“Islam is not the major obstacle . . . for democratization in Muslim societies,” declared Jocelyne Cesari, a Harvard and Georgetown University professor of Muslim politics, on January 27 at George Washington (GW) University. Cesari’s presentation of her book, The Awakening of Muslim Democracy, before an audience of about thirty failed to justify her overconfident contention that the Muslim world’s authoritarianism has no basis in Islamic doctrine.
Opening her discussion of Islamic religion and rights, Cesari warned correctly that “political Islam is not going to die.” Muslims worldwide view the separation of religion and politics “as something that doesn’t fit . . . their national identity or culture.” She added that, “Islam is . . . appealing as a form of political mobilization” as opposed to other “alternative ideologies” such as that of “socialists.”
Cesari noted how the “politicization of Islam” extended to “so-called secular states” within Muslim-majority societies. She described a “certain brand of Islam” as having a “hegemonic status” in the “state institution” and a “central element of the new national identity,” such that “being a citizen is also being a good Muslim.” Even post-Ottoman Turkey, having “removed Islam from the public space,” sought to “nationalize Islam” by controlling religious institutions, a “breakdown with the Islamic tradition” that established Muslim scholars’ independence from rulers.
She pointed out a similar “institutionalism of Islam” in the areas of education and law in states such as the oft-touted “moderate” Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. Other than Turkey, these states “did not let go of sharia,” but “changed” or “reduced” it to domains such as family law. “You cannot learn calculus without having references to Islam” in Pakistani schools, she added. Saddam Hussein also “paid a lot of attention to” a “completely instrumentalized” Islam in which he “built a fiction” that “never, never touched upon” Shiite-Sunni differences.
Strangely, Cesari’s commentary on the omnipresence of political Islam did not impel her to question the compatibility of Islamic faith with freedom. She asserted counterfactually that, for legitimating liberty under law, the “resources in the Islamic tradition are the same” as “in the Jewish tradition or the Christian tradition.” Contradicting Islamic history, she stated that, “nothing in Islam” demands an “Islamic state” and that “not even one part” of the “totalitarian project” in the current Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) “existed historically.” “The idea that Islam subsumes everything is a modern . . . not a traditional idea,” she later elaborated. In her imaginary conception of Islam, the “role of religion is not about state institutions,” but “improving the common good of the people.”
In her analysis of numerous national school curricula, Cesari found a “very intolerant” Islam, but “not because the Islamic tradition is intolerant” with any uniform theological “genetic or DNA deficit.” “The problem,” she declared, “is the lack of the Islamic tradition.” Thus, Europeans seeking to counter Islamic radicalism “need more Islam.”
Much of Cesari’s skewed perception of Islam stemmed from a misunderstanding of the Ottoman Empire, the only Islamic regime she viewed positively. She praised the alleged “built-in . . . pluralism” that gave Muslim legal schools “thought provoking, critical” debate at a time of European Protestant-Catholic strife, a “pluralism” that, in fact, included brutal Ottoman oppression of Christians and other non-Muslims. Contrary to Islamic doctrine, she claimed that non-Muslims counted under the Ottomans as “part of the umma” or Muslim community. Invoking this mythology of Ottoman multicultural coexistence, she described the oppressive empire as “very decentralized” among its various millet semiautonomous yet subordinate religious communities.
Cesari’s own statements contradicted her advocacy of governmental “equidistance” among all faiths for majority-Muslim countries. A “Westernized . . . secularized elite,” she observed, often created polities “more state-nation” than “nation-state” in newly independent Muslim-majority countries throughout history. Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, for example, represented a “very tiny Westernized, British-ized minority” that, ultimately, had to recognize that “Islam has to play a role in the new nation.” Jinnah, she added, “would have a nightmare to see what Pakistan has become.”
In a conversation following the lecture, Cesari, relying upon her umma analysis, rejected this reporter’s suggestion that states in the Muslim world are weak precisely because widely recognized Islamic doctrine demands allegiance from the faithful to Islam above all others. Thus, governments in Muslim countries must always maintain Islamic legitimacy or face upheaval, as did Iran’s deposed Shah in 1979. Governments can seek this Islamic mandate of heaven through a combination of winning the dedication of the devout or controlling religious institutions, as in Turkey, so as to suppress dissent.
Cesari’s combination of facts and wildly incorrect theories were redolent of cognitive dissonance. She perceived state-sponsored intolerant Islam, supposedly the result of theological misunderstanding, everywhere except in her mythical vision of the Ottoman Empire. Facts, however stubborn, cannot always overcome politically-correct, multicultural delusions.
Thankfully, various audience members retained a more critical view of Islam. One individual caustically described France, with its poorly assimilated Muslim immigrant population, as having been “invaded by a marauding force.” Cesari’s audience gives hope that such academics will not have the last word on Islam.
Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project; follow him on twitter at @AEHarrod. He wrote this essay for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum