Why ISIS is not all of political Islam and what it means for democracy

By Jocelyne Cesari, University of Birmingham and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Politics at Georgetown University

*This memo was prepared for the “Islam and International Order workshop co-hosted by POMEPS and the Transatlantic Academy, April 29-30, 2015.

The rise of ISIS has triggered coalitions among Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to fight against “political Islam.” One issue with such initiatives is their tendency to lump together ISIS with other forms of political Islam like political parties and social movements and to label them terrorists, with the ultimate goal of legitimizing existing authoritarian rulers. For example, since the removal of President Mohamed Morsi from power in 2013, Egypt’s military regime has attempted to root out the Muslim Brotherhood by killing protesters, jailing the group’s leaders and activists, declaring the movement a terrorist organization and freezing its assets. The military justified the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood as a way to stop the Islamicization of Egypt. However, references to Islam as the religion of the state and to sharia as a source of legislation that existed under the Sadat and Mubarak regimes still remain in the 2013 constitution adopted by the military regime. It would be then misleading to envision the current turmoil in the Middle East as a fight between “secular” regimes and “Islamic” opponents. The ideological vision of the caliphate propagated by ISIS has little to do with the caliphates of Islamic history. It is instead a transnational version of the hegemonic Islam built by the postcolonial nation-states.

In most Muslim-majority countries, Islamic parties do not have a monopoly on political Islam; rather it is a foundational element of the nation-states. Although most of the founders of Muslim-majority countries were indeed westernized, they nevertheless included Islam in the state apparatus, spurring its politicization by turning it into a modern national ideology and operating as a common denominator for all political forces, secular or otherwise. As such, political Islam should be understood in a broader context that goes beyond Islamist political ideology or Islamic parties.

In my recent book, “The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity and the State,” I argue that both the state and the Islamists have been instrumental in politicizing Islam. In this broader sense, political Islam includes the nationalization of Islamic institutions and personnel under state ministries and the use of Islamic references in law and national education. More specifically, the adoption of the nation-state by Muslim-majority countries after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 has been the decisive political change leading to the reshaping of Islamic values and institutions. These changes have translated into a brand new status of the religion that I call the hegemonic status of Islam.

First, it is important to note the difference between a dominant religion, an established religion and a hegemonic religion. A religion is dominant when it is the religion of the majority of a given country. In such cases, the dominant religion continues to impart historical and cultural references considered “natural” and “legitimate.” Religious symbols and rituals become embedded in the public culture and the country. Examples of such dominant religions include Protestantism in the United States or Catholicism in France and Poland. An established religion is one recognized by law as the religion of the country or the state and sometimes financially supported by the state, like the Church of Denmark. Usually, the existence of an established church is not incompatible with the legal protection of religious minorities and freedom of speech. A religion becomes hegemonic, however, when the state grants a certain religious group exclusive legal, economic or political rights denied to other religions. In other words, religious hegemony refers to legal and political privileges granted to a specific religious group, which in most, but not all, cases is the dominant religion.

Second, hegemonic religion and states’ regulations of religion are not the same. The latter may assume several forms, with legal neutrality on one end of the spectrum, legal privilege on the other end and many nuances between the two. Legal neutrality, as understood and codified in most secular democracies, entails recognition and legal protection of all religions. Separation of religion and state is not a necessary prerequisite for legal neutrality, which can be implemented even when there is state cooperation with religions (e.g., most European democracies). It is worth noting that legal neutrality does not mean that the practice of law is always neutral. Frequently, the dominant religious group serves as an implicit standard for the legal work concerning other religious groups. Most importantly, legal neutrality has been continuously challenged throughout history by discriminatory political practices. One of the most recent examples is the increase since 9/11 of restrictions on Muslim minorities in Western European democracies.

The unexpected and often unseen consequences of legal privilege are state restrictions and controls over the activities of the official religion and usually involve:

– a ministry of religious affairs and administration to manage the official religion;

– government regulation of the use of religious symbols or activities;

– state laws and policies that limit freedom of expression (apostasy laws);

– penalties for the defamation of the official religion (blasphemy laws); and

– government interference with worship.

The other side of legal privilege is the tacit or explicit discrimination of religious groups not recognized as the official religion.

To summarize, the hegemonic status of a religion is a combination of two or more of the following characteristics: nationalization of institutions, clerics and places of worship of one religion; insertion of the doctrine of that religion in the public school curriculum; and legal restrictions on freedom of speech and expression as well as women’s rights (including marriage, divorce and abortion) based on the prescriptions of that religion. Most Muslim-majority countries, including Turkey, possess two or three of these features. The only exceptions are Lebanon, Senegal and Indonesia. Although discriminatory practices do still exist in these countries, they are interestingly the only ones that qualify as democracies, according to the Freedom House index.

While democracy can accommodate some forms of state involvement into religions, the hegemonic status granted to one religion can challenge democratic life or the transition to democracy. Hegemonic Islam is usually correlated with higher levels of violence among citizens and a lack of democracy. Hegemonic religious traits, especially in combination, are strongly and statistically significantly associated with lower levels of democracy. Thus states that give exclusive, rights, privileges, status and benefits to a single religion are significantly less likely to be democratic. Muslim majority states, especially in the Middle East, are more likely to have hegemonic traits, though these traits are by no means exclusive to these states.

These hegemonic forms of Islam have been decisive in the framing and evolution of Islamic movements and their leaders from Hassan Al Banna to Zuwahiri and Bagdadi. Unlike what Islamist actors promote, their vision of Islam vis-à-vis citizenship, law, political community does not “go back” to the pre-modern theological discussions on these topics, but is actually an amplification of the modern forms of Islam built by the secular nationalist rulers.

Contradicting most modernization theories, the exportation of the Western secular project to new Muslim nations led to a counter secularization of sorts even in the most secularly oriented states like Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and Tunisia. In other words, the confessionalization of Islam led to its politicization. Religious identity and belonging have become embedded in nationality and regimes of citizenship, thereby influencing the definition of religious minority and the conditions for apostasy and conversion. As a result, Islam as a modern religion has become more far-reaching and controlling on the religious self than it was in pre-modern Muslim polities. Thus, the problem is not that “Islam needs to be reformed or modernized” as we often hear in political or even scholarly circles. The problem is that this reform and modernization became part and parcel of nation-state building and led to an unprecedented politicization of Islam through the conflation of national and Islamic belonging. As a consequence, Islamic parties and Islamic movements are an amplification of political Islam. In the same vein, the globalization of this vision by Al Qaida and ISIS is another iteration of the collusion between religious and political belonging, while invalidating the national identity to give priority to the ummah (community of believers) expressed as a combatant community.


Jocelyne Cesari is a professor of religion and politics at the University of Birmingham and a senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Politics at Georgetown University.

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