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This project will conceptualize an “Islamic Pluralist” model based on lived experiences of Muslims in Middle Eastern countries. Democratic models have generally presumed some level of secularism as a precondition for learning to live with difference in polarized contexts. But secular frameworks may no longer be best equipped to manage religiously diverse societies. First, secularization—requiring privatization of religious conviction—is not realistic in conservative Muslim contexts, where large majorities say Islam should play a central role in public life. Moreover, the notion of secular tolerance and “religious reform” has too often been used as a cudgel by authoritarian regimes to justify their hold on power. Their claim—one that has gained traction among Western audiences—is that democracy, while nice in theory is likely to be damaging to religious minorities and women, in practice.

Such assumptions have shaped decades of American and European policy that have relegated democracy and human rights to luxuries that Muslims are not ready to enjoy. Taking such concerns into account, this project attempts to question existing frames while answering a different question: What are the possibilities for a more explicitly “Islamic” pluralism that avoids the pitfalls of the authoritarian models that have prevailed until now?

The project will feature a unique set of deliverables, such as dialogue meetings; a survey project incorporating a variety of experiments to test the efficacy of potential Islamic pluralist arguments; and a series of commissioned theoretical papers outlining different Islamic approaches, to the challenges of pluralism and living with deep difference.

The goal of these activities is to reshape outdated understandings of Islam's role in the Middle East and help American analysts, journalists, and policymakers, who often see religion—and specifically Islam—as a problem to be overcome, to engage more creatively on Islam-related challenges.