Introduced by Dr Scott Thomas, Lecturer in International Relations and the Politics of Developing Countries, in the Department of Economics and International Development, University of Bath, on 19 November 1999

The speaker began by distinguishing political changes which result from religious groups acting `from above' (as in Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, Israel, etc.) and those influencing `from below' (as in Algeria, Israel, Italy, Latin America, the United States, etc.).

At root, economic and democratic grievances prompt agitation, although religious practices are the focus - as in the wearing of veils, prayer in schools, debates on creation versus evolution, etc. Women adopt the veil where secular states are regarded as US-linked. In times of crisis funerals become political.The global democratic revolution is increasingly affected by such developments. Although UN conferences on women, human rights, etc. promote development, they are seen as promotions by secular élites and resisted by populist religious movements as destructive of cultures and traditions. Modern communications tend to develop an integrated global culture, whereas the reactions of religious groups in developing countries suggest anti-modernity. Dr Scott Thomas questioned that, however. It may alternatively be an affirmation of authenticity.

Scholars have only recently become aware of the trends and the issue has now become a subject of academic debate. Some see the future as turning on cultural conflict essentially, which will threaten peace and dominate politics.

In discussion the speaker emphasised that wealthy and educated protesters share views with others that individualism and a Western style of life is relatively `soulless' and does not in itself promote a `better life'. One contributor questioned the true commitment of protesters to religion in its purest forms, but others argued that whatever their motives, healthy international links could be forged through multiculturalism .

Other factors exemplified in religion-based agitation were discussed. Science produces problems as well as progress. International aid programmes are sometimes subject to funding diversions. Powerful agencies are seen to distort world trade. Developing countries often feel powerless to affect such issues. Scholars expected `modernisation' to remove those kinds of problem, but widespread disillusionment is clearly evident and the symptoms may readily be seen in the reactions of the protesters.

Geoffrey Catchpole