'Shia Democracy': Myth or Reality?

Sreeram Chaulia, February 16, 2007

In contemporary Shiism, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Najaf (the holiest center of Shiism) has been the marja with the largest popular approval since the death of his mentor Abol-Qassem Khoi in 1992.

Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part article.

The Other Islam

Discussions about the democratic deficit in the Muslim world tend to conflate Sunnis and Shias as culturally homogeneous groups. Nuances about diversity within Islam only come up related to the regional variation in practices and political institutions (e.g. Middle Eastern Islam, North African Islam, South Asian Islam, Central Asian Islam, and Southeast Asian Islam). Some scholars make the distinction between Arab and non-Arab countries with regard to their political culture and regime type. The unspoken assumption in studies proving the proclivity of Muslim countries toward authoritarianism is that sectarian schisms within Islam do not matter much when it comes to attitude and receptivity to democracy. Whether there are well-delineated differences between Shias and Sunnis in the way they conceive of—and construct—political authority has not been given much serious research. This is a surprising omission in contrast to the extent to which political scientists have debated the impact of the Catholic-Protestant schism on the evolution of capitalism and democracy in the Western hemisphere.

Blindness to the Shia-Sunni divide in the literature on democratization is likely to be the result of glossing over the smaller sect of Islam, Shiism, which claims no more than 15 percent of the world's Muslims. Most Western depictions of what is termed "Islam" focus implicitly on Sunnism and Sunni political culture, except when the case studies of interest are Shia-majority countries (Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan). That there exists another Islam, Shiism, with its own identity and at least 200 million worldwide adherents, is largely bypassed. Perhaps there is something to "Shia democracy" as a concept that might hold a ray of hope for furthering democracy in the Muslim world. If deep-set Shia-Sunni differences are theological, social, and economic in nature, then one should expect non-random differences in their political culture and preferences too, which in turn might translate into differing orientation to regime types. The general framework of this essay is provided by Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel's theory (2005) that causation runs from values (culture) to institutions (democracy or authoritarianism) and that values differ systematically from culture to culture. If Shia and Sunni communities have systematically different cultures, they should a posteriori be different in their political infrastructures.

Part I

Shia Communities as Democratizers

Masoumeh Ebtekar, the first female vice president of Iran under the reformist former President Muhammad Khatami, recently remarked that Shia gains through electoral means in Iraq will "encourage us (Iran) to open up, since we see a different example of governance but with similar mentality that is also Shiite" (2005, 58). This sentiment is echoed by the prominent Iranian dissident intellectual Abdol Karim Soroush's thinking that as the Shia majority in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq comes to power, there will be a shift in "the overall balance among Shiites toward democratic legitimacy and away from the idea of clerical rule we see in Iran" (2004a). Historian Juan Cole buttresses this school of thought by noting that between April 2003 and January 2005, Shias underwent a remarkable development in legal thinking about democracy that is not new and that will outlive the contingencies in Iraq:

The ideals of elections, representation of the people, expression of the national will, and a rule of law are invoked over and over again by the most prominent Shiite religious leaders. Unlike Khomeini in 1979, they are completely unafraid of the term "democracy" and generally see no contradiction between it and Islam. (2006, 34)

The first full-length treatment of the subject of Shias as democratizers has been given by Vali Nasr, another Iranian thinker, who extends the range of the projected democratic tide beyond Iran to Shia-populated parts of the Middle East and South Asia. The gist of his argument is as follows:

Shias are both an objective and a subjective democratic force. Their rise in relative power is injecting a robust element of real pluralism into the too-often Sunni-dominated political life of the Muslim world. Many Shias are also finding democracy appealing as an idea in itself, not merely as an episodically useful vehicle for their power and ambitions. (2006, 180)

Shias, unlike Sunnis, are supposed to be rebellious by nature and opposed to dutifully obeying authority that lacks legitimacy. Historically repressed and discriminated, Shiism's ideal was always to fight against Sunni injustices and tyrannical rulers. Since the origin of the Shia-Sunni split in medieval times, Shia imams (spiritual leaders descended from the Prophet Muhammad) invoked a fear of revolt among Sunni Caliphs and were countered with persecution, imprisonment, and killing. To survive persecution in the Sunni-dominated Caliphates and Ottoman Empire, ordinary Shias had to hide their sectarian affiliations (taqqiya) and their imams escaped to Iran and India to seek refuge. The germs of anti-authoritarianism and protection of minority rights were thus, according to Nasr, inherent in Shiism from the very beginning (c. eighth century A.D.).

The break Shias initiated from Sunnism centered on what they considered to be the morally just kind of political authority. In contrast, the Sunni understanding of worldly power concentrated on a preoccupation with order, not the quality of rulership. The theory of government developed by medieval Sunni jurists was to uphold any government as long as it maintained stability and order and protected the Muslim (Sunni) community. Shiism emphasized the substance and quality of a regime much more than its form, an important congenital characteristic that would resonate with the evolution of democracy in modern times. Imam Ali's political testament (ahd) and Imam al-Sadiq's instructions to the Shia governor of Ahvaz, both of which entered Shia political culture by the 11th century, contain the patrimonial theory of just rule and fair treatment of subjects by kings. Respected ulama of the Safavid period (17th century) reiterated these themes with special emphasis on the rights (haqq) that subjects have against rulers. They stressed avoidance of tyranny, accountability, and access of holders of temporal authority to subjects. To Mulla Baqir Majlisi,

if kings show gratitude for their power and domination and if they observe the rights of the subjects, their kingdoms will last. Otherwise, they will soon disappear. A king will remain while he is an unbeliever, but not while he is a wrongdoer. If a possessor of knowledge should act badly with his flock, his knowledge will soon be taken away; otherwise, it will be increased. (Chittick 1988, 291)

The idealistic expectation of accountable and fair rulers in historical Shiism was revived by Ayatollah Na'ini of Najaf during the time of the Iranian constitutional revolution of 1906. He persuaded the Shia ulama of the time that while the world awaited the return of the twelfth imam (hidden from human perception), "the form of governance most compatible with Shi'ism is democracy-shaped and defined by a popularly ratified constitution" (Milani 2005, 27). His contemporary and fellow constitutionalist, Sayyid Imad Khalkhali, wrote, "In our time, sovereignty is founded on justice, fairness, and the principle of equality, as is obvious from the Europeans" (Dabashi 1988, 339). Mangol Bayat (1982) argues that Shia intellectuals of the modern era who employed Western ideas of constitutionalism, sovereignty of the people, liberal democracy, and secularism, were in fact carrying on the long-established tradition of dissent in Shiism. Despite loud calls for Westernization from as early as the mid-19th century, their thought was in spirit and form deeply rooted in the Shia norm of standing up to absolutist despotism. It is noteworthy that pro-democracy trends such as these did not evolve with as much depth or sophistication in the history of Sunnism, a faith that spoke the language of rulers more than that of the ruled.

Besides the greater democratic tendencies in their political culture, Shiism is also known for allowing fairer gender relations than in Sunni society. Sexual inequality has been linked to the absence of democracy in the Muslim world without paying attention to the fact that Shiism is less conservative on this crucial issue than Sunnism. Steven Fish's research (2002) posits that an unusual degree of female subordination is the main causal mechanism explaining why Muslim countries are democratic under-performers. The logic is that relationships in family and community may reproduce themselves at the political level. Patriarchy produces domination and intolerance as well as dependence on "strongmen" in politics. Higher proportions of males to females in a society are said to feed into male aggression and frustration, which in turn invite repressive states. Isomorphism between hierarchical gender relations and an unequal polity is quite plausible since "oppression blocks the oppressor's own advancement and freedom" (2002, 30). Fish's data set compares Catholic countries with Muslim countries and finds that in terms of female literacy, gender empowerment, and sex ratio, the latter fare much worse. What would be interesting is a replication of the same data and measuring whether women in Shia-majority countries score better than women in Sunni-majority countries. At least on the measure of attitudes to women, the World Values Survey offers a lead about Shia-Sunni differences. A World Values Survey graph compares responses to the question of whether wives should obey husbands from 15 Muslim countries, only two of which (Iran and Iraq) have Shia majorities.

Paradoxically, Iraq scores the highest proportion of those strongly believing that wives should be subordinated to husbands. Given the insecurity and warfare prevalent in Iraq at the time of the survey, which was conducted in 2004, the rise in fundamentalist doctrines in the violent aftermath of Saddam Hussein's fall, and the backlog of decades of "Sunnification" under the guise of secular Baathist nationalism, these results could be misleading. Iran, which is a more stable Shia state, has a much lower proportion of respondents believing that wives should obey husbands than Sunni countries at comparable levels of development (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt). This figure is in spite of the deterioration in the condition of Iranian women under nearly 30 years of Shia theocracy. Albania and Bosnia are European Sunni countries that are secularized due to a history of communist rule. Kyrgyzstan is another Sunni majority ex-Communist country emerging from decades of coercive secularization, much like Turkey. If all the 47 Muslim majority countries of the world could be surveyed on the same question and compared, meaningful conclusions might possibly be drawn. A more refined strategy could be to see whether women's status differs within mixed Muslim countries between Shia and Sunni components. In the absence of surveys of this nature, this study will be confined to theological and practical differences between Shias and Sunnis on gender equality.

Shiism owes its existence to a woman, Zaynab, who bore witness to Imam Husayn's martyrdom at the battle of Karbala (A.D. 680) and played a major part in Shia history and piety along with her mother, Fatima. Shiism "celebrates the strong characters and bravery of female figures in a way that has no parallel in Sunnism" (Nasr 2006, 42). For Sunnis, the Prophet's wife, Aisha, is a venerable figure but only a jurist capable of committing error. In Shia popular belief, Fatima was sinless, representing the concept of the perfect human being (Insan al-Kamil), a position held by only a few throughout history. In the context of a culture where respect in society springs from association with religion, the honor for female foundational figures offers a theological opportunity to advance women's rights. The centrality of women to the symbolic repertory of Shiism means that, at times, it "served as a means for empowering women and helped to promote a sense of gender-specific identities for women" (Aghaie 2005). For instance, Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, the spiritual mentor of Hezbollah in Lebanon, depicted Fatima and her husband Imam Ali as a model couple as they shared the housework. To Fadlallah, woman is not inferior to man because of the example of participation in public affairs by Fatima.

All the reports of her socio-political activities show us that it is absolutely possible for women to enter the social and cultural life. Therefore, there is no obstacle for a woman to become a Mujtahida [interpreter of scriptures] and for people to follow her Taqlid [model of imitation]. (Rosiny 2000, 210)

Shiite history records several female mujtahida and contemporary Iran has five of them, while there are no comparable Sunni counterparts (Espinosa 2005).

Lara Deeb's study of gender relations among Lebanese Shias (2005) shows how the examples of Zaynab motivate thousands of women to volunteer with social service organizations, seek formal employment and draw on her ideal of outspokenness in debates and dialogues about community development. In this way, modernization of gender relations among the Shias owes to the existence of historical memory of female emancipation, a heritage sorely lacking among Sunnis.

One of the most controversial social institutions of Shias that outrages fundamentalist Sunnis is Muttaa or temporary marriage between women and men through mutual consent in which the "wife" may leave the house against the "husband's" will. Shahla Haeri's study of this phenomenon (1989) reveals that it helps circumvent the strict segregation of the sexes in Islam, which Fish links to male frustration and aggression that generate authoritarianism. Female subjects of Muttaa emerge in Haeri's narrative as "agents in their own right, taking initiatives vis-à-vis men they fancy and proposition" (1989, 194). Legally, a women entering into Muttaa is "freer than married and virgin women to negotiate on her own behalf, choose her male partners and exercise her own decision-making power. She is her own person, as it were" (1989, 200). Muttaa reverses the customary Islamic relationships of subordination and domination, passivity and initiative between men and women and opens the potential for greater gender equality that Sunnism lacks. Muttaa's misuse to exploit women after the 1979 Revolution has been rightly criticized by Muslim feminists, but as Haeri's interviews with women who have actually lived through this practice disclose, there are situations in which it has balanced gender relations. Western observers often comment on the nature of social control of women in Muslim societies and the rigidity of their social structures, but the semi-secret institution of Muttaa, which is widely practiced among Shias around the world, makes such restrictive codes mutable and dynamic.

Tentatively, the preceding discussion implies that Shias are relatively more egalitarian in gender relations than Sunnis. For Inglehart and Welzel, the seedbed of democracy is laid when a shift occurs from survival values to self-expression values. The former include religious faith, respect for authority, obedience, strong family ties, respect for parents, and male domination. The latter include individual autonomy and choice in decision-making, subjective well being, tolerance, ecology, quality of life, and equality of women. Shias clearly outdo Sunnis in many self-expression values (although, in some, they are more or less equal between the two sects). In the Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World, Shia majority Iran is to the right of Sunni countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt on the survival-self-expression continuum. In fact, there is no other Muslim country that fares better than Iran on self-expression values. Azerbaijan is the only anomaly as a Shia majority country that is weak on self-expression values. If the fact that it was another ex-Soviet satellite with a baggage of communist modernization is accounted for, and provided that more data from all the 47 Muslim majority countries is factored in, the case for Shias as democratizers may be built on a firm statistical footing.

Shia Leaders as Democratizers

Shia theology and mass-level religious and social practice might favor democratic tendencies. What about Shia elites and their basic political orientations over type of governance? Can a pattern of difference be discerned between them and Sunni elites on affinity for democracy? This question is relevant because scholars of transitions to democracy, rational choice modelers, and general theoreticians have all viewed the role of elites as critical for democratic change. Seymour Martin Lipset has underlined the seminal importance of leadership's choice, perception, beliefs, and actions in the process of democratization.

Specific outcomes depend on particular contexts … on the abilities and tactics of the major actors. For example, Washington and Lincoln, Lenin and Gorbachev, Nehru and De Gaulle, each had a profound effect on the prospects for democracy in his time and country. (1994, 17)

Samuel Huntington visualizes a dialectic between agency and structure in the determinants of democratization that requires mass level conditions favorable for democracy to be complemented by visionary leaders.

Democracies are created not by causes but by causers. Political leaders and public have to act.… The emergence of social, economic, and external conditions favorable to democracy is never enough.… Some political leaders have to want it to happen.… They cannot through will and skill create democracy where preconditions are absent. (1991, 107)

In the Muslim world, authors have pointed out that individual agents and personalities have had an inordinate influence on regime types. Kamel Abu Jabar holds that in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, the most significant political forces that make, break, and shape democratization processes are individual leaders and their personalities. Democratization in Muslim countries usually takes a top-down approach and is viscerally tied to the outlooks of key figures who enjoy great legitimacy among the masses (2003). Shiism in particular has relied excessively on charismatic bellwethers, Imams, and saints possessing esoteric knowledge and privy to the implicit inner meanings of the faith (batin). Shia leaders have historically been revered as infallible (maasoom) and thus outside the crosscurrent of materiality and history. Since the 19th century, the highest religious authority in Shiism has been known as the marjaiya (source of emulation). To become a marja, a mujtahid (religious scholar) has to attain social popularity through an elaborate economic 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. Marjas shape Shia public opinion through networks of representatives (wakils) around the world in a way that has no equivalent in Sunnism. Accordingly, attention needs to be paid to the political proclivities of these "Grand Ayatollahs" in any deliberation on Shia democracy.

In contemporary Shiism, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Najaf (the holiest center of Shiism) has been the marja with the largest popular approval since the death of his mentor Abol-Qassem Khoi in 1992. From confidential pilgrimage polling, it is estimated that "nearly 80 percent of Shiite worshippers follow Sistani.… His annual income is between $500 million and $700 million and his worldwide assets exceed $3 billion" (Khalaji 2006, 9). Confined to Najaf under house arrest during the last decade of the 20th century, Sistani came to the fore after the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Nasr and others who are proposing Shia democracy as a real possibility rest their case primarily on Sistani's articulation of moderate politics that derives from a traditional "quietism." Sistani believes that the ulama should stay out of politics and that Islam's role should be limited to providing values and guidance for social order (nizam al-mujtama). Since involvement in governance could corrupt the ulama and their message, his "preference is that clerics mostly leave running the state to lay persons" (Murphy 2005). In one fatwa (binding ruling), he asserted, "The religious leadership has repeatedly stated that it has no wish to involve itself in political work and prefers for its clerics not to assume government positions" (Bazzi 2005). This runs counter to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's construct of velayet-e-faqih (Guardianship of the Jurists) which sanctifies clerical authoritarianism in Iran. Sistani's insistence on downsizing the power of ulama is supported by the majority of Iraqi Shias, who rejected the idea of "Islamic government" in opinion polls conducted by Zogby. Although most Iraqis strongly agreed that "religious" candidates should become Iraq's future political leaders, Shias want (by 66 to 27 percent) a separation between religious and state authority. "It is only among the minority Sunnis that there is interest in a religious state, and they are split evenly on the question" (Zinsmeister 2003).

Many of Sistani's fatwas highlight 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 U.S. army. Nasr contrasts Sistani's political strategy from Khomeini's with a tinge of hope:

There were no fiery invocations of divine wrath of Khomeini-style denunciations of the United States as the "Great Satan," but only calm arguments (sometimes backed by impressively large but peaceful street demonstrations) about pragmatism, rights, democracy and self-determination. (2006)

Babak Rahimi credits Sistani with a grand design to allow democracy to flourish by strengthening Iraqi civil society. Sistani's tremendous array of network organizations in southern Iraqi cities like Amarah, Basra, Karbala, Kufa, Najaf, and Nasiriyah would

cultivate grassroots political participation to enhance civil society that would be independent from the state but dependent on the Shi'i citizens of Iraq.… This could restructure the fragile southern Iraqi public life into a strong civic order, diminishing the all-pervasive state administration of society evident in the Saddam era.… It can produce a democratic order in which public Islam is compatible with not only the principles of inclusion, competition and accessibility but also with the basic logic of democratic governance—namely accountability and popular sovereignty. (2004)

Sistani's efforts are expected to have a strong impact on Iran's domestic politics because he represents the Najaf School, which is emerging to take back its rightful place as the Mecca of Shiism from Iran's Qom School, some of whose leading lights supported theocratic absolutism. According to Soroush,

Najaf has been the revered center of Shiite Islam for 1000 years; it is the most respected shrine. Qom seminary is barely 100 years old. Its most famous product, so to speak, was Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the Revolution that established the religious guardianship in Iran today. Yet, his was a fringe point of view, an exception among all the ulamas in Najaf and Qom alike. (2004b, 27)

Lebanon's moderate spiritual leader Ayatollah Fadlallah has been bitterly denounced by the Iranian regime for his religious credentials, but he too endorsed Sistani rather than Ayatollah Khamenei (Iran's current religious head) as the marja. Hezbollah and Amal, the two principal Lebanese Shia guerrilla movements-cum-political parties, have also praised Sistani and have once again turned to Najaf for religious direction. To Nasr, they have adopted Sistani's mantra "one man, one vote" since "in Lebanon it would mean that the Shia, who make up more than two fifths of the population, would dominate government" (2006, 232). In Bahrain too, the oppressed Shia majority have eschewed Khomeinism and revolutionary fervor and taken on democratic hopes after Sistani began to clamor for "one person, one vote" in Iraq. They began to demand real democracy, which would mean a transfer of power to Shias as their numbers would warrant.

Among Muslim countries in which Shias are sizeable minorities, the Sistani effect has been most pronounced. In Saudi Arabia, the long persecuted Shias (10-15 percent of the population) demanded rights to be recognized as citizens and to practice their rituals without state interference. Shia voters turned out in large numbers for the restricted Saudi local elections in February 2005, amid open comparisons with Iraq. One Saudi Shia intellectual put it this way:

What is happening today in Iraq raised the political ambitions of the Shi'ites that democracy and public participation are instruments capable of defusing internal disputes, so Shiites can attain their rights and aspirations. (MacFarquhar 2005)

In Pakistan (20 percent Shias), where Khomeini's appeal was always outdone by Khoi's (Sistani's teacher) and where Shias have strong traditional ties to Najaf, there are expectations that the struggle for minority rights and a Shia place in the political arena will pick up momentum. In Yemen (42 percent Shias), Sistani openly took issue with persecution of his co-religionists by the Sunni fundamentalist state and made a clarion call for pluralism and political equality (Novak 2005). In Kuwait (35 percent Shias), the minority sect turned out in big numbers at the June 2006 parliamentary election to defeat extremist Sunni candidates. Shia human rights activists in Kuwait also campaigned vigorously using Sistani's appeals for empowerment through the ballot box. One of them confidently commented how voters had been mobilized:

In constituencies where there are no Shiite candidates, Shiite voters will definitely cast their ballots in favor of liberal, independent, and moderate (Sunni) candidates, in order to deprive the Salafists [Sunni fundamentalists] these votes. (Radi 2006)

One of the causal mechanisms identified by Huntington as determinant of the "Third Wave" of democratization is "snowballing/demonstration effects," wherein certain "lead countries" like Poland, Spain, and the Philippines proved to their neighbors that democratization could be a successful cure to many ailments in the body politic. New means of international communication facilitate this process of democratization by power of example. Writing about the Arab world in 1994 during a phase of liberalization in some countries that flattered but never led to democratization, Pete Moore says,

The sad reality has been that, overall, the democratization of Eastern Europe has had little impact in the form of a demonstration effect for the Arab World. At the societal level, differences in the relation to the state and lack of a sympathetic identity with East Europeans, has proven an obstacle to the democratic contagion. In comparison to Eastern Europe, the events in Algeria and the ongoing experiments in Yemen, Kuwait, and Oman have received little world attention, but in the Arab context these phenomena have deep impacts. (1994)

Sistani's Iraq certainly fills this void in the Muslim world, especially where Shias are active. His model of politics and governance are inspiring domino effects and it is quite certain that the stability and consolidation of democracy in Iraq will matter to likely democratizing currents in other Muslim countries. The very meaning of the term marja-e-taqlid is literally a "source of spiritual imitation" for Shias. This is turning out to be also true in the world of secular politics, with Sistani being looked up to as a guarantor of Shia rights and political participation around the planet. To sum up his contributions,

In one bold stroke, Sistani managed to launch, and garner popular support for, a project that Muslim progressives have only ever dreamed of: establishing a democratic political order sanctioned and even protected by the clergy. By seeking to blend politics and faith into a rational system in which government is clearly the servant of the commonweal, and by advancing the idea that Muslims have the right to determine the nature of the government over them, Sistani and his colleagues have transformed a commandment previously confined to holy law into a pillar of a new democratic order. This brings to the fore an uncomfortable truth: traditional Shiite clerics, often dismissed as dogmatic medievalists intent on building a theocratic state, may well represent Iraq's best hope for a successful transition to democracy. As such, they have become perhaps the most important actors in modern Middle Eastern history. (Gerecht 2004, 39)

Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part article. References appear at the end of part two.

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