Skip to main content

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

  • Anna Seleny (a1)

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.Anna Seleny is Professor of the Practice of International Politics at Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy ( 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.

Hide All


Abbas, Hassan. 2005. Pakistan's Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America's War on Terror. New York: M.E. Sharpe.
Abizadeh, Arash. 2002. Does liberal democracy presuppose a cultural nation? Four arguments. American Political Science Review 96 (3): 495509.
Bassiouni, M. Cherif, and Gamal M. Badr. 2002. The Shari'ah: Sources, interpretation, and rule-making. UCLA Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law 1 (2): 3244.
Bendix, Reinhard. 1980. Kings or People: Power and the Mandate to Rule. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Berman, Sheri. 2003. Islamism, revolution, and civil society. Perspectives on Politics 1 (2): 25772.
Black, Anthony. 2001. The History of Islamic Political Thought: From the Prophet to the Present. New York: Routledge.
Bobbio, Norberto. 1987. The Future of Democracy: A Defence of the Rules of the Game, ed. Richard Bellamy; trans. Roger Griffin. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.
Bukovansky, Mlada. 2002. Legitimacy and Power Politics: the American and French Revolutions in International Political Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Byman, Daniel, Michael Scheuer, Anatol Lieven, and W. Patrick Lang. 2005. Symposium: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on “terror”. Middle East Policy 12 (I): 124.
Canfield, Robert L., ed. 1991. Turko-Persia in historical perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Center for the Study of Islam, and Democracy. 2004. The Muslim Democrat 6 (1).
Crone, Patricia. 2004. God's Rule—Government and Islam: Six Centuries of Medieval Islamic Political Thought. New York: Columbia University Press.
Cruz, Consuelo. 2005. Political Culture and Institutional Development in Costa Rica and Nicaragua: World-Making in the Tropics. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Dahl, Robert. 1989. Democracy and Its Critics. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Dupree, Louis. 2002. Afghanistan. New York: Oxford University Press.
Eickelman, Dale. 1997. Trans-state Islam and security. In Transnational Religions and Fading States, eds. Susanne Hoeber Rudolph and James Piscatori. Boulder: Westview Press.
Eickelman, Dale. 2003. Communication and control in the Middle East: Publication and its discontents. In New Media in the Muslim World, eds. Dale Eickelman and Jon Anderson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Eickelman, Dale, and Jon Anderson, eds. 2003. Redefining Muslim Publics. In New Media in the Muslim World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
El-Affendi, Abdelwahab. 2003. What is liberal Islam? The elusive reformation. Journal of Democracy 14 (2): 378.
El Fadl, Khaled Abou. 2001. Islam and the theology of power. Middle Eastern Report (Winter): 2833.
Elster, Jon, ed. 1999. Deliberative Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ganguly, Sumit. 2003. The crisis of Indian secularism. Journal of Democracy 14 (4): 1125.
Gerges, Fawaz A. 1991. The study of Middle Eastern international relations: A critique. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 18(2): 21718.
Handelman, Howard, and Mark Tessler, eds. 1999. Democracy and its Limits: Lessons from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. South Bend: University of Notre Dame.
Hite, Katherine Roberts, and Paola Cesarini, eds. 2004. Authoritarian Legacies and Democratization in Latin America and Southern Europe. South Bend: Notre Dame Press.
Hoffer, Eric. 1951. The True Believer. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Kadioglu, Ayse. 1996. The paradox of Turkish nationalism and the construction of official identity. Middle Eastern Studies (April): 17793.
Kedourie, Elie. 1994. Democracy and Arab Political Culture. London: Frank Cass & Co.
Kramer, Gudrun. 1993. Islamist notions of democracy. Middle East Report 183 (July-August): 28.
Levitsky, Steven, and Lucan A. Way. 2002. The rise of competitive authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy 13 (2): 5165.
Lewis, Bernard, ed. 1987. Islam: From the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople, vol. 1, Politics and War. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lewis, Bernard 2003. The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. New York: The Modern Library.
Lewis, Bernard 2001. The Emergence of Modern Turkey: Studies in Middle Eastern History. New York: Oxford University Press.
Linz, Juan. 1978. Crisis, breakdown, and reequilibration. In The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, eds. Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Maley, William, and Amin Saikal, eds. 1991. Regime Change in Afghanistan: Foreign Intervention and the Politics of Legitimacy. Boulder: Westview Press.
Masmoudi, Radwan. 2002. What is liberal Islam: The silenced majority. Journal of Democracy 14 (2): 402.
Migdal, Joel. 2001. State in Society: Studying How States and Societies Transform and Constitute One Another. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Moore, Barrington. 1967. The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon Press.
Mufti, Malik. 1996. Sovereign Creations: Pan-Arabism and Political Order in Syria and Iraq. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Nasr, Vali. 2005. The rise of Muslim democracy. Journal of Democracy 16 (2): 1327.
Pescataing, Camille. 2004. Foreign Affairs (January–February): 15657.
Philpot, Daniel. 2000. The religious roots of modern international relations. World Politics 52 (2): 20645.
Putnam, Robert. 1993. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Ramos, Julio. 2001. Divergent Modernities. Durham: Duke University Press.
Rubin, Barnett. 1995. The Fragmentation of Afghanistan. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Remmer, Karen. 2003. Elections and economics in contemporary Latin America. In Post-Stabilization Politics in Latin America: Competition, Transition, Collapse, eds. Carol Wise and Riordan Roett. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Schumpeter, Joseph. 1962. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper Perennial.
Schwedler, Jillian. 2001. Islamic identity: Myth, menace, or mobilizer? SAIS Review 21 (2): 117.
Shevtsova, Lillia F. 2001. Russian's hybrid regime. Journal of Democracy 12 (4): 6570.
Shah, Aqil. 2003. Pakistan's armored democracy. Journal of Democracy 14 (4): 2640.
Shils, Edward. 1992. Civility and civil society. In Civility and Citizenship, ed. Edward C. Banfield. New York: Paragon House.
Stepan, Alfred. 2000. Federalism and democracy. In The DemocraticIinvention, eds. Marc F. Platnner and João Carlos Espada. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Tamari, Salim. 1992. Left in limbo: Leninist heritage and Islamist challenge. Middle East Report 179 (November–December): 1621.
Tenenbaum, Barbara. 1997. The making of a fait accompli: Mexico and the Provincias Internas, 1776–1846. In The Origins of Mexican National Politics, 1808–1847, ed. Jaime Rodríguez. Delaware: Scholarly Resources, Inc.
United States Institute of Peace, and the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. 2004. “Ijtihad: Reinterpreting Islam for the Twenty-first Century.” Special Report 125. Workshop given March 19, Washington, DC. Accessible at
Van Cott, Donna Lee. 2000. The Friendly Liquidation of the Past: The Politics of Diversity in Latin America. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Yashar, Deborah. 1997. Demanding Democracy: Reform and Reaction in Costa Rica and Guatemala, 1870's–1950's. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Zaret, David. 2000. Origins of Democratic Culture: Printing, Petitions, and the Public Sphere in Early-Modern England. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Perspectives on Politics
  • ISSN: 1537-5927
  • EISSN: 1541-0986
  • URL: /core/journals/perspectives-on-politics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 3
Total number of PDF views: 25 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 103 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 23rd November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.