ISLAM AND DEMOCRACY: REFLECTIONS ON ABDOLKARIM SOROUSH
In his Political and Social Essays, Paul Ricoeur addresses forthrightly the situation of the religious believer in the modern world, especially in modern secular society. Quoting from scripture (Matthew 5, 13), he insists that believers are meant to be "the salt of the earth"—a phrase militating both against world domination and world denial, that is, against the dual temptation of either controlling or rejecting worldly society. As he writes poignantly, "the salt is made for salting, the light for illuminating," and religion exists "for the sake of those outside itself," that is, for the world that faith inhabits. In Ricoeur’s view, religion—including (especially) Christianity—has been for too long enamored or in collusion with political power and domination, a collusion which some recent theologians have aptly labeled "Christendom" and which has exerted a "demoralizing effect" on believers and non-believers alike, driving them to "cynicism, amoralism, and despair." However, the situation is perhaps not entirely bleak. When it emerges from this collusion, he adds, religion "will be able to give light once more to all men—no longer as a power, but as a prophetic message," that is, as a light which illuminates but does not blind. In a similar vein, Emmanuel Levinas has defined the role of Judaism or Judaic faith "in the time of the nations," namely, as a nondomineering voice of conscience which remembers and faithfully reiterates the call to justice.
Among all the great world religious today, Islam is still most sorely tempted by the lure of worldly power and public dominion; this at least is the impression given by a large number of its adherents, especially by many so-called Islamic governments and Islamist movements (often labeled "fundamentalist" in Western media). As in the case of Christianity, this lure or collusion is baffling and disconcerting—given the strong opposition of Islam to any kind of idolatry, that is, to the substitution of any worldly images or power structures for the rule of the one transcendent God. How can Muslim believers be expected to submit or surrender themselves to any worldly potentates, no matter how pious or clerically sanctioned—if their faith is defined as surrender ("islam") to nothing else but the eternal "light" of truth? How can they be asked to abandon their religious freedom (in the face of the divine) for the sake of contingent political loyalties to rulers who often lack even a semblance of public or collective legitimation? As in the case of traditional Christendom, Islam’s collusion with public power has exerted (in Ricoeur’s words) a "demoralizing effect" on believers and non-believers alike, driving many of them to "cynicism, amoralism, and despair." In this situation, it is high time for Muslims and all friends of Islam to take stock of the prevailing predicament. Concisely put: it is time, not to relinquish Islam in favor of some doctrinaire secularism or laïcism, but to reinvigorate the "salt" of Islamic faith so that it can become a beacon of light both for Muslims and the world around them. Differently phrased: it is time to recuperate the meaning of Islam as a summons to freedom, justice, and service to the God who, throughout the Qur’an, is called "all-merciful and compassionate" (rahman-i-raheem).
As it happens, such soul-searching recuperation is actually going on in the Islamic world today—often accompanied by intense conflict, recrimination, and even persecution. To this extent, contemporary Islam is in a state of agony, with the fortunes of recovery hanging in the balance. The point here is not to impugn the motives of political Islam or political Islamicists—motives which in many ways are historically understandable, given the backdrop of colonialism, Western hegemony, and perceived military insecurity. What is at issue is rather the wisdom and sensibility of politicized religion, seeing that the yoking together or collusion of power and religion inevitably exacts a heavy toll both on the sobriety of political judgment and on the integrity of religious faith. Among contemporary Muslim philosophers and public intellectuals no one has been more eloquent in exposing the pitfalls and costs of this collusion than the Iranian Abdolkarim Soroush. In a long series of writings, Soroush has vindicated the compatibility of Islam and modern democracy, by showing that it is precisely in the context of political democracy that Muslims can reclaim and exercise their religious freedom, being released from religious absolutism or oppressive clerical tutelage. Recently, some of these writings have become available to English-speaking readers in a volume titled Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam. In the following I shall explore Soroush’s argument by proceeding in three steps. In a first section, I seek to profile his position against the backdrop of political Islam, especially the backdrop of the Islamist rejection or sidelining of democracy in favor of traditionalist versions of quasi-theocracy. The second section offers an exposition and interpretation of Soroush’s reconciliation of Islam and democracy under the rubric of a religiously sensitive civil society. By way of conclusion, this reconciliation is inserted into the context of contemporary politics, especially the emergence of an inter-religious and inter-civilizational global society.
I. In common parlance, religion and politics are neither synonyms nor necessarily antonyms. On a theoretical level, one can distinguish a limited number of ideal-typical constellations involving the two terms. On the one hand, there is the paradigm of complete separation or isolation (an extreme version of the Augustinian formula of "two cities"). In this paradigm, religious faith withdraws onto a "holy mountain" while politics maintains a radical indifference or agnosticism vis-à-vis scriptural teachings or spiritual meanings. As can readily be seen, both sides pay a price for this mutual segregation: faith by forfeiting any relevance or influence in worldly affairs, and politics by tendentially shriveling into an empty power game. In the historical development of religion and politics, this segregationist paradigm has been relatively rare (leaving aside the phenomenon of monastic retreat). Much more common has been another paradigm or constellation: that of fusion or amalgamation—which may be accomplished in two ways or along two roads: either religion strives to colonize and subjugate worldly politics, thereby erecting itself into a public power, or else politics colonizes religious faith by expanding itself into a totalizing, quasi-religious panacea or ideology. History shows that the former strategy has been the preferred option of most religions in the past.
The same strategy also characterized traditional Islam. With minor variations, public power in Islamic society during the early centuries was wielded either by semi-divine leaders (the "righteous caliphs") or else by a combination of dynastic imperial rulers (presumably descendants of the Prophet) and a battery of clerical jurists or jurisconsults (fuqaha). In his account of political authority in early Islam, Ira Lapidus distinguishes between two models or (what he calls) two "golden ages": namely, an "integral" or holistic model and a more "differentiated" or symbiotic structure. In the first model, he writes, Islamic society "was integrated in all dimensions, political, social, and moral, under the aegis of Islam." The prototype of this model was the unification of Arabia under the guidance of the Prophet and his immediate successors. In the second, more differentiated model, imperial Islamic government—from the Umayyads and Abbasids to the Ottomans—was erected on the diversified structures of traditional Middle Eastern societies, thus yielding a complex, symbiotic amalgam. In this case, the original caliphate was transformed "from the charismatic succession to the religious authority of the Prophet" into a far-flung imperial regime governed both by religious norms (shari’a) and more adaptive political laws, or rather by a mixture of imperial-political authority and clerical jurisprudence (resembling the medieval theory of "two swords"). This mixture gave rise to a more complex socio-political theory. To quote Lapidus again: "Muslim political theorists, such as al-Baqillani, al-Mawardi, and Ibn Taimiyya, devised a theory of the caliphate that symbolized the ideal existence of the unified umma, while at the same time allowing for historical actualities."
According to Lapidus, contemporary Islamic traditionalists or "revivalists" harken back—though often unsuccessfully—to the two models of Islam’s "golden ages." To this extent, Islamic revivalism necessarily is at odds with the basic features of modern life—given that, in its core, "modernity" (at least in its Western form) aims at the disaggregation and radical diffusion of the unified, holistic worldviews and political structures of an earlier age. Being an integral part of modernity and its way of life, modern democracy inevitably falls under the same verdict of traditionalists: namely, as testifying to the modern abandonment of faith in favor of an "un-godly" secularism or nihilism. At this point, it is important to observe the strategy of the revivalist argument—a strategy which presents the transition from tradition to modernity (and postmodernity) under the simplistic image of reversal or antithesis. Thus, traditionalists are wont to erect a series of binaries to capture the historical change—claiming, for instance, that modernity (or modernization) means a lapse from faith into non-faith, from religious devotion into agnostic rationalism, and from the holistic unity of "truth" into a radical relativism (denying "truth"). In a similar vein, the argument is sometimes advanced that, while earlier ages were founded on "virtue," modernity is founded on freedom and non-virtue (as if a virtue without freedom were somehow plausible or even desirable). In the most provocative formulation, traditionalists assert that modernity has replaced the reign of God with the reign of "man" or humanity—a replacement equalling a lapse into paganism and the state of pre-Islamic "ignorance" (jahiliyya).
In the present context, the latter formulation is particularly significant. Under political auspices, the charge implies a reversal of public supremacy—namely, the replacement of God’s sovereignty with the sovereignty of the people (the latter equated with democracy). In larger measure, this charge is at the heart of the anti-democratic sentiments espoused by many revivalists and/or "fundamentalists." In discussing the "political discourse" of contemporary Islamicist movements, Youssef Choueiri highlights this point as central to that discourse. Referring to the writings of Sayyid Qutb, al-Maududi, and Ayatollah Khomeini, Choueiri underscores the holistic religious quality of "God’s sovereignty," writing that the phrase affirms God’s authority "in the daily life of His creatures and servants," revealing that "the universe is judged to be one single organic unity, both in its formation and movement: The unity of the universe mirrors the absolute oneness of God." Judged by the standard of this holistic unity, modern humanity—including modern democracy—exists in a state of disarray and incoherence, that is, in "a second jahiliyya, more sinister in its implications than the jahiliyya of pre-Islamic days." Pushing this point still further, radical Islamicists tend to view the entire course of Western history as "a connected series of jahiliyyas: Hellenism, the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution" (and its democratic offshoots). As an antidote to modernity and modern democracy, Islamicist thinkers typically propose a return to "God’s sovereignty," that is, to a semi- or quasi-theocracy (which usually means some form of clerical despotism or elitism). Thus, Qutb supported the idea of a "Muslim vanguard" (patterned on various revolutionary vanguards of the twentieth century). In turn, al-Maududi called for of an "international revolutionary party" ready to wage Islamic jihad, while Khomeini placed his trust in the guardianship of a supreme jurist (velayat-e faqih).
It become urgent here to look at the presumed transfer of sovereignty and its underlying premises. Is such a transfer plausible or persuasive (even on strictly religious grounds)? The idea of sovereignty implies the rule of absolute will or will power untrammeled by any rational constraints or intelligible standards of justice. To ascribe such sovereignty to God means to construe God as a willful and arbitrary autocrat— which is hardly a pious recommendation. Several of the great Islamic philosophers (of the classical period) had already objected to this construal, complaining that it transforms God into a tyrant or despot similar to such tyrants as Genghis Khan or Tamerlane. As it happens, contemporary Islamicists seeking to revive "golden ages" of the past tend to be attracted precisely to this aura of despotism (undeterred by the horrible examples of the twentieth century). Whatever the status of God’s sovereignty may be, however, modern democracy represents by no means a simple reversal in the sense of installing the people as sovereign despots. On the contrary, whatever else modern democracy means, it certainly means a dispersal of power and a constant circulation of power holders. Several leading democratic theorists, including Hannah Arendt, have gone so far as to urge the removal of "sovereignty" from political discourse, in order to make broader room for grassroots participation. This initiative has been continued and further fleshed out by "postmodern" political thinkers, and especially by defenders of radical democracy, for whom democracy is defined by the removal of the "markers of certainty" and thus by the disintegration of traditional holistic shibboleths (like sovereignty, the nation, or "the people"). What emerges here is a conception of democracy not as a static entity but as an open-ended and experimental process—though one needs to guard again against a simple reversal which would replace earlier holistic structures with utter fragmentation and incoherence.
Transplanted into the Islamic context, this conception of democracy entails not a simple transfer of sovereignty (from God to people), but a radically different understanding of political rule, and also a radically new view of the relation between religion and worldly politics, or between the sacred and the secular. In fairness, the sea-change involved here has not gone unnoticed by leading Muslim intellectuals in our time, including Muhammad al-Jabri, Muhammed Arkoun, Hassan Hanafi, and others. Thus, al-Jabri has proposed a "critique of Arab reason" which would open up holistic structures of the past to new and diversified inquiries, while Arkoun has urged examination of the "unthought" dimensions in traditional Muslim thought in order to tap recessed resources of both secular and religious insight. In the specific idiom of political theory, Lahouari Addi has contrasted Islamicist "utopian" revivalism with the demands of modern democracy. Rejecting as debilitating the tendency of Islamicists to denounce every innovation (domestic or foreign) as jahiliyya, he complains that, for too long, the Islamic world has "held itself apart from the social debates" of the West, preferring instead to encapsulate itself in a nostalgic and "apolegetic historiography." Drawing on the lessons of modernity, Addi formulates a crucial precondition for democracy in the Islamic world: "It is necessary to show how political modernity is incompatible with the public character of religion and how modernity is built on the depoliticization of religion"—where depoliticization, however, has the "precise content" not of abolishing religion but of assigning it a new domicile in civil society. Regarding the prospect of such a change to take root, Addi is moderately hopeful, stating:
Such a creation of modernism by way of Arab-Islamic culture is theoretically possible, for there is no reason—everything else kept the same—why democracy should be inherently Western and absolutism inherently Muslim.
II. As one can see, the path toward a reconciliation of Islam and democracy has been prepared in several quarters. What Abdolkarim Soroush adds to this endeavor is an unusual breadth of erudition and an unfailing grasp of key issues. These qualities are clearly evident in hisReason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam (as well as in his other writings, interviews, and recorded statements). His book forthrightly takes aim at the association of Islam with absolutism or an absolutist and despotic sovereignty. Surveying the history of Muslim societies, he bemoans the forced submissiveness of Muslims, a submission due to "a political culture deeply influenced by centuries of tyranny." In large measure, this political culture can be traced to traditional theological and jurisprudential teachings. As Soroush writes: "The theoreticians of the past used to say: ‘Sovereigns are mirrors of the sovereignty of God’." In traditional theology (kalam), God was portrayed as "an absolute bearer of rights and free of all duties toward human beings"; accordingly, kings and imperial rulers were viewed in the same light, as mirrors or replicas of divine authority. Predictably, vested in human hands, this absolute power produced dismal effects on social and moral life. "Is it not true," the text asks, "that tyrannies attract a considerable retinue of corrupt panegyrists and sycophants? What is this but moral and social corruption?" Such venality may explain why those "who miss few occasions to deliver a litany against the evils of freedom refuse to put two words together about the evil of absolute power." In modern times, however, and recently also in Muslim societies, a rebellion has been mounted against tyranny and its corrupting effects. This rebellion, one should note, is directed not to much against God or religion, but against human rulers arrogantly usurping divine authority. The modern world, Soroush writes, has long challenged and undermined a notion that has always been "a source of evil and corruption": namely, "the right to act as a God-like potentate with unlimited powers." Modern society rejects such God-like pretensions "because it does not consider government to be an extension of divine power within human society. Management skills require merely human, not God-like powers."
As crucial antidote to tyrannical oppression, Soroush’s text celebrates the value of human freedom (a defense which surely reflects also his personal experiences and those of many of his contemporaries). In Soroush’s account, human freedom is not merely equivalent to will power or arbitrary choice, but harbors ontological and even religious connotations. As he notes, freedom is not treasured by, or only receives lip service from, the powerful and arrogantly mighty. "Only those," he writes, "who consider themselves to be directly inspired by God, who profess to possess the absolute truth" tend to refuse "the gifts of freedom." But these gifts are vital to the oppressed and downtrodden: "Freedom is the slogan of the humble and the needy; it is the catchword of those who are aware of the penury of their own reason." In line with a longer tradition of philosophical thought, Soroush distinguishes not so much between positive and negative freedom as rather between internal and external freedom. The former type is achieved "by liberating oneself from the rein of passion and anger," that is, from inner (though often socially induced) compulsions. The second, external type consists in "emancipating oneself from the yoke of potentates, despots, charlatans, and exploiters"; its requisite is "participation in the contest of freedom, which is a public process based on rules and regulations." In their joint operation, internal and external freedom are the gateway to deliverance and the pursuit of justice—for freedom is clearly "one of the components of justice," and the seeker of freedom is "in pursuit of justice" in the same way as the seeker of justice "cannot help pursue freedom as well." Soroush at this point reminds his Muslim readers of such Qur’anic verses as "No compulsion in matters of faith" and "Shall we compel you to accept it when ye are averse to it?," adding emphatically that religion is "by definition, incompatible with coercion," while freedom has the virtue of endowing life and life choices with meaning. In the same context, we find this moving paean to the benefits of freedom:
No blessing is more precious for mankind than the free choice of the way of the prophets. Nothing is better for humanity than submission based on free will. Blessed are those who are guided in this manner, who freely choose the way of the prophets and are awash in a cascade of divine grace. . . . But in the absence of this state of grace, nothing is better for humankind than the possession of freedom. All free societies, whether they are religious or nonreligious, are humane. But totalitarian societies abide neither divinity nor humanity.
For Soroush, freedom is closely associated with reason or rational understanding, in the sense that such understanding provides a supplement and corrective to (arbitrary) will. Concisely put: freedom, to be non-capricious or non-despotic, requires reason, just as reason requires the help of freedom, specifically the freedom of thought (or libre examen). The latter freedom has always been anathema to proponents of dogmatism (theological or otherwise) who consider "truth" as a property and settled doctrine. "The vision of reason as a treasure trove of truths," he states, "is not conducive to thinking about the origin and the manner of arriving at truths." This view of reason as a storehouse or warehouse of doctrines entails the notion of an "enforced" or "administered" truth which leaves "no room for questioning and doubt." By contrast, anti-dogmatists construe reason as a path of reasoning, that is, as "a truth-seeking, sifting, and appraising agent" where the method of pursuing truth deserves as much respect as the goal itself. In this latter construal, freedom is a crucial requisite. What those who shun freedom as the "enemy of truth" do not realize, Soroush emphasizes, is that "freedom is itself a truth (haq)," namely, as the necessary gateway to truth of any kind. At this point, in an effort to underscore the importance of freedom of thought or reasoning, the text draws a parallel which is scarcely flattering to radical Islamic fideists utterly disdainful of reason. "It is hardly surprising," we read, "that hatred of reason rises under tyranny and dictatorship. Fascists found a friend in the passions of youth and a foe in the rationality of the mature." Like all dogmatic ideologists, "Nazis despised democracy and public deliberation because they carried the aroma of reason"; hence, "worshipping Hitler was encouraged because it was based on blind and brutish obedience."
Defense of reason, or rather of the process of reasoning, is linked with the vindication (albeit qualified) of modernity and modernization. For Soroush, premodern social life was marked by a certain static quality, averse to innovative inquiry and deliberate change. Modern humankind, he writes, is no longer satisfied with a passive acceptance of things, but is asserting its transformative potential; it has assumed the role of "an active agent in the world," whereas traditional humankind perceived itself as "a guest in a readymade house in which the occupant had no opportunity or right to object or to change anything." In the language of Kant (invoked by Soroush in several contexts), modern humankind has in a way "grown up" or achieved a state of adult maturity—a condition which has opened up a host of opportunities, but also entailed heavy new responsibilities. Following the European example, reaching maturity signals a kind of "enlightenment," that is, the growth of a critical reflectiveness evident in the critique of traditional metaphysics and traditional holistic worldviews. Against this backdrop, the history of humankind equals in many ways the history of the unfolding of human knowledge—where "knowledge" does not mean a finished set of propositions but rather a mode of knowledge-seeking or critical inquisitiveness (for which the development of modern science is, at least to some extent, an impressive testimonial): "Modern scientific knowledge has transformed not only humanity’s view of the world, but also its view of its own abilities and place in it." As a corollary of enlightened inquisitiveness, modernity has carried in its wake a certain metaphysical "disenchantment," which is usually described as the process of "secularization." As Soroush observes (echoing in part Weberian insights): "From an epistemological point of view, the presecular [or premodern] age is marked by the hegemony of metaphysical thought in political, economic, and social realms." By contrast, modernization unsettles earlier holistic premises, bringing about a regime in which "no values and rules are beyond human appraisal and verification" and where "everything is open to critique"—which is "the meaning of secularism."
Modernization, however, denotes not only a change of cognitive perspectives, but also a change of concrete social or socioeconomic practices—which explains the nexus of modernity and "development." This linkage is usually ignored or sidelined by radical traditionalists enamored with the past as an era of piety and morality. Soroush is adamant in challenging this kind of nostalgia. As he admits, development sometimes brings in its wake "leisure and occasionally pride, obliviousness, and disdain for traditional values." However, what is frequently neglected is the circumstance that it also provides the opportunity "for cultivating the higher and more spiritual needs"—and, in fact, for cultivating any values whatever, for "the distress of acquiring one’s daily bread, shelter, and clothing" hardly leaves room for engagement in arts and the pursuit of "mystical gnosis." Only once humans are liberated from "the worrisome tasks" of daily survival can they be expected to take wing and "fly in the sphere of higher concerns." It be may be correct to say that socioeconomic development only fulfills the primary needs and not the "higher values," such as justice, freedom, wisdom, and the like. However, while in the clutches of physical want, the laboring masses of humankind have little or no chance to reach these higher goals. For Soroush, in any case, the God of those struggling for subsistence is "the God of the oppressed, not that of the mystics"; he is a God "that vanquishes the oppressors, facilitates survival, pays off debts, and grants wishes" (in other words, he is "rachman-i-racheem"). Viewed against this background, socioeconomic development should be seen not as an aberration, but as "an important stage in the evolution of humanity and, as such, even ethically [and religiously] sanctioned."
Construed in this sense, development is beneficial not only for the pursuit of spiritual goals, but also for the fostering of an uncoerced public life and political praxis—that is, for the flourishing of modern democracy. Without postulating a narrow economic determinism (even in the "last instance"), Soroush perceives a close affinity between the struggle against economic misery and exploitation and the struggle against despotism. "Democracy," he writes pointedly, "is desirable for all, but in practice it is not available to all"—a restriction which is usually due to unfavorable socioeconomic circumstances. The greatest dictatorship, he adds (with a sideglance at conditions in many Middle Eastern countries), is that of "poverty and ignorance"; and it is in their shadows "that tyrannical [political] rule rises and prospers, extinguishing the torch of liberty and justice in human hearts." Democracy, one should note, is aligned in this account with liberty and justice, or rather with the liberty or freedom to strive for justice and truth—values which are "extinguished" by despotism. Far from being equivalent to popular sovereignty or arbitrary popular will, democracy emerges here as searching or "zetetic" enterprise, as a transformative and constantly self-transforming regime in the direction of justice. In Soroush’s words, democracy in a developed society is for ever "brimming with new values and facts"; its very existence hinges on "a matrix of freedom of research and adversarial dialogue of ideas"—practices which are incompatible with tyranny or political repression. A crucial instrument for furthering free inquiry and dialogue is an open public sphere, a sphere well informed but not domesticated or manipulated by the media: "Democratization of the spread of knowledge and the establishment of popular control over the flow of information (in addition to that of wealth and power) is among the most significant promoters and properties of democracy in developed societies."
In articulating his view of democracy, Soroush adopts an unusual stance which does not fit well into the established rubrics of democratic theory. On the one hand, he describes democracy as a "method"—which seems to place him in the camp of "proceduralism" or a purely procedural construal of democracy (devoid of intrinsic moral qualities). But on the other hand, he insists that the operation or maintenance of democratic procedures is impossible without a general commitment to "substantive" goods, such as justice and truth. This ambivalence or complexity is clearly reflected in his statement that democracy is "a method of harnessing the power of rulers, rationalizing their policies, protecting the rights of the subjects, and attaining the public good." What this statement reveals (or so one might argue) is an effort to break out of established metaphysical and political binaries—an effort which one can (cautiously) label "postmodern" (provided the term is not identified with a simple relativism or nihilism). This effort is intrinsic to the notion of a "zetetic" or transformative democracy. For clearly, an open-ended search for "truth" (implied in "zetetic") militates both against a conception of truth as property or storehouse and against its dismissal as illusory (rendering search futile). In a similar way, search for the public good is at adds both with the dogmatic imposition of a collective formula and with a stance of radical indifference or neutrality toward goodness as such. Soroush’s difficult or nuanced position is also evident in his attitude toward another binary shibboleth of our time: the doublet of "foundationalism/antifoundationalism" or determinacy indeterminacy. In his view, democracy requires a blending of the two, namely, a commitment to just means and a certain open latitude of ends. Here is a crucial passage:
The proposition that "democracy denotes the use of specific means to attain unspecific ends" is a fundamentally correct assertion—but lends itself to misunderstanding. Far from denying the a priori principles of democracy [commitment to public good], it is meant as a response to those who believe ends justify means and thus misguidedly characterize a totalitarian system that purportedly dispenses justice and human rights as a democracy. They are reminded: "method" is of essence in democracy. It is not evident, from the outset, who is right and who deserves certain privileges and powers. . . . Reality, here, follows the method of discovering the reality. . . . It is in this sense that democracy may be said to have a determined method toward undertermined ends. The indeterminacy, however, refers to instances and specific cases, not the basic principles and criteria of democracy which, like the fundamental precepts of jurisprudence, are determined, honored, and inviolable.
Soroush’s unorthodox stance surfaces in several other respects, especially in his discussion of modernity and Western liberal democracy. Although generally supportive of the former, he is not unaware of the pitfalls of a certain doctrinaire "modernism" (an awareness displaying, perhaps, a postmodern flavor). Thus, while clearly championing reason and modern science, his text also acknowledges "profound scientific, humanist, and philosophical critiques" of modernization which have arisen in the West as byproducts of development. From the vantage of these critiques, technology and development may have "run their course," allowing societies to advance beyond technological gadgets, toward new and possibly more elevated horizons (more attentive, for example, to ecological needs). With regard to Western liberal democracy, Soroush critiques both the exclusive glorification of one type of liberty and the retreat into a spurious and deceptive kind of moral neutrality. Returning to the distinction between internal and external freedom, he finds that Western society is one-sidedly preoccupied with the second type, constantly engaged in battling external enemies—from king, church, and nobility to unfair taxation and a host of imaginary foes. What has been forgotten or forsaken is the internal battle, the struggle against desires and inner compulsions. The truth, however, is that "if internal and external freedom are not combined, both will suffer." This onesidedness is sometimes associated in Western liberal society with a complete indifference or neutrality toward moral and religious concerns. Some liberal philosophers, Soroush observes, consider arguments in this domain "unverifiable and unfalsifiable"; hence, they deem controversy over such issues utterly futile and prone to lead into a "quagmire of delusions." As it happens, however, this kind of liberalism is by no means identical with democracy, or at least far from exhausting its meaning. "Equating liberalism and democracy," we read, "signifies, at once, great ignorance of the former and grave injustice toward the latter." Hence, "decoupling" this kind of liberalism from democracy is "analogous to the attempts of social democrats to separate democracy from capitalism."
The uncoupling of democracy from a morally neutral liberalism leads Soroush to his most important contribution: the idea of a "religious democracy" or a democratic religious society. Here it is important, first of all, to distinguish clearly between government and civil society, a distinction which is needed to prevent the usurpation of public power by a religious group or movement in violation of democratic rules of open competition and contestation. Equally important are two other requisites or corollaries: namely, the need not to conflate religion with dogmatism or dogmatic certainty and, further, the refusal to equate democracy with amoral indifference (a refusal implicit in the critique of liberal neutrality, mentioned before). Regarding the last point, religion can bolster moral sensibilities in a democratic society, just as general moral standards (like justice and human rights) can bolster religious sensibilities. In Soroush’s view, democracy cannot possibly prosper without commitment to moral precepts, such as "respect for the will of the majority and the rights of others, justice, sympathy, and mutual trust." Slackening of these bonds will endanger democratic life in any society. This is why "sympathetic voices" are beginning to call for "a return to virtues" in Western countries today; and this is where "the great debt of democracy to religion" is revealed, for the latter can serve as "the best guarantor of democracy." This service, of course, can only be fruitful, if the other conflation is avoided: that of religion and dogmatic absolutism. Returning to the story of modernization, Soroush reminds his readers that the difference between premodern and modern ages is the "difference between certainty and uncertainty," between a closed world view (claiming possession of truth) and an open-ended search for truth and genuine insight. Just as modern science depends on a continuous testing and correction of assumptions, so also religious doctrines must be open to continuous scrutiny, that is, to be cauldron of interpretation and re-interpretation (ijtihad) which engenders doctrinal modesty and tolerance: "Tolerance in the domain of beliefs is the correlative of a fallibility in the domain of cognition that has encroached upon traditional dogmas."
As a moral disposition, tolerance has a somewhat ambivalent character: it requires a moral or religious commitment to tolerance—which hence cannot be unbounded, so as to include tolerance of intolerance. For Soroush, religious democracy does not require the endorsement of a radical relativism, and certainly not the abandonment of moral or religious convictions. To this extent, democratic tolerance is not contingent on indifference or lack of beliefs, but only on the readiness to expose one’s cherished beliefs and those of others to questioning and possible correction. In this sense, Soroush writes, the chief requisite for tolerance is the willingness to jettison "infantile and immature attachments" to one’s own omniscience or infallibility. Like all moral dispositions, tolerance is a difficult virtue requiring steady practice and cultivation in a public context. Practice in a public context, however, is liable to infuse religious belief with a measure of open-mindedness or reasonableness—thereby promoting in the long run a "concordance" of reason (aql) and divine revelation (shar’). In a passage which is liable to upset radical fideists, Soroush maintains that a precondition for democratizing religious society is "historicizing and energizing the religious understanding by underscoring the role of reason in it"—where "reason" does not mean an isolated individual capacity but "a collective reason" or public "common sense" arising from "the kind of public participation and human experience that are available only through democratic methods." Democratic religious societies, he adds, thus do not need to "wash their hands of religiosity" nor turn their backs on revelation; however, they do need to absorb "an adjudicative understanding of religion," in such a way that an "informed religiosity can thrive in conjunction with a democracy sheltered by common sense."
Removed from the lure of public power, religious democracy—or a religiously nurtured democratic society—cannot insist on religious uniformity or homogeneity, but must allow and even foster religious freedom and the diversity of religious beliefs. In Soroush’s view, such a democracy necessarily has to be heterogeneous and pluralistic; in fact, its diversity is liable to exceed the vaunted pluralism of secular-liberal society—where some voices (particularly religious voices) tend to be silenced or ignored. As he writes: "The faithful community is more like a wild grove than a manicured garden. It owes the fragance of its faith to this wild independent spirit"—which cannot be harnessed without being strangled. In this respect, his text offers some truly captivating passages exuding the spirit of (a democratized) Sufism:
Those who have endured ebbs and flows of the heart, avalanches of doubt, clashes of belief, surges of faith, the violence of spiritual storms, and the plundering swell of visions that restlessly and ruthlessly assail the delicate sanctuary of the heart understand that the heterogeneity of souls and the wandering of hearts is a hundred times greater than that of thoughts, tasks, limbs, and tendencies. Belief is a hundred times more diverse and colorful than disbelief. If the pluralism of secularism makes it suitable for democracy, the faithful community is a thousand times more suitable for it.
Addressing the defenders of religious orthodoxy and conformism he adds: "You respect uniformity, emulation, and obedience to religious jurists"; but "I implore you to appreciate the complexity and colorfulness of belief, liberty, subtlety, and the agility of faiths and volitions." For indeed, "the plurality of religious sects is but a coarse and shallow indicator of the subtle, elusive, and invisible plurality of souls."
III. Soroush’s arguments are important and challenging in the context of Islamic societies, a context which traditionally has favored conformism over independent judgment (libre examen). Not fortuitously —but perhaps with some hyperbole—some Western journalists have labeled him the "Martin Luther of Islam" (albeit a very modern and perhaps postmodern Luther). However, the significance of his arguments is not narrowly restricted to the Islamic context, but appeals today to a broader, potentially global audience. From the angle of political theory or philosophy, one of the crucial features of his work is the shift of attention from the "state" or central governmental structures to the domain of "civil society" seen as an arena of free human initiatives. This shift of focus is a prominent ingredient in recent Western political thought which, in this respect, has derived significant lessons from Eastern European experiences (particularly the atrophy of society under totalitarian state bureaucracies). Even more crucial is Soroush’s attempt to foster a symbiosis or reconciliation of religion and democracy, an attempt which seeks to bypass both rigid separation and totalizing (or totalitarian) fusion. In his account, such a symbiosis would be able both to reenergize democracy by elevating its moral fiber (its commitment to the public good) and to enliven and purify religion by rescuing it from conformism and the embroilment in public power. By renouncing domination or "religious despotism," religion is capable of regaining its basic spiritual quality and thereby to serve (in Ricoeur’s words) as the "salt of the earth" or the salt of democracy.
In order to perform its role, religious discourse has to broaden its range and accommodate a more general humanistic vocabulary: especially the vocabulary of human rights, individual freedoms, and social justice. In our time, engagement or confrontation with these issues is a requisite for the relevance and viability of religion (Islamic or otherwise). Discussion of human rights, Soroush observes, belongs to "the domain of philosophical theology (kalam) and philosophy in general" and in a way constitutes an "extrareligious area of discourse." Although not directly nurtured by religious motives (at least in the modern era), human rights discourse is today religiously unavoidable, and a religious faith oblivious to human rights—as well as to human freedom and justice—is no longer "tenable in the modern world." For Soroush it is axiomatic that humanity cannot be placed in stark antithesis to divine revelation—which entails that respecting human rights and freedoms is important not only for promoting democracy but also for safeguarding its religious dimension or character. Even the tendency of many religious people to accentuate duties or obligations over rights should not be construed in a binary sense, but rather as a supplement or corrective to narrowly secular "rights talk." In a positive vein, religious discourse enriched by human rights vocabulary counteracts the pretense of "inalienable a priori rights," sometimes termed "divine rights," of public or clerical elites. In a religious democracy—no less so than in a secular regime—rulers (including religious judges) cannot be self-appointed but need to be selected through democratic methods accepted by all. In fact, it is "not only the right but the duty" of religious people to elect their rulers in this manner. Underscoring the democratic feature of religious democracy, Soroush asserts forcefully: "The ultimate right of the people to govern, that is, to manage rationally the society in such a way as to reduce errors of deliberation and policy making, shall not be abrogated under any circumstances. . . . The government of the people is a government fit for people, not for Gods."
By inserting religious faith into an open-ended democratic discourse, Soroush’s text makes a contribution to a major conundrum that has beleaguered Islam as well as other religions throughout the course of their historical development: the dilemma of the relation between reason and faith. Religious democracy cannot resolve this dilemma through fiat: either through fusion or radical separation. Rather, what such a regime brings into view is a difficult and tensional relationship, an ongoing mutual enrichment and contestation where both sides resist self-enclosure. In Soroush’s words, "religious scholars cannot afford to be oblivious to extrareligious knowledge," especially to such key categories of public discourse as social justice, public interest, and human rights. Self-encapsulation in a religious or theological idiom can only lead here to circularity and doctrinaire rigidity—which is detrimental to both reason and faith. On the other hand, religious or spiritual vocabulary can serve as an antidote to sluggish or conformist tendencies in modern public life—an antidote highlighted by the role of prophets whose mission has always been that of "accelerating human spiritual evolution" by "bringing the path of humanity closer to God, augmenting justice, and eradicating tyranny." Once reason and faith are correlated in this manner, an enviable symbiosis is achieved; in Soroush’s words: "Heaven and earth are reconciled and the severity of the paradox of religiosity and rationality is reduced." He also describes this nexus as "an auspicious reconciliation" where "religious morality would be the guarantor of democracy" and where "the rights of the faithful to adopt a divine religion would not vitiate the democratic, earthly, and rational nature of the religious government."
In our globalizing age, the correlation of faith and reason carries over into the relationship between historical faith traditions and the broader conversation of humankind, a conversation which includes as participants a variety of religious and non-religious voices. In this broader context, every particular faith tradition is compelled to look at itself both from the inside and the outside, that is, to shoulder the dual task of self-affirmation and self-assessment or self-critique. For a weak or shallow faith, this task is likely to be further debilitating and perhaps destructive. A living faith, however, will welcome the challenge of reinterpretation as the gateway to continuous self-renewal and reformation. In his In the Time of the Nations, Levinas—reiterating Talmudic teachings—speaks of the insertion of Israel into "the seventy nations," that is, into humanity at large, presenting this insertion not as a damaging confinement, but rather as an opportunity or invitation for faith to reveal its leavening potential. In a similar vein, harkening back to medieval Islamic formulations, Soroush speaks of "the battle of seventy-two denominations" seen not as an arena of conquest or conversion, but as the "wild grove" of faith nurturing the soil of religious freedom. Each of these denominations or traditions, he writes (affirming the importance of interfaith dialogue), is deemed praiseworthy and honorable in his or her own place . . . "Excusing the battle of the seventy-two nations" is the wise counsel of our righteous sages and is not a result of their "liberal-mindedness," faithlessness, or skepticism. It is the result of their profound philosophical anthropology and their intimate knowledge of the intricacies of the human soul.