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Professor Discusses Role of Islam in ISIS

By Nikitha B. Reddy, Contributing Writer

Jocelyne Cesari, a visiting professor of Religion and Politics at the Harvard Divinity School, discussed the politicization of Islam by the Islamic State at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies Tuesday evening.

Cesari examined the type of Islam to which the Islamic State, a jihadist group that has carried out multiple terrorist attacks, subscribes. Cesari pointed out differences between traditional Islam and what she said was a modern, politicized version of the religion, which resistance movements have increasingly used.

Rather than trying to determine the exact relationship between modern extremist groups and Islam, Cesari said she prefers to focus on the “genealogy of their justification.” The incidents of terrorism today do not fit into the definition of the “classical jihad,” which emphasized a “communal and collective effort,” she said.

“We have to address the condition of modernized Islam and look at it as a politicized narrative,” she said. “Looking back at classical Islam is interesting, but it doesn’t allow us to make the connection with the current discourse if we bypass almost a century.”

Cesari traced the growth of the modern version of Islam to the decline of classical Islam, which she said few outside of academia are still interested in studying.

Cesari said her interest in Islam stemmed from her training as a political scientist in France, where she was inspired by her professors who studied former French colonies. Her current research focuses on the intersection between religion and politics.

“My goal is really to de-ghettoize Islamic studies and make more and more comparisons with other religions and how they have become politicized at some moments,” Cesari said.

Deniz Cakirer, a visiting fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies who studies political Islam in Turkey, said she has been following Cesari’s research for a long time and found the talk “very interesting.”

“It’s very close to my own research area,” she said. “It was great to actually see her in person and listen to her.”

One audience member, Nayera A. El-Sawah, an intern at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said she also found the session informative.

“I feel like part of what allows for these conflicts to exist is the ignorance on certain topics and the silencing of discussion on certain things,” she said. “I’m happy to see this sort of discourse happening in an academic setting.”

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