Perspectives on Politics

Tradition, Modernity, and Democracy: The Many Promises of Islam

Anna  Seleny  a1
a1 Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy [email protected]

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Pragmatism, decentralization, and pluralism are typically associated with modern democracies. Yet these are also the attributes that make Islam a widely accessible political-cultural resource. Indeed, such attributes allow for multiple activisms while sparing activists the macro-coordination challenges that often hamper growing movements, and the inertia that can seize vertical organizations. But while Islamists across the spectrum have increasingly deployed this resource, secularists of various stripes have mostly eschewed it. The aggregate effect has been to amplify the voices and to raise the profiles of Islamist groups at the expense of self-described moderns and their secular ideologies. I call this Islamism's reverberation effect.

Deliberate integration of Islamic tradition with democratic thought and action holds substantial promise. Pro-democratic Muslims, backed by Islam's renovated classical principles and practices, can better counter supremacist claims as they arise in the plural contestations that Islam itself helps generate. They can also realistically seek a firm consensus on the inviolable status of Islamic tolerance, which in turn can serve as a functional equivalent to the central authority that Islam lacks. Most importantly, by reconsidering the modernist ideational boundary that separates religion and politics, pro-democratic Muslims can begin to reclaim the transformative power of tradition. a


a Anna Seleny is Professor of the Practice of International Politics at Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy ([email protected]). She would like to acknowledge the generous support of the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University in the research and writing of this article. She is grateful to Hassan Abbas, Sheri Berman, Consuelo Cruz, Malik Mufti, Assaf Moghadam, and three anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions.