Jocelyne Cesari’s What is Political Islam? is a timely book that provides an insightful framework for analyzing the relationship between modern Muslim-majority states and Islam.

The book is essentially a genealogy of the evolution of political Islam in which she takes the creation of the modern nation states as the starting point in any modern-day discussion on the role of Islam and politics. In the book’s introduction, she observes that political Islam is manifested differently in the world, either in the ‘coercive, hegemonic, civil, and transnational or global’ form – each of which she then develops and substantiates thoroughly into a separate chapter: Muslim nationalism and the Secular State, Hegemonic Islam, Civil Islam and The Globalization of Political Islam. The author argues that political Islam was born in Muslim-majority countries towards the end of the 19th century– a large number of which were then under European colonial rule – largely as a reaction to the foreign-backed modernization and Westernization processes.

In order to understand the role played by Islam in Muslim-majority countries, from Indonesia to Senegal, Islam should be recognized as part of its political culture. Cesari often uses the term ‘state-nation’ instead of nation-state implying that states were created first, which then created their nations. As states were created before nations, leaders – particularly those of secular orientation – strived to create a connection between Islam and its heritage and a common national belonging, in other words, ties that bind to a sense of a community. She argues that, as the idea of the nation-state was gaining prominence in Europe during the 19th century and the Ottoman Empire’s territories dwindling, it was Ottoman intellectuals and politicians who pondered on the meaning of the nation-state  in the Muslim context. They rejected nation-states based on ethnicity and language and opted instead for a state based on Islamic foundations. That, according to Cesari, marked the birth of political Islam and it should not be viewed as a reaction to secularism or modernism. Additionally, she argues that building state-nations should not be attributed solely to the Western colonial powers – as such an approach would seriously undermine all the exerted effort by local Muslims populations in creating their political culture. The author indicates that Islam was used and manipulated in the past and continues to be used today: it was used by the French and British in the 19th and early 20th century as a form of consolidating their grip on Muslim colonies; it was used in the process of building state-nations; and it continues to be used today in countries such as Turkey where the Diyanet is charged with the state-regulation of Islam.

Throughout the book, Cesari argues that political Islam emerged as a contemporary form of governmentality with the creation of the nation-state and the westernization of Islamic tradition. Additionally, she convincingly argues that political Islam is not simply a religious version of a national ideology but is – in fact – the cultural bedrock on which both nationalist and Islamist ideologies are founded. A significant percentage of Muslims polled believe that Islamic political culture could evolve towards a more inclusive form of “civil religion” in the coming future. The author notes that the biggest challenge to changing political Islam into a civil religion is not only institutional, but also cultural as was the case in Senegal where religious identities are embedded within ‘a broader ethos of sociability revolving around ethnicity and territory.’ In other words, the greater the independence of religion from the state, the greater the chance of having a more pluralist and inclusive approach to civil society.

If there is any shortcoming in this book and in most other books dealing with political Islam is that they fail to take Muslim-majority Balkan states into their research, such as Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Apart from some shy flirtations between the Bosnian Party of Democratic Action (SDA) founded by Alija Izetbegović and Islam, it is a remarkable fact that political Islam has not penetrated the political scene in the Balkans nor has it been able to draw supporters and sympathizers. This is not to be taken as a critique, but rather as an observation by a curious and puzzled Balkan journalist.

All in all, this is one of the most significant books on political Islam written by someone who masters the topic. It is a book that will become a must-read for students and researchers of the modern Middle East and political Islam.