Jocelyne Cesari speaks at a Georgetown University event in 2014

Jocelyne Cesari: Breaking New Ground in the Study of Religion and Politics

By: Henry D. Brill

February 24, 2022

Jocelyne Cesari has spent decades bridging scholarship on religion and research on politics. Breaking down disciplinary barriers, Cesari has addressed some of the toughest issues of the day—from global migration and gender equity to the rise of exclusionary nationalism—to work toward the promotion of more just societies around the world.

Trained in political science as a specialist in Islam, Jocelyne Cesari, a Berkley Center senior fellow since 2015, has dedicated her career to the historical and contemporary study of religious belief, behavior, and belonging across a global range of faith traditions and country contexts—from secular culture in Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, to Islam in France during the 1990s, to the role of Hinduism in shaping Indian politics today. Putting religion and politics in global perspective, Cesari brings a unique outlook to the worlds of scholarship, policymaking, and popular media.

The pursuit of a more just, more inclusive world—this is a key theme underlying much of the research Cesari has conducted over the course of her career. A conversation with Cesari provides a look at the personal and professional journey leading to her most recent book, We God’s People: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism in the World of Nations (2021), which presents a groundbreaking look at religion and nationalism in global perspective.

​Islam in France: Listening to the Margins

As a student at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Aix‐en-Provence, Cesari’s mentors were professors of religion and politics. This initial encounter proved formative, shaping the trajectory of her research ever since.

“Since graduate school, I have been interested in religion and politics, and the context of this interest was my encounter with professors who addressed these topics through the colonial experience,” explains Cesari. “Lots of them spent time in Algeria, so most of their work on religion and politics was influenced or even shaped by the question of Islam and politics.”

Place des Martyrs in downtown Algiers, Algeria, on February 7, 2015.

Place des Martyrs in downtown Algiers, Algeria, on February 7, 2015. Photo courtesy of WikiCommons user Habib Kaki. 

Cesari planned to focus her doctoral research on Islam and politics in Algeria, exploring the role of women in Islamist movements. The late 1980s and early 1990s proved vexed for Algeria, a period when the country was rocked by social unrest related to economic uncertainty and political opposition to the ruling Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). With Islamist movements leading much of the political resistance, it was also a ripe time for Cesari to research political Islam in Algeria.

Military tanks, soldiers, and civilians in the streets of Algiers, Algeria, on January 12, 1992.

The only problem: It was not a good time for a Westerner—and, perhaps especially, a French national like Cesari—to be conducting academic research in Algeria, a former French colony where anti-Western sentiment was running high as the country teetered on the brink of a protracted civil war between the FLN and Islamist groups.

Sign reading "Institut Musulman de la Mosquee de Paris" in front of the minaret of the Grand Mosque in Paris.

With the unrest in Algeria, Cesari went back to her thesis advisor—Bruno Étienne, one of the first French political scientists to afford serious attention to Islam—and asked for advice. “I went back to my professor and said, ‘What do I do now?’ His suggestion: There are 1 million Algerians in France, and no one is really looking at the question of religion,” recalls Cesari.

So, she turned to the study of Muslim immigrants in France. At the time, most of the research focused on the economic and social integration of immigrants into French society—very few scholars had ever considered the religious dimension of immigration. Tailoring her research interviews to focus on religious and national identity, Cesari noted surprising trends in how French immigrants understood themselves as Muslim believers. 

“When I started doing interviews among the first generation of immigrants, their first reaction was that nobody had ever asked them about religious and national belonging, which was quite surprising to me,” says Cesari. “They didn’t understand what I was asking them. They were telling me, ‘What do you mean? I am Algerian and I am Muslim.’” 

They were telling me, ‘What do you mean? I am Algerian and I am Muslim.’

That refrain—I am Algerian and I am Muslim—led Cesari to rethink how she understood religious and national belonging in the France of her birth, where laïcité (the French version of secularism) plays a key role in shaping the tone and tenor of religion in public life. 

“What was interesting is that most of the first generation never distinguished between being a Muslim and being Algerian, or Tunisian, or Moroccan,” Cesari recalls. “For me, growing up in the French culture, there was a quite a difference between being a national and being a member of any religious tradition.”

Muslims in France A Conversation wtih Dr Jocelyne Cesari. In this 2020 conversation, Cesari explored the sociopolitical context surrounding France's relationship with its Muslim population.

The interviews that Cesari conducted with French immigrants formed the basis of her Ph.D. dissertation, which explored religious minority identities in secular contexts. By focusing on Muslims in France as a religious minority, Cesari broke new ground in the research landscape. But her innovative approach was not without controversy among fellow political scientists. 

“It was quite a big deal at the time to move from North African immigrant to Muslim—today it might seem obvious, but it was actually quite controversial because it has a sort of flavor of neocolonialism,” says Cesari. “I had to convince some fellow scholars that my goal was not to recreate the colonial project but rather the opposite: to give voice to people who were never really heard as believers.”

Cover of “Être Musulman en France,” courtesy of IREMAM.
Cover of “Être Musulman en France,” courtesy of IREMAM.

Listening to the margins of society is key to how Cesari works, with her research on Muslims in France standing as a case in point. Her Ph.D. dissertation, published as Being Muslim in France: Associations, Militants and Mosques (1994), was based on extensive fieldwork in the banlieues or suburbs of Marseille, often sensationalized in French media and policy circles as hot beds of crime, poverty, and foreign culture. 

By affording serious attention to the religious identity of Muslims in the banlieues, Cesari highlighted the complex ways in which French immigrants negotiated ethnicity, religion, and citizenship. In so doing, she helped to add critical nuance to the public understanding of religion at a time when France was beginning to undergo significant shifts in culture and demography.

Cesari kept these questions around religious and national belonging in the back of her mind as she moved toward expanding her research to include a transatlantic perspective.

Countering the Clash of Civilizations

In 1998, Cesari came to the United States with an ambitious goal: to explore Islam in the West through a new lens, comparing the experiences of U.S. Muslims and their European counterparts. The new approach was enlightening, leading Cesari to note major differences between the United States and Europe when it comes to the role of religion in public life. 

“Even before 9/11, I discovered the greater freedom that Muslims in the United States had to defend religious activities that they never had in Europe,” says Cesari. “The capacity to plead the Fifth Amendment, the necessity of protecting religious freedom—these aspects of American political culture are really not engrained in the public cultures of Europe.”

Muslim man wearing skull cap next to an American flag. Photo courtesy of Flickr user TCDavis.
Muslim man wearing skull cap next to an American flag. Photo courtesy of Flickr user TCDavis.

But as much as her findings brought much-needed clarity to the study of Islam in the West, Cesari encountered skepticism about her research from American colleagues. “The bulk of the discipline was, and remains, very quantitatively oriented and very suspicious about how to include any thinking about religion,” says Cesari. “And when people do think about Islam in Europe or in America, they often tend to look at the text: Is there anything in the text that people are using that can explain how they are behaving or what the issues are?”

Two beams of light in nighttime sky commemorate the 9/11 attacks

It was in this landscape that Cesari began her research on Muslims in the United States. Then 9/11 happened, ushering in a wave of analysis on Islam in the West.

At the time, Cesari was affiliated with the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University, where there was urgent demand for courses on Islam. With her transatlantic perspective and existing body of research on Islam in Europe, Cesari was well positioned to lead a new, interdisciplinary initiative that would end up shaping the next generation of researchers, policymakers, and thought leaders: the Islam in the West program, housed in the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard from 2001 until 2012. 

“With a few colleagues, I created the Islam in the West program, which lasted for a long time because students were hungry for a space where they could encounter others working across different disciplines to examine Islam in the West,” recalls Cesari. “A lot of the students now have positions in American universities, so I am quite proud of what we were able to do in the program.”

Cover of “When Islam and Democracy Meet,” courtesy of Palgrave Macmillan.
Cover of “When Islam and Democracy Meet,” courtesy of Palgrave Macmillan.

While leading the Islam in the West program, Cesari continued to conduct fieldwork on Muslim communities in the United States. These findings were published in When Islam and Democracy Meet: Muslims in Europe and in the United States (2004), a reference in the study of Islam in the West and her most-cited work to date. The book, based on a combination of survey data and research interviews, set out to highlight the everyday challenges and possibilities facing Muslims living in Western democracies—a novel approach, especially given the state of existing scholarship.

“What is common to both continents is the influence of international politics on the domestic conditions of Muslim minorities,” Cesari writes in the book introduction. “In other words, there is a widespread tendency to conflate Islam as an international political force with the ordinary Muslims living as a minority population in the countries of the West.”

There is a widespread tendency to conflate Islam as an international political force with the ordinary Muslims living as a minority population in the countries of the West.

Instead, Cesari looked at Muslims in the United States and Europe in context, exploring differences in religious and political culture on either side of the Atlantic and grounding her analysis in the understandings of religion that Muslim immigrants brought to the West. Doing so allowed Cesari to move beyond the essentializing, text-based approach that dominated much of the public and scholarly discourse on Islam.

Jocelyne Cesari on Democratization in Muslim Majority Countries and in the West. In this 2013 Q&A, Cesari discussed the challenges in separating religious and national identities as Muslim-majority countries were democratizing and drafting constitutions.

“What I show is that it was not the religious texts that were driving behavior,” explains Cesari. “The question of Islam in the context of ‘advanced’ democracies in the West always comes back to: where do people come from and what kind of existing understanding of religion are they bringing with them?”

Highlighting the human agency, complexity, and diversity of Muslims in the West—that approach marked a major contribution to scholarship and policymaking alike. It also inspired Cesari to publish the Encyclopedia of Islam in the United States (2007), a first-of-its-kind resource produced in collaboration with students in the Islam in the West program. The encyclopedia helped to put U.S. Islam in a global perspective. 

The question of Islam in the context of ‘advanced’ democracies in the West always comes back to: where do people come from?

“This was a very enlightening project in the sense that when we looked more in depth, most of the history of Islam in America was told through a national framework, often focusing on slavery and the presence of African Americans,” says Cesari. “Few scholars had looked at the question of Middle Eastern immigrants who came to the United States after 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson opened the borders.”

France, Europe, and now the United States: Cesari crossed transatlantic boundaries to provide a more human look at Muslims in the West. By the very nature of the research—attuned as it was to transnational connections—Cesari was pushed toward a rather different, albeit familiar, direction: the role of religion and politics in Muslim-majority countries. With a rapidly changing geopolitical situation in the Middle East and North Africa during the early 2010s, the shift in her research could not have been timelier.

A Critical Juncture: The Arab Spring

In December 2010, a single act of political protest in Tunisia set off the pro-democracy movement known as the Arab Spring, responsible for the collapse of authoritarian regimes across the Middle East and North Africa.

A group protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo on February 3, 2012. Photo courtesy of WikiCommons user ACharmedLife.
A group protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo on February 3, 2012. Photo courtesy of WikiCommons user ACharmedLife.

At the time, Cesari had already started a new line of research on Islam, modernity, and the state. “I wanted to test what I had been encountering in my first interviews as a graduate student—the idea that Islam and Algeria were the same for people,” recalls Cesari. “I wanted to see how much of this idea had weight in terms of Islam and democracy, authoritarianism, and political violence, the degree to which these issues could actually be related to national cultures.”

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founding president of the Republic of Turkey.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founding president of the Republic of Turkey.

Tracing the evolution of political Islam from the end of World War II to the Arab Spring, Cesari provided a new look at the politicization of Islam in a range of Muslim-majority countries: Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Tunisia, and Turkey. “What my work shows is that the first agents who politicized Islam were the post-colonial, national leaders who were all very, very secular: from Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia, to Kemal Atatürk of Turkey, to Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt,” says Cesari, who published her findings in The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity, and the State (2014).

At a time of great uncertainty about the future of the Middle East and North Africa, Cesari made an important contribution by highlighting how democracy in Muslim-majority countries was possible—though it would probably not look like democratic rule in the West, which experienced a different history of secularism. She also put to rest the myth that there has been a lack of modernization in the Muslim world.

Debates around modernity in Muslim-majority countries often invoke the issue of gender, with researchers analyzing religious texts to examine the extent to which Islam is compatible with the roles of women in the West. In her next major research project—led in collaboration with Berkley Center Senior Fellow José Casanova, a world-renowned sociologist—Cesari took a different approach by situating the evolution of gender in Muslim-majority countries as part of a particular historical process, rather than a natural outgrowth of the Islamic tradition.

Islam, Gender, and Democracy. In this 2014 event, a panel of scholars—including Cesari—examined the dynamics between Islam, gender, and democracy in comparative perspective.

Take, for instance, the ways in which Muslim women navigated sharia before the rise of the modern nation-state. While Cesari is the first to admit that the premodern system was far from perfect, she highlights how it did allow women to exercise a level of agency, especially since there was a lot of legal diversity on the local level. “What I show is that the state in Muslim-majority countries completely deprived any kind of fluidity or flexibility regarding sharia law by making it state law—therefore making it more intolerant than it was before,” she says.

The state in Muslim-majority countries completely deprived any kind of fluidity or flexibility regarding sharia law by making it state law.

Cesari expanded her analysis of theses dynamics between religion, law, and state in her groundbreaking study of political Islam, What is Political Islam? (2018). The book, released after the Islamic State assumed control over much of Iraq and Syria in the mid-2010s, located the collapse of the Ottoman Empire as the beginning of the politicization of Islam. 

Grounding her research in a genealogical approach to major concepts such as sharia, jihad, and ummah, Cesari was able to explain the contemporary rise of Islamism as a continuation with—rather than a break from—the modern secular state. “Islamists are not contesting the link between religious and national belonging given to them by the secular nation-builders,” explains Cesari. “Instead, Islamists are trying to strengthen that link by expanding the prescription of Islam, to moralize the public square.”

The Future of Political Islam: Trends and Prospects. In 2018, Cesari explored the future of political Islam on a panel with Berkley Center Senior Research Fellow Peter Mandaville and Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Her research emphasized the rise of the modern nation-state as a key factor in shaping the relations between Islam and politics. That recognition was important, especially since most of the existing scholarship and policymaking took for granted the “secular” nature of the nation and of the state. “The nation is not a given, even though we have all assumed that we are national,” says Cesari. “By looking at the beginning of the nation-state in Muslim-majority countries, I saw how much disciplinization and socialization of citizens was required to build the nation as the modern political community.”

By now, Cesari had tackled the subject of political Islam in a wide range of Muslim-majority countries across the Middle East and North Africa. But she was left with a lingering question: Could a similar approach, attuned to the rise of the modern nation-state, provide similar insights into different faith traditions and country contexts?

Religion and Nationalism in Global Perspective

The relationship between religion and nationalism remains a contentious topic, shaping critical issues ranging from national governance to international relations. This is something Cesari has experienced firsthand as a political scientist living in the United States. Especially during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election cycle, she noted a worrying trend—some evangelical Christian voices in the United States seemed to be working toward a similar goal as Islamist figures in Muslim-majority countries: Both were trying to moralize the public square.

If you want to look at how religion is influential, you have to look at what religious communities, not individuals, are doing.

“They are after the moralization of the public space because they do not see any other way to fulfill their religious communal obligation,” says Cesari. “If you want to look at how religion is influential, you have to look at what religious communities, not individuals, are doing.”

That is exactly what Cesari set out to do as part of a Berkley Center project on the Politicization of Religion in Global Perspective. Started in 2015, the project combined genealogy of religious ideas and political institutions with big data analysis to provide a unique methodology to capture longue durée, contextualized processes of religious politicization. Working with a multilingual team of early career researchers, Cesari examined the dynamics between religion and politics through five country case studies: China, India, Russia, Syria, and Turkey.

Lunch Series on Religion and Nationalism: India. In 2020, Cesari joined Georgetown colleague Irfan Nooruddin to discuss the relationship between religion and nationalism in India.

“I am very proud and happy to have done this work at the Berkley Center—with its continuous overlap with other religious traditions and with other historical periods,” says Cesari, who published project findings in her new book, We God’s People: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism in the World of Nations, released by Cambridge University Press in December 2021. 

Cover of “We God's People,” courtesy of Cambridge University Press.
Cover of “We God's People,” courtesy of Cambridge University Press.

“What I show in the book is that the politicization of religion everywhere can be analyzed as a continuous tension between religious and political communities,” says Cesari. “The nation is based on two principles—equality and sovereignty of people—that fly in the face of any religious community.”

At a time when the intersections of religious and national belief, behavior, and belonging are increasingly fraught with conflict, the new book is poised to make a major contribution to scholarship and policymaking on religion and nationalism. 

“The book shows that the exportation of the nation-state went hand-in-hand with the exportation of this Western concept of religion as regulated by the private-public divide and by an insistence on religion becoming personal,” says Cesari. “With this book, I have found patterns—I can anticipate where the conflicts between religion and nationalism are going to emerge.”

By anticipating conflicts between religion and nationalism, Cesari is opening up new avenues in research and policymaking alike, especially at a time when the state of democracy around the world seems increasingly at-risk. Cesari knows well from her research that religion can certainly be a source of social conflict; however, she sees a window of opportunity in the COVID-19 pandemic, which has offered a chance to rethink the interface between religion, state, and society. Taking seriously the contributions of communal religion can be a key step in moving toward the creation of more inclusive societies, says Cesari, who also serves as Chair of Religion and Politics at the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom.

The pandemic can be an opportunity to reopen the door to the social activism and moral discourse of religion.

“The pandemic can be an opportunity to reopen the door to the social activism and moral discourse of religion, without being exclusive or intolerant. That is the message of Pope Francis, who makes the point that religious communities are relevant to the international order,” says Cesari, who is exploring questions around Catholic social teaching and the future of global solidarity as part of a Berkley Center project on the Culture of Encounter and the Global Agenda. “The more we keep looking at religion as only an individual feature, the more we are marginalizing the communal dimension of religion.” 

Emphasizing the role of communal religion has allowed Cesari to orient her research career toward the realization of more inclusive societies around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic—a critical juncture for the future of inclusion across lines of ethnic, religious, and political difference—lends even greater relevance to her work on some of the top issues of the day. As global society looks toward an increasingly uncertain future, one thing is certain: The interdisciplinary thought leadership of scholars like Cesari will remain critical to ensuring a more just, more inclusive world.


Jocelyne Cesari speaks at lectern

January 10, 2022

Senior Fellow Jocelyne Cesari spoke at a webinar on “Religion and Populism in the United States and Europe,” hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations as part of its Religion and Foreign Policy series on January 6, 2021. 

Turkish flag in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

December 9, 2021

Writing for the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Senior Fellow Jocelyne Cesari unpacks the complex history of religion and nation-state formation both in and beyond the West. The article is adapted from the introduction to her new book, We God's People (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Masked woman standing with her hands facing upward

September 8, 2021

Writing for the Berkley Forum, Jocelyne Cesari explores lessons learned on religion and politics from the 9/11 attacks to the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting three major misconceptions in scholarly and policy discourse on religion in the public sphere.

A globe with a focus on South and East Asia

March 22, 2021

Berkley Center Senior Fellow Jocelyne Cesari is the editor-in-chief of a Brill book series that brings together scholars of political science and religious studies. Volumes address contemporary debates on religion and politics in a particular national or regional context or in a comparative way across religions or political contexts.