Religious Traditionalism and Politics


Ennahda group at the Tunisian Constituent Assembly

In public discourse and also in the social and political sciences the relationship between religions and secularization is usually framed in a liberal-fundamentalist dichotomy: religions are thought to either adapt to secularizing society and become more liberal, or to resist secularization and modernization and become fundamentalist. There is large empirical ground to challenge this view and to argue that there actually is a third way of confrontation between religion and modern secular society: “religious traditionalism” does not reject cohabitation with modern secular society as such, but neither does it melt into it. Religious traditionalism does not seek to overthrow democracy, but neither does it accept a retreat into the private; it actually wants to give shape to the political system. Religious traditionalism plays an antagonizing function vis-à-vis the secular liberal mainstream and enters into democratic deliberation with a distinctive conservative political agenda. Examples for religious traditionalisms can be found in all world-religions: the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Ennahda-political movement in Tunisia, the Justice and Development-Party (AKP) in Turkey, the present Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, conservative Catholics and Evangelicals.

This research-focus aimed at the comparative study of these and other traditionalist religious actors and their political agendas. The emphasis was put on patterns of emergence of a religious traditionalist “middle ground” and on the description of its characteristics, cross-confessional similarities and denominational specificities. Inversely, the research-project asked how the national and international political and public spheres are restructured in the process of confrontation with religious actors of this kind: the emergence of political parties, debates about “Leitkultur” and “religious majorities”, discussions over “reasonable accommodation” of religious minorities and “legal pluralism”, and “margins of appreciation” of national systems with regard to deviations from international human rights standards.

Three theoretical observations lie at the bottom of this research-focus. All of these observations can be linked back to the themes that have been treated under the auspices of the “Modes of Secularism and Religious Responses” research focus at the IWM over the last years, and in this respect the present proposal is an outcome of these efforts:

First, in the literature on multiple modernities scholars today are interested in the way in which religious legacies shape the modernization of a society. What is usually taken for given in this type of research is that religions provide a unique cultural code which shapes the modern trajectory. But this assumption presupposes that religions are basically static. This research project turned the question around and asked how religious traditions do change in response to the challenges of liberalism and secularism, on the one hand, and religious radicalism, on the other.

Secondly, it is a common shortcoming of theoretical debates on religion and secularism to reduce the secular spectrum to liberalism and lump together religion and political conservatism. While it is true that political conservatism often plays on religious themes, the important question to ask is in this regard is how religions react: do they seek close alliance and embrace the political opportunity, or do they resist political instrumentalization?

The third observation is that the religious-secular negotiation in a state no longer takes place only at the national level, but always already includes or is eventually referred to the international level of human rights principles and legislation. In the European context, this level is represented by the European Court of Human Rights, which actually functions as a sort of unifier in terms of religious and social politics. Many conflicts emerge at this level. The unifying impulse of human rights clashes with the observation that we live in a world of multiple modernities shaped (also) by religious actors.

Duration: 2014-2015

Board of Advisors

  • Sieglinde Rosenberger (Department of Political Science, University of Vienna)
  • Olivier Roy (Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies & Department of Political and Social Sciences, European University Institute, Florence)
  • Charles Taylor (McGill University, Montreal; Institute for Human Sciences)
  • Kristina Stoeckl (Project Director, Department of Political Science, University of Vienna; Institute for Human Sciences)

Modalities & Events

The research focus comprised several types of activities: Workshops, Colloquia on Secularism and Religion, Visiting Fellowships

Related Sub-Projects


Dr. Kristina Stoeckl (University of Vienna and Institute for Human Sciences):