Whither Democracy? Religion, Politics and Islam
Fred Dallmayr 29 August 2012

When dealing with the general topic of religion and politics, a preliminary terminological clarification is in order. As used here, the term “religion” refers to a domain transcending willful control or appropriation. Etymologically, the term derives from the Latin “religare” which means to connect or to reconnect. What is here reconnected? Basically religion aims to reconnect humans with the divine or “God” where the latter means something unconditional and unconditioned, something beyond human caprice or control, something which cannot be domesticated, possessed or marketed. Hence, religion as used here is radically different from the “idols of the markets” or what is sometimes called the “religion of the market.” This does not mean that religion is not also a human striving or aspiration—precisely the aspiration to “reconnect.”

The question I want to raise here is: Can democracy be religious and, if so, how can it be religious? How can we bring religion into modern democratic politics, and how can modern democracy be reconciled with religion? In the famous formulation of Max Weber, modernity means basically a process of “disenchantment.” So how can modernity be “re-enchanted” or at least permit a measure of re-enchantment? In his Political and Social Essays, the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur addresses forthrightly the situation of the religious believer in the modern world, especially in modern secular society. Quoting from scripture (Matthew 5:13), he insists that believers are meant to be “the salt of the earth”—a phrase militating against both world domination and world denial, that is, against the dual temptation of either controlling or rejecting worldly society. As he writes poignantly, “the salt is made for salting, the light for illuminating,” and religion exists “for the sake of those outside itself,” that is, for the world that faith inhabits. In Ricoeur’s view, religion—including (especially) Christianity—has been for too long enamored with political power and domination, a collusion that has exerted a “demoralizing effect” on believers and non-believers alike, driving them to “cynicism, amoralism, and despair.” However, the situation is perhaps not entirely bleak. When it emerges from this collusion, he adds, religion “will be able to give light once more to all men—no longer as a power, but as a prophetic message.”[1]

As one of the great world religions, Islam faces the same challenges. Like Christianity, Islam has been sorely tempted by the lure of worldly power and public dominion; this at least is the impression given by a large number of its adherents, especially by many so-called Islamic governments and Islamist movements (often labeled or rather mislabeled “fundamentalist” in Western media). As in the case of Christianity, this lure of collusion is baffling and disconcerting—given the strong commitment of Islam to human equality and its opposition to any kind of idolatry, that is, to the substitution of any worldly images or power structures for the rule of the one transcendent God (tawhid). How can Muslim believers be expected to submit or surrender themselves to any worldly potentates, no matter how pious or clerically sanctioned, if their faith is defined as surrender (“islam“) to nothing else but the eternal “light” of truth? How can they be asked to abandon their religious freedom (in the face of the divine) for the sake of contingent political loyalties to rulers who often lack even a semblance of public or collective legitimation?

As in the case of traditional Christendom, Islam’s collusion with public power has often exerted (in Ricoeur’s words) a “demoralizing effect” on believers and non-believers alike, driving many of them to “cynicism, amoralism, and despair.” In this situation, it is high time for Muslims and all friends of Islam to take stock of the prevailing predicament. Concisely put: it is time, not to abandon Islam in favor of some doctrinaire secularism or laïcism (which does not have sufficient resources to resist the idols of the market), but to reinvigorate the “salt” of Islamic faith so that it can become a beacon of light both for Muslims and the world around them. Differently phrased: it is time to recuperate the genuine meaning of Islam as a summons to freedom, justice, and service to the God who, throughout the Qur’an, is called “all-merciful and compassionate” (rahman-i-raheem). The present pages are meant to contribute to such a recuperation.

Religion, Political Power, and Democracy

As it seems to me, contemporary Islam is in a state of agony, with the fortunes of recovery hanging in the balance. The point here is not to impugn the motives of political Islam or political Islamists whose strategies often seem to be dictated by mundane political and geopolitical considerations. What is at issue is rather the wisdom and sensibility of politicized religion, seeing that the yoking together of power and religion inevitably exacts a heavy toll both on the sobriety of political judgment and on the integrity of religious faith.

To speak in general terms, religion and politics are neither synonyms nor necessarily antithetical. On a theoretical level, one can distinguish a limited number of “ideal-typical” constellations involving the two terms. On the one hand, there is the paradigm of complete separation or isolation (an extreme version of the Augustinian formula of “two cities”). In this paradigm, religious faith withdraws, or is forced to withdraw, into inner privacy while politics maintains a radical indifference or agnosticism vis-à-vis scriptural teachings or spiritual meanings. As can readily be seen, both sides pay a heavy price for this mutual segregation: faith by forfeiting any relevance or influence in worldly affairs, and politics by tendentially shriveling into an empty power game. In the historical development of religion and politics, this segregationist paradigm has been relatively infrequent (its contours emerge mainly in the context of Western modernity). Much more common has been another paradigm or constellation: that of fusion or amalgamation—which may be accomplished in two ways or along two roads: either religion strives to colonize and subjugate worldly politics, thereby erecting itself into a public power (which may result in “theocracy”), or else politics colonizes religious faith by expanding itself into a totalizing, quasi-religious panacea or ideology. As history shows, both strategies have seriously tempted most religions in the past.

Turning to Islam: by common agreement some kind of fusion has tended to prevail during its “founding” period. With minor variations, public power in Islamic society during the early centuries was wielded either by semi-divine leaders (the “rightly guided caliphs”) or else by a combination of dynastic imperial rulers (presumably descendants of the Prophet) and a battery of clerical jurists or jurisconsults (fuqaha). In his account of political authority in early Islam, Ira Lapidus distinguishes between two models or (what he calls) two “golden ages”: namely, an “integral” or holistic model and a more “differentiated” or symbiotic structure. In the first model, he writes, Islamic society “was integrated in all dimensions, political, social, and moral, under the aegis of Islam.” The prototype of this model was the unification of Arabia under the guidance of the Prophet and his immediate successors. In the second, more differentiated model, imperial Islamic government—from the Umayyads and Abbasids to the Ottomans—was erected on the diversified structures of traditional Middle Eastern societies, thus yielding a complex, symbiotic amalgam. In this case, the original caliphate was transformed “from the charismatic succession to the religious authority of the Prophet” into a far-flung imperial regime governed both by religious norms (shari’a) and more adaptive political laws, or rather by a mixture of imperial-political authority and clerical jurisprudence (resembling the medieval theory of “two swords”).[2]

According to Lapidus, contemporary Islamic traditionalists or “revivalists” harken back—though often unsuccessfully—to the two models of Islam’s “golden ages.” To this extent, Islamic revivalism or political Islamism necessarily is at odds with basic features of modern life—given that, in its core, “modernity” (at least in its Western form) aims at the differentiation, disaggregation and radical diffusion of the unified, holistic worldviews and political structures of an earlier age. Being an integral part of modernity and its way of life, modern democracy inevitably falls under the same verdict of traditionalists: namely, as testifying to the modern abandonment of religious faith in favor of an “un-godly” secularism or nihilism. Here we have the crux of the problem of the relation between Islam and modern democracy: how can traditional holism and modern differentiation or disenchantment be reconciled? Are Islam and democracy compatible, or are they basically incompatible? There are two ways to assert their incompatibility: Either one claims that democracy negates or destroys Islam, or one asserts that Islam negates democracy.

Traditional Islamists basically make the first claim: that democracy (and modernity in general) undermines faith. Their strategy is to present the transition from tradition to modernity (and postmodernity) under the simplistic image of reversal or antithesis. According to this strategy, modernity or modernization means a lapse from faith into non-faith, from religious devotion into agnostic rationalism, and from the holistic unity of “truth” into a radical relativism denying “truth”. In a similar vein, the argument is sometimes advanced that, while earlier ages were founded on “virtue,” modernity is founded on freedom and non-virtue (as if virtue without freedom were somehow plausible or even desirable). In the most provocative formulation, Islamists assert that modernity has replaced the reign of God (hakimyya) with the reign of “man” or humanity—a replacement equalling a lapse into paganism and the state of pre-Islamic “ignorance” (jahiliyya).

In the present context, the latter formulation is particularly significant. Under political auspices, the charge implies a reversal of public supremacy—namely, the alleged replacement of God’s sovereignty with the sovereignty of the “people” (the latter equated with democracy). In large measure, this charge is at the heart of the anti-democratic sentiments espoused by many revivalists and/or militant Islamists. In discussing the “political discourse” of contemporary Islamist movements, political theorist Youssef Choueiri highlights this point as central to that discourse. Referring especially to the writings of Sayyid Qutb and al-Maududi, Choueiri underscores the holistic religious quality of “God’s sovereignty,” writing that the phrase affirms God’s authority “in the daily life of His creatures and servants,” revealing that “the universe is judged to be one single organic unity, both in its formation and movement: The unity of the universe mirrors the absolute oneness of God.” Judged by the standard of this unity, modern humanity—including modern democracy—exists in a state of disarray and incoherence, that is, in “a second jahiliyya, more sinister in its implications than the jahiliyya of pre-Islamic days.” Pushing this point still further, radical Islamists (in Choueiri’s presentation) tend to view the entire course of Western history as “a connected series of jahiliyyas: Hellenism, the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution” (and its democratic offshoots). As an antidote to modernity and modern democracy, Islamist thinkers typically propose a return to “God’s sovereignty,” that is, to a semi- or quasi-theocracy (which usually means some form of religious authority or elitism).[3]

It becomes urgent here to look at the presumed transfer of sovereignty and its underlying premises. Is such a transfer plausible or persuasive (even on strictly religious grounds)? The idea of sovereignty implies the rule of absolute will or will power untrammeled by any rational constraints or intelligible standards of justice. To ascribe such sovereignty to God means to construe God as a willful and arbitrary despot—which is hardly a pious recommendation. Several of the great Islamic philosophers (of the classical period) had already objected to this construal, complaining that it transforms God into a tyrant similar to such tyrants as Genghis Khan or Tamerlane.[4] Whatever the status of God’s sovereignty may be, however, modern democracy represents by no means a simple reversal in the sense of installing the “people” as sovereign despots. On the contrary, whatever else modern democracy means, it certainly means a dispersal of power and a constant circulation of power holders. Several leading democratic theorists, including Hannah Arendt, have gone so far as to urge the removal of “sovereignty” from the vocabulary of political discourse, in order to make broader room for grassroots participation. What emerges here is a conception of democracy not as a fixed power but as an open-ended and experimental process—open-ended precisely also toward the discourse of religion.[5]

As indicated before, there is a second way to insist on the incompatibility of Islam and democracy. Whereas in the first formulation, Islam and democracy are incompatible, with the result that democracy has to be jettisoned, the second formulation draws the conclusion that, for the sake of democracy, Islam has to be jettisoned—or at least be pushed into a completely inner realm of belief. This retreat into an inner realm is often called “privatization” of religion, and is exemplified by the effort of Western Enlightenment to “privatize” Christianity. This strategy tends to be privileged by radical secularists and agnostics, but (curiously) also by some forms of mysticism or illuminationism. The Algerian-American thinker Lahouari Addi has commented on this strategy in an insightful essay titled “Islamicist Utopia and Democracy.” For Addi, Islamist “utopia” is another term for public or politicized Islam—a model which is radically incompatible with modern democracy. Public Islam, in Addi’s view, is a relic of the past, of an obsolete “medievalism.” As he writes: “It is necessary to show how political modernity is incompatible with the public character of religion and how modernity is built on the ‘depoliticization’ (that is privatization) of religion.”[6]

In fairness, I should add that Addi does not completely banish religion from social life. He admits that Islam can continue to have a “moral authority” in culture and civil society (though not in politics or the state). If this path is pursued, he is moderately hopeful that Islam and democracy may be able to coexist and hence to become compatible. In his words: “Such a creation of modernity by way of Arab-Islamic culture is theoretically possible, for there is no reason—everything else kept the same—why democracy should be inherently Western and absolutism [or despotism] inherently Muslim.”[7] In arguing in this manner, Addi joins a number of recent and contemporary Muslim intellectuals who have suggested or advocated a new understanding of political rule, and also a new view of the relation between religion and worldly politics, and especially between Islam and modern democracy.[8]

Toward a Religious Democracy?

From the angle of political theory or philosophy, one of the crucial demands today is the shift of attention from the “state” or central governmental structures to the domain of “civil society” seen as an arena of free human initiatives. This shift of focus is a prominent ingredient in recent Western political thought which, in this respect, has derived significant lessons from Eastern European experiences (particularly the atrophy of society under totalitarian state bureaucracies). The shift brings into view a possible co-existence or symbiosis of religion and democracy without fusion or identification. Such a symbiosis would be able both to re-energize democracy by elevating its moral and spiritual fiber (its commitment to the public good) and to enliven and purify religion by rescuing it from conformism and the embroilment in public power. In Ricoeur’s words, by renouncing domination or “religious despotism,” religion would be capable of regaining its basic spiritual quality and thereby to serve as the “salt of the earth” or the salt of democracy.

In order to perform this role, religious discourse has to broaden its range and accommodate a more general humanistic vocabulary: especially the vocabulary of human rights, individual freedoms, and social justice. In our time, engagement or confrontation with these issues is indeed a requisite for the relevance and viability of religion (Islamic or otherwise). Discussion of human rights, one might say, belongs today to the domain of philosophical theology (kalam) and philosophy in general. Although not directly or not always nurtured by religious motives (at least in the modern era), human rights discourse is today religiously unavoidable, and a religious faith oblivious to human rights—as well as to human freedom and justice—is no longer tenable in the modern world. The tendency of many religious people to accentuate duties or obligations over rights should not be construed in a binary sense, but rather as a supplement or corrective to narrowly secular “rights talk.” In a positive vein, religious discourse enriched by human rights vocabulary counteracts the pretense of “inalienable” apriori rights, sometimes termed “divine rights,” of public or clerical elites. In a religiously nurtured or inspired democracy—no less so than in a secular regime—rulers (including religious rulers) cannot be self-appointed but need to be approved through democratic methods or at least function within a democratically transparent structure.

In a remarkable recent study titled Islam and the Secular State, legal theorist Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na‘im has elaborated on these issues in a lucid and exemplary manner. In the opening chapter of the study, An-Na‘im reflects on the relation between Islamic faith and the modern “secular state,” especially in a democratic context. As he asserts forcefully: “In order to be a Muslim by conviction and free choice, which is the only way one can be a Muslim, I need a secular state.” By “secular state” he means a political regime which—in a free variation of the American Bill of Rights—both prohibits the public “establishment” of religion and encourages the “free exercise” of faith. A secular state, he notes, is “one that is neutral [though not indifferent or hostile] regarding religion, one that does not claim or pretend to enforce Shari‘a—the religious law of Islam—simply because compliance with Shari‘a cannot be coerced by fear of state institutions or faked to appease their officials.” At the same time, secularism for An-Nai‘m denotes a regime which “facilitates the possibility of religious piety out of honest conviction” and “promotes genuine religious observance”—an observance operative primarily in civil society rather than on the level of formal state structures. With these formulations, Islam and the Secular State opposes both an overt “politicization” and restrictive “privatization” of faith. The stress on secularism, we read, does not mean “the exclusion of Islam from the formulation of public policy and legislation or from public life in general.” On the contrary, “the state should not attempt to enforce Shari’a precisely so that Muslims are able to live by their own belief in Islam as a matter of religious obligation.”[9]

An-Nai‘m does not hide the complicated character of his approach; in fact, a certain tensional character seems to him constitutive of the relation between political power and religious faith. In large measure, this tension characterizes the distinction between the modern “state” and “civil society.” As he notes, the state—in the sense of the modern, post-Westphalian public structure—has “its proper functions,” which may include adjudication among competing claims of religious and secular institutions; but it should be seen as a “neutral institution” performing chiefly “secular functions” without claiming religious authority as such. Yet, in contrast to a strict “laïcism,” he acknowledges that “the religious beliefs of Muslims” (whether as public officials or private citizens) are liable to “influence their actions and political behavior”—an influence which is bound to complicate the idea of a strict “neutrality” as employed by many Western liberal thinkers. On the one hand, in conformity with liberal tenets, “people cannot truly live by their convictions” if rulers use the “extensive coercive powers of the state” to impose religious doctrines. On the other hand, contesting these tenets, the state cannot be “completely neutral”—because as a public institution it is “supposed to be influenced by the interests and concerns of its citizens.” Seen in this light, the modern principle of “the religious neutrality of the state” has an ambivalent or dual connotation: While mandating that state institutions should “neither favor nor disfavor any religious doctrine or belief,” the real objective of such neutrality is precisely “the freedom of individuals in their communities to accept, object to, or modify any view of religious doctrine or principle.”[10]

What emerges from these arguments is a highly mediated conception of the relation between politics and religion, a conception which is at odds with both their radical separation and their fusion. The stated aim of Islam and the Secular State is in fact to articulate and support the “difficult mediation of the paradox of institutional separation of Islam and the state, despite the unavoidable connection between Islam and politics [on the level of civil society] in present Islamic societies.” In pursuing this aim, the study challenges two erroneous views: on the one hand, “the dangerous illusion of an Islamic state that claims the right to enforce Shari‘a principles through its own coercive powers”; and on the other hand, “the dangerous illusion that Islam can or should be kept out of the public life of the community of believers.” In An-Nai‘m’s opinion, it is “neither necessary nor desirable” that Islam and politics should be completely separated—just as their indiscriminate fusion is likely to lead to an autocratic or totalitarian nightmare. As he notes, separating Islam and the state while maintaining the connection between religion and social life is liable to generate respect for, and widespread observance of, Islamic teachings—an observance which today requires certain democratic safeguards. Precisely in a democracy, popular will-formation must take into account the beliefs and aspirations of ordinary citizens. Basically, democratic institutions cannot succeed “without the active and determined participation of all citizens—which is unlikely if people believe them to be inconsistent with the religious beliefs and cultural norms that influence their behavior.” Yet, in a democracy, such beliefs and norms cannot be directly imposed by governmental fiat, but require mediated seasoning in the domain of civil society. In An-Nai‘m’s words, the motivations of ordinary citizens which are “partly influenced by their religious beliefs and cultural conditioning” must be suffused with “their appreciation of and commitment to the values of constitutionalism and human rights,” including the rights of religious minorities and non-believers.[11]

With its subtle formulations and insights, Islam and the Secular State makes an important contribution to the deepening and transformation of prevalent contemporary conceptions of democracy—above all the “liberal” conception predicated on nothing but the pursuit and aggregation of individual interests (narrowly construed). Countering the reduction of politics to an economic calculus, the text in fact intimates the notion of an ethically and religiously sustained democratic life—a vision not far removed from the political thought of Alexis de Tocqueville, John Dewey, and many other Western thinkers. As one might add, An-Nai‘m’s voice is by no means alone in the confines of contemporary Islamic thought; a vision similar to his has been propounded somewhat earlier by the renowned Iranian philosopher Abdulkarim Soroush. Like An-Nai‘m, Soroush strongly insists on the need to extricate religious faith from the coercive stranglehold of the government or the state. Surveying the history of Muslim societies, he bemoans the submissiveness of Muslims to political coercion, a submission due to “a political culture deeply influenced by centuries of tyranny.” In traditional Islamic theology (kalam), he notes, God was portrayed as “an absolute bearer of rights and free of all duties toward human beings”; accordingly, kings and political rulers were viewed in the same light, as “God-like potentates with unlimited powers.” This view—both politically and religiously obnoxious—has been challenged by modern democracy with its emphasis of human freedom and political agency. As a result of this challenge, human beings have been potentially liberated both as citizens and as believers, that is, enabled to perform political agency as well as cultivate freely their faith. In Soroush’s words, freedom is a necessary requisite for the genuine cultivation of ethical and religious beliefs; it is (he says) “one of the components of justice,” and the seeker of freedom is “in pursuit of justice” just as the seeker of justice “cannot help but pursue freedom as well.”[12]

With this statement, Soroush intimates a democratic regime which is attentive and not indifferent toward ethics and religious beliefs—although the latter are no longer imposed by coercive power but freely nurtured in civil society. In Soroush’s account, modern democracy is not simply aligned with arbitrary freedom but with the freedom to strive for justice and truth—targets which tend to be “extinguished” by despotism and autocratic regimes. For from being equivalent to the pursuit of narrow self-interest, democracy emerges here as a searching or “zetetic” enterprise, that is, as a transformative and constantly self-transforming regime in the direction of justice and the “good life.” With this accent on transformation, Soroush takes a stand against a version of “liberal democracy” which professes utter indifference or “neutrality” toward ethical and religious concerns. Some liberal thinkers, he observes, consider arguments in this domain “unverifiable and unfalsifiable”, and hence pointless. As it happens, however, this kind of liberalism is by no means identical with democracy, or at least far from exhausting its meaning: “Equating liberalism and democracy signifies, at once, great ignorance of the former and grave injustice toward the latter.” For Soroush, democratic regimes cannot be sustained without ethical and/or religious commitments, including respect for “the rights of others, justice, sympathy, and mutual trust.” In this respect, democracy owes a “great debt” to genuine religious faith, and the latter can be seen as “the best guarantor of democracy.” As one should not well, however, religious faith in the context of democracy cannot be coercive or uniform, but must be open to the diversity of faiths as well as the outlook of non-believers. Hence, for both political and religious reasons, Soroush’s mode of democracy embraces pluralism: “The faithful community is more like a wild grove than a manufactured garden.”[13]

The arguments of An-Nai‘m and Soroush bring something else clearly into view: the likely diversity of possible democratic regimes. In discussions of modernity and modernization it has become customary in recent years to acknowledge the possibility of diverse paths of modernization and hence of differentiated or “multiple” modernities in different parts of the world.[14] A similar acknowledgement is called for in the case of modern democracy. Given the fact that democratic life is nurtured by the motivations and aspirations of ordinary citizens, and that these aspirations in turn reflect the religious beliefs and cultural customs of people, it follows that democracies cannot be the same everywhere but are bound to vary in accordance with beliefs and customs prevalent in different societies or regions.[15] Thus, it is plausible to speak (as some writers have done) of “democracy with Confucian characteristics” or else of “democracy with Buddhist characteristics.” There is no compelling reason to deny the possibility of the emergence of democracies with chiefly “Islamic characteristics” (in fact An-Nai‘m’s book discusses a number of cases fitting or approximating this description, such as the democracies in Turkey and Indonesia). To this one might add that none of the existing Western democracies are identical with regard to their social fabric and animating “spirit of laws.” To be sure, such differentiation cannot be limitless if regimes are to qualify as “democratic.” Hence, some benchmarks or constitutional safeguards have clearly to be observed. Among these benchmarks are the absence of coercive autocratic structures, the freedom of association and religious practices, and the respect for the plurality of beliefs and disbeliefs. Perhaps most important, however, is the “love of equality” extolled by Montesquieu as the distinguishing trademark of democracy.

A Modest Proposal

By way of conclusion, I may be allowed to venture a proposal designed to exemplify both the limit and the broad range of possible variations in a democracy. The proposal concerns specifically the Islamic Republic of Iran. As I understand the constitutional structure of Iran, there are presently two tiers of institutions which operate in tension and possible conflict with each other: a “democratic” component consisting of an elected Parliament (Majlis) and an elected President; and a more or less “theocratic” component consisting of the “Council of Guardians” or “Trusteeship of Jurists” (velayat-i-faqih) whose members are un-elected religious authorities. Hence, there is a structure juxtaposing democracy and theocracy in an unmediated fashion. The radical difference between these two components is liable to pull the country in opposite directions, with potential harm to its welfare and stability.[16]

As an antidote to this structural conflict, I want to suggest a way of building a bridge and reconciling the two components: namely by transforming the “Council of Guardians” into an upper chamber after the model of the British House of Lords. Britain is recognized as a leading example of modern Western democracy; and yet, its House of Lords is not an elected body and includes, next to hereditary peers, leading figures of the Anglican Church. If this model were adopted in Iran, the Council as an upper chamber could be given equal legislative powers with the Majlis; or else it could be given a merely delaying and advisory power (as is the case in the House of Lords today). Whichever power would be allocated, the Council reconstituted as an upper chamber would greatly contribute to the visibility and transparency of the governmental process. The restructuring would help to reconcile the presently opposed components of the constitution, and would thereby strengthen the legitimacy of the entire government. This, in turn, would lead to a more open and peaceful development of the country—something which both Iranians and friends of Iran can only welcome and applaud.

I am under no illusions regarding the difficulties or prospects of implementing this “modest” proposal. My intent here is simply to trigger some discussion, leaving it to the wisdom and discretion of competent authorities and specialists to determine its concrete fate. I do believe, however, that the proposal is not outside of the line of political prudence as cultivated by both Western and Islamic traditions. It may also be that the proposal is particularly in line with the Shia tradition of religious faith where religious political power is deliberately deferred (as a tribute to the “hidden” Imam)[17]—a tradition which is not too far removed from Jewish messianic hope and the Christian expectation of the “coming kingdom.”


* A version of this article was presented at the Reset-Dialogues Istanbul Seminars 2010 that took place at Istanbul Bilgi University from May 19-24, 2010. The article is a revised and condensed version of a chapter that appeared in my The Promise of Democracy: Political Agency and Transformation (State University of New York Press, 2010).



[1] Paul Ricoeur, Political and Social Essays, ed. David Stewart and Joseph Bien (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1974), 105, 123. Compare also my “Religious Freedom: Preserving the Salt of the Earth,” in In Search of the Good Life: A Pedagogy for Troubled Times (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2007), pp. 205-219.

[2] Ira M. Lapidus, “The Golden Age: The Political Concepts of Islam,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 524 (November 1992), 14-16. On the important role of jurists or legal scholars (fuqaha) in traditional Islam compare also Tamara Sonn, “Elements of Government in Classical Islam,” Muslim Democrat, vol. 2 (November 2000), 4-6 (published by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, Washington, DC).

[3] Youssef Choueiri, “The Political Discourse of Contemporary Islamist Movements,” in Abdel Salam Sidahmed and Anoushiravan Ehteshami, eds., Islamic Fundamentalism (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996), 22-23, 28-30. Regarding Qutb, see also the discussion in Roxanne L. Euben, Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 49-92.

[4] As Oliver Leaman writes, Averroes (Ibn Rushd) criticized fideist theologians for “only being prepared to accept a concept of God which is remarkably similar to that of a very powerful human being, God with a status rather similar to that of Superman.” See Leaman, Averroes and His Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 14.

[5] For the critique of “sovereignty” see Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?” in Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 1980), 164-165; also Jean Bethke Elshtain, New Wine and Old Bottles: International Politics and Ethical Discourse (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), especially 6-25.

[6] Lahouari Addi, “Islamicist Utopia and Democracy,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 524 (November 1992), 122, 124.

[7] Addi, “Islamicist Utopia and Democracy,” 126.

[8] There is by now a plethora of studies exploring the compatibility between Islam and democracy. See, e.g., John L. Esposito and John O. Voll, Islam and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Ali Reza Abootalebi, Islam and Democracy: State-Society Relations in Developing Countries (New York: Garland Publ., 2000); Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, and Daniel Brumberg, ed., Islam and Democracy in the Middle East (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); Khaled Abu El Fadl, Islam and the Challenge of Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004); Larbi Zadiki, The Search for Arab Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004); M. A. Muqtedar Khan, ed., Islamic Democratic Discourse (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006); Sayed Khatab and Gary D. Bouma, Democracy in Islam (New York: Routledge, 2007).

[9] Abdullahi Ahmed An-Nai‘m, Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari‘a (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), pp. 1-2.

[10] Islam and the Secular State, pp. 3-4.

[11] Islam and the Secular State, pp. 4-6.

[12] Abdolkarim Soroush, Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam, trans. and ed. Mahmud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 63-64, 92-99.

[13] Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam, pp. 45-46, 103-104, 136-138, 140, 152-153. Compare also Valla Vakili, Debating Religion and Politics in Iran: The Political Thought of Abdulkarim Soroush (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1996); Forough Jahanbaksh, Islam, Democracy, and Religious Modernism in Iran, 1953-2000: From Bazargan to Soroush (Boston: Brill, 2001); and my “Islam and Democracy: Reflections on Abdolkarim Soroush,” in Dialogue Among Civilizations: Some Exemplary Voices (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 167-184.

[14] Compare in this regard Mike Featherstone, Scott Lash, and Roland Robertson, eds., Global Modernities (London: Sage Publ., 1995); Scott Lash, Another Modernity, a Different Rationality (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1999); Dilip P. Gaonkar, ed., Alternative Modernities (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001); Charles Taylor, “Two Theories of Modernity,” Public Culture, vol. 11 (1999), pp. 153-173; and my “Global Modernization: Toward Different Modernities?” in Dialogue Among Civilizations: Some Exemplary Voices (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 85-104.

[15] Compare in this respect Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner, eds., The Global Divergence of Democracies (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001); Deen K. Chatterjee, ed., Democracy in a Global World (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).

[16] For some background see Shahrough Akhavi, Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1980); also Majid Tehranian, “Khomeini’s Doctrine of Legitimacy,” in Anthony J. Parel and Ronald C. Keith, eds., Comparative Political Philosophy (Lanham, MD: Lexington Press, 2003), 217-243.

[17] For some instructive comments on this point compare Emad El-Din Aysha, “Foucault’s Iran and Islamic Identity Politics Beyond Civilizational Clashes, External and Internal,” International Studies Perspectives, vol. 7 (November 2006), 377-394; also Roy Mottahedeh, The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985).


The final/definitive version of Fred Dallmayr’s essay was published in Philosophy&Social Criticism, vol 37 number 4 May 2011, SAGE Publications Ltd, (LA, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC), all rights reserved, p. 437-448, Special Issue: “Realigning Liberalism: Pluralism, Integration, Identities”, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations Istanbul Seminars 2010, Edited by: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul and David Rasmussen. Link to the issue http://psc.sagepub.com/content/37/4.toc


Fred R. Dallmayr is Packey J. Dee Professor in the departments of philosophy and political science, University of Notre Dame, Indiana. He holds a Doctor of Law degree from the University of Munich (1955) and a Ph.D. in political science from Duke University (1960). He is a political theorist specialized in comparative philosophy, particularly non-Western political thought, cross-cultural dialogue, and global human rights. He received NEH and Fulbright fellowships. He is the author of Dialogue among civilizations (Palgrave MacMillan, 2002). In February 2003 he relived Distinguished Scholar Award, presented by International Studies Association (Global Development Section). Among his publications: Dialogue Among Civilizations: Some Exemplary Voices (Palgrave Mcmillian 2002). Website www.freddallmayr.com



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