Universalism from Below: Muslims and Democracy in Context


  • Mojtaba Mahdavi


This paper examines the complex relations between the global concepts of modernity and democracy, and the local perception of culture and religion in the context of the Muslim world. The paper attempts to answer the following questions: Is the Muslim tradition/culture “exceptionally” immune to the process of democratization? If not, what does it mean to be a modern progressive Muslim today? Is the Western version of modernity a universal concept, or should Muslims seek a particular path to modernity? To what extent a Muslim democracy is a universal concept and to what degree is a particular model? The paper suggests that neither a hegemonic universalism nor an essentialist particularism can explain the complex relations between Islam and modernity. “Universalism from below” can better lead Muslims to democracy, given its equal distance from an Islamist cultural essentialism and a holistic hegemonic universalism. The paper applies the concept of “universalism from below” to the public role of religion in the Muslim world. The findings suggest that neither political/state-sponsored Islam represented by culturalists nor private/isolated Islam advocated by monist-universalists contribute to democratization in the Muslim World. The paper examines the extent to which an alternative concept of public civil Islam would contribute to resolve the tension between the universal and particular paradigms in the Muslim world.