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Gary C. Gambill
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Shiites and Democracy
In recent years, the Middle East has witnessed a pervasive assertion of Shiite political power, much to the chagrin of the region's predominantly Sunni Muslim-dominated governments. While many experts agree that the Shiite revival is likely to herald momentous change, there is little consensus as to on what direction this change will take.
One school of thought, best articulated by Vali Nasr, views the Shiite revival as a ray of hope for jumpstarting political reform in the region. Nasr argues that Shiites have become "both an objective and a subjective democratic force" - that they have embraced democracy not only as "an episodically useful vehicle" for reversing centuries of subjugation at the hands of Sunni Muslims, but also "as an idea in itself." Skeptics counter that Shiites have as many anti-democratic tendencies as Sunnis and that projections of Shiite-led democratization are wishful thinking given facts on the ground. There is some validity to both arguments, but close examination reveals a more complex picture.
Elements of Shiite Exceptionalism
The idea that the religious beliefs of a given society have some influence on its receptivity to democracy is widely accepted. Hinduism's emphasis on non-violence and Christianity's emphasis on compassion and forbearance, for example, are thought to be conducive to a democratic political culture. The Catholic-Protestant schism may help account for differential rates of early democratization in Christian countries. Although comparative democratization studies have tended to treat Islam as a monolithic faith ill suited to democracy, there are important, politically relevant differences between the Sunni and Shiite branches of the faith.
The Karbala Paradigm
Shiite theology and religious practice are imbued with a profound antipathy toward tyranny. Shiites believe that the Prophet Muhammad designated his son-in-law, Ali, as his rightful successor (the term Shiite is an abbreviation of shia'at Ali, "partisans of Ali") and recognize a line of the Prophet's descendents (via his daughter, Fatima, and Ali) as infallible imams. According to the Shiite historical narrative, the authority of these imams was unjustly usurped by a succession of caliphs who led the rapidly expanding Islamic empire. In 680, Ali's son, Hussein, and a small band of his followers were killed by forces of the Ummayad Caliph Yazid in the battle of Karbala.
Hussein's martyrdom is seminal in Shiite religious identity. The first ten days of the month of Muharram are devoted completely to annual commemoration of his death, culminating in the festival of Ashura and elaborate ritualized processions of mourning and self-flagellation. More broadly, the experience of persecution under the Sunni-dominated Caliphates led Shiites to develop a lasting self-image as a persecuted minority. In contrast, Sunni Muslims recall the first century of Islam in idyllic and triumphalist terms, with Shiites cast as "rejecters of the truth" (rafidis).
While fears of Shiite revolts led medieval Sunni jurists to
uphold any government as long as it maintained order and protected the
Muslim (Sunni) community, Shiite jurists preached against injustice and
oppression. The following passages are from Sifat ush-Shia (The
Qualities of the Shia) by the tenth century theologian Ibn Babawayh, one of
the so-called "four books" that relate the teachings of the imams:
Such theological rejection of absolutist despotism did not evolve with as much depth or sophistication within Sunni Islam, a faith that spoke the language of rulers more than that of the ruled (at least until the twentieth century).
Respected ulama (religious scholars) of the Safavid
period (17th century) in Iran reiterated these themes with special emphasis
on the rights that subjects have against rulers. They stressed avoidance of
tyranny, accountability and access of holders of temporal authority to
subjects. To Mulla Baqir Majlisi,
Shiite ideals of accountable and fair governance were revived by a number of prominent Shiite clerics during the time of the 1906-1911 constitutional revolution in Iran, notably Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Naini. Even secular Shiite intellectuals who employed Western ideas of constitutionalism, sovereignty of the people, and liberal democracy were carrying on the long-established tradition of dissent in Shiite Islam.
Although Shiite political culture is imbued with an ethos of
rebelliousness, after the first two centuries of Islamic history, revolts
were generally the exception, not the rule. This is an important dialectic,
as Moojan Momen explains,
In other words, Shiites are driven to revolt when their spiritual leaders mobilize and urge them to, not when conditions are objectively intolerable. This leaves the dominant agency in bringing about political change firmly in the hands of the ulama, not in that of the amorphous Shiite masses.
The mainstream Usuli school of Shiite jurisprudence embodies a sharp bifurcation of the faithful into mujtahids (jurists competent to interpret divine law) and muqallids (followers), with the highest religious authority known as a marja taqlid (source of emulation). The privileged spiritual status of Shiite ulama is quite different than the status of Sunni ulama, who are essentially "religious functionaries, learned in religious matters but no different from other believers."
Religious Shiites look to mujtahids for guidance on even the most mundane activities. Even the shah of Iran was "was theoretically bound, no less than his subjects, to submit to the authoritative guidance of a mujtahid and in effect to make the state the executive branch of ulama authority," notes Hamid Algar. Although secular intellectuals were the driving force behind the 1906 revolution, they too found it necessary to acquire support from a critical segment of the ulama in order to win the support of ordinary Iranians.
To become a marja, a mujtahid must attain social popularity through an elaborate network of patronage that ropes in notables within seminaries and in the world of business and secular politics. Wealth and social connections, more than philosophical advancement, matters in the attainment of marja status. Charisma, oratory and ability to resonate messages with mythological memories are additional factors that go into making the legend of a marja, but these are largely facilitated by the network of disciples and marketing of image that come with possession of an immense treasury.
Whether the Shiite ulama's exalted spiritual status and financial autonomy from the state promoted democratization depends on the underlying social and political context. Those ulama who supported the constitutionalists in early twentieth century Iran were troubled less by the Qajar dynasty's autocracy than by its failure to defend the Shiite realm (and the interests of the pro-clergy merchant class) against foreign threats. Their primary concern was to preserve Iran as a "society of believers" and expand their own influence. The 1906 constitution granted broad powers of oversight to the ulama, who were to act as watchdogs to ensure that all legislation was in accordance with Islamic law. Thus, while the ulama took a "progressive" stance in fighting monarchical tyranny, after 1906 they became reactionaries, ranging against modernisation and secularisation advocated by the Pahlavi dynasty. "In both cases, they were acting consistently with the preservation of their own power."
While Iran's 1979 revolution is the paradigmatic
illustration of Shiite Islam's anti-authoritarian ethos and the immense
power of the ulama to mobilize the masses against perceived injustices, the
Islamic Republic established in its aftermath highlights a dangerous
paradox. As Hamid Dabashi observes,
Iran's Islamic Republic, while founded by a marja (Ayatollah Khomeini), ultimately saw the rise of an entrenched economic and security elite who sidelined the most influential ulama and "transformed the traditional structure of the seminary into a quasi-governmental institution that prevents . . . marjas who want to be independent actors from engaging in independent activities without government supervision." Thus, the bulk of Shiite clerics were either 'Sunnified' into servants of the state or slipped into political (if not spiritual) obscurity. Since the death of Khomeini, the government has been concerned "not so much to spread revolution but to uphold the prestige of the state."
Nevertheless, for all of the institutional deficiencies in Iran, the Iranian people participate in elections, believe in the efficacy of their votes to affect politics, and have grown to understand the fundamental logic of democracy far more than most Sunni (and all Sunni Arab) countries. The vast majority oppose velayet-e-faqih (guardianship of the jurisconsult), the theological basis of the Islamic Republic. In no other Muslim country except Shiite Iraq has the public rejected clerical rule as strongly as in Iran.
Female subordination in Muslim countries is often said to contribute to the Islamic democracy deficit, as patriarchical relationships in the family and community reproduce themselves at the political level. Shiite Islam is somewhat more conducive to egalitarian gender relations than orthodox Sunni Islam. Divorce and inheritance laws, for example, are less discriminatory toward women under Shiite sharia (Islamic law).
As Nasr illustrates, "Shiism celebrates the strong characters and bravery of female figures in a way that has no parallel in Sunnism." Particularly noteworthy in this regard is Imam Hussein's sister, Zaynab, who bore witness to his martyrdom at the battle of Karbala (AD 680) and helped secure the survival of his infant son (and the line of imams descended from him). Her mother, Fatima al-Zahra (the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad), is also highly revered by Shiites as a sinless, perfect human being (insan al-kamil).
The centrality of such heroines to the symbolic repertory of
Shiism has "served as a means for empowering women and helped to promote a
sense of gender-specific identities for women."
Lara Deeb's study of gender relations among Lebanese Shiites shows how the
exemplar of Zaynab inspires many women to volunteer with social service
organizations, seek formal employment, and participate in debates and
dialogues about community development.
Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, the most influential Shiite cleric in
Lebanon, cites Fatima's example of participation in public affairs, which is
said to include lessons and lectures to both men and women in schools and
Shiite history records other notable mujtahidas. Iranian
Ayatollah Hossein Mazaheri (a hardline conservative) recently pointed out
that the daughter of Majlisi was both "a scholar and a mujtahida" and hailed
her intellect, albeit in a slightly demeaning parable about marriage (she
married his student, Saleh Mazandarani):
Perhaps the most famous contemporary mujtahida was Amina al-Sadr (commonly known as Bint al-Huda), the sister of the late Iraqi Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. When the latter was arrested in 1979, she gave a fiery speech in the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf calling on the people to demonstrate, sparking riots that forced the regime to release him (significantly, when the secret police arrested and executed him the following year, they made sure to eliminate her as well).
Whether Shiite women in practice enjoy substantially more freedom than Sunni women is debatable. If one compares Iran and Saudi Arabia - two countries where Shiite and Sunni fundamentalists have been relatively free to impose whatever restrictions on women they see fit - the former clearly comes out on top (e.g. Iranian women can drive and vote, Iran has had a female vice-president), but there are many intervening variables that help account for this, such as the legacy of Pahlavi rule. Sunni women are more liberated than Shiite women in Lebanon, but this may be because they are far wealthier. Although honor killings in Arab countries appear to be an almost exclusively Sunni franchise, domestic violence against women is rampant among both sects.
Shiite and Sunni attitudes toward tolerance of other faiths also differ substantially. According to Stephen Schwartz, Shiites "have never sought to impose their dispensation on the whole of the Islamic world community, nor have they attempted to impose theological conformity within their own ranks."
Schwartz's claim is somewhat overstated - there have been instances of Shiite rulers abusing Sunni minorities (e.g. in Iran) and certainly a great deal of Shiite repression of the Baha'i faith (a sect that broke away from Shiite Islam). Nevertheless, one discerns a general trend among Shiite authorities to abjure aggressive violence against Sunnis and non-Islamic faiths. When Shiites have taken up arms against non-Shiites, it has not been to impose their religious beliefs or cleanse the land of "unbelievers."
Shiite Empowerment in Iraq: A Catalyst for Democratization?
Nasr and others have argued that the empowerment of Iraqi Shiites following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 is a positive force for democratization in the region. There are several components to this argument.
Najaf vs. Qom
Many Westerners and Iraqis alike predicted that the collapse of Baathist rule would arrest the decades-long decline of the Najaf hawza (seminary) relative to the Iranian hawza in Qom and restore its rightful place as the preeminent center of Shiite theology, weakening the influence of Iranian theocratic authoritarianism in the process. "If there is freedom in Iraq, many [students] would go to Najaf. Qom would be lessened as a place of scholarship," Sayyid Fadlallah of Lebanon remarked hopefully in 2003.
Established in the eleventh century, the Najaf hawza was by far the most influential Shiite seminary until the establishment of modern Iraq in 1921 (it had enjoyed semi-autonomous status under Ottoman rule). Decades of oppression at the hands of Sunni rulers led to its eclipse in favor of the Qom hawza, which is barely a century old. Even so, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Najaf had by far the largest international following of any Shiite marja at the time of the regime's fall, despite having been under house arrest for years.
According to one estimate, nearly 80% of Shiites worldwide follow Sistani and contribute between $500 million and $700 million annually to his network. Nasr maintains that "many more Iranians recognize Ayatollah Sistani as their religious leader now than did before 2003, and many more now turn their religious taxes over to him."
Quietism vs. Theocratic Authoritarianism
At the time of the Iraqi regime's collapse, the conventional wisdom was that Sistani would adhere to the traditional quietist approach to politics and restrict his influence to providing values and guidance for social order (nizam al-mujtama). Sistani's mentor, the late Ayatollah Abol-Qassem Khoi, personified this tradition, and his own career as a mujtahid appeared to follow in Khoi's footsteps. Although Sistani clearly had little choice but to avoid political activism under Baathist rule, after the fall of Baghdad he publicly disavowed a political role and made clear his preference that clerics not serve in government.
Many of Sistani's fatwas highlighted democratic principles like representative and accountable government, the duty of citizens to vote and the right of Iraqis to determine their future over and above the prerogatives of the occupying US army. His pro-democratic fatwas were met with effusive praise in the West. "In one bold stroke," writes Reuel Gerecht, "Sistani managed to launch, and garner popular support for a project that Muslim progressives have only ever dreamed of . . . a democratic political order sanctioned and even protected by the clergy." Historian Juan Cole concludes that "the instrumental utility of democracy . . . cannot entirely explain the Ayatollah's infatuation with it."
However, contrary to many Western analysts, the concept of velayet-e-faqih has not been wholly rejected by Sistani and most other Iraqi ulama. Differences of opinion focus mainly on the scope of authority it should encompass and the degree to which it should operate in policy. Unlike secular Shiite activists who are disillusioned with religion's usefulness for advancing democracy, Sistani believes that there is a definite role and place for Shiite principles and religious institutions in the politics of post-Saddam Iraq. Velayet-e-faqih applies, in Sistani's words, to religious affairs and "public affairs upon which depend the stability and order of the Islamic society." Although Sistani is careful to avoid any mention of "politics" or "the state" in this regard, as Reidar Visser points out, it is conceivable that this phrase "could, among Sistani followers, come to encompass issues of a governmental and even a diplomatic nature."
It is important to bear in mind that even such pro-democratic constitutionalists as Ayatollah Naini maintained that the decisions of elective bodies must be "ratified by the highest religious authority," a principle that is broadly accepted by former Iranian President Muhammad Khatami and most other reformist clerics. The biggest critique they have of the state is that it ultimately abandoned the most important principle of velayat al-faqih - that the faqih must have superior learning and knowledge - by choosing a mid-level cleric, Ali Khamenei, as his successor.
Although Sistani is no advocate of theocratic authoritarianism, he is clearly in line with the teachings of Naini. This was evident in the drafting of Iraq's constitution. Article 2 prohibits legislation that "contradicts the established provisions of Islam," a judgement to be made by the Supreme Court, which Article 89 stipulates shall include an unspecified number of "experts in Islamic jurisprudence" (i.e. clerics). These articles are sufficiently vague as to "give Sistani and future marjas the legal right to influence the policymaking and legislative process." As in Iran, Iraq's legislature will not enjoy total freedom to govern in all spheres of state purview.
Even Babak Rahimi, who is upbeat about Sistani's advocacy of democracy, warns that his influence over the judiciary could substitute "puritanical notions of moral conduct" for "civic values and norms." Sistani is, after all, an orthodox conservative on the primacy of Sharia and its interpretation. Sistani has called for capital punishment in the "worst, most severe way" for homosexuals, which helped legitimize dozens of murders of gay Iraqis by Shiite militias.
One of the principal determinants of democratization is "snowballing," or "demonstration effects," whereby transitions in lead countries show neighboring countries that democratization can be an effective solution to their problems. Shiite empowerment through the ballot box and clerical sanctioning of democracy in Iraq have not gone unnoticed in other countries.
Masoumeh Ebtekar, the female former vice-president of Iran under Khatami, expressed hope that democracy in Iraq will "encourage us (Iran) to open up, since we see a different example of governance but with a similar mentality that is also Shiite." This sentiment is echoed by Abdol Karim Soroush, who argues that the "wider influence of the Shiites in Iraq may well . . . enhance the democratic prospects in Iran."
While the demonstration effects of Iraq may not have been felt in Iran, they are evident in other countries where Shiites endure persecution at the hands of non-Shiites.
In Bahrain, the oppressed Shiite majority has eschewed revolutionary Khomeinism and clamored for "one person, one vote." Leading Shiite groups that boycotted the 2002 elections (in protest against constitutional limitations on the power of the legislature) chose to participate in the 2006 elections and press for further reforms from within the system.
Saudi Shiites (10% of the population) turned out in large numbers to vote in the restricted February 2005 local elections. Iraq, explained one Saudi Shiite intellectual, showed "that democracy and public participation are instruments capable of defusing internal disputes, so Shiites can attain their rights and aspirations."
Kuwaiti Shiites (35% of the population) have also heeded Sistani's appeals for empowerment through the ballot box. In the June 2006 parliamentary elections, Shiite activists coordinated with liberal Sunnis to mobilize voters against fundamentalist Sunni candidates.
Nasr notes the elation and euphoria among Pakistani Shiites (20% of the population) upon the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, contrasting sharply with the sullen gloom and anger rippling through the majority Sunnis of the country. The fall of Saddam Hussein, according to one Shiite intellectual, raised the "hopes and dreams of a better future where they [Pakistani Shiites] can live in peace and harmony and rebuild their shattered lives."
The Militant Alternative
While Shiites throughout the world have increasingly embraced the ballot box (where available) as a means of political empowerment, many have not rejected the alternative of securing rights and justice through the barrel of the gun. Indeed, the main Shiite political parties in Iraq and Lebanon are dual-purpose entities that have a foot in both doors.
In Iraq, the largest political bloc in parliament - the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) - continues to maintain a powerful militia, alongside the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr. Both have infiltrated the security organs of the Iraqi state. For two years after the fall of Baghdad, Sistani repeatedly urged Shiites not to reply in kind to Sunni terrorist attacks on Shiite civilians that left thousands dead. By 2005, however, Sistani's appeals were increasingly falling on deaf ears and both the Sadrists and SCIRI began systematic reprisal murders of Sunnis. Since terrorists struck the Askariya Shrine in Samarra in February 2006, Sistani has noticeably stopped calling for Shiite forbearance. According to his aides, Sistani has chosen to remain silent rather than endure the ignominy of being ignored by the public.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah has refused to cede authority to the Lebanese army despite the withdrawal of Israeli (and Syrian) forces. While Hezbollah has embraced the procedures of democracy, its failure to disarm violates the spirit of democracy.
In Pakistan, militant organizations such as Islami Tehreek (previously known as Tehreek-i-Jafria) and Sipah-i-Muhammad enjoy mass popularity among Shiites, in part because they match Sunni terrorist groups with firepower and violence.
To be sure, in all three countries Shiites are threatened (or perceive themselves to be threatened) by powerful armed groups or states and overwhelmingly believe that they cannot rely on the protection of official government institutions for protection. Under such conditions, non-violent means of resistance are viewed as defeatist.
However, there is more at play than the narrow defense of Shiite interests to the mass popularity of militant figures like Sadr and Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah (voted the most popular public figure in Sunni Egypt recently). Like Ayatollah Khomeini, they are laying claim to moral leadership of the entire Muslim world by presenting themselves as defenders of the Islamic faith against Zionist or American enemies. Shiite militancy is thus not always meant for self-defense, but also for self-redemption as true leaders of Islam.
The Shiite awakening has generated a palpable sense of anxiety among many Sunnis about a "Shiite crescent" cutting through the heart of the Islamic world, from south Asia to Lebanon, and this has contributed to the growth of militant Sunni fundamentalism. The perpetual bogey of Shiite traitors who are Tehran's agents (or worse, agents of the Americans, as Al-Qaeda leaders have claimed) will always provide fertile ground for Sunni rulers to suppress their Shiite populations. A Sunni backlash would further constrain the political opportunity structure for democracy to bloom. Thus, Shiite pursuit of political empowerment will not necessarily be a positive force for democratization - it could result in even tighter restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms in Sunni majority states.
Nasr's claim that "Shi'a revolutionary activism . . . is essentially a spent force" (made shortly after the fall of Baghdad) is premature. Full-fledged democratization ultimately requires a transition from "instrumental" to "principled" commitments to the democratic process. That there is a militant side to achieving success in Shiite politics which is not confined to some fringe radical part of the spectrum means that democracy is nowhere near being the only game in town.
© 2007 Mideast Monitor. All
June/July 2007 issue of Mideast Monitor.