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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 2 .


Liberation and Purity
Chetan Bhatt

(London: UCL Press, 1997)
306pp, index, bib, 13.95m.
1-85728-423-2hb/1-85728-424-4 pb


This book, as the author states, "is about authoritarian religious movements and their political ideologies" and also "how these ideas have been shaped by very modern political and sociological problems," as well as "the problems that racial or black liberation politics have faced when dealing with religious movements".[p.xiv] It begins with an exploration of the reasons for the failure of rationalism, empiricism and idealism as challenges to religious systems, a consideration of whether postmodern or post-colonial theories are any more effective, and an examination of religious authoritarian movements in terms of their investment in modernity or their "return to pre-Enlightenment 'nativism' and 'primitivism'". [p.2] Chapter 2 considers authoritarian religious movements and modern civil society, seeking to draw out common themes from across a broad range of cultures. The author then turns to a consideration of Islamic movements, including a very interesting exploration of the concepts of the authentic and the traditional, necessarily considering "how traditions are invented" no less than how ethnicities are recreated. A substantial part of this chapter is devoted to the Ayatollah Khomeini. This is followed, in chapter 4, by a detailed analysis of the "Rushdie affair" and its consequences, including the impact on Moslem-non-Moslem relations in Britain. The author provides a useful analysis of the conflicting paradigms within which the key players (and their cultures) operated. Chapter 5 explores neotraditional Hinduism and "the fabrication of purity", leading, in chapter 6, to a detailed analysis of the Hindu far right. The author argues that, both in Islam and Hinduism, the authoritarian religious movements are "both novel and in important ways modernist" [p.233] The final chapter considers "A diverse range of areas...ranging from social policy and communalism in the context of UK multiculturalist policy development, via globalization and new communications technology, through to the importance of physics and biology for new religious movements." [p.236] Of particular interest to the author is the relationship between these movements and ethnic identity formation, especially in a time of an increase in the potential for or actuality of inter-ethnic conflict.

Throughout the book the author draws attention to the importance of symbolism, and the role of the invention (not, of course, meaning fraudulent construction) and re-construction of tradition. There is a useful emphasis on ethno-religious factors in group identity, an area too often overlooked in studies of ethnic and/or religious conflict. One interesting topic to which attention is also drawn is the focus of authoritarian religious movements on the body, and particularly the body of a woman, as a potential source of impurity. Apart from an excessive use of jargon (probably inescapable in any work on postmodernism!), the book's weakest aspect is the underlying - surely naive ? - assumption that reform movements of the past were characterized by "progressive and emancipatory utopian vision", now being increasingly replaced by "Dogmatic forms of faith. However, insofar as the religious dimension of ethnic conflict has been relatively little explored in the scholarly literature, this book, stimulating and thought-provoking, is a useful addition to the literature.


Gregory Tillett, The University of Western Sydney, Nepean NSW Australia



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