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1 - Framing the Question

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 December 2021

Jocelyne Cesari
Harvard University, Massachusetts


The worldwide exportation of the nation-state went hand in hand with the diffusion of the Western concept of religion, both of which are notably related to the expansion of the Westphalian order. Exploring the diffusion of the twin concepts of nation-state and religion intersects with two bodies of knowledge: nationalism and secularization. Combining them helps explain why and how religion and politics influence each other. Historical institutionalism and conceptual history are used to establish areas of politicization of religion in the qualitative phase of the research and to identify patterns in big data bases in the quantitative phase of the research. This approach is applied to the politicization of religion in Syria, Turkey, India, China and Russia.

We God's People
Christianity, Islam and Hinduism in the World of Nations
, pp. 9 - 27
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2021

The main argument of this book is deceptively simple: the worldwide exportation of the nation-state went hand in hand with the diffusion of the Western concept of religion, both of which are notably related to the expansion of the Westphalian international order. This contention stems from my earlier analysis of political Islam,Footnote 1 which I described as the outcome of nation-state building processes that took place between the two world wars. My investigation started with the introduction of the nation and state concepts in the late Ottoman Empire, and explored how these concepts transformed through the continuous political encounters with the West. These circumstances highlight the decisive role of political elites in transforming the Islamic tradition and anchoring it within state institutions and national identities. Such a perspective is a distinct departure from the dominant scholarship on political Islam, which primarily pays attention to a vast array of phenomena ranging from Islamic political parties to social movements or violent groups that all together challenge the “secular” state power. By contrast, my position has been to investigate the political cultures that are essentially shared by both Islamists and secular political actors. This atypical viewpoint has allowed me to explore political Islam as the outcome of continuous interactions between institutional and ideational changes.

In this book, I expand such a theoretical and methodological approach to other religious and political cultures. This is not to assume that before the encounters with the West, political and religious cultures were in a fixed and unchangeable state. There have, of course, always been influences and no claim can be made for untouched “authenticity.” As I will elaborate in the subsequent chapters, Hindus lived under the rule of monotheist Muslims before Christian and Western imperialism; Russian Orthodoxy was influenced by the Byzantines and the Greeks. By focusing on the modern era, I simply wish to emphasize the specific input brought by the exportation of nationalism and religion, in ways that have shaped the current forms of politicization of religion.

Exploring the diffusion of the twin concepts of nation-state and religion intersects with at least two formidable bodies of knowledge – nationalism, on the one hand, and secularization, on the other. My objective is to demonstrate the heuristic value of combining these two types of scholarship to explain why and how religion and politics influence each other.

Nationalism: More than Ideology and Culture

Most scholars would agree that nationalism refers to a group with a collective identity and aspiration to self-determination. When the territorial borders of this group line up with the borders of the state monopoly of power, we have the ideal-type nation-state.

Yet, one may wonder, how does nationalism arise? That is where scholarly disagreements are the most acute. On the one hand, scholars insist on the preexistence of cohesive social groups, grounded in culture or bloodline, which would explain unification.Footnote 2 The basic assumption in that approach is that there must be some unifying factor in any given national identity – whether it be history, language, religion or otherwise. On the other hand, scholars argue that nationalism is the product of social processes that forged solidarity on the basis of shared communication or interests. From this perspective, nationalism commenced with the expansion of capitalism, which combined shared language and cultural homogenization to foster a collective experience and commonality within the masses. The result has been described by Benedict Anderson as an “imagined community,” therefore giving priority to the language over blood.Footnote 3 Anthony Marx has astutely objected that the imagined community approach shares with the liberal intellectual tradition the assumption that early social cohesion requires no institutional action: meaning that no state action is necessary to encourage community cohesion or national loyalty.Footnote 4 However, it is worth noting that if nationalism is defined not only by collective consciousness but also by self-determination, the creation of a desired community only explains half the story. The coalescence of collective identity has therefore to be studied in the context of the political project of self-determination. In other words, all communities are to a certain extent imagined, but not all of them carry a specific project of political sovereignty and independence.

If “nation” is a new frame for understanding societal and political situations, the “nation-state,” which we usually consider as two sides of the same coin, is not a given. In fact, nation as political community is a more far-reaching concept than state power. For example, Liah Greenfeld has demonstrated how the national frame has reshaped not only culture but also the mentality of individuals and even illness.Footnote 5 She shows how nationalism is a form of consciousness that has redefined the boundaries of groups and relations between people according to two principles: equality of membership and popular sovereignty.Footnote 6 This consciousness is at the foundation of our understanding of modern society.Footnote 7 Consequently, nationalism is a program for the co-constitution of the state and the territorially bounded population whose name it speaks for. As expressed by R. Friedland: “Nationalism is not simply an ideology; it is also a set of discursive practices by which the territorial identity of the political power and the cultural identity of the people whose collective representation it claims are constituted in a singular fact.”Footnote 8 While nationalism offers a form of representation, it does not determine the context of the representation itself or the identity of the represented population, whether it be civic, liberal, ethnic and/or religious. Some scholars go as far as to suggest the rise of Homo nationis, that is, a kind of individual who is born and raised in a particular national culture, and who lives most of her life in a nation-state of which she is a citizen.Footnote 9 Decolonization movements established the nation-state as the sole legitimate political entity worldwide, which positioned Homo nationis, a product of the emerging global order of nation-states, as an obvious, taken-for-granted popularized phenomenon. Additionally, globalization has not destroyed national cultures but rather contributed to their internationalization, even if state institutions have weakened or adjusted to the new international order. Hence, the “nationalized personality structure” is a foundational identity that gives a crucial and distinct psycho-cultural specificity as well as political and economic context to people’s individual interests.Footnote 10

Furthermore, the nation-state is more than the sum of its policies. Initially, my investigation of state–Islam interactions was questioned by my colleagues in political science, who saw it as somewhat redundant with the vast body of knowledge on state policies vis-à-vis religion.Footnote 11 On the other end of the spectrum, my colleagues in religious studies have objected to “the reductionism” of my supposed focus on state institutions. My response to both is that religious politics is not synonymous with state policies. While state policies and state institutions are indeed crucial to the analysis of politics and religion, they do not account for the entire spectrum of religion and politics interactions. As a result, I give a strong preference to the Foucauldian concept of “governmentality,” which emphasizes the connection between techniques of individual socialization (governing of the self) and techniques of domination (governing others).Footnote 12 Governmentality refers to different procedures for regulating human behaviors, which are not in any way limited to state actions or policies. In fact, state actions are not decipherable outside the ingrained acceptation of these techniques by citizens. Therefore, policies cannot be explained without analyzing the sets of acquired ideas, emotions, codes of behaviors and social etiquette that people in a given territory associate with political power and community. Under these conditions, religion becomes a significant mode of power, and thus is crucial to analyzing the politicization of religion by paying attention to specific governmental apparatuses and relevant bodies of knowledge.

Religious tradition, organizations, discourses and practices are a part of governmentality even when they are independent from the state. Notably, religion was already an institutional space before the nation-state. Through a network of sacred sites and ritual spaces, community centers, associations, schools, hospitals, courts and charities, religion offered a social space from which to mobilize, as well as a concrete cosmos within which an alternative vision of the social could be imagined and prefigured. In the case of Islam for example, I have shown that Islamic institutions, doctrines and scholars were independent from the political institutions of the caliphate. With the building of the nation-state, they all became elements of the national community while being restructured by the state rulers. In this sense, political Islam first emerged as a modern technique of governmentality, with the adoption of the nation-state and the westernization/secularization of the Islamic tradition. It is precisely these mutual interactions between what is religion, nation and state that I intend to focus on.

By taking the nation-state as my frame of analysis, I cannot avoid the thorny question of secularization.

Secularization: Beyond the Existing Dead End

In 1999, Rodney Stark declared the secularization paradigm dead because none of its three core dimensions – separation of religion and politics, privatization and decline of personal religiosity – were validated by facts.Footnote 13 More than twenty years after his article, the debate is still raging with multiple attempts to produce alternative approaches. Some of these alternatives focus on social differentiation, which emphasizes the increased autonomy of social segments (economics, sciences, education, etc.) previously under the influence of religious doctrines or organizations.Footnote 14 Similarly, some talk about religion’s loss of relevance at the level of social institutions.Footnote 15 Additionally, reduction of secularization to political marginalization of churches has been criticized and even proven to be wrong.Footnote 16 On the other hand, others reject the idea of an irreversible privatization of religious actors and institutions,Footnote 17 while the most recent trend in the scholarship has been to emphasize religious pluralism defined as the capacity of individuals to coexist in the same society even if they do not share the same core religious values and lifestyles.Footnote 18 Others argue that secularization and sacralization are occurring simultaneously, hence creating a religious economy where religion remains relevant.Footnote 19 All of these critiques are highly significant, but they do not address the same level of secularization. While some look at the institutional level of state–religion interactions, others focus on the loss of influence of religion in the public space (privatization) and/or in an individual’s life (decline of religiosity). As noted by Stark, it is no longer possible to argue that secularization entails the irreversible decline of personal piety or the loss of political power of religion. Does this mean however that secularization should be declared dead or even discarded as fictional?Footnote 20

My response is that secularization cannot be simply dismissed because it is not the precise trinity that we thought it would be (separation, privatization and decline of personal religiosity). In its literal meaning, secularization is an ongoing social and political type of interaction that can be (and has been) reversible.Footnote 21 From this perspective, it is crucial to look at the three dimensions of this process: institutional, societal and individual. For this book, my focus is mostly on the institutional and societal dimensions of secularization and their never-ending interactions. I will show that the exportation of the nation-state has led to the reshaping of institutions for most religions while redefining their social influence as well. The nation-state has taken over most of the functions that were previously performed by religious institutions (foreign policy, monopoly of the use of legitimate violence, creation and application of the law). It has therefore reduced the societal aspiration of religion: that is its ability to shape the whole community. However, religious actors, ideas or organizations have not lost their social influence which is more limited than their societal role but nevertheless entails not only welfare, education, culture but also civil work. In other words, the social dimension of religion must be distinguished from its direct role in governing. Differentiation is not simply de-institutionalization of religion nor is it an ineluctable marginalization of religion in political life – as discussed by José Casanova.Footnote 22

For these reasons, I pay very close attention to the ongoing interactions between what is religious and what is political in different national contexts. If secularization is the continuous differentiation between what is religious and what is political, how to analyze such complex processes?

Processual Approach

In order to understand religion and politics in more dynamic ways, Norbert Elias’s figurational sociology lies at the foundation of my theoretical and methodological frame. According to Elias, a configuration is made of numerous small social units freely competing with each other and changing over time.Footnote 23 If the interactions of politics and religion constitute such a configuration, the canonic research protocol, which is to operationalize the key features of what is religion and what is politics through independent and dependent variables, cannot capture such a process. On a more fundamental level, configurational sociology bypasses the binary opposition between individual and society that has been the “chicken and egg” of sociology. That is why Elias opposed sociologists like Max Weber or more recently Talcott Parsons, for whom society is the addition of individual actions. He objected that both Weber and Parsons accepted the notion of the individual as “the untested basis of their theories.”Footnote 24 By contrast, Elias’s intention is to “go beyond” the “conception of the individual as homo clausus,” that is, the enclosed individual that appears “as something existing ‘outside’ society.”Footnote 25 His conception of society is based on homines aperti or “open people,” and he repeatedly questioned the reifying potential of sociological concepts such as class or individual. In his view, sociology is the analysis of the attempts by people to orient themselves within the social figurations that they form together.

Built on these premises, Elias’s theory goes back to Durkheim without being deterministic. The role of emotions in the production of knowledge and identities, a crucial aspect of Durkheim’s theory, is also central to Elias’s. In contrast with Durkheim, however, Elias based his understanding of emotions on the Freudian theory of the disciplinization and regulation imposed on the psyche by society. But unlike Freud, Elias attempted to capture the formation of the individual and of the society on the basis of their interrelationship. Therefore, in the figurational theory, individual and society are complementary rather than opposing terms and realities.

Elias’s sociology bypasses the usual dilemmas of individual/society and mind/body by looking at configurations and their long-term transformation. Human figurations are in constant flux, in tandem with shifting patterns of personality and psychology of individuals. For this reason, the focus of my research is not an exploration of values and identities at one moment in time, which is only the visible part of the “proverbial” iceberg, but the uncovering of its hidden part, or “habitus.” In The Civilizing Process, Norbert Elias introduced this term to describe the perceptions, feelings and evaluations of Frenchmen regarding the public dimension of bodily practices such as nose-blowing, table manners, farting and spitting. In other words, to capture the legitimacy of the king’s political power in early modern France, Elias analyzed the adoption across social groups of new table manners that used to be limited to the royal court. The changes of manners across social groups in matters of bodily functions and social etiquette were in his view a more relevant indicator of the king’s legitimacy than doctrinal or philosophical discussions alone. Bourdieu, although not explicitly, followed in the steps of Elias by defining habitus as “mental structures,”Footnote 26 which are “both a system of schemes of production of practices and a system of perception and appreciation of practices.” More specifically, habitus is the sum of “the tastes, preferences, perceptions, and other properties of agents. It is a mode of perception and orientation through which agents comprehend and manage the social universe,Footnote 27 manifested not only in discourse but also in body posture, choice of words and so on. So to understand the role of religion in politics, it is not sufficient to look into the existing discourses and positions by religious and political actors. It is also necessary to explore the “mental structures” that inform the actions and rationalization of all protagonists and make possible the competition and tensions between them.

One may object that if the habitus operates like our second nature, it leaves very little agency to individuals. That is why I opt for Elias’s sociology over Bourdieu’s, because the approach of the former is more relational than that of the latter: that is, social phenomena are fluid and more or less precarious processes produced by interdependent individuals and groups.Footnote 28 What we learn as members of a society, in a specific social position, is literally incorporated/absorbed into our bodies and becomes our self, which, in turn, changes under the influence of events and relationships. In these conditions, the national habitus is a particular, historically specific, concrete social formation that changes under structural conditions such as building of institutions, historical events and so on. The national habitus goes deeper than political legitimacy and sovereignty. It is a discursive practice by which the territorial identity of a state and the cultural identity of the people, whose collective representation, it claims, are constituted as a singular institutional fact. It is this larger context, which operates at the level of an entire community or population, that this book aims to analyze. For each political community, this context has been shaped by different historical events and is the fertile ground on which antagonistic positions and visions about religion and politics arise. In other words, I focus on sequences of changes to capture variations in knowledge, norms and claims on what is religion and what is politics. Therefore the habitus is not only the episteme, but also the emotional dimensions of what is acceptable, right or wrong.Footnote 29 To that effect, I will pay attention to cultural transformations that are not obviously “political” but nevertheless are part of the habitus associated with the building of the modern political community: for example, the modifications of sexual manners at the end of the Ottoman Empire, the redefinition of civility between Muslim and Hindus under British rule, the struggle to understand Confucianism as a religion in the 19th century or the liturgical reforms of Russian Orthodoxy in the 17th century.

Because of the secular bias of our Western scholarship, insufficient attention has been paid to the transformation brought to religion within the national framework. The religious dimension of the national habitus is the matrix of the attitudes, emotions and dispositions that all members of a political community have absorbed through different processes of socialization, and that they all share, even when they disagree on what religion and politics are, or do not even identify with a particular religious group. To capture these processes, I combine a genealogy of the modern meanings of terms historically related to political power and community with an analysis of the legal and institutional changes brought by the nation-state building. It is not that there was no intermingling of political power and religion prior to national communities (Chinese empires are an example of this interaction as I will discuss later on in the book), but rather that the nation-state is different from these other forms of political power. My point is not that nationalism as a Western concept is not exportable, because history shows that it has taken root in societies that were far from indigenously developing such a political system.Footnote 30 However, acknowledging the idea of Europe as the cradle of nationalism does not turn non-Western countries into mere “recipients of the foreign model.” While it may be undeniable that colonialism has brought European ideas and institutions to the rest of the world, it does not deprive local actors from acting upon these ideas and owning them, as I will show. It is also somewhat neglected that European modernity is itself very much a product of European encounters with other civilizations and traditions.Footnote 31

More specifically, the exportation of the nation and the state led to the alignment of religious collectivity, political sovereignty and territory. One could argue that the coterminality of territoriality and religion is nothing new, and can be found in premodern groupings like tribes, in which territory, people and God line up.Footnote 32 Nonetheless, religion in nationhood is different from the premodern forms because it can be used as the foundation of identity for the majority group as well as for the minorities.Footnote 33

It is important to note that anti-colonial nationalisms drew their creative transformation from the cultural and religious features of their respective communities. National traditions can be “invented,” and nations “imagined,” but this is not done from scratch. Moreover, these traditions do not form a seamless, monolithic culture; but, rather, a matrix or milieu in which different versions compete through social debates and conflicts. There are pre-national understandings of linguistic, religious and ethnic unity, coupled with notions of territorial sovereignty, which provide much of the material used in nationalist imaginations. Religion thus was nationalized to become part and parcel of national identity. Histories of religious conflicts were tailored to fit the tale of the new national unity. Religious worship became connected to moments of national glory and national remembrance. This process of homogenization was never entirely successful, because nationalism not only unifies, but also diversifies, by sprouting alternative nationalisms or regional identities.

Religion as a Western Concept: Where Do We Go from There?

The mutual interactions of religion and nation-state and how these interactions have contributed to the politicization of religion have remained mostly unexplored. The idea that modernity is based on a separation of religion and politics, as distinct categories, does prevent us from observing their inherent mutual influence. It is not to say that religion and politics interact only in modern times. But, as I discussed before, it is only in modern times that their establishment as separate entities emerge as legitimate and synonymous with modernization. That is, the underlying assumption that religion is or should be apolitical is inherently associated with the political legitimacy of the nation-state.

For this reason, the habitus can be defined only by investigating how it came into being. It means that existing collective identifications (what Elias calls we-feeling) to community, nation, state, which will be discussed in the following chapters, have been shaped during transformative historical moments. Only by detecting the new meanings brought by the rise of nationalism and state into the preexisting conceptions of community, believers, authority or sovereignty can we identify the accepted conceptions of religion and politics that underlie current politics in any given context. Moreover, these we-feelings differ or clash with the “we–I” or the balance between individual and collective identifications. In the case of religion, tensions between collective and individual allegiances arise when mundane politics challenges or contradicts the individual commitment to religious norms.

For this reason, the political influence of religion cannot be limited to beliefs. In my previous work on political Islam, I have demonstrated that religious belonging is more politically relevant than belief by showing how the adoption/adaptation of the Western category of religion by the postcolonial nation-state has introduced unprecedented amalgamation between Islamic belonging and political belonging.Footnote 34 This very distinction between believing, belonging and behaving has been made by sociologists to understand modern forms of religiosity.Footnote 35 These three dimensions refer respectively to beliefs, religious practices and collective identity, and, altogether, have long been defined as part and parcel of a person’s religiosity. Nonetheless, multiple social surveys show the increasing disjunction of these three dimensions and apprehend this as religiosity. Instead of exploring these three dimensions of religion at the individual level, I make use of them at the communal level. It means that religion operates for its members as a community of reference founded on collective beliefs, identities and sanctioned behaviors. It ensues that these three Bs interact with the collective identities, creeds and behaviors of the political community.

That is why I consider Charles Taylor’s magnum opus, A Secular Age as a reference point for this project. This is not because Charles Taylor borrows much from Elias, but because his historical sociology of Western secularity is a very relevant example of how major changes in concepts of religion and politics are intertwined and influenced by the governance of religious communities. More specifically, Charles Taylor has demonstrated that Western secularity is the culmination of a historical progression of ideas about religion, such that “authentic” religiosity has become increasingly associated with personal commitment and an immanent conception of the world.Footnote 36 The separation of the “worldly” from the “transcendent” has led to the “private versus public” disjunction. In premodern times, the immanent and transcendent distinction, although implicit, was subordinated to God’s project for the believers under the spiritual and temporal guidance of the Roman Catholic Church. In other words, the church oversaw matters, not only pertaining to God, but also those pertaining to personal, social and political life, since being a member of the church meant also being a member of a political community. This ascendency was irremediably contested when, at the end of the Wars of Religion, the kings began regulating “worldly” affairs (e.g., civil law, education) independently of the religious affiliation of their subjects, gradually relegating the Church to the management of the “transcendent.” It also meant that the roles of the Church on the immanent axis were increasingly understood exclusively in terms of “worldly” goals and values – peace, prosperity, growth, social justice and the like – thus creating a disconnection between public space and spiritual values.Footnote 37 The world became divided between the immanent and the transcendent.

This differentiation, with the upper hand of the state on the immanent, has diminished the claims of religious institutions over communal life and reduced their political power overall. Consequently, the immanent that used to be defined by religious norms has been increasingly secularized in areas such as social life, economic activities or political choices. The specifics of European and American history illustrate the stark reduction of religious influence on the immanent axis, although religion did not become completely privatized, especially in the USA.Footnote 38 In fact, because it has been disconnected from cosmology by state actions, the immanent is par excellence the site of competition between secular and religious claims, especially when it comes to values of family and sexual life. In other words, the distinction between immanent and transcendent, which is now a theological staple of Christianity, was the necessary adjustment by clerical authorities to the state becoming the main regulator of mundane affairs while relegating the churches to the spiritual guidance of the souls.

European and American political narratives have reinforced this division of labor between religion and politics by emphasizing the disconnection between the religious identity of the individual and his/her national identity and by promoting the privatization of religious beliefs with the expansion of political and civic rights. This “nice story” does not, of course, reflect the diversity and nuances of historical events in Europe and America, but is relevant because it is at the foundations of most theories of political development and secularism and more generally of religion in politics.Footnote 39

If we turn to political development outside the West, the gap between the dominant narrative of secularism and the political reality of religion is even wider. Interestingly, despite a few pioneer publications,Footnote 40 no research has adopted an approach similar to Charles Taylor’s to investigate modes of secularization outside the West. This book takes on this challenge by asserting that the division of labor between the state as regulator of the immanent and religion as the domain of the transcendent has been exported everywhere with the diffusion of the nation-state through colonization, trade and wars. Even when there is no immanent/transcendent distinction (like in Hinduism), the following chapters will show that religious traditions have nevertheless been transformed along this divide through the adoption of the nation-state. In fact, everywhere traditions had to grapple with what anthropologists call the “monotheistic diktat,” that is, the alignment of the message (there is only one God), the people (pledge exclusive allegiance to this one God) and the territory (a land is part of the covenant between God and the people who accept the message, at least for Judaism). Christian missionaries outside the West did not systematically convert the autochthones, as I will discuss in the case of China and India, but they contributed to the fashioning of local traditions toward homogenization and centralization, which facilitated the parallel building of the colonial state political power. These religious adjustments therefore reinforced the conceptions of the people and the territory associated with the national framework. This means that domains of action historically enacted by religious figures and institutions were increasingly challenged and sometimes replaced by state institutions. As a consequence, religious groups gradually emphasized spirituality, texts and doctrines over practices. It is important to point out that the immanent/transcendent split affected non-monotheistic traditions not because they adopted monotheistic creeds but because their scope of legitimacy was reordered along the immanent/transcendent axis imported with the nation-state. Even in the case of Buddhism, where the concept of transcendence preexisted the nation-state, the reordering of hierarchies brought by nationalization opened the door to new discussions influenced by the Christian understanding of the concept, as I will discuss in the case of China.

Judaism and Islam, although they are monotheisms, have also been redefined in the national context to become “modern” religions. In both cases, the major shift brought by the modern political order has been the preeminence given to individual salvation over the revelation-based community, although, such preeminence remains an intense site of political contestation as I will argue in chapter 2.Footnote 41 Moreover, like Christianity in Europe at the time of the Reform, Judaism and Islam have not only seen their political and social influence redefined, but also their doctrinal content adjusted to the new political situation. For this reason, it is necessary to look into the appropriation of Western political concepts by local actors with the subsequent transformations of their meanings. Simultaneously, religious concepts deemed to be “authentic” or traditional – Ummah, Shari’a, dharma and so on – are in fact continuously transformed to accommodate new meanings. That is why I used preexisting work in religious studies to capture the contemporary transformations of key religious terms such as law, sovereignty, and community, in order to identify which meanings intersect with the ones of national institutions and identities.

Additionally, politicization of religion in modern times is embedded in the creation and expansion of the international system. The end of the Wars of Religion in Europe translated into the Westphalian system of sovereign states regarded as sole legitimate actors in international relations, with the goal of keeping religious conflicts at bay. Therefore, from the nineteenth century onward, all religious institutions and actors have experienced tensions between, on the one hand, the rise of the international system that enhances their global or universal mission and, on the other hand, the nationalization of their affiliation in the different territories they cover.

Case Selection and Methodology

Each of the case studies discussed in this book exemplifies a specific modality of the ways in which the Western concept of religion was associated with the building of the nation-state. Syria, Turkey and India illustrate the effect of direct Western occupation on two different religious traditions: Islam and Hinduism. The choice of two Muslim countries reveals how two portions of the caliphal political system that were exposed to the same Western concepts have gone through different political transformations, even if they both adopted the western divide between religion and politics. This divergence allows me to show that analyzing the habitus does not lead to determinism but to variations in the interactions between religion and politics. China and Russia are examples of the diffusion of European concepts of religion, state and nation without colonization that went hand in hand with the expansion of the Westphalian system.

My investigation was twofold. I first conducted a historical institutional approach and conceptual history to identify modes of politicization. Then, I channeled the results of this investigation into a quantitative content analysis to identify significant patterns.

Genealogy of Religion and Politics

I adopted the consensual definition of politicization as the sum of the cooperative or conflicting attempts at making collectively binding decisions for a group of people.Footnote 42 An issue is politicized, if and when it is raised by the participants as a relevant object of – or factor in – the collective decision-making process. Therefore, religion becomes politicized when it engages actors, ideas and institutions that either compete or cooperate to define consensus or change policy-making on what they implicitly agree to call religion or religious. The inverse is also true: namely, when politics like state law or foreign policy becomes a topic of contention or action for religious actors or trigger theological debates.

For each case I identified the different sequences from the key moment or critical juncture when the concepts of nation and state entered intellectual debates and influenced policy-making. Critical juncture is not synonymous with path dependence. The latter usually refers to an unpredictable “shock event” that creates the conditions for new situations and institutions. The path dependence approach assumes a drastic break between “before” and “after”, therefore creating the illusion that one particular event has opened a new phase that does not relate to the past. For this reason, I prefer the sequencing approach, which focuses on chains of events that are demarcated on the basis of contrasting solutions for recurring problems. It means that the adoption of the nation-state initiated a new sequence in the overlap between religious and political communities by disrupting the previous equilibrium. Critical junctures are exogenous decisions or events that interrupt long periods of stability and set institutions on one path of development rather than another.Footnote 43 For example, I show that the expansion of the Westphalian order has operated like a critical juncture, by which the concepts of nation, state and religion entered multiple communities, leading to the construction of new institutions as well as to changes of the cognitive framework, norms and expectations regarding what is political and what is religious. The new institutions have effects, which then become causes of subsequent effects, which in turn become causes once again, in an ongoing feedback loop.Footnote 44 The creation of new political and religious institutions has led to self-reinforcing effects through legislation, policy-making and bureaucratization of political and religious legitimacy. In other words, some events, such as imperialism or wars, allow new parameters to re-create the disrupted equilibrium between sacred and profane. Positive sequencing reinforces the newly found balance while negative sequencing opens the quest for a new stable configuration. Such an approach allows the combined investigation of the temporal orientations of actors, ideas and social structures.

For each country, I utilized the rich historiography, sociology and anthropology of religion, nationalism and state-building. This meant going through preexisting research in the original language of each case, exploring archives and first-hand testimonies, laws and reports. For this purpose, I was assisted by an interdisciplinary and multilingual research team able to access and analyze original materials in Arabic, Turkish, Russian, Mandarin Chinese and Hindi.

This approach required looking at institutional political reforms and ideational disputes to address the challenges brought by the Western influence at different periods in time. These historical moments have ultimately built the shared worldviews, cognitive scripts and normative templates that inform both political and religious actors today. In the case of Islam (Chapter 2), the diffusion of the concepts of nation, citizenship and state through colonial encounters in the late Ottoman Empire led to the realignment of the immanent/transcendent axis, thus transforming Islamic collective identities and behaviors, which intersected more forcefully with state institutions and policies. The institutional outcome of this sequencing from the end of the Ottoman Empire to the postcolonial state is what I have called in my previous research hegemonic Islam. It translated into different modes of religious politics in Syria and Turkey because the international environment affected them differently: direct colonial presence in Syria, on the one hand, and autonomous building of state, on the other. Against the backdrop of British occupation in India (Chapter 3), I identified six critical periods when Hinduism, Islam, religion, nationalism and secularism were objects of contention between different actors: the cow movement (1893–1894), Swadeshi and the New Patriotism in Maharaja (1905–1910), the debate around constitutional reform and the status of Islam (1906–1909), the Khilafat Movement and the Separation of Sind (1919–1932), the Untouchable Reform (1932) and the debate on religion at the Constituent Assembly (1946–1950). These sequences led to the rearrangement of Hindu practices and visions along the immanent/transcendent divide by aligning them with the national narrative while the state promulgated secularism. Therefore, the exportation of the immanent/transcendent frame to India started a self-reinforcing process transforming the multiple Hindu traditions into Hinduism as a text-centered religion associated with the construction of the nation and the state. In other words, the multiple meanings associated with Hinduism have colluded with the shaping of the national identity and of secularism, instead of being relegated to the private sphere. This specific habitus shed light on the patterns of political contestation about the status of all religions vis-à-vis state and nation in contemporary India.

In China (Chapter 4), the critical juncture was started by the missionary expeditions of the Jesuits in the sixteenth century and the beginning of trade relations with Europe. It led to the never-ending tension between loyalty to religious community and loyalty to the emperor, and, later on, to the state and nation. In this configuration, national identity takes precedence over collective religious identities, with the consequence of subduing collective religious belonging and behaving to the purview of the state. As a consequence, religious behaviors as expressions of collective identity are perceived as a political threat and must therefore be controlled by the state. This was true during the Cultural Revolution and remains true today. Conflicts concern the legitimate definition of religious groups and politically acceptable religious behaviors, with the state operating as a major orchestrator of both. For Russia (Chapter 5), the critical juncture can be traced back to the cultural and political influence of the Enlightenment, which modified the interplay between Slavic culture, tsar and Orthodoxy. The communist repression of all religions was a reactive sequence, but it did not break this self-reinforcing process. That is why Orthodoxy today has become a major resource both in national and international politics.

Sequencing, as briefly outlined for each case above, highlights the different phases of the reinforcing process and pays attention to the effects of intersections of events, or causal chains, and points to cumulative causal logics.Footnote 45 It also identifies decisions or events that trigger reactive sequences. In the case of Muslim countries for example, the creation of the state of Israel and the 1967 defeat acted as reactive sequences leading to the radicalization and internationalization of political Islam. This transformation has resulted in new identifications to and epistemic changes of the concepts of nation, Ummah, Shari’a and jihad, which are at the core of national and international politics. More generally, I will discuss how the post-9/11 international context has led to the securitization of religion across all cases.

This sequencing of ideas, norms and institutions helped me identify the main arenas of contestation of what is religious and what is political. I could then select keywords that reflected these arenas of contestation. Keywords illustrate the ideas and idiomatic expressions that throughout cycles of time have expressed these competitions or cooperations. They make possible to apprehend the rhetoric and modes of communication through which actors seek to influence – or respond to – collective decision-making. The multilingual team created strings of keywords informed by the respective national habitus identified through the historical survey of institutions and concepts. The specific sets of keywords have been stored and accessible upon request to any scholars who would be interested in using them for their research (see online appendix at

Generalization and Pattern Identification

The attention to specific and localized meanings of religion and politics legitimately raises the question of generalization. If the interactions of religion and politics vary over the range of the comparison, how do we draw generalizations? One way is to mobilize available statistical data to validate assertions drawn from qualitative and contextualized results. For example, I have argued that the hegemonic status of Islam is a predictor of the politicization of the religion as well as of the democratic deficit of a country. In our coauthored research, Jonathan Fox and I operationalized the religious hegemonic concept in order to test it with the Religion and State round 2 (RAS2) dataset.Footnote 46 Another way is to design a statistical survey to validate a qualitative finding. In this perspective, I have defined securitization of religion not only as a speech act but also as a set of administrative and governmental procedures that since 9/11 and the war on terror constrict religious practices in European democracies. Yasmin Akbaba and Jonathan Fox used the concept of securitization to create data on state–religion interactions between 1998 and 2011.Footnote 47

In this book I have attempted a different mode of generalization by statistically identifying patterns of politicization. The keywords were categorized as political or religious according to the conflicts, tensions or consensus associated with these terms by the different “religious” and “political” actors. They were then applied to big datasets in order to identify statistically significant correlation between them to establish patterns of politicization. In other words, statistically significant co-occurrences indicate patterns of interaction between religion and politics.

I retrieved several thousand materials, which were analyzed with a specific program for natural language analysis, written with the Python software. The results are discussed in Chapter 6.


1 J. Cesari, What Is Political Islam? (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2018).

2 E. Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006); E. Kedourie, Nationalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).

3 B. Anderson, Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso 1983).

4 A. Marx, Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 15.

5 L. Greenfeld, Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), p. 2.

7 Sociologists have known for a long time that even suicide, the most individual and solitary choice a human being can make, varies greatly across countries. Happiness, too, follows national patterns. Nationality even impinges upon our bodies; obesity levels vary greatly across countries. For more information, see R. Veenhoven, “Is happiness relative?,” Social Indicators Research, 24 (1991), 1–34.

8 Friedland, “Money, sex, and God,” 386.

9 A. Pickel, “Homo nationis: the psycho-social infrastructure of the nation-state order,” Global Society, 18 (2004), 325–346.

10 G. Swanson, Religion and Regime: A Sociological Account of the Reformation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975); O. Hintze and S. Rokkan, “Dimensions of state formation and nation-building: a paradigm for research on variations within Europe” in C. Tilly (ed.), The Formation of National States in Western Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), pp. 562–600.

11 For the most comprehensive and documented example of this typology, see J. Fox, Political Secularism, Religion, and the State: A Time Series Analysis of Worldwide Data (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

12 M. Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège de France 1982-1983, ed. A. I. Davidson, trans. G. Burchell (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

13 R. Stark, Doing Sociology: A Global Perspective, 3rd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1999).

14 B. R. Wilson, “Reflections on a many-sided controversy,” in S. Bruce (ed.), Religion and Modernization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 195–210.

15 M. Chaves, “Secularization as declining religious authority,” Social Forces, 72 (1994), 749–774.

16 J. Fox, A World Survey of Religion and the State (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

17 J. Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

18 See S. Bruce, Politics and Religion (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003); Taylor, A Secular Age; P. Berger, The Many Altars of Modernity. Towards a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age (Boston: De Gruyter, 2014).

19 N. J. Demerath III, “Cultural victory and organizational defeat in the paradoxical decline of liberal Protestantism,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 34 (1995), 458–469; Fox, Political Secularism.

20 This is certainly the case with secularism, which is now defined by most scholars as the ideology relating to the decline of religion in Europe and North America. For details, see T. Asad, “Secularism, nation-state, religion” in Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), pp. 181–205; E. S. Hurd, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (Princeton: Princeton Unversity Press, 2008).

21 Fox argues that reversible secularization is so different from the original meaning of the term that a new term should be used: J. Fox, “A world survey of secular-religious competition: state religious policy from 1990 to 2014,” Religion, State and Society, 47 (2019), 10–29.

22 Casanova, Public Religions.

23 N. Elias, The Civilizing Process (New York: Urizen Books, 1997), p. 249.

24 See S. Mennell, “Parsons and Elias,” Sociologie et société, 21 (1989), 69–86.

26 P. Bourdieu, Theory of Practice. Pierre Bourdieu: Education and Training (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 18.

27 Footnote Ibid., p. 19.

28 By contrast, for Bourdieu, structural positions (class, education, etc.) have the upper hand by influencing our actions via the habitus, even if actors can exert some agency. Although it is all about social relations (between people), the social universe remains divided into levels (or moments) therefore still related to the fixed categories of objectivism and subjectivism. For details, see Bourdieu, Theory of Practice.

29 According to Foucault, the episteme is the historical a priori that grounds knowledge and its discourses and thus represents the condition of their possibility within a particular period. See M. Foucault, History of Madness, trans. J. Murphy and J. Khalfa (New York: Routledge, 2006).

30 P. Van der Veer, Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

32 C. Hudson, The Southeastern Indians (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976).

33 P. Van der Veer and H. Lehmann, Nation and Religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

34 J. Cesari, The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity and the State (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014). For a parallel imposition of the Western category of religion on Judaism, see Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion.

35 G. Davie and D. Hervieu-Léger (eds.), Identités religieuses en Europe [Religious Identities in Europe] (Paris: La Découverte, 1996).

36 Taylor, A Secular Age.

37 C. Taylor, “Rethinking secularism: Western secularity,” The Immanent Frame, 2012,

38 Casanova, Public Religions.

39 Fox, Political Secularism.

40 A. Bilgrami (ed.), Beyond the Secular West (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016); M.Künkler, Madeley, J, & Shankar, S. (Eds.), A Secular Age beyond the West: Religion, Law and the State in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2018)

41 For a comparison between modern politics of Islam and modern politics of Judaism, see Jocelyne Cesari, “Unexpected Convergences: Religious Nationalism in Israel and Turkey,” Religions, 9(11) (2018), 334–354.

42 S. Weir, D. Beetham and K. Boyle, Political Power and Democratic Control in Britain: The Democratic Audit of the United Kingdom (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 1999), p. 8.

43 G. Capoccia and D. Keleman, “The study of critical junctures: theory, narrative, and counterfactuals in institutional analysis,” World Politics, 59 (2007), 341–369.

44 T. Rixen and L. A. Viola, “Putting path dependence in its place: toward a taxonomy of institutional change,” Journal of Theoretical Politics, 27 (2015), 301–323.

45 O. Fioretos, T. Falleti and A. Sheingate, “Introduction: historical institutionalism in political science” in O. Fioretos, T. Falleti and A. Sheingate (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Historical Institutionalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 3–31.

46 J. Cesari and J. Fox, “Institutional relations rather than clashes of civilizations: when and how is religion compatible with democracy?,” International Political Sociology, 10 (2016), 241–257.

47 Y. Akbaba and J. Fox, “Religious discrimination against Muslim minorities in Christian majority countries: a unique case?,” Politics, Religion & Ideology, 12 (2011), 449–470.

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  • Framing the Question
  • Jocelyne Cesari, Harvard University, Massachusetts
  • Book: We God's People
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  • Framing the Question
  • Jocelyne Cesari, Harvard University, Massachusetts
  • Book: We God's People
  • Online publication: 11 December 2021
  • Chapter DOI:
Available formats