Beyond Fixed Political Models of Religion–State Relations

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Some of the dominant academic approaches to Muslim politics continue to assume the centrality of Islam on the question religion’s relationship to the state and the possibility of successful democracy in Muslim-majority states. On the one hand, based on findings from large N-surveys, some scholars have argued that most Muslims in many Muslim-majority states desire a political ‘third model’ that is neither secular nor theocratic. Instead, they want democracy and a public role for shari’a and Islam. However, this literature does not fully explain what such a third model would mean for certain individual rights in practice. It also assumes a normative position that tends to favour one or another version of ‘Islamic’ democracy. On the other hand, some other scholars have argued that one or another form of a secular Muslim democracy is possible. Both views assume that the reinterpretation of religious resources is crucial to achieve the desired ends. This ‘reformist Islam approach’ to Muslim politics does not seriously consider the implications of servicing Islam, even in its more reformist forms, for political ends. Through a combination of theoretical and normative arguments and in-depth interviews conducted in the Maldives, this article argues that the plurality of viewpoints and underlying reasonings for those viewpoints among ordinary people suggest the necessity to move ‘beyond Islam’. As such, an alternative discursive democratisation approach that considers this plurality and takes discourses more neutrally without privileging religious discourses can be more capacious. Instead of fixating on a particular model of the religion–state relationship and a particular type of discourse (e.g., reformist Islamic), a discursive democratisation approach points to democratic possibilities and how the religion–politics and religion–state nexuses may be shaped and reshaped through discourse contestations within public spheres in Muslim-majority states such as the Maldives.

Original languageEnglish
Article number384
Number of pages13
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 13 Mar 2023


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