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Political Theology and Islamic Studies Symposium: Contemporary Islamism and the Sacralization of Democracy

I join this conversation as a student of comparative politics, writing a project that explores how islamiyun, often dubbed Islamists, imagine and enact democracy. Specifically, I use insights derived from ordinary language philosophy to apprehend insights from interviews and focus groups with over 100 interlocutors, gleaned in nearly two years of fieldwork in Morocco (2009-2011), to understand what democracy means to Moroccan islamiyun. I find that there are two broad usages of dimuqratiyyah [democracy] in the language and practices of Moroccan islamiyun.

Ahmed Khanani is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. Alongside his dissertation, which analyzes how Moroccan islamiyun [Islamists] articulate and embody democracy, Ahmed is working on two essay-length projects, one of which explores Western-centrism in democratic theory and the other focuses on how Moroccan islamiyun conceptualize and enact human rights. Ahmed can be reached at akhanani @ indiana . edu


I join this conversation as a student of comparative politics, writing a project that explores how islamiyun, often dubbed Islamists, imagine and enact democracy.[1] Specifically, I use insights derived from ordinary language philosophy[2] to apprehend insights from interviews and focus groups with over 100 interlocutors, gleaned in nearly two years of fieldwork in Morocco (2009-2011), to understand what democracy means to Moroccan islamiyun.[3] I find that there are two broad usages of dimuqratiyyah [democracy] in the language and practices of Moroccan islamiyun. First, a distinctly institutionalist/proceduralist vision of democracy is central to how contemporary my interlocutors talk about democracy. In other words, dimuqratiyyah is fundamentally tethered to institutions familiar to Western analysts of regime type, including, for example, free and fair elections, that elected officials have legislative and executive power, and that freedom of expression be constitutionally mandated and protected by, and from, the state. Alongside this procedural focus, Moroccan islamiyun routinely articulate democracy in substantive terms: dimuqratiyyah connects to social equality, distribution of wealth, and the eradication of illiteracy and unemployment. The metaphors of khobz [bread] and ‘aish kareem [a dignified life] are common tropes in describing this mode of democracy. But what can this tell us about political theology?

I’d like to suggest that it is in the why of dimuqratiyyah that there is a connection to be made between the language of Moroccan islamiyun and the notion of political theology. Moroccan islamiyun, and likely their counterparts throughout the MENA region, consistently articulate dimuqratiyyah and “Islam” as deeply intertwined. Specifically, by way of several concepts embedded in the Islamic tradition—most notably sayyadah [sovereignty], shura [consultation], and Qur’anically grounded notions of ‘adl [justice], and hurriya [freedom]—my Moroccan interlocutors identify conceptual and praxis-based overlap between democracy and “Islam.”[4] In positioning these concepts as key to the Islamic tradition writ large, Moroccan islamiyun both broaden the interpretive possibilities available to Muslims, and also trouble the shariah-centric vision of Islam that dominates Western academic work and also motivates Western anxieties about “Islamism.” In this essay I’d like to focus, if only briefly, on how my interlocutors position one Islamic concept—karamah [dignity/honor]—in relation to dimuqratiyyah, and then conclude by tracing the implications of this linking of Islam and democracy for political theology.

As mass-protests swept across Tunisia, Egypt, and much of the Arab world, a subtle issue confronted analysts: what shorthand could be developed to bring together these revolutions? After finding the term Arab Spring problematic, several journalists and scholars employed the terms mobilized by protestors, most prominently dubbing the series of protests in the MENA region the “dignity revolutions” in light of the centrality of karamah [dignity/honor] in the language of protestors.[5] Like protestors across the MENA region, the Moroccan islamiyun I interacted with during the year of the “dignity revolutions” mobilized the idea of karamah in pursuing their vision of democratic practices, and, in so doing, register karamah as a bridge between democracy and the Islamic tradition. To many Moroccan islamiyun the idea of karamah occupies a central position in both Islam and democracy—though in ways that trouble both traditional exegeses of the Quran and also modify the meaning of acting democratically. I address these in turn.

In conversations about democracy, and especially in describing the relationships between Islam and democracy, Moroccan islamiyun routinely invoked the Qur’anic ayah [verse]—“Indeed We honored [karamna] the children of Adam… and favored them over most of our creation” (17:70).[6] In so doing, Moroccan islamiyun broaden the interpretive possibilities of the Islamic tradition. For example, Moroccan islamiyun often use the ayah to posit an inverse relationship between autocracy and human dignity, thereby linking democracy and karamah. To this end, one of my interviewees, AL, thinks about the metaphysical condition of human-ness and also asserts a negative relationship between karamah and ignorance, enslavement, and tyranny:

In my opinion, I mean, this thing, all of it, the human is a new concept, especially this thing they call human development… but humans, it is necessary that humans have a place, humans must have all the elements of human honor/dignity [karamah-t-al-insaniyah] because ignorance [jahl] detracts from the karamah of humans, and enslavement [al-isti’abad] detracts from the karamah of humans, tyranny detracts from the karamah of humans… And God Almighty says, “And we honored the children of Adam…” which is what the condition of human dignity is built upon.[7]

AL contrasts karamah with three concepts: first, jahl [ignorance], which registers the absence of Islam; second, slavery, and; third, karamah is at odds with tyranny.[8] In other words, AL positions the presence of tyranny—the opposite of democracy—as reducing the possibility of karamah. Having established three conditions that “detract from karamah,” he then turns to the foundation of karamah, the ayah, “We have honored the children of Adam,” having mobilized it in ways that cut against traditional interpretations.

In articulating “the human” as a created, honored subject, and placing this honored subject in conversation with democracy, Moroccan islamiyun knowingly render democracy a profound normative good. For instance, AG, another interviewee, identifies karamah as not only connected to democracy, but also as ontologically prior to the creation of humans:

Democracy, I mean, it is one system that you can live in it, as a society, all of society, in peace [bi salamah], there’ll be people living honorably [bi karamah], with all their rights… God, Almighty, honored [karram] humans before they became humans, gives you your rights, God, Almighty, gives you your day, the day of your creation, gives you your rights.[9]

AG links democracy to rights by way of two concepts: peace and karamah that map onto society and “people” respectively. AG then offers a paradox: that prior to the formation of humans, God honored humans. What might this mean? It seems likely that AG is referencing the yawm al-mithaq [day of the covenant], an event in which, commentators of the Quran and hadih suggest, God summoned all the souls of Adam’s progeny—before their material creation—and had them testify that God was “their Lord,” marking a covenant they will be reminded of on “the day of Resurrection” Quran (7:172).[10] If this is AG’s reference there is a subtle, but crucial, change in the meaning of democracy: democracy is not simply about living bi-karamah, rather, in this reading, the karamah that God affords humanity is literally rendered transcendental, and therefore democracy, too, must be apprehended through this metaphysical moment. Although it is unclear whether AG intends this reference, what is certain is that in the language of AG and his Moroccan peers, and likely to islamiyun more generally, karamah not only constitutes a fundamental feature of human creation, but also connects to democracy, thereby shifting the register of democracy from worldly practices to divinely inspired imperatives.

It is on this note I’d like to return, briefly, to political theology. Because they believe in God-given karamah as central to human existence and connect this karamah to democracy, Moroccan islamiyun routinely categorize American and European practices in the Muslim world—from the colonial period to the present—as failures of democracy. In other words, Moroccan islamiyun not only gesture towards a descriptive criticism of an ostensibly universal discourse in democracy, but also suggest an ethical alternative: conceptualizing all humans as God’s creation, and thereby subjects that must be treated bi karamah—with an Islamically inspired notion of dignity.

To conclude, I have argued that by linking democracy to Islam, including the two briefly reviewed above, Moroccan islamiyun effectively sacralize democracy. Insofar as the enactment of democratic politics constitutes a matter of extra-worldly significance, mundane practices associated with democracy operate in different registers for secular actors and their islamiyun counterparts: to islamiyun the act of voting, for instance, has implications for the afterlife; participating in “political” protests are both worldly and “religious” matters. This mode and depth of commitment to democracy—imagining and enacting dimuqratiyyah as worship—helps explain why groups of islamiyun across the MENA region have fought vigorously both to create democratic institutions and also to have an opportunity to partake in democratic practices. Moreover, that democracy is sacralized in the language and practices of islamiyun also helps explain their furor at their exclusion from democratic procedures across the region: not only are they denied the opportunity to enact a moral politics in this world, they are also disallowed from an Islamically-condoned mode of politicking. Finally, if political theology is fundamentally interested in the theological basis for politics, then the democratic practices of islamiyun constitute a new beginning, a fresh site to explore the ways in which theology informs and creates the political.

[1] I use islamiyun in lieu of these alternatives for reasons discussed in Martin and Barzegar’s Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political Islam (Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 2009).

[2] By “ordinary language philosophy” I am referring to the tradition that stems from Wittgenstein’s later works and that motivates and is informed by the works of, e.g., J.L. Austin and Hannah Pitkin.

[3] Generally I consider anyone who is socially conservative, politically active, and Islamically-inspired to fall under the rubric of islamiyun; for the purposes of my research, however, anyone who supported—and, with two exceptions, was a dues-paying member—in the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), its parent organization, the Movement for Unity and Reform (MUR), or the institution associated with the late-Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine ‘adl wa ihsan [which their website translates as the Justice and Spirituality Movement (MUR)].

[4] My usage of “Islamic tradition” harkens to Talal Asad’s The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam (Washington DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (Georgetown), 1986); henceforth when I employ “Islam” (or any derivatives—e.g. Islamic) it is not in reference to a true, real, or absolute Islam, but rather to honor the confidence with which my interlocutors speak about their faith tradition.

[5] See, e.g., Hashemi (2013), Maytha Alhassen, “Please Reconsider the Term ‘Arab Spring’.” Huffington Post 10 February 2012, or Lina Ben Mheni, “How the Web Fed our ‘Dignity Revolution’.” CNN 23 January 2012.

[6] I translate the key verb k-r-m as “to honor” here though there are, of course, several reasonable alternatives (e.g. dignified). This ayah was cited in its entirety by over a dozen islamiyun and referenced by at least 35 of my interlocutors.

[7] Author’s interview with AL, Rabat, 3/31/2011.

[8] AL’s distinction between karamah and slavery is somewhat provocative insofar as the Islamic legal tradition writ large certainly allows for the possibility of slavery—see, e.g., Abdallah (1987) or, especially, Clarence-Smith (2006).

[9] Author’s interview with AG, Rabat, 3/28/2011.

[10] See, e.g. tafsir ibn Kathir (7:170), or for discussion in the “Western” cannon see, e.g., Akhtar (1967, 83) or Awn (1983). Note that AG departs from classical (e.g. ibn Kathir’s) exegesis of this covenant between humans and God by including karamah as an essential component of humanity, both before and after its creation. I am particularly thankful to Abbas Barzegar for drawing my attention to AG’s reference to the mithaq, an allusion that I did not initially perceive.

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