Can Islam implement democracy?” This or a similar headline was the headline of Western media during the Arab Spring back in 2011. And with the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as a consequence of the uprising, this question has becoming even more explosive.
Indeed, a lot has been thought and written about the issue of “democracy” in the Islamic world over the past few decades. At the same time, attitudes have changed considerably over the years: While democracy was seen primarily negatively by numerous well-known intellectuals of the time in the 1960s and 1970s, some outstanding thinkers in the early 1990s began to turn to it. This change was initially the result of the deterrent effect of the real anti-democratic Islamism under Ayatollah Khomeini. In addition, the emerging democratic post-Islamism, as this intellectual movement is to be called here, required an argumentative embedding. In a state, where democracy and human rights were considered unislamic – according to Khomeini’s dictum – the opponents had to find a reason why they should be Islamic after all, or at least not contradicting Islam.
Pluralistic values and violence
A striking event was decisive for the anti-democracy discourse of the 1960s and 1970s: There is talk of the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh by the US secret service in 1953. This event shaped the attitude of an entire region towards the West and thus also towards democracy.
The US overthrew Mossadegh because he had nationalized the Iranian oil reserves and brought the dictator Mohammed Reza Pahlavi back to the peacock throne, having fled the country before. From this point on, the Shah expanded his dictatorial rule with US help, which in the eyes of many Iranian intellectuals discredited the democratic West for a long time.
Under the influence of this event, Mohammed Hussein Tabatabai (1903-1981) wrote about democracy, together with the most important Shiite commentary on the Koran of the 20th century, the Tafsir al-mizan. In addition, Tabatabai was a philosopher and thus represented a discipline that was little appreciated by the clerical establishment, but all the more appreciated by young clergymen. Tabatabai went public exactly 50 years ago, in 1961, with a text about the political rule of the clergy. Until then, it had been the rule that until the return of the twelfth Imam, any religious and political rule by the spiritual leaders would be illegitimate. Therefore, the clergy should not rule, but should practice patient waiting. Husain Borudscherdi, arguably the most important religious authority in the 1950s, expected more continuity and respect for Islamic laws from the monarchy than from a republican system and forbade any dissenting opinion. Most of the clergy, including Ayatollah Khomeini, followed him without protest in this attitude. But in 1961, Borudscherdi died and his death triggered the question of who was the legitimate ruler in a Shiite state.
Tabatabai’s answer to this question must be seen against the background of an Iranian monarchy that called itself constitutionalist and pretended to be democratic: There was a prime minister, elections and a parliament. Tabatabai seemed to assume, or at least stated, that this state corresponds to what is called democracy in the West. After all, the Shah received massive support from the West. Because the Iranian system claimed to be a democracy, but yet it was tyrannical, Tabatabai turned away from democracy as a whole. He wrote: “It has been more than half a century since we accepted the rule and rules of democracy and took our place in the ranks of the progressive Western countries. Yet we see our condition getting worse and worse every day. And from this tree, which is full of blessings and fruits for others, we only pick the fruits of misfortune and shame.”
It is true that Tabatabai did not directly demand political leadership by the legal scholars instead of democracy, but declared that he considered democracy as a form of government to be discredited. On the other hand, in his opinion, the people would need a kind of authority that looks after the citizens like a guardian for orphans. The guardian must be a legal scholar because only such a person is just. He has authority to lead (velayat) over the people, because this is a law of Islam.
Western cultural criticism
Obviously, Islamic governance and the structure of the state are being developed in a way that distinguishes it from Western democracy. But the fundamental question of whether one should emulate the West and thus its system of government or think about one’s own was not limited to the clergy in the 1960s. For the secular intellectuals, too, the confrontation with the West, with its ideas, its culture and the effects on Iran was the most important issue of this time. The secular intellectuals of those years were at the same time inspired by the West, but were also critical of it.
After Hiroshima and Vietnam, Algeria, the Cold War and Soviet expansionism, liberalism, but also socialism, had lost its appeal as ideas. Many Iranian thinkers agreed with the criticism formulated in the West by intellectuals such as Albert Camus, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse and Jean-Paul Sartre.
This was especially true of Jalal Al-e Ahmad (1923-1969), who translated some of these authors into Persian. In 1962, Al-e Ahmad published the essay “Gharbzadegi” (“Being-afflicted by the West” or literally: “Being struck by the West”): “I say gharbzadegi, being afflicted by the West, like being afflicted by cholera. Or if you don’t like it, like a sunstroke or like a frostbite. Or no. It’s at least like bedbugs. Have you seen how they spoil wheat? Inside. Wheat stands with a whole shell, but it is only a shell. Like the shell that remains on the tree from the butterfly. In any case, there is talk of a disease.”
If there has been a single really influential text in modern Iranian history, it is this, commonly underlined in Iranian research. “Gharbzadegi” is considered the “holy book” of several generations. The essay provided the vocabulary of Iranian social criticism for over two decades and formulated the essence of the anti-Western disposition of the discourse. Al-e Ahmad’s theses were formative for all intellectuals, and presumably on the eve of the Islamic revolution of 1979 there was hardly anyone who would have doubted Al-e Ahmad’s analysis of Iranian society.
Al-e Ahmad claims that Iran’s disease is thoughtless adoption of Western behaviors and ideas. Al-e Ahmad did not attack democracy directly, but he rediscovered Islam as the only authentic component of Iranian culture. Al-e Ahmad explained to an astonished, secular audience the potential power and strength of religion and declared the clergy to be the most important part of Iranian identity: the clergy were the only ones who were able to escape the negative influence of the West. Only Islam prevented the West from colonizing and exploiting Iran.
Progress through revolution
By positively addressing Islam, Al-e Ahmad, the most important secular intellectual of the 1960s, he paved the way for the most influential critic of democracy of the 1970s. Ali Schariati (1933-1977) had a considerable influence on the generation that a little later tried to shake off Western influence with the Islamic revolution. One of his most influential texts, Ommat va emamat (Islamic Congregation and Imamat) has exactly the same thrust as the aforementioned essay by Tabatabai and the famous lecture Ayatollah Khomeini from 1971 on the Islamic government: They all criticize the West in general and therefore plead against democracy and for an Islamic government.
The next thinker who contributed to the imams’ sole rule over democracy after the revolution of 1978/79 was Ayatollah Khomeini himself. Khomeini’s criticism of the Shah’s government in the 1960s initially concerned the increasing state control over the judiciary, secularization, the weakening of Islamic institutions that went with it, as well as state repression and the influence of the US on Iran.
Because of this criticism, Khomeini was exiled to Najaf. There, he gave a series of lectures in the winter of 1971, which were published under the title “The Islamic Government” (Hokumat-e eslami). It contains Khomeini’s basic ideas about the instructions of Islam for the establishment of an Islamic state. To a large extent, however, the lecture reads like an anti-imperialist pamphlet: The only true Iranian identity is Islamic, so only a return to Islam can save the country from ruin.
As a result, Khomeini attacks the clergy who stays away from politics. Khomeini accuses the theological universities of teaching a false, because apolitical Islam. The clergy had adopted a colonialist attitude and would meanwhile believe for themselves what the exploiters, oppressors and colonialists wanted them to believe: namely that religion and politics should be separated. In contrast, Khomeini claimed that there had been a consensus among the clergy for centuries to take over political leadership. He justifies this as follows: “First, there is historical evidence that the prophet founded a state. […] Second: By order of God, he has appointed a ruler for the time after his death. If God the Exalted appoints a ruler for society after the prophet, it means that the state is necessary even after the prophet’s demise. And since the prophet communicated God’s instruction in his will, he thereby declares the necessity of establishing a state.”
Furthermore, Khomeini argues that God himself revealed the criminal law. This must therefore also be applied. In doing so, however, Khomeini deliberately ignores the fact that, in the opinion of most scholars, the implementation of the criminal law is one of the prerogatives of the rapt twelfth imam and is therefore subject to great secrecy according to the traditional Shiite view.
More important than his controversial argument, however, was that Khomeini offered himself as the perfect fit for the role described by Shariati. He gained a huge number of followers for Khomeini. He was considered urbane, a rousing speaker, a charismatic and had studied in Paris.
Shariati itself by no means favored leadership by a Khomeinian-style legal scholar. In addition, Schariati certainly did not envisage a clergyman as the prototype of the “political leader”, as he was generally very critical of the clergy. It cannot even be said with certainty whether he was aware of Khomeini’s lecture. Both, as well as their countless followers, however, were convinced that the concept of democracy cannot be translated into the Iranian context either in practice or in theory. In contrast, the idea of a “philosopher’s state” was more successful in the 1970s. The result was massive hostility towards democracy in pre-revolutionary Iran and in 1979 the establishment of the system of so-called velayat-e faqih, the rule of the supreme legal scholar.
Iran in present day
Since the revolution of 1978/79, Iran has been called the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the run-up to the vote on the future form of government, Khomeini had explicitly opposed the term “Democratic Islamic Republic”. He declared that the nation wanted not just a republic, not a democratic republic, not an Islamic democratic republic, but an Islamic republic. The term “democratic” should not be used, as it is a purely western concept. The fact that republic is also a Western concept was deliberately ignored by Khomeini.
Iran has not become more democratic since Khomeini declared his rejection of democracy in 1979, but the discourse on democracy has changed completely to this day. An illuminating example of this is Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari. Shabestari, born in 1936, is one of Iran’s most important thinkers today. He, too, was intellectually socialized through Shariati, Tabatabai and Khomeini, but has since emancipated himself from their views. Shabestari advocates democracy for several reasons: It does not contradict the will of the creator – which Khomeini had denied. On the contrary: democracy is the consequence what Imam Ali, the first Imam of the Shiites, had demanded of the ideal government in his government mandate. Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, appointed Malik al-Ashtar to be his governor in Egypt during his tenure as Caliph and gave him a government mandate. The government mandate occupies a very central position in the Shiite state philosophy. Ali explains to his governor how he should rule in order to be sure of God’s pleasing. This government mandate is considered an ideal for good governance in the Shia.
The content of the government mandate justifies Shabestari’s assertion that rule must first and foremost be one thing, namely just. Detailed or concrete instructions on the content – such as the need to apply the penal laws mentioned in the Koran by Khomeini – are not found in this document. Shabestari emphasizes that too. This is significant insofar as Ali is considered by the Shiites to be the most important interpreter of the Koran. But if Ali, the first Imam of the Shiites, did not give his governor specific instructions to use, for example, the ius talionis (right of retaliation) or the hadd punishments of the Sharia, he obviously did not understand the Koran as if this had to be done. Instead, Ali wrote to his governor, the king: “Oh Malik, be righteous to God and the people. Whoever oppresses the servants of God makes an enemy of God and also of those whom he oppresses. The worst that can happen to a people and that irrevocably arouses the wrath of God and his retribution is oppression and tyranny over the creatures of God. The ruler should beware of this, for the merciful God hears the calls of the oppressed.”
From an empirical point of view, according to Shabestari, democracy is the form of government that most effectively prevents oppression and tyranny – and thus fulfills the most important criterion of the criteria for good governance laid down by Imam Ali. For Shabestari, it is decisive that democracy is a form of rule that prevents tyranny – and creates justice.
Abdolkarim Soroush (born 1945), probably the most important intellectual in contemporary Iran, sees it similarly. In the early 1990s, Soroush, who looks back on the same socialization as Shabestari, turned away from Islamism and began to propagate the idea of a so-called hokumat-e demukratik-e dini – a religious-democratic government. In his opinion, a government can be both religious and democratic, because religious rules that contradict democracy could be reinterpreted. Soroush has pleaded for this in numerous writings and substantiated this argumentatively with his theory of the “theoretical narrowing and expansion of the Sharia”.
The religious democracy Soroush envisions is no different from a conventional Western democracy, and his acceptance of human rights is not conditional but absolute. This is remarkable insofar, as Ayatollah Khomeini still described human rights as a “collection of corrupt norms” that were devised by the Zionists in order to destroy all true religions. With this in mind, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Iran, Sudan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia was criticized for not including the cultural and religious references of non-Western countries. Many saw it as a merely secular interpretation of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which Muslims could not follow without breaking Islamic law.
Religion as conscience of society
Soroush, on the other hand, argues that there are in principle also extra- or meta-religious values and rights. Basically, no reasonable law or law can contradict religion – and certainly not Shiite Islam, which is particularly rational-oriented. To give just one example of Souroush: While the Sunnis say that lying is bad because it is a law of Islam, with the Shiites – in the tradition of the Mutazilites, the great rationalists of Islam – it is precisely a law of Islam because lying is bad. For this very reason, according to Soroush, Shiites have to accept human rights, because they are simply one thing, sensible.
Soroush also questions Khomeini’s claim that Islamic law must be applied. Unlike Khomeini, it is more important to him that the soul of the government is religious. Because it is not a society in which Islamic law is applied that is religious, but a society in which people voluntarily profess their faith. Just by applying the Sharia, one does not create a “religious society”, but only “one that lives according to Islamic law”. For Soroush, however, it is more important than the application of Islamic law that a religious act is also based on a pious drive. This piety cannot be enforced, on the contrary: “Hypocrisy and pretense are the bigger sins, not alcohol consumption and gambling. But in the government of Islamic law more importance is attached to external action and not to appropriation of the heart.”
Soroush’s ideal is a religious state, the basis of which is religion, but which does not act as a legislative or political authority, but as the spirit and conscience of society. Its goal is piety, which can only be realized through freedom. In Soroush’s utopia of the Islamic state, freedom is a necessary, godly precondition for freely chosen religiosity and thus an argument for the superiority of the democratic order.
In his view, there is no formal difference between Soroush’s religious-democratic government and a Western democratic government. Soroush writes: “Indeed, one need not expect a religious government to be any different in nature from a non-religious one. It is also not the case in this world that reasonable people walk on two legs and religious people on their heads. What is wrong with it if the peoples of other societies have accepted the same methods of government on the issue of government that we encountered through our definition of religious government?”
Islamic justification of democracy
A traditional standard is translated into a modern principle or a modern standard. This type of translation is very helpful and cannot be rejected as merely apologetic: the framing of democracy as an Islamic key concept of justice has, on the contrary, a mobilizing effect on society to actually strive for this social and political goal. Framing is necessary today for another reason as well: only when ideas like democracy are really culturally and habitually appropriated, it will follow suit, at least in parts of the Iranian as well as the Arab population as before, finally lose any suspicion of western paternalism.
Apparently, democracy has now become so much the norm and general yardstick that even the most important politicians prefer to declare their own system as democracy rather than rejecting democracy completely – as was pronounced a few decades ago confidently Ayatollah Khomeini had done. Of course, the rulers’ definition of democracy leaves something to be desired. Nevertheless, it offers the democracy theorists Soroush and Shabestari as well as the Iranian democracy movement important strategic starting points, even if the undemocratic rulers begin to get involved with the concept of democracy.
This political success is due not least to the fact that theorists such as Soroush and Shabestari have succeeded in providing democracy with an argumentative embedding, an inner-Islamic framing. Whether it is really thanks to them that the Iranian people seem more ready for democracy today than ever – at least that is the impression given when you look at the events of recent years – that is another question. Having an Islamic justification for democracy in addition to the secular-western one cannot do any harm in the daily confrontation with the high priests of the regime.