Middle East

'Shia Democracy': Myth or Reality?

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Muqtada al-Sadr's "Jaish al-Mahdi Army" has had a hand in the horrendous sectarian violence or "dirty war" in Iraq. (Photo: Wissam al-Okaili / AFP-Getty Images)

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

Part II

Counter Arguments to the Shia Democracy Hypothesis

So far, this essay has painted a rosy and highly optimistic picture of the potential for democracy in Shia countries and communities through interpretations of theology, mass values, social practices, and elite inclinations. But there is much in favor of a more cynical view that Shia democracy is a chimera and is unlikely to materialize. Democracy in the Muslim world has only too often raised sky-high hopes and then deceived. False "Prague Springs" abound in past analyses of the prospects for democracy in Muslim countries, which were then taken over by events that consolidated authoritarian rule. Sean Yom balks at all the misguided feel-good predictions that ultimately failed to meet the test of reality.

Yet despite this enthusiasm, the icy reality is that nearly two decades after scholars heralded its rejuvenation, civil society has not yielded any results in pushing Arab states toward democratic transitions by undermining the foundations of their authoritarian institutions. Arab C.S.O.'s (civil society organizations) watched as liberalizing reforms initiated in most countries during the early 1990's stalled within years, while several countries like Egypt and Tunisia backslid even further into autocracy, ending the decade with tighter restrictions on civil liberties and political pluralism. (2005, 17)

The State-Mosque Concordat

A fundamental weakness that has often stalled genuine progress toward democratization in Muslim countries has been the longstanding tradition of merging the religious domain with the political. Bernard Lewis, one of the skeptics on the feasibility of democracy in the Muslim world, stresses this aspect as common to both Shias and Sunnis.

In Muslim theory, church and state are not separate or separable institutions. Such familiar pairs of words as lay and ecclesiastical, sacred and profane, spiritual and temporal, and the like have no equivalent in classical Arabic or in other Islamic languages, since the dichotomy they express, deeply rooted in Christendom, was unknown in Islam until comparatively modern times. (2001, 28-29)

When they did become known in Iran, around the time of its constitutional revolution (1905-09), the old belief in blending religion with secular power did not completely die out. Although secular intellectuals based in secret societies were important to the drafting of Iran's first parliamentary system, they had to acquire broad support among ordinary people through the medium of the ulama, who were more troubled with threats to the Shia realm from foreign intervention and less with the Qajar dynasty's autocracy per se. The 1906 constitution granted broad powers of oversight to the ulama who would act as watchdogs so that all legislation was in accordance with Islamic law. Contrary to a liberal democratic "society of citizens" based on civic consciousness, the Shia ulama wished to retain Iran as a "society of believers" and succeeded to entrench themselves as power brokers long before Khomeini (Gheissari and Nasr 2006). The ulama's hostility to dictatorial monarchy in Iranian history is intimately tied to the former's understanding of their own superiority and divine right to rule. Hamid Algar reads the political mind of the Shia clergy as follows:

The monarch 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. Throughout the Qajar period the ideal remained far from fulfillment and there was therefore a certain tension inherent in relations between the ulama and the monarchy. The participation of the ulama in the Constitutional Revolution was a sign that this tension had given way to open rupture. (1972, 235)

It bears reminding that, unlike in Sunni Islam, Shiism accords the ulama a super-ordinate position in society. Nasr himself acknowledges this anti-democratic and elitist feature of Shia Islam:

As successors to the Twelfth imam, the Shia ulama enjoy a privileged spiritual status that their Sunni counterparts have never had. Sunni ulama are religious functionaries, learned in religious matters but no different from other believers. The Shia, by contrast, revere their ulama not only for their knowledge but for the link to the Twelfth imam that they represent. (2006, 68)

In modern Iranian history, the ulama appeared "progressive" when they threw their weight against monarchical tyranny and "reactionary" when they ranged against modernization and secularization, but,

in both cases, they were acting consistently with the preservation of their own power. During the Constitutional Revolution, they were led to support a modern constitution by their belief that it would further enhance their power. When this turned out not to be the case, they returned to their policy of fighting secularization and government encroachment on their prerogatives. (Keddie 1972, 227)

The fact that Shia ulama have desired and preserved political power leads us to a very important counterargument to the Shia democracy thesis. Hamid Dabashi makes a profound reflection about the doctrinal paradox at the heart of Shiism:

Shiism is a religion of protest. It can only speak truth to power and destabilize it. It can never be "in power." As soon as it is "in power" it contradicts itself. (2005, 91)

Nasr et al. build the case for Shia pro-democratic exceptionalism on the grounds that it has self-expression values, rebelliousness, and criticism of authority as its defining feature. However, since the Safavid Empire held sway over Iran (1501-1722), Shias essentially stopped being the oppressed dissidents and resisters and were assimilated into the ruling establishment. The taste of political power and statehood "Sunnified" Shias to a great extent as survival values of obedience to rulers and clergy took center stage. The ulama and the lay population cooperated with the Safavid state because it was the first Shia territorial power in history. Officially endorsed ulama would confer legitimacy on any ruler who promoted Shia doctrine and gave them possession of religious taxes (khums). By virtue of the ulama's high reverence among rural Shias, they would guarantee non-resistance and quietness from the population at large. This state-clergy concordat has always had debilitating results for democracy, because the masses would be ideologically tuned by the ulama to not think in terms of individual self-interests (and question authoritarianism) but rather for the interests of the "Shia realm" as an organic whole.

Insufficient Modernization

Realization in Iran by the late 1990's that "Islam is part of the problem and not the solution" yielded slogans for simple democracy in place of "Islamic democracy" (Gheissari and Nasr 2006, 9). More Iranians today want a plain republic instead of an "Islamic republic," but the dice are still heavily loaded against the secularists precisely because of the hold of the ulama on the ordinary masses. The victory of "Islamic Socialist" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the restricted 2005 presidential election in Iran was achieved through active ulama canvassing in the nook and cranny of the country and Ayatollah Khamenei's blessings. The vast majority of the poor from rural areas voted for Ahmadinejad, whose Islamist revivalism and purges of secular-liberal intellectuals aim to return Iran to Khomeini-era Islamization of society and polity. The fact that Iran's modernized secular middle classes are still outnumbered by the "religious middle classes" and the overwhelming numbers of the poor (about 40 percent of the total population) means that democracy may have to wait indefinitely for self-expression values to obtain Inglehart's socio-economic ballast (post-industrial knowledge-oriented workforce). Incidentally, Shias in Iraq and Lebanon are also poor and primarily located in rural settings. Shias are also overwhelmingly poor in countries where they are sizeable minorities like Pakistan and Bahrain. If one discounts Inglehart's "starting point" (basic values of a culture that stick to a people over time) premise as useless since Shias have been "Sunnified" into obedience over the centuries, the low levels of modernization among Shias worldwide does not bode well for democracy. Nor is there any sign that an independent class of Shias have Barrington Moore's "bourgeois values" (1966), since their middle classes themselves are divided along moderate-extremist and conservative-liberal axes. Iran's "old" urban middle classes, referred by some as the "bazaar class" (merchants, artisans, shopkeepers journeymen, and apprentices), maintain close ties to the ulama and fragment the bourgeoisie, thereby preventing them from allying en masse with rural capitalists or peasants. During phases of religious revival, as is currently occurring under Ahmadinejad, "the traditional middle class rally behind the Shiite clergy" and weaken the clout of the "new" progressive middle class (Tien-Lung Liu 1988, 199). Shia faith, policed by the ever-strong ulama, presents a structural barrier for inter-class coalitions that could swing the momentum in favor of democratization as predicted by Marxist theories. Even those who are bullish on the likelihood of democracy in Muslim countries admit that the mass appeal of Islam as espoused by the ulama is a huge stumbling block to popular sovereignty. Mark Tessler and Eleanor Gao examine political opinion surveys in four Arab countries including Iraq and find that although a majority of citizens wants democracy, many would like it to be "Islamic Democracy." "The extent and ways in which Islam is incorporated into national political life" hold the clues to the democratization deficit (2005, 93).

The Militant Alternative

Noah Feldman, a paradigmatic supporter of "Islamic Democracy" as the elixir to reform the Middle East, urges a big caveat in the form of "the persistent power of Islam in the politics of the Muslim world." Political Islam, he avers, "continues to attract followers today, despite rumors of its death or failure, and it still matters centrally in the Muslim world" (2003, 38, 41). An extreme form of political Islam, militant in method and objective, has existed in both Shia and Sunni societies with equal vehemence. Shias often joined anti-democratic Islamist guerrilla movements because of their promise of securing rights and justice through the barrel of the gun. Their appeal has grown in the later half of the 20th century after the secular leftist revolutionary push lost its appeal among younger generations of radical activists or was subsumed by Islamist fervor. The earliest known Islamist terrorist group was the Hashashin (Assassins), led by the Shia Ismaili, Hassan-i-Sabbah (A.D. 1034-1124). Nasr casually accommodates Hezbollah into his Shia democracy thesis by dwelling on its acceptance of Sistani's ballot box path, but its presence as an extra-constitutional militant army in southern Lebanon has arguably dented rather than enriched democracy in that country. While it is true that Hezbollah has "Lebanonized" itself since the 1990's and entered the Lebanese parliament through free and fair elections, its refusal to cede authority to the legitimate Lebanese army in its strongholds leaves the fragile Lebanese state weak in sovereignty and ability to regulate the country as an undisputed authority. A low capacity state with weak political institutions is detrimental to democratization. As Jean Grugel's study on obstacles to democratization in developing countries puts it:

States with insufficient capability will not be able to withstand popular pressure or complete necessary reforms. It is difficult for democratization to occur without state capacity. (2001)

Hezbollah also impedes Lebanese democratization by supporting Syrian strategic-military intervention in the country that culminated in the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. The "Cedar Revolution" which followed Hariri's murder brought together popular civic action across sectarian divides with the aim of conducting democratic parliamentary elections free from Syrian interference. Hezbollah organized counter demonstrations to the Cedar Revolution and reopened old political fault lines that had driven Lebanon to civil war. The recrudescence of Shia-Sunni violence in Lebanon of late is a danger signal for the multi-religious compromise of the country. Hezbollah may have embraced the formal procedures of democracy, but there is no evidence that it cares for the rule of law, the rights of women and minorities, political and religious tolerance, and alternation of power. Steven Cook captures the essence of this militant movement-cum-social welfare organization's shallow commitment to democracy thus:

The real problem in Lebanon is not too much democracy but too little. Had Lebanon emerged from its spring 2005 "independence uprising" as a democracy, Hezbollah could not have continued to operate as an armed and thus autonomous faction. (2006)

In Iraq too, violent Shia movements enjoy grassroots devotion despite Sistani's overarching authority. One aggressive and authoritarian force is the two-million-member "Sadr Movement" led by the anti-democratic cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. In April 2003, it organized a mob that killed moderate Ayatollah Abd al-Majid al-Khoi. After the killing, the mob surrounded the home of Sistani and demanded he leave Najaf forthwith. Only quick mobilization of Sistani followers prevented Sistani's expulsion or worse. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Sadr's "Jaish al-Mahdi Army" has had a hand in the horrendous sectarian violence or "dirty war" in Iraq. Sadr's radicalism draws on the frustrations of the disenfranchised Shia poor slum dwellers and incitement to hatred for achieving his own drive to power. Another anti-democratic force with a popular social base is the "Badr Brigade," a paramilitary arm of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq with bases in several provinces. Its commander, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, spelled out the strategy quite clearly:

First, have elections, in which Shiites under moderate leadership win an absolute majority; then use popular pressure and force transformation into a Khomeini-style Islamic republic. (Ericson 2004)

Further afield, in Pakistan, Shia militant organizations like Tehreek-i-Jafria and Sipah-i-Muhammad match government-sponsored Sunni terrorist groups with firepower and violence, thanks to Iranian support. Like Hezbollah, they enjoy mass popularity among Shias, contest elections and send M.P.'s to parliament, while simultaneously staging targeted revenge killings and disallowing moderate Shia voices from arising. Nasr's hypothesis of a rise in Shia self-confidence globally as a result of the democratic beginning in Iraq fails to specify why the rise will not be spearheaded by such anti-democratic groups rather than democratic ones. Part of the dilemma informing the choice of modes of struggle for the Shias is the brutality of Sunni subjugation. The militant mode of securing justice has not exhausted itself, notwithstanding Sistani's ascent, because Shias on the ground in Sunni-majority countries feel the need to deter Sunni impunity with force. Ironically then, unless Sunni countries democratize and improve their respect for the civil liberties of minorities, it looks unlikely that Shias will replace the militant option with the unalloyed democratic one.

Opportunistic Democracy

If one scans the horizon, Shia political parties that do participate in elections and boast of representatives in legislatures across the world are all dual-purpose entities that opportunistically combine politics with violent militancy just as Shia ulama opportunistically take occasional stances against authoritarianism. Nasr's entire thesis rests on the claim that Shias see democracy as a means to acquire power, but he is not as convincing that they want democracy as an end in itself. This is a fatal weakness because liberal outcomes with democratic substance can only obtain when there is "a transition from 'instrumental' to 'principled' commitments to the democratic framework" (1996, 33). Neither Iran nor Iraq, the Shia-majority states that have minimal democratic symptoms today, has made this transition yet. For democracy to become the "only game in town," Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan theorize that there has to be behavioral, attitudinal, and constitutional consolidation of democratic values. Democracy will have to be "routinized and deeply internalized in social, institutional, and even psychological life, as well as in calculations for achieving success" (1996, 5). That there is a militant side to achieving success in Shia politics that is not confined to some fringe radical part of the spectrum means that democracy is nowhere near being the only game in town.

Hope that the predominance of the Shia ulama in politics is going to be clipped in Iraq and elsewhere due to the influence of Sistani is also under a cloud, thanks to his own actions of interference on the writing of the new Iraqi constitution. Sistani may be a democrat in political terms, but he is an orthodox conservative on the primacy of Sharia law and its interpretation. Announcing that he would "supervise" the document that would set the rules of Iraqi politics in August 2003, Sistani declared,

The religious constants and the Iraqi people's moral principles and noble social values should be the main pillars of the coming Iraqi constitution. (BBC News 2004)

Sistani vetoed the March 2004 Interim Constitution because it did not respect the Sharia. The final version of the constitution that he allowed reserves 25 percent of National Assembly seats for women but warns that no law can be passed that contradicts Islam's "undisputed" rulings. Interpreting this provision will fall to the Supreme Court, which the new constitution stipulates, "may include clerics" (Coleman 2006). The dualities and paradoxes in the constitution "give Sistani and future marjas the legal right to influence the policymaking and legislative process. Education and judiciary systems in particular are his target" (Khalaji 2006, 17). While Sistani is not as politically ambitious as Khomeini, his tactic of leaving open the question of the scope and nature of Shia law in Iraq's state and society may create the space for Sadrists to go on the rampage and restrict women's rights legally. Until now, al-Sadr's vigilante cadres have been imposing stringent restrictions requiring women to wear full-length veils, forbidding music and dancing, and enforcing strict segregation of the sexes. In the future, Iraq's official police may be performing these tasks in conjunction with the ulama manning the judiciary. Conservative clerics who have gained great prominence in post-Saddam Iraq have "close ties to the Iranian clerics, who have proven 'anti-women' credentials" (Laskie 2006, 14). Whatever advantages women had in Shia practice relative to Sunnism can easily be nullified with the increasing parliamentary and street enforcement power of the ulama who receive military and financial support from Iran. Tehran is said to be funding al-Sadr with $80 million a month and training his shock brigades in three camps run by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. "Behind al-Sadr's phenomenon and money are the most extremist and anti-democratic governing bodies in Iran" (Raphaeli 2004). In light of these facts, one is compelled to ask whether Soroush's sanguineness that democratization in Iraq will democratize Iran is an inverted reality. Iranian velayet-e-faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists)has less of a chance of succeeding in Iraq but the latter could still fall short of democratic rule because the elected representatives to legislatures may not enjoy total freedom to govern in all spheres of state purview. Muqtedar Khan lays out the worst-case scenario of a "subtle dictatorship" that is not very far fetched:

In principle and on record, Ayatollah Sistani does not believe in theocracy, that is rule by the clerics. However, his entire conduct since the U.S. invasion of Iraq clearly suggests that he has no qualms about controlling, directing, and even manipulating politics from behind the scenes. His clerical brigade will not participate in the government as his friends and colleagues do in Iran. They will delegate the menial aspects of governance to the secular elected leaders but the key elements will be determined by the Grand Ayatollah and his coterie of clerics. (2005)

Rahimi, who is upbeat that Sistani is the messiah for Shia democracy, still sounds words of caution due to the uncertainty redolent in Iraq's transition:

If Sistani manages to play a central role in drafting the constitution, and hence gaining monopoly of the judicial branch, the Ayatollah's influence could then threaten pluralism and inclusion as protected by the constitution. Certain democratic principles such as freedom of expression could come under the danger of puritanical notions of moral conduct, enforcing certain rules and values grounded upon a set of religious rather than civic values and norms. Surely, it would be difficult to recognize Sistani's call for stern codes of punishment for theft (amputation), adultery (stoning), and apostasy (death penalty) for converting from Islam to another religion as a positive contribution to Iraqi's future democratic judicial system in the protection of civil liberties. (2004, 16)

Even if Sistani resists the urge to be the de facto puppeteer of Iraq, he is 74 years old and his succession as marja is hanging in the balance. Qom-based Grand Ayatollah Kazem Husseini Haeri, a Khomeinist who is the religious adviser to Muqtada al-Sadr, is one of the contenders. If he wins the power struggle and comes out on top, velayet-e-faqih and the Iranian model is more likely to triumph in Iraq. Individual personality as an independent variable in democratization has temporal shortcomings, unless certain democratic norms are institutionalized by the visionary leader so that they outlive him. In hindsight, Khomeini accomplished an institutionalization of clerical rule that survives to this day in Iran. Whether Sistani can likewise institutionalize a non-interference norm in Iraq through personal reticence remains to be seen.

The Resource Curse

Up to now, the two sides of the Shia democracy thesis have been juxtaposed using multiple theories of democratization for evidence and countervailing evidence. However, one major rival explanation for the democracy deficit in the Muslim world remains that can totally negate the relative merits of Shiism over Sunnism that Nasr et al. have accentuated. Michael Ross performs careful statistical tests and concludes that "oil and mineral wealth tends to make states less democratic." The mechanism at work is the "rentier effect," wherein governments derive sufficient revenues from the sale of oil, do not tax their populations much, and the public in turn "will be less likely to demand accountability from—and representation in—their government" (2001, 328, 331). Resource richness may also permit governments to spend more on internal security and so block the population's democratic aspirations ("the repression effect"). Relevant to our purpose is the empirical reality that three Shia majority states—Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain—are virtually single-product economies. In Ross' index of the top 25 oil reliant states, Bahrain comes third, Iraq is 12th, and Iran is 17th. Azerbaijan, which does not feature in this index, is the other Shia majority authoritarian state whose oil export revenues are expected to touch $160 billion by 2025 (Schleifer 2005). If the concept of a "rentier state" is extended to mean a state that derives a large fraction of its revenues from external, not just mineral-based, rents, then Lebanon, the fifth Shia-majority state gets 15 percent of its G.D.P. ($ 2.7 billion) from overseas workers remittances. It ranks as the ninth largest recipient of remittances in nominal terms among developing countries and as the seventh largest relative to the size of G.D.P. (Association 2004). If rentier states have anti-democratic properties, then it would not matter whether they are Shia majority, Sunni majority, or have some other religious makeup. Ross's tests include many non-Muslim states that are single-product economies and ends up with the same results. The only hitch in completely eschewing religion as a determinant of democracy is that Ross' regression results include Islam (Muslim percentage of a state's population) as a control variable and it is also a significant predictor of regime type (beta coefficient of -.018). Its effect is weaker than oil (coefficient of -.034) and mineral (coefficient of -.0459), but is nonetheless an indicator that Islam cannot be excluded entirely as a cause of authoritarianism (2001, 341). This returns us to square one about whether Shia Islam is more conducive to democracy than Sunni Islam.

The Potential-Reality Gap

In conclusion, one finds that there is more than a grain of truth in the Nasr school of thought that Shias are systematically different from Sunnis in their theology and social mores and that this also spills over into political attitudes and behavior. The fact that Iran, for all its democratic deficiencies, has a population that effusively participates in elections, believes in the efficacy of their votes to affect politics, and has grown to understand the fundamental logic of democracy like no Sunni country stands testimony. Iran is not a democratic state, of course, with sovereignty vested in God and the Guardian Council of Islamic jurists. However, whatever promising democratic elements it has is unmatched in Sunni countries (with the exception of Turkey, which can be better categorized as a "secular" rather than a "Sunni" country). Despite the setback of Ahmadinejad's election, some Iran specialists take hope in a new "post-revolutionary and post-reformist secular democratic and republican paradigm" that "is still in the making."

If the reformists still invest some hope in the "latent capacities" of the existing constitution, secular republicans focus on the untapped capacities of civil society as a way out of Iran's political impasse. This strategy implies the need to form broad democratic fronts (combining civil society forces, intellectuals, and democratic parties)—an approach tested in practice in some east-central European and Latin American countries. (Mashayekhi 2005)

One of the well-known causal mechanisms for the democracy deficit in Muslim countries is the failure of secular and Islamist oppositions to unite due to the authoritarian regime's cooptation and divide-and-rule devices (Fish 2002). Pro-democracy Iranians are realizing the futility of allying with (or winning over) the ulama since Islamic democracy has been tried and tested and turned out to be a diminished form of democracy, a thin veneer for "Mullahcracy." In no other Muslim country except Shia Iraq has the public rejected clerical rule as strongly as in Iran (a 2003 public opinion poll shows 70 percent of Iranians opposed velayet-e-faqih) (United Press International 2003). There is similar potential for democratic flowering in Shia-majority Lebanon and Azerbaijan, although it often goes wasted due to internal contradictions.

The gap between the potential for Shia democracy and reality is immense, as was detailed in Part II of this essay. The obstinate interference of Shia Islam in political power since the Safavid dynasty upends the traditional Shia obligation to question and limit authority. Absence of modernization among the generally penurious Shias also weakens the socio-economic basis for democratization. The continued viability of jihad culture among Shias facing oppression also steals the ideological limelight from gradualist democratic pathways. The current division in popular sympathies between Muqtada al-Sadr and Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq is one illustration of the larger malaise of recourse to violence to achieve justice for Shias. Opportunistic adherence to electoral democracy to grab power and then freeze the polity in a semi-authoritarian condition is another hurdle that bespeaks of the weak internalization of democratic culture.

The external dimension of democracy promotion and how it might propel Shias to democratize has an oxymoronic function. On one hand, the rise of Sistani and his demonstration effects on the entire Shia realm was facilitated by the American invasion of Iraq, but on the other, the long American occupation of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein has also nurtured the mercurial advent of anti-democratic Sadrists and Badrists who are making stabilization of the new order doubly difficult as if Sunni jihadi terrorists were not enough to keep the trouble stewing.

There also remains the bigger question of whether the Shias, 15 percent of the world's Muslims, can erase the democracy deficit in the entire Muslim world through the power of their example. With what certitude can the proposition that Shias are a "subjective" force for democracy that can democratize not only themselves but also Sunni Muslims work out? No guarantee insures that the Shia awakening will not lead to even tighter restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms by Sunni fundamentalist states like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that constantly fear armed uprisings by Shia minorities. Nasr's dream of Shias as both an "objective" and "subjective" democratic force could end as just that—a well-intentioned pipedream.

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


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Zinsmeister, K. 2003. "What Iraqis Really Think." Wall Street Journal, Sept. 10.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Sreeram Chaulia.