democracy without labor



Beirut, January 31, 2004


At first sight it does seem that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s plea for direct elections in Iraq by June of this year is either a cynical maneuver to destabilize the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority (C.P.A.) on the basis that the Shii leadership has thus far been soft on the American occupation, or else to ensure that the majority of Shiis (60 percent of the population) will not be politically marginalized this time, as they’ve ever been since the Ottomans. Sistani therefore hopes to reproduce a legislative majority, one that would be legitimate in the eyes of the beholders because democratically elected. It is unlikely, however, that either one of such strategies, or all combined, will prove beneficial to the Shii community either on the short run or even for the decades to come. In effect, never had the Shiis, in the last couple centuries, benefited from such unrestrained freedom as the one that de facto came in the wake of Iraq’s liberation from its Baathist regime. The Shiis’s leadership, composed mostly (but by no means exclusively), of ulama and mullahs scattered around the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, has been since then rejuvenated, and its exiled members repatriated. The ex-Baathist regime had severely limited the effectiveness of the Shii ulama through persecutions and killings, or for the happy few, a self-imposed Iranian exile, leading to a loss both in terms of leadership and the number of students studying theology and law. The Shiis have also resumed since last summer their traditional festivities and rituals, which were forbidden under the oppressively “secular” and clan-ruled Baathist regime, not to mention the rehabilitation of cemeteries, mosques, schools, places of worship, and the discovery of mass graves in the southern Shii areas.


But with the forcing of such an agitation to the surface, another aspect of Iraqi Shiism has been revealed: namely, that there is no such thing as a Shii “community,” and that there are rival factions regionally divided along what is known as the “marja‘iyya” system, whereby a learned mullah becomes a “spiritual reference” (marja‘) to the “community” at large. As no one has thus far succeeded in imposing himself as the sole marja‘ to Iraqi Shiism, and as no one is likely to do so in the near future, there is to date a division among the pro-Iranian marja‘iyyas of the likes of Sistani and Hakim, both located in the Najaf and Karbala axis, on the one, and that of the young Muqtada al-Sadr, on the other, a sort of self-imposed marja‘iyya, totally outside Iran’s tutelage, and popular in what is now known as Sadr City (a one-million plus slum neighborhood at the outskirts of Baghdad). Thus, even the geographic “harmony,” often assumed to benefit the Shiis, is in effect sociologically false: the capital itself, not to mention other areas in the center-north, must have at least two million Shiis whose “spiritual leaders” are different from those in the South, while a southern city like Basra (now under British rule) seems under the tutelage of Muqtada Sadr. In short, the idea that Iraq—in particular if the Americans give up and withdraw—might be transformed into a Shii theocracy is for all purposes meaningless. To begin, the Shii divisions, as briefly outlined above, would in all likelihood push towards a civil war rather than to any form of theocracy. Second, such an inability to harmonize the ulama and mullahs seems to have convinced the religious Shii leadership that Iraq must transform itself into a non-Iranian style “Islamic state,” one where the clerics would not directly rule, but would only have a consultative role. “Giving Iraq to the Shiis” is therefore as absurd as “giving Los Angeles to its own people”: the Shiis are more fractured and less cohesive than any U.S. urban agglomeration. Such a lack of cohesiveness would no doubt resurface if plebiscitary forms of political organization were to be implemented this year or even in the years to come. Why is then Sistani so adamant about “direct democracy”?


As is well known, Sistani’s call came in the wake of an American plan for an indirect voting system based on regional caucuses. Considering that the caucus system is by definition more “closed” and “controllable”—and that’s precisely Paul Bremer’s intention—it doesn’t take much of a strategist to realize that the religious Shii leadership—in all its divisions—is better off negotiating its future role in a quasi-“electoral college” system than in opening up to the unknown through direct elections. While much analysis has centered either on Ali Sistani’s cause célèbre, or the “political strategy” of his foe and rival Muqtada Sadr, what has been overlooked is the very “idealism” of such overtures. I am particularly interested in the dominance throughout Islamic history of an ideal-typical kind of political behavior, whether with a religious zeal or otherwise, and with apocalyptic tones that aim towards the harmonization of the “community” through a combination of warfare, equity and fraternity, and righteousness. When, for instance, in the early decades following the death of the prophet, his succession became problematic (three of the first four caliphs were assassinated), newly established sectarian groups claimed that the titles of “caliph” and “imam” should be open to any “competent” believer, rather than closed on a hereditary or kin basis. Then, much later, when the Seljuq Turks took effective control of Baghdad (1055-1258), and obscure sectarian groups living in the seclusion of the Syrian coastal mountains, known as the “Assassins,” claimed that the corruption of the caliphate legalizes violent actions against state officials, another idealism was born—one that would purify the “community” through mass assassinations of its leaderships. The lack of a centralized church in Islam, one that would have coordinated decision making, mythologies and rituals, and created a semblance of a public space, has historically led to a proliferation of sectarian schools of thought and conduct (some of which were violent) with esoteric writings, which only competent specialists these days manage to decipher. The proliferation of such esoteric discourses throughout Islamic history should not, however, conceal their systemic invariants, and the problems they pose to modern researchers when assessing their contribution to anything that might be called “material rationality,” in conjunction with such spheres as law, labor and production.


Besides the fact that the non-primacy of labor and material well-being in Islamic thought and practice is all by itself staggering, the concealment of “productivity” as such has pushed the religious and profane ideal-types—such as equity, equality, and unity of the umma—towards the forefront. In sum, all kinds of equalitarian values have proliferated, but without any tangible roots into the materiality of the lifeworld, and to date nothing has ever ablated such trends in modern Islamic cultures. Consider, for instance, the Baath’s slogan of “unity, freedom, socialism,” which could barely be differentiated from the French Revolution’s “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” but that’s only at face value: the French slogan is fought in parallel to the notion of the “right of man and the citizen,” which at its core assumes a productive individual with rights. Similarly, a notion like “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” hardly conceals its puritanical tone, one which assumes that hard work and the right of property are universal principles that lie at the core of a society’s organization. That’s why the American Constitution did not have to be overtly secular and permanently distracted by Islamic scarves: the puritans assume that labor and liberty are universal principles, so that they are open to anyone who cares to accept them.


Almost a century after the framing of the American Constitution, Jewish settlers (or pilgrims) started pouring into Ottoman Palestine. It has often been claimed that those settlers have gradually “dispossessed” the Palestinian peasantry from its valuable resources, leading to a massive exodus in 1947-48. The Jewish settlers, however, did not simply grab land in order to leave the Palestinians propertyless. In effect, the messianic tone behind the mission of the settlers was one that portrayed the Jew as a hardworking individual devoted to his land and people, a devotion that the First Zionist Congress, held in Basle in 1898, only two years after the publication of Herzl’s Der Judenstaat, reframed as a process of “colonization” through a specific organization of so-called “Jewish labor.” Since the 1880s the Jewish settlers had to solve the dilemma of labor, which was at the root of the nascent Zionist ideology. It was in effect thought that the Jewish communities would be unable to solely (or even partially) rely on cheap “Arab” labor, considering that its organization and ethos was incompatible with what the Jews had in mind. But even though the Jews had eventually integrated the cheap labor of the Arab peasants, their mission survived precisely because they opted for an ideology that looked upon labor and its “socialistic” organization as inseparable from their core religious beliefs. Palestinians and Israelis still to date live side-by-side to one another with that double identity of labor, and whose biggest symbol is the wall under construction by the Sharon government separating the occupied territories from the Israeli inland. More importantly, the Palestinians intifadas, as they’ve become known, seem unconcerned with the material well-being of their communities, and postulate all kinds of ideal-types, from the full liberation of Palestine to the “permanent” revolution that will bring total victory for all the oppressed. As the Lebanese Hezbollah is claiming “victory” these days for having swapped hundreds of Arab prisoners and guerilla fighters (or their remains) with the remains of only three soldiers and an Israeli businessman kidnapped in Europe, the so-called spiritual leader of the Palestinian Hamas, Shaykh Yasin, has threatened to follow Hezbollah’s suit and kidnap civilians and soldiers.


Israelis therefore find themselves vis-à-vis the Palestinians in a situation very similar to the Americans in Iraq. The real issue is not occupation per se—or even imperialism, if one wishes to use that dreadful word—but the lack of any rational organization among Iraqis and Palestinians, one that would prioritize the material well-being for the community at large. What kind of program does a “resistance” have when it indiscriminately targets anything that it’s able to destroy? What else does it aim but complete social chaos, once the glue that binds society together ceases to exist? Why is it then that utopian political and religious ideals, which have no concern to “material rationality,” even if their final aim is a value as noble as “popular democracy,” become self-destructive? In the social sciences an ongoing debate divides the reproduction of society between its superstructural and infrastructural practices, usually providing the latter with more weight. I’m baffled, however, at how much spiritual ideal-types outweigh any considerations for a rational economic and legal organization of society. For instance, in the case of Iraq, “free elections” would require at their bare minimum a complete census of the populations, which in turn implies knowledge of the coordinates of each citizen; and that in turn implies a total mapping of territories: streets numbers, names, topographic data, etc., not to mention a degree maturity in the organization of political parties and a free press. As the C.P.A. is using advanced American satellite technology for such mappings, and as the “Sunni triangle” is beginning to calm down, a responsible “Iraqi” attitude would opt for a wait and see strategy. Sistani’s call, however, is unconcerned about the logistics of “free elections” precisely because of its lack of concern towards the material well-being of the Shiis or the Iraqis at large. A massive Shii rollout would not only destabilize the Shiis themselves by unleashing new forces on the ground, but would trap the Kurds in the corner of a fictitious “independence,” while the Sunnis, who have barely begun to recover from their bloody tribal triangles, would have to acquiesce towards an “elected majority” that is not theirs.


Universal suffrage and plebiscitary modes of consensus do not necessarily lead to the most rational forms of political action, even though in themselves they did constitute a necessary and rational evolution within the historical momentum of the core European absolutist states of the eighteenth century. The motto of the French state of Louis XIV, which was the oldest and most mature within the European system, “L’État c’est moi,” was less an expression of “totalitarian” ambitions than an outcome of the long established hierarchies—state, church, nobility, tiers état—within French society. As Tocqueville noted in his analysis of the French Revolution, the ancien régime had already “done it all”: it had centralized the state bureaucracy, worked out a system of collecting taxes, connected the center to the provinces, created a complex system of political representation, and even unleashed a great deal of the literary activities that eventually made France’s reputation as a forbearer of civilization. Tocqueville had therefore a hard time understanding that event called the “French Revolution”: the monarchy, based on an arcane system of representations, had become illegitimate, and no one would claim representation of the “body politic” except the “general will” of the people. Universal suffrage was born, which even though managed to solve that obscure problem of political legitimacy, is as irrational as the oracular justice of the Anglo-American juries.


Universal suffrage is now supposed to work miracles for societies whose ancien régimes were nothing but fascist, which means that all needs to be done from scratch. It is amusing to realize that those who are requesting an immediate transfer of “sovereignty” to the Iraqis are those same ones who were against the war in the first place, who were happy with endless U.N. searches, and to whom the Saddam Hussein régime was an “internal” (Iraqi or Arab?) matter, and whose anti-U.S. stance comes in conformity to a Kantian universal peace among nations kept together through international law. It does seem, however, that to such people “sovereignty” should not have been “lost” in the first place simply because it is indeed an “internal” matter and cannot be forced from the outside. But what if the conditions for “sovereignty” were and are not there yet? Will Iraq ever be ready to become sovereign?





copyright ©2004 zouhair ghazzal