When Islam and Democracy Meet book cover

In Review

Regaining Sight of Islam

Jocelyne Cesari is Visiting Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at HDS for the 2004-05 academic year and has been a research associate at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University since spring 2001. Her book When Islam and Democracy Meet (2004) was published by Palgrave Macmillan. Wendy McDowell sat down with Cesari to talk about the important discoveries that have resulted from her continuing research about Muslims on both sides of the Atlantic.


One of your central purposes in the book is to look at the immigration of Muslims to Europe and North America as “a foundational  moment of new transcultural space.” How is this is a different way of studying Muslims than other scholars have done in the past?

There are several, layered purposes in this book. As a scholar of contemporary Islam for several years, I have been fighting and struggling with what I call the “exceptionalism of Islam.” When I got into the field, this exceptionalism was already there because of the politicization of Islam, which had been a problem a long time before 9/11, especially in Europe. So my main purpose even before coming to the United States was to look at Islam as a religion—not as a civilization, not as a set of economic areas, not only through the language lens, but as a religion. When you want to look at Islam as a religion, you discover that there is not a lot of data on the Muslim world or on Muslims living among Westerners. What I mean is that very few scholars have really looked at Islam through the lens of social sciences in general or sociology of religion in particular. Of course, there is remarkable work on the Qur’an, on the diverse body of interpretation of the text, the theology, and so on, but there is much less on “living Islam,” on the religious practices and behaviors of Muslims in different historical and cultural contexts.

This particular domain is still terra incognita. We know a lot about political Islam, about the Muslim Brotherhood, about different Muslim states, the politicization of Islam, but the different forms of Islamic religiosity remain pretty much unknown. So, this was my first purpose in the book: to relay the research I started in Europe and then continue here in America about these concrete religious practices among Muslims in different contexts.

The second point is related to the construction of the so-called exceptionalism of Islam. I have repeatedly encountered the idea that Islam has an opposite set of values from the West. Now the West is America, but for centuries it was Europe. A few years ago, I did some historical work to trace the major events of this kind of stereotyping and representation. In the beginning, there were some historical grounds and events to fuel or nurture this kind of vision of a complete opposition between Islam and the West, but over time, it has turned into a stereotype. The different images of Islam (violence, fanaticism, etc.) still used today are in fact part of the historical confrontation between Muslim societies and Europe in the Mediterranean area. You have to go back to medieval times to understand how this opposition between the West and Islam has been constructed. You can start at the Crusades and go through the confrontation between modern Europe and the Ottoman Empire, then colonialism, and now imperialism. The point has always been that Islam can’t fit into the Western political or cultural project at any moment. The irony is that despite this continuous rhetoric of opposition, there were some transcultural moments, that is, mutual cultural influences.

With Muslims living in Western Europe and in the United States, we are again in a transcultural moment where we have to redefine ourselves in dialogue and discussion with Muslims, but we tend not to see it this way. We tend to see Muslims immigrating and being faced with the challenge to adjust themselves to the new regime, the new culture, the new political principles. Especially in Europe, but also here, we see it only as an obligation for Muslims—“Please, show us how you are good citizens and how you can fit into our project”—without realizing that the project itself is changed because of the inclusion of Islam and Muslims. All the research shows that actually there is a mutual transformation going on that is changing European and American societies, especially after 9/11.

Americans may be more aware of that, because this is a country formed through immigration, so they know that each group of newcomers brings something, especially after the civil rights movement. Even if the melting pot never really existed, there is this representation that “all together we contribute to create something new,” which is not part of the European narrative.

You say that a racialized conception of Islam has actually been far more prominent in Europe than it has in the United States, in the past at least. But you also say that, post-9/11, the United States is becoming more like Europe than the other way around. Can you explain more?

It used to be that there was a significant difference between Western Europe and the United States concerning their perceptions of Islam and Muslims. Of course, the negative perception of Islam was already here in the United States before 9/11, because Islam has been on the international agenda for a long time, with the end of the Soviet Union and the peaking of political Islam in different parts of the Muslim world. Think, for example, of the hostage crisis in Iran in 1979. But, in America, there was a disconnection between Islam as an element of the international agenda and Muslims at the domestic level, American Muslims. Although there have been some outbursts of anger targeting Muslims, such as after the first World Trade Center bombing and also the Oklahoma City bombing that was initially, and falsely, attributed to Muslims, the violence always goes down. With the exception of these crisis moments, Muslims in America have never been really bothered or discriminated against in developing Islam here. This ability to develop Islam is unknown to Muslims in Europe, where, since the beginning, Muslims from within have been seen as part of a transnational political problem.

Is this because of the countervailing trend  you point to in the United States, which has  to do with how we view religion in general?

Yes, that’s part of it. To say it in a very trivial way, I think that Europeans—in particular the French, but Germans also, and now even the Dutch—tend to have a problem with the status of religion in public space. Americans have a problem with race. The color line is a real divide here, even among Muslims, but the religious divide doesn’t make sense in American national identity and national rhetoric. That is because religion has been part of the fabric of citizenship here in a way that is unknown in Europe. Peter Berger at Boston University likes to say that Europe is maybe the only secularized place in the world. He doesn’t mean it in terms of institutional arrangements and the separation of church and state, but in terms of the status of religion in civil life. How do people deal with religion on a daily basis? Is it part of their civic engagement or their public postures? In Europe, it’s not. You don’t need to show yourself as a religious person or believer in civic society, and actually it can even be seen as suspicious if you do. Religion is often seen as a threat to public order, which is the opposite of here, at least until 9/11.

The attitude toward religion in the United States, not to mention the legal traditions of protecting religious freedom, helped Muslims in the building of religious institutions before 9/11. Since 9/11, the situation is different, and we really need to learn more about how Muslims are changing loyalties and identifications after 9/11, and whether, perhaps, the very status of religion is going to change in America.

You say, “Muslims seem not to be the masters of their own identity in their adopted countries.”  Why is that?

First, I do think that there is this meta-narrative on Islam that is very powerful, leading to all the discourse that automatically associates Islam with violence and fanaticism. This discourse is conveyed by politicians, by the media, but in Europe, and here to some extent, it is even conveyed by public intellectuals. One of the big changes I’ve noticed after 9/11 is that suddenly it’s not even a nuanced, critical discourse anymore—it’s an insult. More in Europe than here, 9/11 gave permission to people to use very rude and crude terms, whereas before they would have tried to be more politically correct. This is something that has really struck me in the last three years. For instance, a famous French novelist said publicly, “Islam is the religion of assholes.” Where do you go from there?

Where do Muslims go from there? What are Muslims doing to respond in the United States and Europe, and are there different responses here and there?

That is an important question I wanted to address in the book. What do Muslims do in this kind of space that is so defined by negative stereotyping and meta-narrative? I don’t know a single Muslim, even the most secularized, who doesn’t have to deal with this, because it goes from the micro level to the level of international politics. We are living in a very particular moment where all these narratives, from local to international, are put together in a way that sets the terms with which each Muslim has to live. But it doesn’t mean that Muslims don’t have any leverage or room for action or negotiation. Room does exist, though we tend not to pay attention to it.

One of the most significant discoveries I made has to do with the many ways Muslims, particularly in the West, are in the process of secularizing their faith. What does secularization mean concretely? It refers to the increasing individualization of religious choices, acceptance of relativism, adjustment of Islamic prescriptions to the separation between public and private spaces in most of the societies in which they live. Most of the Muslims came from countries where Islam is the religion of the state and/or a religion of the majority, meaning Islam was the cement of national and collective life, and suddenly they are thrust into living as a minority. They adjust by engaging in a process of individualized religious choice. Of course, individualization of religious choice also exists in the Muslim world, but it is in certain ways blocked by the importance of Islam in the public realm. Here and in Europe, there is no such centrality of Islam in the  public realm, so it means that more leverage is given to their individuality.

In many ways, Islamic practices really fit the bill of all the theories on religion in post-modernity, where the believer is a “picker and chooser” and does what he or she can or wants according to different constraints and contexts. This aspect was particularly interesting to observe and to gather testimonies about during my research for this book. This individualization, however, does not automatically mean decline of religious practices or even acceptance of privatization. The litmus test is the dress code.

Could you explain how the dress code is a litmus test?

I have met lots of young women who are very observant but who refuse to be looked at as Muslim in social interactions, and so they don’t cover their heads. They can follow the modesty rules without being singled out as Muslim.

We tend to think that only women who wear headscarves are observant, but this is not true. Actually, it can even be some-times quite the contrary. The headscarf (or hijab) has been politicized, especially in a very confrontational context like that in France. There, some young women can use it as a way to show their hostility or their resistance to the French discourse without necessarily being observant or pious persons. I also discovered very observant and orthodox young women who refuse to be looked at as Muslim and therefore don’t wear hijab.

How does the dress code relate to political leanings?

You have, of course, a minority who go beyond the dress code and act in resistance to the West in many different ways. They go for very fundamentalist doctrines, like the Wahhabis and the Tabligh, which take a very conservative approach to women, non-Muslims, and non-believers. They tend to create a barrier between Muslims and the rest of the world, including Muslims who don’t follow their particular path or interpretation. This is something that does exist in Europe and in the United States, as well.

What is striking to me is the influence of the Jamaat at-Tabligh, a transnational proselytizing movement that started in India in 1927 and ended up covering all the Muslim world. The targets of that movement now are Western Europe and the United States, and it really has influenced young people, especially people converting to Islam, because it provides all the resources to be educated in Islam, but package it in a very conservative way. The movement’s discourse on women, on non-Muslims, and on the West is very separatist: “We don’t mix up, we don’t get into mainstream politics in cities, this is not our business.”

In your conclusion, you identify a tension between that conservative trend and, at the other end, reformers and reforming voices. Where are things with this tension?

First let me stress another point I make in the book, which is that these Muslims in Europe and the United States are part of the Muslim world at large, because of globalization. For a long time, when I started to work on this topic in Europe, I was asked: “Why are you interested in these people? They’re not ‘really’ Muslims anymore.” It is this sort of normative approach to Islam and Muslims that I precisely try  to avoid in the book. What I find interesting is that, more and more, the proselytizing movement and Muslim states and regimes are targeting the Muslim population in the West precisely because these Western Muslims are echoing and sometimes amplifying the major debates in the Muslim world today.

The debate in the Muslim world today is indeed between fundamentalist interpretations of the text and more open ones, especially on the questions of women, apostasy, non-believers, non-Muslims, human rights, not to mention the status of the revealed text itself. Muslims of the West actually serve as catalysts of this tension and confrontation between conservative/reactionary and liberal/critical interpretations of Islam. The Wahhabi doctrine is a very relevant example of that, and it’s not only Saudi anymore, it’s a global doctrine. What I show in the book is that, since the 1970s they have achieved a tour de force (as we say in French), becoming a global doxa of Islam at the international level. In the West, Muslims were given free Qur’ans and free money to build mosques, but all that came at a cost—a very reactionary way of interpreting Islam.

On the other side, there are attempts to be more critical and to use, for example, the tools of the social sciences to study the Qur’an. This remains a controversial question among Muslims. The Qur’an is seen as an absolute, and the attempts to study it with history and social science are still highly controversial and rare. Plus, if you are a scholar living in a Muslim country and engaged in a critical approach to the Islamic tradition, you can be sued for apostasy or your life can be threatened. So, what is interesting to me is to examine how this kind of critical thinking, opening up a debate on history and the Qur’an, is made possible by the settlement of Muslims in the West. And this debate is especially vibrant here in the United States among scholars and intellectuals, because the Muslim elite is here. However, we should not underestimate the fact that vast segments of the Muslim population in the United States are religiously conservative, especially in the domain of family and sexual life.

Therefore, my main point of skepticism is that I’m not sure this debate addresses the level of expectation of practicing Muslims I have met in different parts of America and Europe, who for the most part have real concerns about conformity and orthopraxis. They are struggling with what is haram (prohibited), and what is halal (permitted). Most of the time, the intellectual debate I am referring to does not cover these “down-to-earth” concerns.

You include a large section in your book on religious authority. Why is this so important?

This is the major crisis of the Muslim world. The crisis of political regimes and states is important, but it is related to the crisis of religious authority. When we talk about the politicization of Islam, we think about radical groups, but the first stage actually involved the state itself right after the decolonization process. The postcolonial states in the Muslim world “captured” Islam as part of their source of legitimacy, which the new rulers wanted to use in their relationship with their citizens (or subjects). This has created national versions of Islam, with no space for critical thinking. Historically, the interpretation of Islam has always been rich and contradictory, with multiple answers and debates, but this has been shut down in the postcolonial era.

This is related to the crisis of religious authority, because young people in the Muslim world tend to reject the civil servants, leaders, and clerics, who are paid by the state to propagate the official doctrine. They prefer to follow non-institutional leaders, most of them trained in mathematics, physics, or social sciences, but ready to provide alternative interpretations that are often political interpretations and ways of contesting oppressive regimes. Think, for example, of the Muslim Brotherhood and all the groups that have entered the political realm of Muslim countries in the last 30 years.

When Muslims live in the West, this crisis becomes even more intense, because there are no civil servants to act as interpreters. A lot of people with no real credentials in Islamic studies can become leaders. To paraphrase Weber, providing salvation goods is a lucrative business, especially when religious institutions are in the making. So it leaves some young people who have been acculturated to the European or American way of life with a continuous questioning, and uncertainty.

This dissolving of religious authority and institutions does concern all religions today. However, because of the pressure of international problems and the ways that some doctrines of Islam have been globalized and politicized, it is a particularly acute problem for Islam. In Europe, I have seen lots of young people starting out looking for Islam as a religion and ending up in very closed, extremist groups that are highly political. I think this can happen today to young Muslims with a higher probability than, for example, to young Christians, who may end up fundamentalist, but not automatically politicized.

What about the discourse on women and Islam? You say that, right now, it really serves as a yardstick for different interpretations of Islam.

The discourse on women is really the way to distinguish the whole spectrum, from reactionary to critical Islam. The reactionary Muslims are sticking to a very unhistorical, essentialized approach in their interpretation of the status of women, wherein the division of roles between men and women, and even the inferiority of women, has been codified in some parts of the Islamic tradition. They have to be differentiated from the conservatives, who would say a woman has to follow the modesty rules, has to cover her head, but of course she can work since there is no prohibition against work for women in Islam. Still, she has to do it in a certain framework, respecting certain rules that preserve the gender segregation. In these conservative interpretations, corporal punishment against women can sometimes be acknowledged (but try not to hit the face!).

At the other end of the spectrum, there are more critical approaches. Some scholars of Islam argue that the roles for men and women, as codified in the Islamic tradition, have to be questioned based on what is “thinkable” or “ unthinkable” in any particular historical time. For example, scholars like Abu Zayd or Amina Wadud argue that the status of women needs to be discussed and revised in the existing context of equality of genders.

This is a tough question, but are you hopeful for the future?

Actually, I’m more worried about Europe than America. The socioeconomic level of European Muslims is lower, and so they are in a more vulnerable position, especially with the dominant hostile narrative and the lack of juridical resources.

To be provocative, if you look at American history, all minority groups at some point had to go through an ordeal to become American. It’s part of the Americanization process. And some Muslims here are aware of that, they can have this discourse, “Look what happened to the Japanese, look what happened to. . . .” The current climate of questioning is also pushing Muslims to be more proactive in explaining how it’s possible to be Muslim and American, and to be more engaged politically. Before 9/11, everything was going relatively smoothly for immigrant Muslims. The sudden turmoil created by 9/11 forced them to sharpen their tools and be more creative about how to be an American today, and to build bridges with other groups, in ways that were not clear to them before. These are changes to watch.


When Islam and Democracy Meet, by Jocelyne Cesari. Palgrave, 267 pages.

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