A Talk with Mohsen Kadivar (and friends): Justice and Political Islam

by Asher Kohn on 12/5/2009 · 2 comments

Yesterday I went to a talk by Mohsen Kadivar, an Iranian cleric who is currently lecturing stateside and on a speaking tour. He is one of the intellectual leaders of the Green Movement that picked up after the Iranian elections this year. I’m not going to discuss his political beliefes or the pros and cons of the Green Movement or Moussavi. I’m not going to discuss Iranian internal politics or anything re: Israel or nuclear power. That stuff is interesting, absolutely, but it’s not the focus of this blog, and I certainly don’t know enough to prevent putting my foot in my mouth. And of course, if you think I made an incorrect conclusion or I leaned to heavy on Twelver Shi’a belief when Sunni or Ismaili or other schools are completely different, just let me know in the comments.

All the same, Iran is clearly important to studying Central Asia (I’ll let Olivier Roy do the heavy lifting). And I think one of the most interesting political questions in Central Asia is involved with the weight that should be given to Islamic Jurisprudence. Nobody in the West ever seems quite sure what to do with an Islamist Government, partly because nobody is particularly a fan of the ones that exist (I’m ignoring the Gulf Microstates, because I don’t think anybody believes that those are reasonable blueprints for larger, economically diverse, countries). All the same, there is a clear interest on the ground level of Islamic Law and Islamic Rule, so its worth looking at, as Kadivar puts it, the tension between Islamic Law and Islamic Rule.

Kadivar is obviously a believer that Modernism, Democracy, and Political Islam can go hand in hand. He is just critical of how the Iranian government has done so, with the rule of Velayat-e Faqih being turned into a rule of infallibility of the jurists. His belief is that the state must never supercede the religion, and that the best way to ensure that the state will not supercede religion is to empower an independent judiciary (made of Islamic Jurists) to rule. He is a follower of Khorasani, a school of thought that has plenty of things to say.

I don’t have access to his Persian sources, but I imagine that this would (or at least could) be done in a way similar to how the Supreme Court works in the United States: striking down laws that are against Sharia. I’m not sure if that is simply me imprinting my American upbringing on the Islamic system, but it seems that this would be a decent blueprint: by allowing a panel of jurists to review state-made law, the law can then become more cohesive, and Ijtihad may allow for creative views and modernity to be injected into the sytem. Of course, this implies that the political regime would accept ceding power to people they, by definition, cannot control. And I’m sure that there’s a flaw in my understanding of Islamic Jurisprudence (which I am just beginning to jump into).

Another speaker was Professor Ahmet Karamustafa, an all-around great guy who specializes in Sufi Islam and Medieval Islam. He focused on what he calls “Quietist” judges, a term I love. He (and Kadivar, who used the term earlier) define it as apolitical jurisprudence. They both say that the vast majority (80% was bandied about) of clerics are Quietist, that they act for God independent of politics. They assert that Quietism is the “establishment”, that localized clerics are the ones who address their communities’ needs moreso than state authority. They do this not as a political act, but as a religious act: leading their followers towards better religion, not more correct religion.

This is pretty fascinating stuff from a nation-state perspective. He is stating that the Establishment within Islamic authority is not the state regime, and that the true Revolution of the Iranian Revolution was the attempt to co-opt the Islamic Establishment within a nation-state framework. Karamustafa and Kadivar believe that this is backwards, but this proposes a paradox: how does one form a state around an apolitical framework? And isn’t apolitical judgement, leading a community irrespective of the state, stil a political act? This paradox led to the conclusion of the formalized state judiciary (Council of Guardians) but an empowerment of guardians leads to a segmented state based around localities. In short, it would turn Iran into Afghanistan.

I don’t need to explain why the leaders of Iran don’t want to see it turned into Afghanistan, but the idea of localized jurisprudence, conforming Sharia to the locality and to the state, is something to chew on, re: societal reform. I wonder what John Robb would have to say about it.

Finally, Professor Leila Sadat spoke on Islam and the United Nations. She has a background on Human Rights law, and has plenty of fascinating things to say, but unfortunately they are less relevant to the point I am trying to make, and I’m already gone on very long. Human Rights Law is fascinating stuff, and the fact that it was formed when Central Asia was seen as not-quite-human and lawless has a lot to do with many critiques of it. But that is a whole other discussion. I just would be terribly remiss if I didn’t mention her (or Fatemeh Keshavarz, who moderated the discussion).

The overarching narrative, I suppose, is “What makes an Islamic State?” and “What does an Islamic State mean for its people?” In my mind, just because an Islamic State hasn’t “worked” doesn’t mean that the concept is anathema to economic growth, sane foreign policy, or human rights. My personal belief is that a religiously-rooted state is more predictable and more logical than many other options posited for Central Asia, but the trouble comes in the execution. Religious law is always a fractured thing. Kadivar said that this can be solved by democracy, he cites the AKP of Turkey, saying that population will choose and demonstrate which beliefs they are willing to accept. There may be some truth to that, I suppose, but I think that statement is terribly idealistic. I agree with him, though, that a functioning Islamic State hinges on the strength and creativity of the judiciary: that a cohesive jurisprudence must be formed from the locality all the way up to the capital, and that the Rule of God must be executed through the Rule of Law in order for the concept to work. I’m also pursuing a law degree, though, so I may be biased.

The final take-away from Kadivar is the following: A secular state cannot be criticized within the system from a religious source. You cannot go into an American court and cite the Bible. But, he asks, can a religious state be criticized within the system from a secular viewpoint? This is particularly relevant in Central Asia. All of our new states in the region rely on international acceptance for their power. If any of them were cut off from the international (secular) community, they would collapse under pressure from their own people. Therefore, for an Islamic government to rule, they would need to be open to criticism from outside, secular, sources. This openness to criticism from unbelievers must be balanced with the government’s right to rule, which is derived from Islam. It’s a tough ball of yarn to unravel, but the Central Asian ruler who does it may have stumbled upon a key to a stable Islamic state.

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– author of 33 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Asher is currently in law school at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is studying natural resource law in Central Asia and its intersection with different theories of jurisprudence. Besides Registan.net, Asher has written for The Los Angeles Times, Run of Play, İstanbul Altı, and Istanbul Eats. He has worked with the Natural Resource Law Center and the International Crisis Group, where he studied legal and political traction over a variety of issues.

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aresnaut December 10, 2009 at 2:42 pm

The problem with political Islam is that it fails to learn from History – even it’s own history — that anytime a governments existence is justified on the basis of religion, both the State and the Religion end up corrupted by wolfs in sheep clothing. Demagogues claiming divine authority have corrupted religion after religion throughout history to gather political power for their own benefit. Even in the USA many people have failed to recognize this truth. The Founding Father’s of America recognized this and came up with a three prong government — not because they trusted Judges, Law makers, Administrators, or for that matter the general public, but because they knew each would try to grasp power for themselves. “Where your treasure is, there you’ll heart will be.” You either serve God or Gold (aka. material power).

Realist Writer December 12, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Your cleric is just plain wrong on one count. The United States is a deeply religious country, where religion can be used to effectively criticize the government. While there is a First Amendment that does prohibit the state from supporting religion, you can’t make some silly artificial justification claiming the United States is fully secular. Abortion, gay rights, etc., all of these issues have a religious component to them.

One of the concurrence opinions of the Supreme Court case “Bowers v. Hardwich” in fact cited Judeo-Christian law, in order to make a point that sodomy was not a fundamental right in the US Constitution, because it was not a part of its national culture. While Bowers was struck down in 2003, the fact that Bowers was decided in 1986 indicates that it was actually fairly recently. This concurrence was written by Burger, who I believe was the Chief Justice at the time.


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