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Department Seminar: Book Talk: On Muslim Democracy: Essays and Dialogues

Wednesday, January 17, 2024, 1:30 pm – 3:10 pm

For almost a century, Islamist parties and social movements were considered to be a potentially anti-democratic force in Muslim societies. The practical political impact of such parties and movement presents a mixed record. Under authoritarianism, Islamist movements often represented a countervailing movement within civil society pressuring governments on rule of law, accountability, and free elections. During the democratic experiments following the Arab Spring (in Egypt and Tunisia) Islamist parties were often situated in between the entrenched authoritarian state and more popular revolutionary forces.

Perhaps the most symbolic figure representing the Islamist reconciliation with democracy is the Tunisian political theorist, politician and (once again) political prisoner Rached Ghannouchi. Before 2011 he was widely known as a theorist of a democratic Islamic state. After 2011 he was known for his party’s reconciliation with the reconstituted Ancien Régime forces and a grand bargain that kept Tunisia’s democracy afloat between 2014 and 2021. Notably, he and his party publicly declared that they had abandoned the ideology of Islamism and embraced a new ideology of “Muslim Democracy.”

This book is unique in presenting both primary source essays in translation by Ghannouchi himself, and a philosophical dialogue between Ghannouchi and a Western political philosopher (March), who also provides an analytic introduction. In this talk, I will discuss my interpretation of the problem of Islamic political theory and democracy, and my experiences engaging Ghannouchi as a political philosopher and politician responsible for his country’s democratic transition.