Senior Fellow Jocelyne Cesari joined experts to discuss religion and nationalism in global perspective during a Berkley Center event series, held from March 2020 to March 2021.

The series was part of her Politicization of Religion in Global Perspective project, which focuses on religion and nationhood in five countries: China, India, Russia, Turkey, and Syria. 

Cesari applied lessons from her previous work on political Islam in order to take a comparative approach to religion and nationalism across the five countries. 

“My work led me to think that in order to understand the politicization of religion in modern times, you cannot stay away from nation-building,” Cesari explained at the first session on nationalism in India. 

Nation-Building and Religious Pluralism

Cesari and colleagues explored the historical and contemporary challenges of nation-building and religious pluralism throughout the series. 

In conversation with Irfan Nooruddin, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani Professor of Indian Politics at Georgetown, Cesari unpacked the complex history of Hinduism in the formation of India as a modern nation-state. 

“It is the Hindu vocabulary that has been used to build the narrative of Indian nationhood,” explained Cesari, who cited the Indian flag as a national symbol featuring Hindu iconography. 

Cesari and Nooruddin considered how the role of Hinduism in framing Indian nationhood complicates the place of Muslims in India, as highlighted by communal conflict that coincided with the talk. 

Similar themes were discussed at a later conversation focused on Syria and held between Cesari and Marc Gopin, James H. Laue Professor at George Mason University. The pair focused the role of different Muslim communities in the Syrian conflict. 

In a follow-up essay for the Berkley Forum, Cesari further considered religion in the political future of Syria, concluding, 

The state will posit itself as the protector of religions in general and Islam in particular, while Islamically based political opposition will be discredited as anti-national and against the interests of the country.

Different Visions of Secularism

The event series also examined the various roles of religion in nations that are constitutionally secular, including Turkey and Russia. 

Cesari joined Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, associate professor at London Metropolitan University, for a conversation which touched on the complexities of secularism in modern Turkey. 

“The status of Islam, even in secular Turkey, cannot be understood if we do not go back to the foundation of the Turkish nation,” Cesari said. “Turkey was not built on the rejection of Islam—quite the opposite actually.”

For his part, Öztürk explored the dynamics of state and religion in Turkey, founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, commenting, 

The Kemalist regime realized that if we want to create a modern national state, we have to control and manage Islam.

In Russia, another constitutionally secular country, the state exerts influence on the Orthodox Church in a similar but distinct vein. 

“Sometimes the church can use the state, and in other moments, the state will use ideas that have been developed inside the church,” Kristina Stoeckl, assistant professor at the University of Innsbruck, explained in conversation with Cesari. 

Cesari further explored the complexities of state-religious relations in a conversation on China. Mayfair Yang, professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, joined Cesari to discuss state regulation of religion in China, led by an officially atheist government.

Breaking New Ground

Cesari will publish project findings in We God's People: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism in the World of Nations, which will be released by Cambridge University Press in fall 2021.

“In this book, I show that the religious and political divide was exported everywhere with the nation-state,” Cesari explained in March 2021. “It did have consequences on the ways local traditions looked at themselves, to adjust to this new national community.” 

The book is one of the first to combine historical analysis and quantitative data to examine religion and nationalism in comparative perspective, looking at religious and national community through the lens of belief, behavior, and belonging. 

“By exploring institutional and ideational changes across time, this book offers original data that helps to anticipate future conflicts involving religion," Cesari explains. 

It offers a genealogy of religious and political ideas, actors, and institutions within a given national context which can be used for future research by scholars of politics and scholars of religion alike.

In the new book Cesari is poised to make a significant contribution to understandings of the relationship between religion and nation—a critical dynamic responsible for shaping the world as we know it today.

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