Archive Sections: letters | music | index | features | photos | arts/lit | satire Find Iranian singles today!


Who's to stop them?
Vigilance of democrats against shades of theocracy is the only protection against the erosion of secularism

March 4, 2005

There is concern, much consternation and some hyperventilation about the prospects of an Islamic Republic in Iraq. The throne of the new theocracy, some pundits worry, will not be carried on the shoulders of the revolutionary masses. "Beware," their tremulous voices intone, "it will be crafted in the chambers of Iraq's emerging democratic process." The quiet giant of a Shiite majority led by reclusive Grand Ayatollahs has stirred in Iraq and the world remembers what happened the last time that happened in Iran.

Most of these fears are unfounded. Not only because the same theology does not necessarily create the same polity -- as Dilip Hiro comparing the Wahabism of Qatar and Saudi Arabia has shown in his recent editorial in New York Times. History will not repeat itself because we are not dealing with the same theology in Iraq and Iran. Shiites of Iraq will not push for an Islamic Republic because the political philosophy of the Qum is anathema to that of Najaf.

The prestigious seminary of Najaf was never impressed by the clever alchemy of Ayatollah Khomeini that transformed an obscure legal provision for the guardianship of the insane and the infirm into "The Mandate of the Jurist" and the basis for an Islamic state. Khomeini's "aberration" was condemned by the provost of the Najaf theological and legal school of the time, the Grand Ayatollah Al-Khouie.

In fact, Al-Khouie, went out of his way to write a detailed treatise in rejection of "The Mandate of the Jurist." "Even during the heady seventies when the new theocracy in Iran would have lesser dissident Ayatollahs for breakfast, none dared revile the Grand Ayatollah Al-Khouie for his conspicuous silence about -- and scholarly rejection of -- the Islamic Republic. Frantic commentators darkly guessing at the theocratic ambitions of the Iraqi Shiite Ayatollahs will be comforted to know that the present provost of Najaf, Ayatollah Sistani, is the intellectual heir of Al-Khouie.

Indeed the mainstream of the Shiite political philosophy with the exception of Khomeini's maverick interpretation has always been quietist, millenarian and categorically opposed to the "establishment" of an Islamic State in absence of the infallible and occulted, Imam. Of course, if Iraq goes up in flames (for instance in a religious war) its Shiites will be radicalized. Then a theocratic counter elite might rise from the Shiite slums to challenge the quietist clerical hierarchy. For the time being, however, such theocratic ambitions (as expressed in Mughtada Al Sadr's brief reign of terror) have been nipped in the bud by the decisive leadership of Sistani.

How about a theocracy not in form but in content? Can Shiite and Sunni clergy and their lieutenants use the proxy of democratic processes of Iraq to establish the "Shariah" as the law of the land? Can the evolving, democracy of Iraq be used to Islamize that country on the cheap? Can the faithful form Islamic parties, push their agendas via democratic participation without the trappings of a theocracy? I am afraid all this is possible.

There is no silver-bullet solution to this problem in democratic Iraq or in democratic anywhere. Every liberal democracy, constitutional provisions for separation of church and state not withstanding, is as secular as its constituents wish to be. Yes, Shariah could come to increasingly dominate the public sphere of Iraq in the same invidious vein that the agenda of the Christian Right has come to dominate the foreign and domestic platform of the ruling Republican Party's in the United States.

The problem is universal and it runs deep. We live in a world where enlightenment plans to either liquidate or privatize religion have failed. Realistically speaking, religion is here not only to stay but also to play a public role. This is not necessarily a bad thing because the mainstreams of Western religions have adapted themselves to the challenge of enlightenment and some have even played a constructive role in the modern world.

One can imagine religion performing a crucial function as the immanent critic of the modern state. Modernity's record after all, is not unblemished in its political or economic tracks. Aggressive nationalism and amoral capitalism have wrecked havoc on the lives of billions. Modern states and international order deserve an occasional chastising sermon and some grass roots mobilization in the public square.

Religion can play the role of the Socratic gadfly in keeping alert the magnificent steed of the modern State. Liberation Theology in Central America, Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the People's Church in Brazil are examples of the continuing significance of religion as a counterweight to hegemonic modern states.

But such activities are best limited to dialogue in the sphere of "civil society." I would not like to see any church establish hyphenated religious parties or infiltrate the nominally non-religious ones in Iraq or in the United States. I would not like to see any church push religious legislation in Qatar or in Norway.

But the problem remains. The trouble is that in modern liberal democracies (unlike systems that impose secularism from above such as the Kemalist Turkey, the Positivist, 19th century Latin American countries and the former Soviet Block) that decision is up to the church. It is the church that must stay within the sphere of "civil society" and resist the temptation of meddling in "political society."

This is a decision that the post-Vatican II Catholic Church has (much to its credit) made in places like Spain and Brazil. Otherwise there is no democratic procedure to prevent the faithful, from mobilizing under a thousand guises of democratic process to bend the secular law and mold the secular politics. Yes, the Shariah could be legally enshrined through completely kosher constitutional and electoral participation of the faithful in Iraq. For same reasons, access to legal abortion could soon be a thing of the past in the United States.

In both cases only the vigilance of democrats (faithful and faith-challenged alike) against shades of theocracy is the only protection against the erosion of secularism. Vigilance of democrats is immanently needed not only in Iraq but also in the United States where the same Baptists who once petitioned Thomas Jefferson demanding a "wall of separation between church and state" are hard at work dismantling that wall brick by brick. There is no cure to this universal malaise of modern democracies except, to paraphrase Max Weber, "the will of a nation not be led like sheep" by those who wear the deceptive mantel of religious/political shepherds.

Ahmad Sadri is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College, IL, USA. See Features. See homepage.

* *

For letters section
To Ahmad Sadri

* Advertising
* Support
* Editorial policy
* Write for
* Reproduction

Ahmad Sadri


Book of the day

Three volume box set of the Persian Book of Kings
Translated by Dick Davis

Copyright 1995-2013, Iranian LLC.   |    User Agreement and Privacy Policy   |    Rights and Permissions