Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies

Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies

Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies

Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies


Islam's relationship to liberal-democratic politics has emerged as one of the most pressing and contentious issues in international affairs. Nader Hashemi challenges the widely held belief among social scientists that religious politics and liberal-democratic development are structurally incompatible. While there are certainly tensions between religion and democracy, the two are not irreconcilable.

Liberal democracy requires a form of secularism to sustain itself, yet the main, political, cultural and intellectual resources that Muslim democrats can draw upon are religious. How can this paradox be reconciled? Hashemi makes three principal arguments. First, in societies where religion is a key marker of identity, the road to liberal democracy must pass through the gates of religious politics. The process of democratization, therefore, cannot be artificially de-linked from debates about the normative role of religion in government. Secondly, while liberal democracy requires secularism, religious traditions are not born with an inherent secular and democratic conception of politics. These ideas must be developed, and in an emerging democracy,howthey are developed is critical. Finally, Hashemi argues that there is an intimate relationship between religious reformation and political development. While the first often precedes the second, these processes are deeply interlinked. Democratization does not require a privatization of religion, but it does require a reinterpretation of religious ideas that are conducive to liberal democracy. By engaging in this reinterpretation, religious groups can play a central role in the development and consolidation of democracy.

Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracyargues for a rethinking of democratic theory so that it incorporates the variable of religion in the development of liberal democracy. In the process, it proves that an indigenous theory of Muslim secularism is not only possible, but is a necessary requirement for the advancement of liberal democracy in Muslim societies.


This book was written during difficult times. While the basic parameters and arguments were first conceived in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, the critical questions that spawned my interest in this topic have been percolating in my mind for most of my adult life. They were given greater impetus in the lead up to and aftermath of the United States-led invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The new American foreign policy thrust to promote, at least rhetorically, liberal democracy in the Muslim world also gave this project a pressing new relevance.

Fundamentally, this is a study about the relationship between religion and democracy. The principal goal is to promote a rethinking of this relationship by challenging long-standing premises, paradigms, and conceptual models against the backdrop of what Fernand Braudel called the longue durée (the study of history as a long duration). The focus, therefore, is not on the immediate social conditions that can generate reconciliation between the claims of religion and the demands of liberal democracy but on the connection and the coherence of a set of ideas—specifically, how we can study the connection between religion and democracy with fresh eyes, with a sense of history and free from the unexamined assumptions that have often clouded an understanding of this subject.

In pursuit of the same objective, Fred Dallmayr has observed that one of the main goals of comparative political theory is to “rekindle the critical élan endemic to political philosophy since the . . .

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