I’ve been re-reading Jon Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” lately. This isn’t a novel observation, but I see in the Mormons a pattern I guess is present in a lot of successful religions:
1. Prophet receives revelation and gathers followers.
2. Followers are persecuted.
3. Persecution tightly binds followers into a cohesive unit.
4. Followers escape persecution and gain temporal power.
5. Despite temporal power, followers continue to nurse feelings of persecution.
The Mormons were hounded out of every place they landed. (Not entirely without reason, it seems. Joseph Smith was not, apparently, a noble and lovable figure when it came to non-believers.) But, when Smith was killed and Brigham Young led them out to Utah, they gained temporal power but continued to nurse the traditions of persecution.
Christians were persecuted by the Romans, but eventually, they took over the Empire and Western Europe and, yet, you can go to Worldnet Daily, probably right this minute, and find some story about how unfairly Christians are treated these days.
Jews were persecuted, escaped, gained temporal power, lost it, and were persecuted again – quite a bit. I’m not sure where to put them today on the temporal power/persecution continuum.
I don’t, honestly, know enough about Islam to put fit it in this pattern with any precision. I know that Muhammad was chased out of Mecca, went to Medina for awhile, then came back to Mecca where Islam exploded out of the Arabian peninsula. I imagine Muhammad’s time of exile figures prominently in the Islamic tradition and, regardless of the ebb and flow of temporal power, sees their religion as being under attack from non-believers.
I think that persecution, real or imagined, is useful in creating a barrier between the particular religious community and the Other. It creates feelings of solidarity with one another and a feeling of distinction from non-believers.