Postulating that secularisation has not erased the religious field, and that what can be observed for decades is not a ‘return’ to religion, nor a religious ‘revival’, but a deep mutation of religious practice and conceptions, O. Roy insists on the fact that most dynamic movements have appeared recently, when they do not consist of shifts of traditional religions (Catholicism, classical Protestant denominations like Anglicanism and Methodism, Hanafi Islam. . .) towards more fundamentalist and charismatic forms of religiosity (Evangelism, Pentecostalism, Salafism, neo-Sufism. . .). In short, what can be observed today is “more a reformulation of religion than a return to ancestral practices neglected during the parenthesis of secularisation (p. 19).” In a time when information has replaced knowledge, fundamentalism is the form of religion which is the best adapted to globalisation, since it assumes it own deculturation which is the key instrument of its pretention to universality. What has been erased is the traditional link between a given culture and a given religion. And what is new today from the viewpoint of the sociology of religious practice is the predominance of conversions resulting from a personal choice. (Re-)conversion being an essentially personal experiment, theological debate plays only a limited role in it, which explains that ‘life stories’ are more significant in the text production of, for instance, Salafi and Tablighi Muslims.
On the basis of observations made in Central Asia, the author remarks that the dozens of thousands of Muslims of the region who converted to Christianity in the late 1990s have been opting for Pentecostalism (instead of Baptism historically present in the region among Slavs, Armenians, Germans and Manchuria Koreans), very often through missionary churches of South Korean obedience. In the case of Pamirian populations, still oftentimes identified with Ismailism, O. Roy remarks the absence of a systematic relationship between language and religious affiliation (Sunnis can be found among Pamirian-language speakers, whence strong Ismaili communities speak Persian). O. Roy also astutely remarks that in this case an external, Western factor has recently contributed towards the ethnicisation of religious affiliation and identity ― most notably through the education and development programmes launched by the France-based Agha Khan Foundation, with the establishment of mutual links between different Ismaili groups in Central Asia, Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan. As to the issue of Ismailism as a religion per se or a branch of Islam, the author shortly evokes the hesitation of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London which, till 1979, was promoting a de-Islamised form of Ismailism, inspired by Zoroastrianism and Oriental spiritualities, and after the Iranian Revolution has been endeavouring to return to the umma (notably for avoiding persecutions against Ismaili communities established in Muslim-majority countries). At the same time, if these key issues of present-day Ismailism in Central Asia are perfectly assessed, such is not the case of many current inner oppositions, cultural and institutional, within the community ― notably between the supporters and opponents of the Agha Khan himself, between Ismaili missionary currents of different background (Bohra and Khoja, the latter divided between traditionalists and reformers, notably on questions of ritual, of links with Sufism, and of relationship to the Persian tradition of Nasir Khusraw).
A short comparative subchapter on Volga Tatars and Moriscos (107-9) must be criticised for its historical accuracies. Besides the approximate dating of Russia’s conquest of Kazan (1557 instead of 1552), the triple assertion according which (1) Russia undertook the conversion of Tatars, (2) that conversion to Christianity was for the latter the only means of preserving their social status, and (3) that from the early twentieth century onwards converted Tatars defined themselves a ‘Russians’ is highly discussable. The first waves of conversion from Islam to Christianity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries remained extremely limited. Second, the author’s assertion admixes two different historical moments: the conquest of Kazan mid-sixteenth century and the much later forced conversion to Christianity of Tatar landed aristocracy in the eighteenth century. Third, it neglects the specific statistical categories elaborated for Christianised Tatars from the late nineteenth century to the present, and the continuity of a ‘Kriashen’ community identity. These reserves notwithstanding, the reading of this book, which explores the complicated details of our present-day universe, must be recommended for its raising of a set of fundamental issues, and for its overall contribution to the sociology of the transformation of religious practice since the last decades of the twentieth century. Among other essential things, O. Roy highlights that the phenomenon of conversion is a key for a global understanding of religious processes. At the same time, the unavoidable transformation of conversion into a feature of everyday life shows that, nowadays, “religions live their life beyond cultures and that the famous clash/dialogue of civilisations ― based on the supposition of a permanent and reciprocal link between culture and religion ― is a mere unproductive fantasy (35).”