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Rawlsian liberal pluralism and political Islam: friends or foes?

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posted on 2023-06-21, 06:01 authored by Anthony BoothAnthony Booth
In this chapter, I explore what look to be similarities between the Liberal Pluralism of John Rawls’ Theory of Justice and (a very broad ‘Modernist’ construal of) Political Islam. Seeing where there may be points of confluence between the two may help us with how to conceive of a pluralistically inclined Political Islam (where the latter is usually presented as at odds with pluralism). The putative similarities I wish to address are that on both accounts: (i) rational agents, under certain idealised conditions, will come to choose a political structure that aims to guarantee both freedom of expression and freedom of belief; (ii) there will be limitations to those freedoms that the rationally chosen political structure will also oversee; and (iii) those limits are to be understood as protections to the very possibility of the freedoms being implemented. However, I wish to argue that these similarities do not really showcase an accord between Rawlsian Liberal Pluralism and Political Islam, but rather illustrate a problem with Liberalism (as a form of pluralism) per se. First, because they illustrate how a(n even rational) preference for freedom of expression and belief constitutes a “conception of the good” that was supposed to have been left behind Rawls’ famous ‘veil of ignorance’. Second, because they illustrate how Liberal Pluralism (a theory apparently made for settling disputes) has trouble with how to settle disputes involving second-order disagreement: in this case, disagreements as to whether specific instances fall under (iii) above. The issue of second-order disagreement, so I argue, continues to be a problem for public reason accounts of Liberalism, as in Rawls’ political conception of Liberalism articulated in his “later” writings. I end by suggesting how the Medieval Islamic Philosophy (and especially al-Farabi’s) may have given us the intellectual resources to move beyond this impasse and towards articulating a “perfectionist” conception of Liberalism that is true to what the later Rawls calls “the fact of reasonable pluralism.” In short, then, it is from Islamic philosophy where we can find the resources to fixing some of the conceptual problems with pluralism in the Rawlsian tradition.


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  • Published

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Book title

Pluralism in Islamic contexts - ethics, politics and modern challenges

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Philosophy and politics - critical explorations

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  • Philosophy Publications

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  • The Middle East and North Africa Centre at Sussex Publications

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Mohammed Hashas

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