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Journal of Democracy 14.2 (2003) 18

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What Is Liberal Islam?

On 25 September 2002, the International Forum for Democratic Studies cosponsored with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars a conference in Washington, D.C., on "Liberal Islam." We asked a group of distinguished Muslim speakers and commentators drawn from a variety of countries to address some basic questions regarding the broad tendency within current Islamic thought that is often described as "liberal" or "reformist" or "modernizing." It is in this camp that many observers place their hopes for some kind of Islamic "reformation" or "renewal," which they believe would greatly enhance the prospects for successful democratization in the Muslim world.

We asked the participants to identify the key tenets shared by the thinkers or groups belonging to this liberal, reformist, or modernist tendency, as well as the chief criteria that distinguish it from "traditional," "fundamentalist," and "radical" Islam. We also asked them to assess the influence of liberal Islam today, the prospects that it might grow in the future, and, finally, the implications of all this for democracy. The views of the speakers and commentators varied considerably. Many were unhappy with the term "liberal Islam." And a number of them strongly disputed the assumption that religious reformation should be viewed as a precondition for democratization. The discussions convinced us that the issues we had raised, however imperfectly they had been formulated, provided a revealing point of access to the problems of democratization in predominantly Muslim countries.

Thus, after the conference, we invited a number of the participants to present written versions of their thoughts for publication in the Journal of Democracy. We encouraged them to criticize and to try to clarify the terms of debate surrounding "liberal Islam," and to assess the relationship between religious reform and democratization in whatever manner they saw fit. The essays that they provided appear in the following pages. The lengthiest among them is by Abdou Filali-Ansary, a member of the Journal's Editorial Board and a frequent contributor to its pages, who was a principal speaker at the conference. The other authors published here, all of them commentators at the conference, were invited to provide shorter essays. Although they did hear Abdou Filali-Ansary's presentation, they did not see the written version of his essay, and we encouraged them in any case to go beyond the role of commentators in their written contributions. We are confident that our readers will find the resulting collection both informative and illuminating.


—The Editors



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