Dr. Jocelyne Cesari Talks About "The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity, and the State"
Dr. Ermin Sinanović, IIIT’s Director of Research and Academic Programs, introduced Dr. Cesari, mentioning the wealth of literature she has contributed on the topic of Islam and Democracy with a special focus on the place of state (as opposed to merely social movements) in the discourse.
True to form, Dr. Cesari launched into an engaging discussion on the need to broaden the approach to political Islam. Traditionally, she asserted, political Islam has been depicted as an opposing force to the state. Instead, she declared, the state has been a central agent in politicizing Islam.
To support her assessment, she gave the examples of Ataturk and Jinnah. Just as Ataturk brought together people bound by the same language and culture, Jinnah’s premise for Pakistan was a place where people linked with communal experience could freely exist. Moreover, even though Ataturk removed Islam from the public space in Turkey, he was the one who nationalized Hanafi madhhab and controlled the mosques.
While this was not exactly the same as Pan-Arabism, the notion is similar: recreating a political community based on language, memory, culture. According to Dr. Cesari, this concept of a nation (a group of people who feel bound by a common language, culture, religion, history, or ethnicity ) before a state (a sovereign, self-governing political entity) has been most harmful because it destroyed independence of Islamic thinking which was common in pre-modern times and it killed the spirit of pluralism and ikhtilaf that the ulema had earlier enjoyed.
Citing a rich history of Islamic scholarship, Dr. Cesari said she is most alarmed by the current trend of breaking with tradition and contextual understanding in movements such as Wahhabism. “Where is the nuance? Islam doesn’t need to be reformed. We need to go back to its history of independent thinking and tap into the resources of tradition. We need to go back to this complexity and pluralism.”
Returning to the topic of the state, she remarked that state and religion must be disentangled in Muslim countries. However, she explained, she does not believe in complete separation. In fact, she said this separation doesn’t exist anywhere in the world except the United States. She wondered aloud, “Why do they want 99% of the world to follow them as the only way?”
Instead, she offered a definition of secularization as the state taking on protection of all religious groups within its borders. Unfortunately, with the history of colonialization, Muslims have become skeptical of secularization as a force trying to destroy Islam. Dr. Cesari said Muslim nations need to create democracies inspired by religion where rules are grounded in Islamic tradition and minorities also have a right to worship and contribute politically and communally. As examples, she mentioned Senegal and Indonesia as the only Muslim countries today who are successfully implementing this model.
Following Dr. Cesari’s lecture, there was a Question and Answer session in which the audience had the opportunity to share their thoughts with her, ask her relevant queries, and seek clarification regarding her views.