Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Sistani, Rousseau, Schmitt, Sharia and Democracy

Probable electoral victory of the Shiite electoral coalition “ List 169”, endorsed by the great Ayatollah Ali Sistani (here, here), raised many additional doubts about the future of Iraq. Possibly the outcome of the elections that were proclaimed by the organizers, as the celebration of democracy in Iraq, might prove to be highly undesirable for the governments of the occupying coalition. It is unsure whether the country will become a theocracy or a democracy. Despite the fact of being portrayed in the press as the political moderate and a passionate reader of Rousseau, Sistani proclaimed that the future constitutional order of Iraq should be based on the Sharia. In other words, Sistani reportedly claimed, “Islam should be a framework for governance and that, where secular politics risks leaving that path, the clerical authority would intervene” (here). Arguably, Sistani believes that people should be able to decide for themselves but that the ultimate authority however, belongs to the religious council (marjiya), which has the authority to ultimately decide in the interest of people (or God). Other, however, think that Sistani rather supports the strategy of the quietist school of the Shiite Islam (that tends to separate religious and the political) and that he remains opposed to direct involvement of religious clerics in governing the country (thus opposed to the development of the Iran scenario). Whatever will be the outcome of the Iraqi elections it remains interesting to briefly address the theoretical nature of the opposition between Islam and democracy.

There are two major schools of thought regarding the issue of the relationship between Islam and democracy (here).

First condemn any kind of power that is not based in the divine sovereignty. In the case of such interpretation God delegates sovereignty, authority (hakimiyya ) to the people. Democracy, is according to this view different, because is substitutes divine sovereignty with popular sovereignty. In this way, it violates the absolute principle of monotheism (tawhid) that, according to the position that considers Islam and democracy irreconcilable, entails that legislation is the sole prerogative of God. Thus, democracy presents a form of idolatry. In democracy, the concept of the People presents itself as a new alternative to God and it is for this reason that it is unacceptable to the above-mentioned position. Democracy transfers every particular voter into a kind of semi-god.

Second school sees no direct contradiction between Islamic religious teaching and democracy. For them, the first interpretation of Islam actually presents a superficial understanding of the concept of “God’s rule” (Hukm Allah). God does not 'come down' and govern people directly, but delegates his authority to the people. Hukm Allah was thus, exactly supposed to perform the role opposite to that it plays in Iran or in the doomsday scenario of Iraq. Namely, it appeared as a revolutionary principle fighting against the monopolization of power by the clerics and oligarchy and presented a way to empower the people.

It can be argued that the aforementioned tension appears partially also due to the ambiguous nature of the concept of sovereign power in democracy in Western political thought. Carl Schmitt and Jean Jacques Rousseau would probably agree, although not for the same purposes, with the Islamic clerics who consider democracy a form of idolatry. For Carl Schmitt, modern concept of democratic state sovereignty is built on the example of monotheistic religious dogma. Schmitt argues, “all significant concepts of the theory of the modern state are secularised theological concepts…the juridical formulas of the omnipotence of the state are in fact, only superficial secularisation of theological formulas of the omnipotence of God.” (in Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1985) Rousseau similarly wrote about the politization of theological concepts in the process of creation of concepts such as sovereignty. Secularism is interpreted as La Religion Civile (Maybe Sistani was concentrating on these passages of Rousseau?).

It is due to the mystic nature of secularism and the concept of the Demos that both Islamic religious clerics and Christian fundamentalist (both Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic) can, at times efficiently, offer a theoretical challenge of the concept of democratic legitimacy. Is this a signal that we need to search for new theoretical formulae of the legitimacy of state power? Yes.

I good point of departure is to separate democracy as a system of indirect (or direct) decision making from the theoretical populism that offers Demos (People) as the only source of legitimacy of state power (see).


Raphaël Paour said...

'Sistani reportedly claimed, “Islam should be a framework for governance and that, where secular politics risks leaving that path, the clerical authority would intervene”'

This is not at all an unorthodox position from the point of view of political liberal theory. If we try to consider this type of position from a realist point of view, what differentiates a clerical authority from the American Supreme Court ? When legislative politics risks leaving the path of the constitution, the judicial authority intervenes. The American constitution isn't any democratic than the Koran, and the judges of the Supreme Court are not more legitimate (democratically) than a clerical authority. The only difference might be that the Koran is a more poetic text.

I agree that such a system would be shocking but only as much as the American, or the French or the Italian... systems are.

Srdjan Cvijic said...

This is exactly the message I was trying to transmit in my blog. Thank you very much Raphael.