Saturday, February 13, 2010

Religious democracy - a bloody oxymoron

The idea of a religious democracy in any environment where there is even a minimal amount of religious diversity - including diversity within a particular faith - is being proven again and again to be a fantasy. Whether it be the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Jewish Democracy in the Middle East, all protestations of democracy come to naught when faced with the exclusionary nature of religious governance. Not that religions per se have to be exclusionary, but the moment decisions on how society should be run begins to be based on religious interpretations, the results are necessarily exclusionary. Despite being a Turcophile I have had some reservations about Ataturk's visceral hostility to religion. But perhaps he had his reasons. Lawrence of Cyberia, back after a long absence has her own take on Israel:
Israel's dilemma is that it wants to be viewed as a modern, humane, democratic state; but modern democracy requires equality. And if everyone under Israeli rule - Jewish, Muslim, Christian or otherwise - is an equal human being, then that is the end of the "Jewish state" in Palestine. It is Israel's own attachment to creating a state in historic Palestine where democratic rights are reserved in their fulness to only one of the peoples who live there that requires Palestinian human rights to be trodden on. To stop treading on Palestinian human rights - to stop routinely killing, exiling, disenfranchising and dispossessing Palestinians - is to give up the very policies that are necessary to build a Jewish state in a place where most people are not Jewish. To recognize that the annihilation of one's neighbors is a central element in one's own national ideology is a difficult and painful thing to do. It is much easier to invent an alternate reality, in which the denial of any rights to Palestinians is the result of an essential defect in their own collective nature.
The argument is not that Judaism or Islam or Christianity is incompatible with democracy. But when the state endorses a particular religion it commits itself to follow the tenets of that religion. And as any dynamic religion has to be capable of multiple interpretations and as the state will always try to maximize its control, it inevitably drifts towards more and more authoritarian interpretations of the religion. Consider the Islamic Republic of Iran in which the legitimacy of the "religious" government is viewed with suspicion by much of the religious orthodoxy. Jonathon Lyons explains:
In traditional Shi’ite thought, legitimate political authority may be exercised only by the line of the Holy Imams, the last of whom went into hiding to escape the agents of the rival Sunni caliphs and has not been heard from since 941. The return of the Hidden Imam, which will usher in an era of perfect peace and justice on earth, is eagerly awaited by all believers. Until then, all political power is seen as corrupt and corrupting by its very nature, and as such it must be avoided whenever possible.

Historically, this has served the Shi’ite clergy well, forging a close bond with the people, as intercessors with the state authorities at times of acute crisis, a privileged and influential position only rarely achieved by their Sunni counterparts. Yet, it stands in direct opposition to Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical religious notion of direct clerical rule and has been the source of underlying tensions within the clerical class for three decades. The dirty little secret of the Islamic Republic is the fact that it is seen as illegitimate by huge swathes of the traditional Shi’ite clergy.
The Shia clergy could afford their "populist" stance only as long as they were not part of the state. As part of the state they are subject to the need of the state to exert control - which has meant that they have become captive to the instruments of state used to exert control - the Revolutionary Guard and its Basiji militia. Religious democracy is an idea whose time has passed.

No comments: