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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Politicization of Religion or Sacralization of Politics: Two Faces of Political Islam

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

On February 18, 2015, Boston College political science professor Ali Banuazizi addressed a packed Boisi Center lunch colloquium on the relation of Islam and public life. His focus was largely on the Middle East, where members of ISIS/ Islamic State had recently committed another act of exceptional violence in executing a captured Jordanian pilot.

Banuazizi argued that we can see two related but (mostly) distinct tendencies of political Islam in the contemporary period: one toward the “politicization of religion” and another toward the “sacralization of politics.” It is the latter, Banuazizi said, that we ought to condemn.

The “politicization of religion” is a long-standing Islamic tradition of active engagement in politics by individuals
or groups primarily on the basis of their religious convictions. At a time when secular ideologies such as socialism
and nationalism have lost much of their appeal in the Muslim world, Banuazizi said, it is understandable that an Islamic ideology would emerge and be attractive, especially since it pushes followers to look to its own traditions (rather than Western ones) for political guidance.

This can be distinguished from attempts to sacralize an ideology, a political movement, or a territorial state by claiming that they are based on divine will and providence. Groups like al-Qaeda, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and more recently the Islamic State claim divine inspiration for their terror campaigns. But their oft-stated goal of a return to a golden age of Islam mistakenly equates a small communi
ty of the faithful during the prophet’s
life with the idea of the modern “state,” which developed many centuries later. Indeed, Banuazizi argued, Islamic theology offers no blueprint for establishing an “Islamic state” and has relatively little to say about managing the political affairs of the community.

Nevertheless, a battle-hardened ISIS is 
a lethal threat to religious minorities in the region as well as Muslims who do not follow its highly distorted view of Islam. Only military force can dislodge it at this point, said Banuazizi.