ministry and foreign ministry officials in various European capitals responsible for relations with North African, Turkish, Qatari, and Saudi ministries of Islamic and religious affairs”

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The surprising similarities in the rise and fall of the Sunni Islamic and Roman Catholic empires in the face of the modern state

Coping with Defeat presents a historical panorama of the Islamic and Catholic political-religious empires and exposes striking parallels in their relationship with the modern state. Drawing on interviews, site visits, and archival research in Turkey, North Africa, and Western Europe, Jonathan Laurence demonstrates how over hundreds of years, both Sunni and Catholic authorities experienced three major shocks and displacements—religious reformation, the rise of the nation-state, and mass migration. As a result, Catholic institutions eventually accepted the state’s political jurisdiction and embraced transnational spiritual leadership as their central mission. Laurence reveals an analogous process unfolding across the Sunni Muslim world in the twenty-first century.

Identifying institutional patterns before and after political collapse, Laurence shows how centralized religious communities relinquish power at different rates and times. Whereas early Christianity and Islam were characterized by missionary expansion, religious institutions forged in the modern era are primarily defensive in nature. They respond to the simple but overlooked imperative to adapt to political defeat while fighting off ideological challenges to their spiritual authority. Among Laurence’s findings is that the disestablishment of Islam—the doing away with Islamic affairs ministries in the Muslim world—would harm, not help, with reconciliation to the rule of law.

Examining upheavals in geography, politics, and demography, Coping with Defeat considers how centralized religions make peace with the loss of prestige.

Jonathan Laurence is professor of political science at Boston College. He is the author of The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims (Princeton) and his work has appeared in such venues as the New York Times and The Economist. Twitter @jonathanlauren6

Political Science | Religion
Princeton University Press | June 2021

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