The awakening of Muslim democracy, between religion, modernity and State

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Copertina Cesari.jpgReview of Jocelyne Cesari, The Awakening of Muslim Democracy. Religion, Modernity, and the State, Cambridge University Press, New York 2014

It is undeniable that the Arab revolutions of 2011 stirred up a strong sense of confusion both in those who experienced them and those who observed them. The swift transition from enthusiasm for “secular” street protests and for the overthrow of authoritarian regimes to the disappointment for the dramatic results of many transitions led by Islamists has left us some metaphors, from the image of Spring as parentheses to the image of the cycle of the seasons, but with few keys for a clear understanding. Yet according to Jocelyne Cesari, Director of Harvard’s “Islam in the West” Programme and Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, there is an explanatory framework. In order to understand what has happened, we must free ourselves of the “dominant narrative,” which “pitches religion in general and Islam in particular as the alternative to secular politics,” and the corresponding “dominant approach to political Islam or Islamism defined as a set of ideas, which are instrumentalized by political activists to bring down the secular State” (p. xii).

If today there is already a tendency to question the association between modernisation and secularisation in Western societies, it should be recognised that the modernisation of Muslim societies has not only not brought about the privatisation of religion, but has generated an unprecedented politicisation of Islam. According to the author, this is not because Islam does not distinguish between religion and politics, but rather because Islamic tradition has been integrated in the process of Nation building and State building within the post-Ottoman world. The state, the main agent of modernisation in Muslim societies, has thus created a “hegemonic Islam,” defined as the combination of two of more of the following characteristics: the nationalisation of religious institutions and places of worship of one religion; the insertion of Islamic doctrine in the curricula of public schools (beyond the religious instruction); legal discrimination of other religions in education, in public expression and in public funding; legal restrictions based on religious prescriptions.

Based on this framework, the experience of Islamist movements and parties is not read through the lens of religious protest against the secular state. They are instead seen as one of the figures that interact with a space, determined by the state, which is already non-secular. And the more authoritarian the state, the greater the importance of the Islamists. Under this model, Cesari suggests that the failure or success of Islamist parties in democratic transitions does not depend on their programmes or their politics being more or less Islamic, but on their greater or lesser propensity to reshaping the authoritarian system in which they are situated.

Therefore, if the AKP in Turkey has managed to weaken the Kemalist bureaucracy, allying with historically marginalised social forces, the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the more relative one of an-Nahda in Tunisia can be explained by their inability to represent a broad social base against the structures of the old regime. The argument proposed by the book on this point appears excessively unilateral however. The institutional approach adopted by the author runs the risk of unduly excluding the internal logic of Islamist agency from the scope of inquiry in favour of an exclusively systemic reading. It could in fact be argued that the Islamist parties’ inability to form coalitions (Egypt) or to settle an extended social base (Tunisia) is a consequence of their own conception and of their ideological management of power.

But that takes nothing away from the interest of the work, which has the merit of offering highly useful and original conceptual tools for a better understanding of the complex relationship between secularism and Muslim societies.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Michele Brignone, “Antagonism Between Islamists and Non-Secular State”, Oasis, year XI, n. 21, June 2015, pp. 132-133.

Online version:
Michele Brignone, “Antagonism Between Islamists and Non-Secular State”, Oasis [online], published on 31st July 2015, URL: