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Triumphalist Religiosity: The Unanticipated Problem of the 21st Century

Why the key to the great civilizational clash of our time is understanding faithful people of all religions who must dominate non-believers to uphold their own truth

Richard Landes
February 10, 2016
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Shutterstock
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Shutterstock
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Shutterstock
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Shutterstock

Recent events have once again highlighted the problem of trying to talk about the relationship between Jihadism and Islam. The incapacity of the Democratic candidates to even discuss what may have led to the mass murder at San Bernardino, coupled with the controversial Republican responses by Donald Trump and others, illustrate a dysfunction that poses a broad and continuing threat to life and liberties in the West. Current U.S. policy is based on a broadly held consensus that: 1) We should not use the term extremist or radical or violent to modify Islam (“religion of peace”): e.g., ISIS is not Islamic. And 2) we should not make any connections between the behavior of violent extremists who claim to follow Islam, and the vast majority of Muslims who do not approve of their deeds.

Any public figure who moves too far along the lines of an inquiry into the links between radical Islam and the larger Muslim community, runs the risk of being called an Islamophobe, whose hurtful comments insult moderate, peaceful Muslims, who might therefore turn into extremists.

The illogic here might normally arouse some suspicion. If extremist violence “in the name of Islam” has nothing to do with the actual religion of Islam, why would peaceful Muslims become so offended by the discussion that they would suddenly embrace murderous extremism? Yet this argument has become so widely current that some specialists even urge that we should never use terms like jihadi or radical Islam to designate terrorists, because that grants these mass murderers too much legitimacy. On the other extreme we find people who argue that there is no difference between Islam and coercive Islamism.

In place of such elaborate deference or sweeping dismissal, I suggest we look at a matter not so much of theology, or even exegesis, as of “religiosity”—a particular “style” of living one’s religion, the way one’s religious convictions affect the way one treats others, both co-religionists and outsiders. Religiosity goes a long way toward understanding how any given believer reads his or her sacred and legal texts, and to what theological principles they will find themselves drawn.

Different religiosities “live” the teachings of sacred scriptures in varying ways. Some flee the company of humans entirely (hermits), or seek the company of the co-disciplined (monks, communes), some treat others with the same dignity they want for themselves (communities of faithful, citizens of civil polities), some feel that the best way to teach is by example, others testify to, and share their “truth” (missionaries), and still others feel that by dominating non-believers, they prove the “truth” of their religious faith.

I would like to call this last religiosity, “triumphalist.” Triumphalist religiosity, which makes claims to truth subject to contests for dominion, is fundamentally hostile to the modern democratic project, this ongoing experiment in human freedom of speech and faith. In focusing on this style of religious life, we can identify the site of the debate that needs to occur between Islam and modern democratic societies the world over, and hopefully turn a clash of civilizations (which I believe that the West is currently losing), into a productive thrash.


If “religiosity” designates a religious style, a way of “living” one’s religious beliefs, then “triumphalist religiosity” designates believers who need to assert their own dominance as a visible sign of their superiority, as a proof of God(s) “favor.” Put somewhat differently, “because we rule, our god is the true god.” In monotheism: “We are God’s chosen because we rule.”

Many tribal peoples worshiped triumphalist gods, certainly those warrior tribes like the Scandinavians, the Germans, the Romans, the Greeks, etc. At a basic level, triumphalism is a natural human, indeed mammalian impulse, most visible in the behavior of dominant alpha males. All the ancient imperial gods—including their (semi-) divine earthly rulers—reflected this triumphalist ethos. We are victorious and rule because we worship the most powerful god(s). In monotheism, this kind of triumphalism leads to religious imperialism: One God, One Rule, One Faith.

Triumphalist religiosity places great importance on a visible deference paid to true believers. It both demands that others pay it respect and, to varying degrees depending on circumstances, disrespects others as a matter of principle. Triumphalists find public criticism unacceptably disrespectful, and interpret blasphemy laws aggressively in order to silence dissent. Intolerance, disdain, violence, repression, intimidation—all of these deeds and attitudes, reflect triumphalist religiosity in its crudest forms. Historically, then, triumphalists exercise power in an authoritarian manner, and, when insecure, tend, domestically, toward inquisitorial persecution of dissent (heretics, apostates) and humiliation of non-believers, and internationally, towards holy wars (Jihads, Crusades) and the massacre of those who resist.

There is a close correlation between triumphalist religiosity and tribal warrior, honor-shame culture: When he found out about the [salvific] crucifixion, the triumphalist tribal war chief, Clovis, exclaimed: “If me and my men had been there, we would have avenged this wrong.” When the Parisian clergy demanded redress for the Chevalier de la Barre’s refusal to doff his cap at their Corpus Christi procession, they were asserting their rights to public deference, and the state made good on their outrage by torturing and beheading the insulter.

When the U.S. Constitution separated Church and State, it formally renounced triumphalist religiosity. Every citizen of the democracy, and all the religious groups therein, have full freedom to believe that they are special, the one and only true faith, the exclusively chosen of God—in their own minds and hearts, in their own community of conviction. But they cannot use the state (i.e. coercive power) to impose that perception on others. This involves a collective deed of renunciation so rare, that the U.S. Constitution (1789) represents the first time in the 1750-year history of Christianity that tolerance of dissenting faith became a “winner’s creed.”

Indeed, this separation of church and state causes great psychological pain to triumphalists, since visible dominance plays so central a role in their sense of certainty about the truth of their beliefs. Modern freedom and the “public sphere” as a “marketplace of ideas,” as a (self-)critical public discourse in which one cannot use force to “win” an argument, constitutes a major insult to triumphalists, whatever the faith they proclaim. The ability of American Christians to accept the pain of giving up their triumphalism represents a major step forward in the career of modern democracy.

And yet, today, many of us take this painfully acquired principle of (post-)modern discourse for granted and assume triumphalism is a dead letter. When we say in response to the return of holy war, or of public slavery, “but it’s the 21st century, for crying out loud!” we mean precisely that: such behavior is completely out of place in today’s world. As a result of this cognitive egocentrism, however, not too many people in the West predicted that the 21st century would see the global rise of an aggressive triumphalist religious movement, nor predict that those most targeted would hesitate to even identify the (nonexistent) problem.


Historically, religious triumphalism played an important role in shaping Muslim attitudes towards infidels. When Muslims came to rule a society, as they did frequently in Islam’s first centuries of rapid, global expansion, they developed the dhimma, a term often translated as a contract of “protection.” In theory, given the practices of rulership at the time, it was a good deal: live by Muslim rules and you can live in peace. For some Christian “heretics,” living under “orthodox” triumphalists, it was a definite improvement.

In practice, however, the dhimma meant largely that Christians and Jews (later Zoroastrians and Hindus) who refused to convert to Islam bought their safety by their compliance with the demands of their “protectors” to show them the honor they felt they were due. Compliance assures peace, defiance brings retaliation. Not all Muslims availed themselves of the power to treat dhimmi with contempt; but the more triumphalist, the more the need for visible superiority.

In other words, the laws of the dhimma legislated the degradation of those “chosen” infidels considered “people of the book”: stigmatization (dress codes), servility (cannot ride horses, must step aside in street), legal inferiority (in bearing witness, in bringing accusations), tributary status (jizya), and religious inferiority (restrictions on sites of worship). Triumphalist Muslims designate infidels who are (not yet) dhimmi, that is, independent and autonomous infidels, as harbis, those destined for the sword (hrb). They live in Dar al Harb (Realm or Abode of the Sword or of War).

Right now, the core element of the jihadi impulse is triumphalist: “We are the warriors who, in conquering for Islam, prove that Allah is the most high God and Muhammad his true prophet.” The greatest appeal that they exercise on the larger Muslim Ummah is precisely in terms of this assurance that Islam is destined to rule the world, this psychological comfort that Islam is the true faith, despite its apparent lowliness in the modern world. And when people speak of the radicalization of mosques in the West, they mean the introduction of an aggressive triumphalist Islam.

The triumphalist Muslim motto: Where there was Dar al Harb, there shall be Dar al Islam. This religiosity informs a wide range of attitudes, particularly visible in the widespread acts of contempt and disdain that triumphalists show for infidels. This behavior runs the gamut from everyday forms of intimidation and scorn, to the programmatic rape of infidel women, and the slaughtering those who “insult” the prophet.

In Paris in 2015, jihadis began with attacks on blasphemers and Jews and ended with attacks on the nightlife scene. Some puzzled about why. Whence this hostility? It seems less incomprehensible when one realizes that triumphalists find any independent infidel, especially those who are enjoying their (immoral) freedom, intolerable. While different believers have different thresholds at which they will become violent, all triumphalists are susceptible to the Jihadi temptation. When people warn of the negative impact of insults on moderate Muslims’, they refer, often without acknowledging it, to this tipping point at which triumphalists find the behavior of insufficiently deferential infidels unbearable.

Culturally, triumphalism is at the intersection of two powerful social forces: a tribal warrior ethos that appeals especially to the youth, and an imperial, millennial ethos that mobilizes the drive for world conquest. Together they constitute a powerful recruiting device urging hormone-riddled young people to join the apocalyptic global battle to implement Allah’s plan for a global Caliphate. And as victorious warriors, to them go the spoils of holy war.


The ability to identify this behavior and the attitude underlying it, constitutes a critical element in the defense of free and tolerant societies. One of the most significant dimensions of this problem manifests itself in a key dimension of the triumphalist Muslims’ war on the West: the matter of honor, disrespect, and hurt feelings. By insisting on the hurt feelings of the community, Muslim triumphalists have pressured Western harbis into making extensive concessions on the cognitive battlefield.

In the world of victimization discourse so prevalent on campuses today, for example, triumphalist Muslims have learned that, when attacking the West, they can lead with their glass chin: How dare you offend us so? They can, thereby, maneuver a conflict-averse Western culture into conceding and placating them. The widespread consensus that one should not hurt the feelings of “marginalized and underrepresented minorities,” has been an enormous boon to triumphalist Muslims.

As a result, there’s a significant and troubling overlap between Western sensitivity to minority feelings, and Muslim triumphalist attitudes toward infidels. When our intellectuals distance themselves from Charlie Hebdo, insisting on the importance of not offending Muslims, or our publishers reject things Muslims will find provocative, they insist that this is a show respect and consideration. But while westerners think they’re being generous, triumphalist Muslims see them complying with their demands, behaving as proleptic dhimmi, who submit without even being conquered.

And when Westerners committed to these displays of “respect,” attack as “Islamophobes” fellow infidels who do criticize Muslims as “Islamophobes,” they are, from the perspective of the triumphalist Muslim, behaving like dhimmi leaders have always behaved: silence any dissent within the ranks before it goes public and brings retaliation to the whole community. In modern parlance: stigmatize critical discourse about Muslims as “essentialist … racist … xenophobic … Islamophobic.” This unspoken dimension of the problem explains the stridency with which Western liberals assault critics of Islam: They are afraid to insult triumphalist Muslims and view those who do, as the problem. Thus when women dress provocatively, or Jews wear kippas, they provoke triumphalist Muslim violence.

By failing to ask for even minimal reciprocity, we have systematically diminished our own democratic public sphere, where we now see a wave of tragi-comic mobilizations of this culture of offense that have strange and (should be) unwelcome echoes of both brown shirts and Maoist “struggle sessions.” These represent the epitome of what a modern, free and tolerant society cannot abide, and they offer triumphalist Muslims an ideal opportunity to demand submission to their insistence that their sensibilities not be offended. Until we understand the magnitude of triumphalism’s deep atavistic wells of desire, the libido dominandi from which it draws its strength on the one hand, and the magnitude of the accomplishment that democratic polities have achieved in pruning it back on the other, we cannot begin to deal with the challenge we face.

And yet, by confronting it, we might begin to figure out what to do. Among other things, an appreciation of the power of raw, pre-modern triumphalism in Islam allows us to grasp how small the differences that separate the “right” from the “left” in Western democracies. The split between progressive and conservative that looms so large in the current public sphere, becomes nearly indistinguishable when mapped on terrain that includes open triumphalist religiosity. Only when “left” and “right” leave off our narcissism of small differences, and start to act in coordination in the defense of our common values, can we begin to defend democracy and freedom. Only then can we begin to shape substantive citizens capable of tolerance, of granting others the dignity we wish to receive, but also capable, in return, of demanding basic reciprocity, which begins with the struggle against triumphalism. Only that way, can one imagine a relatively peaceful and tolerant 21st century.


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Richard Landes, a historian living in Jerusalem, is chair of SPME’s Council of Scholars and a Senior Fellow at ISGAP. He is the author of Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience and Can “The Whole World” Be Wrong?: Lethal Journalism, Antisemitism and Global Jihad. He’s at and on X @richard_landes.