By: Bjørn Olav Utvik
In discussions of how Islamists relate to democracy the focus is commonly on the question of the sovereignty of God versus that of the people. In the Islamic Republic of Iran this has taken the form of the debate over the theory and institution of velayet-e faqih. This idea, promoted by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, implied that in the absence of the infallible imam in which most Shias believe the government should be headed by the most learned expert in Islamic law, the Sharia. Large sections of the clerical classes have all along opposed Khomeini’s theory on the grounds that such a direct involvement with politics by the clergy would corrupt religion.
But it is important to notice that the divide over whether the clerics, or religion in a wider sense, should have a direct role in politics, is not the same as the divide over more or less democratic attitudes towards politics.
Many of those who opposed direct clerical power were quite comfortable in accepting autocratic royal power in the years before the revolution. And among those supporting the revolution and even the principle of velayet-e faqih there were from the beginning some rather democratic interpretations of how the system should work. Not least with the emergence of the reformist trend within Iranian politics in the nineties many opinion makers, both clerical and lay, have argued for a system where popularly elected institutions control the main levers of power, where the clerical Supreme Leader is elected in truly democratic fashion, and where his role is reduced to that of providing general moral guidance. Increasingly, however, even the clerics within the reform trend have come to argue for a wholesale abolition of the institution of velayet-e faqih. They still call for the involvement of religion in politics but without any institutionalised privileges.
Against the reformists the most authoritarian sections of the clerics and the political establishment have developed an interpretation where the Supreme Leader is basically seen as representing divine authority not only in the sense of being learned in the scriptures but by being somehow selected by God and/or the Hidden Imam. The Leader is therefore seen as standing above all other institutions elected or not, and popular sovereignty (to the extent that it is accepted) is understood as clearly subordinate to the divinely inspired guidance of the Leader.
The question of the velayet-e faqih gives the discussion of democracy a special twist in Shia-dominated areas. Yet the more general question of divine sovereignty is valid even for the Sunnis and is raised in connection with the common Islamist demand for the Sharia as effective government-enforced law in Muslim countries. One basic question here is whether, or to what extent, this limits the freedom for the elected representatives of the people to legislate, and not least through which mechanism such limits would be imposed.
Were the principle of the Shari as the source and framework of legislation merely to be protected by rules making constitutional change more difficult than a simple majority in a single parliamentary session, this would stay within the kind of rules generally accepted in democratic systems as a necessary restriction on the right of the majority to arbitrarily change the basic principles of legislation and political system. If, however, some clerical institution be given the right to veto legislation on the basis of its non-accordance with the Sharia, this would be more openly in conflict with democratic thinking. In the draft programme of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers from 2007 the idea of a Higher Council of Islamic Clerics (ulama) with the right to review legislation was floated. Since this looked rather similar to the Iranian Guardian Council in existence since 1979, and since this Iranian institution dominated by clerics has in fact held legislation in an iron grip, criticism in Egypt was sharp.
Yet all these discussions tend somehow to obscure another struggle going on in the Muslim world with tremendous importance for long-term democratic change. This is the discussion where popular sovereignty is not posed against clerical authority or the Sharia but against the age-old principle of obedience to those in power, to wali al-amr, based on the Koranic verse 4:59 which contains the command “O you who have Faith! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those charged with authority among you”.
Saudi Arabia is a case in point. The arch-conservative clerical establishment in the kingdom have long upheld the idea of the absolute authority of the king as wali al-amr. While at one level emphasising that the duty of the king is to secure the effective implementation of the Law of God in the land, they do in practice not acknowledge any right on the part of the people to challenge even a king seen to deviate from that duty.
The legacy of the wahhabiyya, the religious tradition after the eighteenth-century reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, is split on this point. Historically the leading representatives of this tendency have tied their fortunes to a close alliance with the royal house of Al Saud, and while preaching a strict enforcement of their norms for moral behaviour vis-à-vis the population, in terms of political power they have equally strongly preached the need for obedience to the king.
Yet minority groups have charged that there must be limits to this obedience and that when the king is seen to deviate too far from the straight path he must be opposed if need be by arms. And with the growth of what became known as “the awakening”, al-sahwa, in the eighties and nineties the absolute authority of the king was on a whole new scale challenged on the basis of religion. Armed with a mix of deep-rooted wahhabi piety and new ideas of Islamic activism brought to Saudi Arabia by thousands of Muslim Brothers from Egypt who had fled repression in Egypt and now played a pivotal role in building the expanding education system of the kingdom, generations of young educated Saudis accused the rulers of being too lax in their implementation of Islamic rule.
What is important in our connection here is that, while hardly a vanguard of liberalism, the sahwa contained a basic anti-authoritarian element in that it challenged the untouchable authority of the king and thus broke a taboo in the country. Now, twenty years later, the proponents of the sahwa have taken their original message in several diverging directions. One group, often termed Islamo-liberals, like the lawyer Abd al-Aziz al-Qasim advocate a constitutional monarchy where affairs would be decided according to a parliamentary system. Others, for instance those close to the salafi Kuwaiti reform thinker Hakim al-Mutayri, of whom I have written here earlier, combine a more conservative interpretation of religion in general with a total rejection of monarchy in favour of the sovereign right of the people to choose their rulers. Yet again, on the extreme fringes of the sahwa heritage there are those who go along with the jihadi line of Usama bin Ladin as represented in the nefarious organisation al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
What they all have in common, however, is their rejection of any absolute duty of obedience towards the monarch without the right to publicly challenge his policies. And this is a common trait for modern Islamist activism in most of its incarnations, from the most moderate and liberal to the most revolutionary and strictly religious: the acceptance of the right of the people to challenge the ruler.