What makes a religious political party? Short of naming oneself the party of God of course (Hezbollah clearly isn’t trying to win subtlety points with its name). This issue is more than academic. In a range of countries, religious parties are illegal, and forming one presents a good way to get barred from the political game. But a quick look at some comparative cases shakes this kind of bright line distinction. Are Germany’s Christian Democrats really a religious party at this point in their historical development? Is the AKP less so now than in earlier Islamist versions of party life in Turkey? Where should one categorize the BJP in India, the DUP in Northern Ireland, or the GOP in the United States?
This might seem like semantics, but contemporary politics in Senegal (where I’ll be focusing my DPDF summer field work) raise the enduring relevance of the issue. Senegal’s constitution bars political parties based on religion or sect (Article 3.1), and even in a state with a relatively permissive form of laïcité, the ban is taken seriously. So when a young leader within Senegal’s Mouride Sufi brotherhood, Serigne Modou Kara Mbacké, formed a political party in 2004, the ban was put to a test (not for the first time, incidentally). Kara’s popularity among young Senegalese is natural enough given his personal skills and the wide esteem in which the Sufi brotherhoods are held, but his move to party formation seemed a bridge too far to some. Senegal’s government has allowed the party to function, and Kara Mbacké is careful to state his respect for the laic nature of the Senegalese state. What’s a judge, or a social scientist trying to code as a 1 or a 0, to do?
By way of a preliminary answer in this short format, let me suggest the following: the very attempt to sharply divide religious and secular parties is closely tied to broader assumptions of secularization theory, and perhaps not the most fruitful starting point for making sense of the relationship between the religious and the political. If a parsimonious definition isn’t available (and I’m willing to listen to alternatives), perhaps this is because modern political parties remain influenced by, and exert influence over, religious movements in a variety of ways. The really interesting questions of parties and religion require close attention to these institutional links and normative commitments of both elites and mass publics. And of course attention to the writing on the walls around us.