John Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University and the founding director of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, spoke along with three other panelists about the relationship between the Islamic tradition and the idea of a liberal democratic state at "Islam and Liberal Democracy: How Tradition Matters," which took place Tuesday in the ICC Auditorium.
The event was hosted by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs and the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Jane McAuliffe, former dean of Georgetown College and current president of Bryn Mawr College, moderated the event.
Esposito was joined by Abdullahi An-Na'im, a professor at Emory University School of Law and visiting professor at Georgetown University; Sherman Jackson, a professor at the University of Michigan; and Ebrahim Moosa, a professor at Duke University.
The panelists presented their views before the discussion was opened up to the audience.
An-Na'im opened the debate focusing on the individual's instrumental role in shaping and directing religion.
"Liberal democracy is a desirable good for Islamic societies," An-Na'im said.
An-Na'im also emphasized that people need to be motivated. Using a number of historical examples, he pointed out that tradition has always remained ambiguous and contestable, making context an important factor.
Jackson spoke about the impact of changing traditions on Islam, highlighting that not all of Islam is dictated by scripture. Rather, he argued, flexibility is central to the religion.
Moosa took a similar position as that of An-Na'im by emphasizing that the individual shapes religion. He furthermore proposed a new means of considering and discussing tradition.
"When we're talking about tradition, it seems we're talking about the past," Moosa said. "Tradition is about love."
Esposito brought the issue of the realities of Muslim politics into the discussion. Referencing figures from a Gallup Poll, Esposito said that the majority of Muslims want democratic freedom but not a Western-style democracy.
"Liberal democracy [is] an American experience," Esposito said.
José Casanova, professor of sociology and head of the Berkley Center's program Globalization, Religion and the Secular, was impressed with the direction of the discussion.
"They all seemed to agree that to ask whether 'Islam' and 'liberal democracy' are compatible in the abstract is not the most fruitful way to begin the conversation," Casanova said. "They stressed the need to situate the particular historical contexts in which particular Muslim communities and societies respond in multiple ways to contemporary challenges."
Questions asked by members of the audience brought up a number of additional issues, including the relationship of Islam with development, the conflict between tradition and authority and between liberalism and democracy, the sources of law for a Muslim state and the different ways Muslims interpret their religion and traditions.
Other queries targeted problems specific to certain regions, including the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, Turkey and Africa.
"It was an extraordinary occasion to have four distinguished Muslim scholars address key contentious issues in contemporary debates from distinctly different perspectives," Casanova said.