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Islam Critical Essays On Political Religion

by Talal Asad


I have used the term “tradition” in my writings in two ways: first, as a theoretical location for raising questions about authority, time, language use, and embodiment; and second, as an empirical arrangement in which discursivity and materiality are connected through the minutiae of everyday living.[1] The discursive aspect of tradition is primarily a matter of linguistic acts passed down the generations as part of a form of life, a process in which one learns/relearns “how to do things with words,” sometimes reflectively and sometimes unthinkingly, and learns/relearns how to comport one’s body and how to feel in particular contexts. Embodied practices help in the acquisition of aptitudes, sensibilities, and propensities through repetition until such time as the language guiding practice becomes redundant. Through such practices one can change oneself—one’s physical being, one’s emotions, one’s language, one’s predispositions, as well as one’s environment. Tradition stands opposed both to empiricist theories of knowledge and relativist theories of justice. By this I mean first and foremost that tradition stresses embodied, critical learning rather than abstract theorization. Empiricist theories of knowledge assert the centrality of sensory experience and evidence, but in doing so they ignore the prior conceptualization carried by tradition. My sensory experience is incommensurable with yours. It is only through language (integral to a shared form of life), and the conceptualization that language makes possible, that we can develop argument and knowledge as collective processes. Critique is central to a living tradition; it is essential to how its followers assess the relevance of the past for the present, and the present for the future. It is also essential for understanding the nature of circumstance, and therefore the possibility of changing elements of circumstances that are changeable. Relativist theories of justice assert that "justice" is simply the name for the norms that actually guide and regulate a people's form of life. And yet what other people consider to be justice is part of the circumstance that confront the followers of every living tradition. As such it constitutes a challenge to every critical tradition, an invitation to change contingent aspects of one's tradition, or of the circumstances in which it is embedded, or both. This is not a challenge of abstract theories but of embodied (and yet criticizable) ways of life.

Discursive and embodied tradition do not refer to two separate types of tradition, two mutually exclusive principles of social organization (like Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft, say). In general I use the concept of tradition to address now the use of inherited language and now the acquisition of embodied abilities by repetition. One might suggest that having a tradition is an expression of a desire for the completion of a present that is simply unfinished time. Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote: “Tradition is not something a man can learn; not a thread he picks up when he feels like it; any more than a man can choose his own ancestors. Someone lacking a tradition who would like to have one is like a man unhappily in love.”[2] For Wittgenstein, in other words, tradition represents for someone who doesn’t have it the object of an unattainable longing: the condition of belonging to another, being accepted as such by him or her, and of hoping to learn (and construct) through friendship who one is. Of course the language and practice of tradition can and must be learnt (people do enter traditions they have not inherited) but Wittgenstein’s emphasis is on the fact that what is learnt is not a doctrine (rules) but a mode of being, not a thread one can pick up or drop whenever one feels like it but a capacity for experiencing another in a way that can’t be renounced.

I use the concept of embodiment to address questions of beginning, growth, and completion, of finitude, of hope and of failure; I use the idea of discourse in the same context to explore how citizens talk about and engage with power and authority in shifting moments of time.[3] I understand tradition to be given not invented. Even when reform is proposed there is an assumption, explicit or implicit, that “the tradition’s essence”—what is perceived as essential to it—is not to be changed but defended through purification, the process of separating what is contingent from what is essential. Thus contrary to those who see an irreconcilable opposition between tradition and genealogy, I suggest that the very act of “purifying tradition” draws on genealogical arguments. Genealogical critique is not (as Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, has insisted) a rejection of all grounding; its ground is “today,” the place from which one thinks on the difference between time present and time past, and aspires to future time. The purification of tradition uses violence (or the threat of violence) to restore an obscured origin that can then accommodate itself more smoothly to the real, progressive world. This process of critical purification (modernization) is a process of what must be transgressed if tradition is to become civilized. As a consequence, actual traditions, descriptively so identified, can disintegrate or implode.[4]

Discourses and acts that found a tradition are not exhaustive because subsequent events become part of those foundations, by virtue of interpreting or developing them. In any living tradition there are arguments about whether exegetical texts, or texts belonging to other traditions, have any value for one’s own tradition, and if so why. Disagreements therefore arise not only about the substance of interpretation but also over where exactly the limits of a tradition lie. These arguments and exchanges suggest that founding narratives are moments in ongoing conversations: so in principle tradition can accommodate rupture, recuperation, reorientation, and splitting—as well as continuity. Tradition is singular as well as plural. For subjects there are not only continuities but also exits and entries. Tradition accommodates mistakes as well as betrayal; it is not by accident that “tradition” and “treason” have a common etymology.

So in what follows I want to think about politics in Egypt today, especially by attending to ideas about Islamic tradition that have been explicit or implicit in much of the discourse of participants and commentators of the events since January 2011. In particular, I want to ask what a liberal state, which is said to be a precondition of individual freedom (including religious freedom), makes difficult or even impossible. I note that of course not all liberal states are identical, but they do share something that enables them to be identified as “liberal.” I begin, however, by asking what it is about “tradition” that secularists find antipathetic, and then discuss how a learned follower of Islamic tradition interpreted aspects of it to me. I then argue that modern sovereignty (of subject and state) makes it difficult for certain kinds of embodiment, certain kinds of ethics, to flourish in our globalized, speeded-up world. I explore in what follows some openings and closures brought about by modern concepts of ethical and political practice in post-2011 Egypt.


Over the last several decades, before the coup in July 2013, whenever I visited Egypt I often heard the so-called Islamic Awakening (as-sahwa islāmiyya) censured. The critics regarded themselves as “modern,” and so signs of what they identified as religion in public offended them. What they found offensive wasn’t always political. Their anxiety was focused on two aspects of what they saw as dangerous: on the one hand, the fastidious emphasis on ritual as evidence of blind obedience to authority, and therefore threatening to the autonomous modern self; on the other hand, the insistence on the priority of the shari‘a in the constitution of the state—a form of “religious” law that is politically divisive and archaic in its assumptions of personal relations. The radical secularist position (not the most vocal in Egypt) is that religion belongs to the past, as do all illusions from which one has emancipated oneself; the more common view among secularists is that “religion” is essentially a private matter of personal ethics and that while it may perhaps be expressed in public ceremonies it must under no circumstances enter the same space as politics. Many modernizers view the present “crisis” of Arab society as being rooted in an unquestioning attachment to “religious tradition.” The famous poet Adonis, for example, has written at length on the need to break decisively with tradition (salafiyya). As an advocate of revolutionary change in Arab society he urges “the necessity of freeing the Arab from all dependence on tradition, the necessity of eliminating the past’s sacredness and of considering it part of an experience or knowledge toward which one has no obligation whatever (ghayr mulzima itlāqan).”[5] This modern idea of choice stands defiantly against the idea of a past to which one is bound by language, capability, and affection.

The censure my secular friends made of what they considered Islamic tradition echoes a historical debate about “religion” since the early Enlightenment that is partly based on a new psychology that emerged in Europe in early modernity, a psychology focusing on such interior states as sincerity, authenticity, and the will—and claiming a clear-cut antithesis between freedom and authority.[6] Since the seventeenth century, ritual has been spoken of very much as tradition has: it looks to the past as continuous and unchanging, it consists of formal and inauthentic action, it is based on non-rational thought, it submits one’s own will to that of another, it prioritizes social convention over personal sincerity and freedom of action. This view was epitomized in the Protestant rejection of Catholic ritualism,[7] eventually to become part of modern common sense.[8]

The old assumption that tradition is “antimodern” has been countered in several ways. Thus Adam Seligman and his colleagues have recently argued that the formal character of ritual has the function of smoothing social life where a rigid adherence to one’s actual feelings (“being sincere”) would seriously disturb it. The theoretical object of submission to ritual is therefore not the suppression of authentic feeling but its management by the use of conventional formalities so that social life becomes possible.[9] Again: The principle of precedent in tradition is also known to be crucial to modern law. In both common law and the principle of stare decisis, the reasoning in prior judicial decisions is followed unless there are strong legal reasons to do otherwise.[10] And in liberal democratic countries the constitution is the foundation to which future politics is expected to be bound and which citizens must venerate. Finally, respectful attention to the objects, texts, buildings and landscapes that have survived from the past become valuable evidence in the present for reconstructing that past, and a critical assessment of such evidence is essential to the making of veridical historical narratives. Discursive fidelity to the past, and attention to the way in which language has constructed its categories (used by people who lived in the past as well as those used by scholars who have studied them) is central to the modern discipline of history.[11]

And yet one may object: None of this, surely, proves that religion should have a place in modern politics. Some continuity with the past may be necessary because it facilitates social intercourse, or because it provides a measure of predictability to the law (and therefore to the state), but religious tradition bases itself on unquestionable authority whereas democratic politics requires public debate capable of being brought to a rational conclusion.[12] I’ll return to this and other liberal claims about politics later but first I want to talk a little about the Islamic concept of tradition so that it might help us think about the times and authorities of politics in Egypt.

In 2009 I was in Cairo for several months and had weekly conversations with Shaykh Usama Sayyid al-Azhari, occasional khatīb of Sultan Hassan mosque, and also a protégé of Shaykh Ali Gum‘a, one-time Grand Mufti of Egypt. I was initially concerned with hearing about his views on human rights in Islam, but as he spoke I became more interested in what he had to say about the formation of personal virtue within Islamic tradition. Thus at one point Shaykh Usama commented “We say al-a‘māl bi-nniyyāt (deeds are to be judged by intentions) but where do intentions come from?” And then went on to say that the process by which human beings were formed (takwīn al-insān) was what formed intentions, and therefore the possibility of a just social life: The constitution of intentions by behavioral and verbal action takes place in various contexts of social life. He went on to talk about the education of good character (tahdhīb al-akhlāq) through the practices of devotion and discipline, but insisted that the ethical formation of the individual was not a matter for the individual alone, that it took place through interactions among people and things in several social locations: “household, school, mosque, the media, and the street.” In each location there were proper and improper ways of behaving and interacting with others, behavior that had to be learnt and being enacted was part of the process of learning. It was not simply that practice mattered; it was that learning to practice aptly what was learnt that was critical. That was why, said Shaykh Usama, when ibn Taymiyya spoke of faith (imān) as something expressed primarily in and through actions (a‘māl), he cited a well-known hadith about the foundational status of devotional practices (‘ibādāt) in Islam: “Islam is built on five [pillars]” (mabniya al-islām ‘ala khams). The rituals cited are: a public articulation of faith (shahāda), the formal worship of God five times a day (salāt), fasting in the month of Ramadan (sawm), and giving charity (zakāt).[13] The required declaration of intention (niyya) preceding every act of devotion was part of the devotion and the verbal articulation was supposed to sink into the act: it was therefore different from the formation and implementation of intention in acts that belong to matters in commerce and politics that might or might not be realized.[14] For ibn Taymiyya, as for Ghazali, so Shaykh Usama reminded me, the unthinking religiosity of ordinary people was more important for the tradition than the formal reasoning of philosophers and theologians precisely because it was embodied in everyday life.

What was crucial in traditional devotion was both its initial guidance by an authoritative teacher, whether parent, friend, or shaykh, and its perfectibility. It was in this exercise of the soul, as Ghazali put it, that spiritual orientations and sensibilities could be learnt and confirmed.[15] Thus repetition of the same creates (paradoxically) something different, so that vice turns into virtue and inability into ability. The conception of time here stands in clear contrast to the linear time of historical progress. In the former, time can be completed, the past bound to present and future; in the latter there is no completion, only continuous improvement into an indefinite future, and an indefinitely accumulating past that must be left behind.

It is easy to confuse what Shaykh Usama was saying with what is called self-fashioning, a process well known in the ancient world and revived in the European Renaissance. Christian thought and practice had rejected self-making and developed an alternative in the monastic discipline that taught willing submission to tradition. Augustine expressed this rejection in a memorable warning: “Hands off yourself. Try to build up yourself, and you build a ruin.”[16] The individual, in other words, should not assume that he or she was sovereign. The subject did not have the authority to make him/herself; that authority resided in the practice of submitting oneself to the discipline of tradition. “Submission” is here conceived of not as a passive or coerced state but as an act of connecting to the authority of a tradition. Submission was therefore not unqualified, because opposition to false claims to authority was itself an essential form of obedience. Islam (“submission”) shares this orientation, and the ethical language that goes with it, with premodern Christianity, and has developed it even more vigorously in the sharī‘a tradition, of which the practice of amr bi-l-ma‘rūf is a part. This should not be surprising, incidentally, because Islam developed in late Antiquity in a world where Byzantine and Sassanian empires ruled and Christian, Judaic, and Mazdaean traditions flourished, and so, as Muslims interacted with non-Muslims, they inherited institutions and ideas from that complex history, and went on to develop them in diverse but distinctive ways.

With the growth of commercial society, however, the possibilities of self-invention have opened up for much of the population and have been justified as the right of the sovereign self. Many critics have pointed out that that form of embodiment is based on the illusion of sovereignty because and to the extent that the individual’s behavior is a response to the market. According to this critical view the market that organizes modern commercial society, like all transcendent force, requires consumers and investors to fall into line. However, this view is not persuasive to most people who feel that they are making free choices in the market, that the market offers them a means of fulfilling their own desires, but this assumption rests on the belief that coercion is always and only external, always what is apparent to consciousness. It ignores the old problem of internal coercion and therefore the possibility that one cannot be free until the inner compulsion that clouds one’s judgment and distorts one’s conscious action is dissolved. As philosophers of antiquity and the Renaissance put it, one’s emotions (passions) imprison one, and it is only the intentional use (action) of reason that can liberate one from this prison. So there is a crucial difference between self-care that is entirely subject to the individual’s choice and responsibility (self-invention), and the discipline of the self whose experience and authority lie in tradition. The former rests on the assumption that the self is self-contained (“buffered” in the word of one modern philosopher) and the latter on the recognition that it overlaps with, and contains, other selves.[17]

A modern secular version of self-care is institutionalized in Freudianism, but with the interesting twist that the unconscious past is made the source of psychic blockages whose removal can be secured through a talking cure. But to regard the authority of the past as only the source of blind obedience is to ignore the possibility that the past may be reached in the present not only through the discovery of unconscious desires and fears formed in the past that act as coercive forces in the present but also in an opposite direction, through conscious repetition that aims at making one’s self-conscious actions unself-conscious in the future. When one acts unself-consciously one is not suppressing desires—and therefore coercive forces—into one’s unconscious. One is educating one’s desires so that one does not encounter them as obstacles to living. The disciplined body is not a coerced body but a “docile” body, in the older sense of a body that is “teachable.” To be teachable is not only to be able to listen to another person (one’s teacher) but also and especially to be able to listen to oneself; that is a skill to be acquired and perfected through tradition. Of course one may be taught to do wicked things but that is a general problem about persuasion and learning, not one special to living through tradition.

What Shaykh Usama was trying to describe was thus more interesting than the disapproval of my friends in Cairo. What he sought to convey was the idea of intention itself being constituted in the repeated acts of body-and-mind within a social context. In fact, like the mastery of all grammar, the ability to perform devotions well (to devote oneself) required not only repetition but also flexibility in different circumstances. It was not simply a matter of acting as in the past but of acquiring a capability for which the past was a beginning and by which the need to submit consciously to a rule would eventually disappear. When one mastered the capability, its exercise did not require a continuous monitoring of oneself (“Am I following the rule correctly?”).

According to Shaykh Usama there was always a social dimension to the disciplines of devotion, as in the traditional duty of every Muslim “to urge what is good and oppose what is reprehensible” (amr bi-l-ma‘rūf wa nahy ‘an al-munkar),[18] including advice (nasīha) and warning (tahdhīr). What I found intriguing about his discourse was the attempt to tie amr bi-l-ma‘rūf to the virtue of “friendship” (suhba, ikhwa), to present it as a matter of responsibility and concern for a friend rather than simply of policing.[19] The language and attitude in which one carried out that duty was integral to what amr bi-l-ma‘rūf was, because, “Every Muslim is a brother to every other Muslim.” What is known historically in Christian history as “pastoral care” is here diffused among all Muslims in relation to one another.

Michael Cook has pointed out in his valuable historical survey of amr bi-l-ma‘rūf that the duty to “forbid wrong” finds expression in a rich vocabulary: “A wide variety of locutions are used for this besides ‘command’ (amara) and ‘forbid’ (naha). A man may speak to (qāla li-) the offender, exhort him (wa‘aza), counsel him (nasaha), censure him (wabbakha), shout at him (sāha), and so forth. … [O]ther things being equal, one should perform the duty in a civil fashion. … But although in general one should speak politely, there are times when rudeness is in place.”[20] Clearly the performance of that duty is in crucial measure dependent on the vocabulary used, and the differences in language cannot be reduced simply to two imperatives—obligatory and forbidden actions—that are central to what we would today call law. They articulate a range of interactions belonging to tradition. And yet despite his reference to the rich vocabulary employed in it, Cook reduces this tradition to the imperative of “forbidding wrong,” a move that, among other things, distracts attention from the complex process of “encouraging right.” Of course, the former logically presupposes a conception of what is right, but cultivating right behavior is not exhausted by prohibitions as Shaykh Usama clearly recognized—it is usually a longer and more complicated process of learning, in which the substantive language and the repeated practice of the tradition, as well as the contingent circumstances in which they occur, are interlaced. It requires speaking to those whose behavior one wants to change in the way one would speak to a friend.

According to Shaykh Usama, a just society was possible only if its individual members learnt the virtues through tradition, and were helped to do so by relatives, teachers, and friends. He insisted that even if you meet a stranger you should behave towards him as though he were a friend unless you have good reason not to do so. One could reprove a person kindly but if urging him to reform failed to produce a positive result, one should boycott him until he changed, because countering the misguided behavior of a friend was a duty of friendship.[21] One implication here—although Shaykh Usama did not articulate it—is that speaking harshly (as Cook notes in his review of the historical vocabulary) may sometimes be necessary to make even a friend change his or her behavior.[22] Pointing out explicitly that something is unconditionally forbidden is of course part of that tradition—but only part of it. In a modern context this would include political boycott, mass protest and civil disobedience, all responding to a particular or cumulative injustice of state authority.[23]

In his analysis of the Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd case, Hussein Agrama contrasts hisba as a form of care of the self and also as a legal device: “While hisba, in its classical Shari‘a elaborations, was part of a form of reasoning and practice connected to the cultivation of selves, in the courts it became focused on the maintenance and defense of interests aimed at protecting the public order.”[24] His account demonstrates that when the shari‘a tradition of amr bi-l-ma‘rūf is incorporated into the judicial system of the state, it becomes part of the state’s coercive power and legalized suspicion in the interest of public order, and this makes friendship not merely impossible but also a distortion of the modern (impersonal) concept of justice. Agrama argues that the premodern shari‘a as practiced in the Fatwa Council is not law but a tradition that seeks to resolve the moral blockages encountered in everyday life by subjects who recognize themselves as Muslims. With the development of the modern state, however, another part of the shari‘a has been transformed into and treated in the Personal Status Courts as “law.” His insightful account of the work of the Fatwa Council brings it close to the tradition of amr bi-l-ma‘rūf as a form of care of the self—with the difference that amr bi-l-ma‘rūf is initiated by someone concerned about another’s behavior, whereas the Fatwa Council responds to requests for advice and help from someone perplexed or worried about the rightness of their own behavior as a Muslim. It is for this reason that Agrama traces the authority of the fatwa not to doctrine (the normative rule) but to the work done together by the shaykh and the individuals who come to him seeking the right way to go on as Muslims. The authority of this care of the self is rooted not in the sovereign subject but in the sovereign shari‘a that preceded him/her and yet remains always co-present.[25]

Agrama draws on the argument of a famous article by Wael Hallaq that presents the shari‘a not as a timeless structure but as a complex temporality best grasped in terms of evolving tradition.[26] Agrama is also aware that the premodern, prestate shari‘a is not “law” in the modern understanding of that concept, not a system of legal doctrines backed by sovereign state power, but a tradition consisting of normative practice and commentary that includes (but is not exhausted by) justiciable cases. In part the shari‘a is applied to matters that are justiciable, and in part (through such traditions as amr bi-l-ma‘rūf) to individual or collective pressure at a political level, as well as to attempts at blaming, warning, advising, urging, etc., to encourage friends, kin, and colleagues to act in a praiseworthy way. Which is why, as Agrama shows, although the work of the Fatwa Council is fully informed by the shari‘a, it does not deal with “law”[27] but with a nonmodern conception of ethics.

Five years after I met Shaykh Usama, Abdul Mun‘im Abu-l-Futuh, (a Presidential candidate in 2012) invoked the tradition of amr bi-l-ma‘rūf in answer to questions about the uprising and the coup, and the role of Egyptian religiosity in those events. “This religiosity (tadayyun) is a definite fact,” he replied.

The Egyptian personality includes deep faith and devotion to the sacred, and [a sense of] considerable interpenetration between everyday life and the sacred. But this religiosity is not always accompanied by a social, political, and legal consciousness, and sometimes it is [merely] formal or superficial or ritual. The importance of religiosity in the January 2011 revolution was that it formed the moral background to the conscience of the revolution even if its discourse didn’t display that clearly. As for the events of 3 July 2013 and later, the powerful propaganda that preceded 3 July joined in distorting and treating with contempt the Islamists in preparation for the events of 3 July and after. And the matter reached the point of doubting even what is sacred. . . . This was what weakened the values and meanings of fundamental religiosity that forbids the shedding of blood and commands what is right and forbids what is wrong and tyrannical (al-qiyam wa ma‘āni at-tadiyyun al-asāsiyya allatī tahrum safk ad-dimā wa ta’mur bi-l-ma‘rūf wa tanhi ‘an al-munkar wa-z-zulm) and so millions of people confirmed and excused and supported ugly behavior that was without historical precedent. So here was where superficial religiosity failed because of its separation from values and norms. 

Abu-l-Futuh’s observation on the massacres[28] of pro-Mursi protesters by the military regime extends amr bi-l-ma‘rūf into an explicitly political context. He invokes amr bi-l-ma‘rūf as a religious tradition that authorizes the cultivation of politically relevant virtues. What he sees that tradition as offering is not a rule about right and wrong (as in a court of law) but the ability to recognize a particular injustice and to react to it by demanding “a return” to justice—without having to calibrate the matter by reference to generalizable moral principles. Even if that ability is not always acquired perfectly, it is what that tradition, as embodied practice, seeks to build. And where the building is successful, it enables daily life to be lived without having to find justifications for moral—or political—obligation.[29]



So I turn to the January 2011 uprising and what followed the ouster of President Mubarak, and ask how religion, authority, and tradition are linked together in that story. One cannot seriously maintain that “religious tradition” was a significant inspiration to that overthrow of authority,[30] but there can be no question that since the fall of Mubarak religion has been involved in a complicated way in what followed that remarkable event. In a well-known essay Hannah Arendt has traced a very specific concept of tradition that was central to European history, in which it was bound closely to both authority and religion, such that undermining of the one inevitably led to the undermining of the other two.[31] This historical sketch of tradition is relevant to the Middle East because it begins with the Greco-Roman experience that is part of the classical heritage of both the northern and the southern lands of the Mediterranean,[32] and it ends with post-Enlightenment European political thought and practice that have had a profound impact on Muslim societies ever since the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Arendt argues that with the rise of modern science the authority of “religion” was irretrievably lost, and so tradition as idea and practice was also undermined—or, at any rate, radically transformed. The idea and practice of tradition that post-Revolutionary Europe identified and critiqued emerged, says Arendt, not with the Greeks but with the Romans, and crucial to that conception were two things: The notion of foundation (the sacred foundation of Rome, the state that Roman politics sought to preserve and extend) and a religion of the ancestors essential to Roman political identity. Arendt notes that the Latin for “authority” (auctoritas) derives from the verb “to augment” (augere), and that what those in authority sought to augment was the foundation. Although authority was rooted in the past, this past was present in the actual life of the city especially in the domestic rituals of the Romans. Authority, tasked with augmenting the foundation, was vested in the Senate and distinguished from power (potestas)—or the capacity to use force—that the people possessed. In the early centuries of the Christian era, says Arendt, the Church took over Rome’s political constitution, the most significant aspect of which was its adoption of the distinction between authority and power, conceding political force to the secular arm (the princes) and reserving for itself the authority of the keeper of the Christian tradition. There was, nevertheless, a link between the two—as there was in medieval Muslim governance between the collective authority of the ulama and the individual amir’s power, where the latter was expected to adjust his civil actions to the normative demands of the shari‘a as articulated and maintained by the former.[33] The important difference, of course, is that the ulama did not have a monopoly on pastoral care as the Church did. With the modern attempts at building the sovereign nation-state, religious authority was detached from political tradition and political authority was thereby secularized—which is not to say that “religion” was henceforth never used by the state to legitimate its actions but that “politics” has come to be very differently articulated from the configurations of power and authority that had previously prevailed.[34]

One of Arendt’s points is that although the bond between authority and religion has dissolved in Europe, the Roman experience of foundation has survived—and therefore, too, a crucial sense of tradition. In fact since a foundation is itself a rupture from the past and an opening to the future, this very ambiguity lends itself to the concept of revolution. But when the Roman conception of founding a political tradition becomes sharply separated from religious authority in thinkers such as Robespierre, the authority of a popular revolution becomes merged with the necessity of violence. The violent founding of a nation-state becomes a kind of tradition for as long as the state’s foundation is invoked and explicitly augmented. Arendt tells us that since the American and French Revolutions a fused form of authority-power becomes instrumental. In the concept and practice of revolution it was not the use of violence that was new but its role in constituting a new legitimate order for the good of the People’s future. What she doesn’t note, however, is that coup d’ètat belongs to the same family of political violence as revolution but differs from the latter in being a challenge from within the governing elite, one that aims to change only the rulers of the state not the system itself, but that legitimates itself in terms of necessity (saving the nation and ensuring its progress).

So not only is the dominant tradition of political authority in Europe today not “religious” in either the Roman or the Christian sense, that authority makes “the people”—“the nation”—sacred as an eternal subject, and it claims that national memory (“recovering the past”) and the People’s will (“making the future”) are functions of one and the same national subject.[35] Of course, Arendt is not the first to maintain that modern society (or capitalism) has destroyed tradition.[36] However, she does point out that the demand to create new concepts with which to think and act in a broken time reflects the human ability to make new beginnings. But she does not attend to the resulting paradox: to the extent that what is new actually marks a beginning it also initiates a tradition. It could be said, therefore, that the repetition of beginnings in modernity represents an enduring aspiration for continuity that is continually betrayed—an unhappy yearning for tradition that eludes one.

The 25 January 2011 uprising in Egypt expressed an aspiration that was neither “religious” nor “secular”: to overthrow the old system and make a new beginning, to initiate a “democratic tradition” that would flow from that beginning, a desire that the People’s political obligation be founded on loyalty to the nation and not on fear of the state’s violence: from now on no more political cruelty and deception; justice and progress will follow naturally if government is truthful and visible. (Yet it should not be overlooked that the security police too believed in visibility, as when they exposed tortured victims for people to see and become afraid, or when the judiciary stages show trials for the same reason in order to defeat the nation’s enemies.)

But an aspiration is not a realization. Some years later, well after the July 3rd military coup, looking back at the January uprising, it becomes apparent that there never was a “revolution” because there was no new foundation. There was a moment of enthusiasm in the uprising, as in all major protests and rebellions, but the solidarity it generated was evanescent. A hopeful attempt at beginning a tradition never guarantees the hoped for future: clear aims, good judgment, patience, and willingness to learn a new language and how to inhabit a new body, are required to respond to the various dangers and opportunities that emerge from attempts to found a new political order. Paradoxically, the first attack on the promise of a new political tradition in the January uprising was the removal of Mubarak—by the military. Most activists were delighted at what they saw as the solidarity of the army with the People: īd wāhid! (“one hand!”) was the slogan that met the soldiers as they entered Tahrir Square, but the army generals saw Mubarak’s resignation more clearly as a first step toward an orderly restoration of state power. They understood that it was not the uprising that undermined state authority but the erosion of state authority—of its credibility—that had allowed the popular uprising to explode and the military to move in. The state was no longer the one Sadat inherited from Nasir: the army,[37] big capital, and the Interior Ministry had by this stage fragmented the state’s singular purpose and authority into a number of reconcilable interests among the major leftovers from the Mubarak regime. It was the rebels’ failure to recognize that fact that gave them an exaggerated sense of their own power.[38] When people talked about “a transitional” period, there was, therefore, some confusion of the time required for institutionalizing “the People’s will” (irādat ash-sha‘b) with the time for restoring the sovereign state’s authority and majesty (haybat ad-dawla), because both times sought the legitimacy of political rule.[39]

Arguments about political legitimacy raged in Egypt after the July 2013 coup d’état, although it was not always clear how those who made the claims and counter-claims saw the relationship of legitimacy to legality. Max Weber’s classification of political authority (legitimate domination) into three ideal types is perhaps the most famous in the social sciences, but it gives only one of them a basis in legality: rational-legal authority. The other two, “tradition” and “charisma,” are unconnected to law. Carl Schmitt, by contrast, saw legitimate rule in terms not of consent to authority but of the right (the power) to resist, arguing that the loyalty of citizens to the state was in effect another name for the fact that that right was not being exercised. His assumption was that the nation-state must be homogeneous, sharing a single normative order for political and legal reasons: The right/power to break the claim to legitimate domination is not, in other words, derived from positive law but from the normative order of society that exists prior to the constitution of the state and its law, an order that provides the constitution with its foundation.[40] It is the Schmittian conception of legitimacy, incidentally, that makes it possible for mass street protests against an established political authority to claim that they are exercising the People’s will. Politics that derives from the sovereignty of a modern liberal state is always open to a continuous fear—the fear that the state’s authority may be violently undermined by the secret work of internal enemies.

“Terrorists” in authoritarian Egypt, as in liberal democratic America, are such a threat, and therefore also a spur to reinforcing the devices aimed at meeting it. In theory the liberal state may concede the legitimacy of political dissent, but when popular protest threatens to become politically effective, when it seeks to change the fundamental way the state is run, then concern for the state’s authority opens up different forms of action. “Traitors” are close to “terrorists” but more dangerous to the state’s legitimacy because while feigning to be ordinary citizens they abandon their traditional obligation to the state and convey their loyalty to its enemies. It is therefore rational for the state to extend its security systems (all the while arguing for their necessity and legality) through technologies of surveillance (directly, or indirectly with the help of private sector enterprises), a strengthened police force, and open repression.

One approach to understanding attitudes to state violence in Egypt is through a consideration of some remarks by a well-known journalist, Hilmi Namnam, speaking at a meeting shortly after the coup d’ètat in which he refers in positive terms (as many did) to the necessity of violence against pro-Mursi protesters by the security forces: “No democracy or society,” Namnam insists, “has ever advanced without the shedding of blood.”[41] Namnam’s concern is not simply to assert that the necessary price of progress is the physical elimination of its enemies but also to suggest that progress is not a matter of completing a particular project but of an indefinite advance subject to transcendent principles and it is this that constitutes secularity, the real nature of society. “We must get rid of the lie that Egypt is by natural disposition (bi-l-fitra) a religious state,” Namnam goes on, “because Egypt is secular by nature.” The deliberate violence of the progressive Egyptian movement is secular because it wants to make an increasingly better future in this world; the coercive activity of Islamists, by contrast, seeks conformity with a divine plan. It is motive not effect that distinguishes the two kinds of violence. Thus when Islamists appeal to “religious authority,” instead of “the People’s authority,” they obscure Egypt’s real nature. In making this claim Namnam draws on a revolutionary tradition that affirms the necessity of political violence in this world as a means of making historical progress. The necessity of this secular violence is called for by an unseen future, a force in which all rational individuals should have faith.

Hannah Arendt had this to say about the origins of this tradition:

Necessity and violence, violence justified and glorified because it acts in the cause of necessity, necessity no longer either rebelled against in a supreme effort of liberation or accepted in pious resignation, but, on the contrary, faithfully worshipped as the great all-coercing force which surely, in the words of Rousseau, will ‘force men to be free’ – we know how these two and the interplay between them have become the hallmark of successful revolutions in the twentieth century, and this to such an extent that, for the learned and the unlearned alike, they are now outstanding characteristics of all revolutionary events.[42]

According to Arendt, therefore, all projects in which the use of violence and the creation of terror among those subjected to it are regarded as essential to the creation of free human beings, must be distinguished from the active rejection of oppression presenting itself as necessary or from its passive acceptance as inevitable. “Necessity,” she suggests, has changed from being an excuse for particular cruelties to being the truth of a sacred cause.[43]

Reflecting on the left-wing romance with revolution, Michel Foucault once described the devious path of revolutionary “necessity” as follows: Marxist and Marxisant movements that aimed to capture the state apparatus because it was a historical necessity encountered a typical dilemma. Not only was it deemed necessary for the revolutionary party to model itself on the power structure of the reactionary state in order to fight it effectively, it also found it necessary not to destroy state apparatuses entirely when it took over the bourgeois state. It was necessary for state apparatuses to be retained in order to fight the class enemy. Furthermore, in order to run the appropriated state apparatuses, revolutionaries had to turn to technicians and specialists from the old regime who had the necessary experience—that is to say, who were members of the old class and who therefore brought with them the continuity of old time.[44] This fatal dilemma about clashing necessities—central to Egypt’s brief experience of “liberal democracy”—was intimately connected to the aspiration of “revolutionaries” to control the sovereign state. I will return to this point below when I discuss the encouragement by the military government of a growing body of patriotic citizens who voluntarily denounce their fellows to state authorities.

The question of how political intentions are formed and then expressed in action within a fluid, evolving situation—or even to what extent intentions matter for understanding what happens in the political world—is more complicated than accounts such as Namnam’s would have one believe.[45] The eminent jurist Tariq al-Bishri makes a more interesting observation: The hatred of secularists toward the Muslim Brothers, he argues, has been politically far less significant than the enmity of the state apparatuses toward them because self-styled secularists had neither mass organizations nor direct access to the repressive instruments of the state.[46] As a relatively small cultured elite from the middle and upper classes, secularists were well represented in and by the media. However, whereas their hostility toward “political Islam” was ideological, notes Bishri, the regime in control of the state apparatuses was concerned not with “Islam” but with the threat to their power and privilege issuing from the only major movement for genuine systemic change in the character of the state. The state therefore saw the Brotherhood as a serious political challenge: on the one hand as represented by the professional unions of doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, etc., that were dominated by the Brotherhood; and on the other hand, by the Brotherhood’s nationwide organization with its considerable popular following. Bishri says that after the uprising of January 2011 he had hoped the deep state, the secularists and the Brotherhood would all come together peacefully to establish and consolidate “democracy” in Egypt because the alternative would spell disaster. The fact that that comprehensive alliance didn’t take place was, in his opinion, the fault of all three.[47] However, what actually took place, I would suggest, was not a collective moral failure, a fault, but a particular political success in recapturing the sovereign state in which the winners were propelled by powerful emotions and used state violence (which their supporters endorsed) in order to save political time—by cutting short the elected President’s period of legitimate rule. It is often suggested by liberals and secularist militants that the Freedom and Justice Party government should have reached out to them as potential allies against the deep state, but supporters of the Brotherhood point to the longstanding hostility of these elements towards them (which no doubt was reciprocated) and ask rhetorically what value there would have been in reaching out to a small, unfriendly, yet politically powerless current. This is the kind of mutual distrust, based on a long history of contradictory political experience, that renders new foundations virtually impossible.

Many critics have talked about “popular anger at Mursi’s arrogance and incompetence,”[48] and about the fear that he was “Brotherhoodizing” the state and “Islamizing” Egyptian society. But Dina Khawaga, Professor of Political Science in Cairo University, has made several perceptive observations about the anti-Mursi protests in 2013: thus while she recognizes the tensions and criticisms within the so-called “Islamic Awakening,” she explains the hostility to Mursi’s presidency by reference to the idea of “moral panic” (al-hala‘ al-akhlāqi), the sense that what was sacred to the nation (muqaddisāt wataniyya) was being undermined by what was sacred to religion (muqaddisāt dīniyya).[49] Of course, this is not the only time that someone has used that expression in the context of general public tensions (it was first used in English at the beginning of the nineteenth century) but Khawaga’s characterization of the general atmosphere of anxiety, hostility, and volatility in the period leading up to the coup does raise a question that neither secularists nor Islamists in Egypt have debated publicly: In what sense can it be said that there were different notions of “the sacred” in this political contest? And how did one notion threaten the other?

Some left critics have insisted that to focus on the Sisi coup (as the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters do) obscures the fact that Mursi’s government was itself a part of the “counterrevolution,” because it continued to rely on the repressive apparatuses of the interior ministry and the military.[50] But that doesn’t, I think, quite explain the ferocity of the winners against the Brotherhood that never had control of those apparatuses, lacked a paramilitary force, and was prepared (so its enemies say) to make an alliance with more powerful elements of the “counterrevolution” such as the army: the sweeping arrests of its leaders, the death sentences on its alleged supporters in mass trials, and the savage repression of public protesters. I was struck, as many other observers were, by the passionate expressions of hatred against the Muslim Brothers coming from liberal and left members of the middle and upper classes. “You don’t understand,” I was assured over the phone by Western-educated friends in Cairo shortly after the coup, “the Muslim Brotherhood is a reactionary, terrorist organization.” And when the security forces massacred hundreds of peaceful Brotherhood supporters some left activists insisted: “That tragedy was also the fault of the Brotherhood.” This enthusiasm for the successful exercise of political violence is striking, and clearly very different from the sentiment of inclusive solidarity that challenged state repression in the January 2011 uprising. The emotional undertone of political alignments and responses tends to be ignored or underestimated in many accounts that attribute rationalistic motives to the struggling forces.

The motives of people who called or were encouraged to call for Mursi’s removal were no doubt complex. They included traditional lower-class deference toward the elite that took the initiative, as well as a desire on the part of middle-class militants to revolutionize the nation-state, and a fear on the part of those who owed their privileged position to the Mubarak regime that their lifestyle was threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood. Motives are often colored by the concealed desires and misguided views that people have of themselves. Once one insists on putting everything into boxes labeled “revolution” or “counterrevolution” according to attributed motives one has already appropriated the right to describe every political event in terms of his/her attitude toward “freedom” (for or against) and thus foreclosed more complicated accounts attending to shifts in perspective, fluid motivations, revised judgments of persons and events, and accidental happenings—and thus the collapse of attempts to build a new tradition.

Sometimes the attempt to explain political protest takes a more sophisticated form. Thus a day after the coup the sociologist Hazem Kandil wrote reassuringly: “Those who grieve over this affront to ballot box democracy forget that Egypt, like any new democracy, has every right to seek popular consensus on the basic tenets of its future political system. Revolutionary France went through five republics before settling into the present order, and America needed a civil war to adjust its democratic path. It is not uncommon in the history of revolutions for coups to pave the way or seal the fate of popular uprisings. Those who see nothing beyond a military coup are simply blind.”[51]

Kandil sees the June protests and the July coup as the work of a single subject (“Egypt, a new democracy”) following a clear cut road (“the democratic path”). But invocations of “democracy” are part of a discourse that all conflicting sides share, and it is not always clear what they mean by it other than something self-evidently “good.” Those who carried out and supported the military coup were defending “democracy.” Those dismayed by the forcible removal of a legitimately elected (albeit widely criticized) President feared that this act would damage the prospect of establishing “democracy.” For some, installing “democracy” meant following a model supposedly embodied in Western states—different from country to country, of course, but sharing a political tradition of ideas and practices. For others “democracy” meant an end to the pervasive corruption and cruelty of Mubarak’s regime, for yet others a just distribution of wealth in Egyptian society. Kandil’s casual reference to France’s history of failed republics (entangled as it was with colonial empire and its aftermath) and to America’s bitter civil war to construct a strong centralized state (that now extends militarily across the globe in collaboration with international corporations) is not relevant to the anxieties generated by Sisi’s coup today. What constitutes Sisi’s authority—the necessity of his intervention to save democracy, or the People’s acclamation? Of course, holding a national election is no guarantee of having entered a “democratic path,” whatever that might be, but surely dismissing electoral procedures isn’t “democracy” in any sense. Kandil may be justified in saying that “Egypt has every right to seek popular consensus on the basic tenets of its future political system,” but the unanswered question remains: How, other than by the ballot box, can one determine that that right is indeed being exercised?[52]

Echoing Kandil, the noted historian Khalid Fahmi wrote two weeks after the coup, “We were taught in schools that we were a patient and passive people, and for generations we accepted facile sayings about the genius of Egypt, its tranquil landscape, its gentle river and undemanding people. And yet here we are, proving to ourselves that we write our own history and that we can depose our rulers if they do not succumb to our will.”[53] Fahmi tells his readers that this traditional representation of popular submission is no longer credible because the coup has proved that “we” (all the classes, rich and poor, men and women, Muslims and Copts?) have the ability to “depose our rulers.” This claim attributes to the Egyptian People a transcendent power—the power to make happen what is true (to unseat disobedient rulers), and to say what is true (to write a triumphant history), a power no longer constrained by religious authority. Yet the considerable numbers of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt’s cities and villages discovered that they could not retain their “legitimate rulers.” It appears that the People’s power exhibits itself only in deposing but not in installing or reinstalling its rulers.[54] Because the nation includes those who are persecuted as well as their persecutors, those who want stability at any price and those who want justice at any price, the permanent victory of either side is never guaranteed. A paradox of the modern nation-state, including Egypt, is that on the one hand it minimizes the existence of significant internal differences in order to assert national homogeneity, and on the other hand it emphasizes difference as significant in order to exercise the violence that is “necessary” to its sovereignty.

Whatever coherent sense the idea of “sustained unity” has, it comes not from common sentiment but from the shared life of a tradition—and even that does not preclude bitter disagreement among those who follow the same tradition, and mutual accusations of taking what is contingent for what is essential and worth defending to the last. The disputes themselves make for a kind of unity. The modern sovereign territorial state, by contrast, doesn’t have such a unity because the lives of people within it are too disparate in the things they value, in the pasts to which they attach themselves, in their sense of what group they belong to, in the bodies they inhabit, and in the authorities they invoke. It is precisely because of this diversity that democracy (for all its obscurities and ambiguities) has emerged as an assemblage of political and legal devices—including elections—for addressing the ineradicable presence of difference, disagreement, and mutual hostility within the modern state with minimum damage, and why the skills and sensibilities required to engage effectively in democratic politics is acquired by experience, sustained by goodwill and blessed by good luck, and why the ballot box is an indispensible part of “democracy” whatever else “democracy” might be.

As hostility to the Mursi government mounted, the secular activists joined the state apparatuses and their business allies (who had been working to unseat Mursi from at least November 2012) allowing the army to enter the political arena publicly yet again.[55] Certainly Mursi’s incompetence was linked to his exaggerated sense of presidential power and immunity and to his underestimation of the resources and tactical skills of his enemies. The June 2013 popular movement that drew on a variety of complaints and fears (some genuine, some grossly inflated by the pro-Mubarak media) was ostensibly aimed at “the restoration of the January 25th revolution,” but what it did was to facilitate the coup.[56] In the 2014 military-backed constitution, references to the 25th January uprising present in the previous constitution were removed—and hardly anyone noticed. In general, 25th January has been erased or vilified by the state media[57] and military violence has openly claimed authority by invoking its own version of “revolutionary tradition.” The possibility of democratic time has collapsed, and it will not—at least for an indefinite period—be retrievable.[58]

The military coup consisted not merely in the removal and imprisonment of the President and the violent suppression of opponents to the new/old order, but in getting various social actors to accept Sisi’s claim to be exercising temporary authority over “the [contending] sides” (al-atrāf)—the nationally elected President on the one side and the opposition on the other—in his giving the street protests military protection, and in requiring “the two sides” to resolve their disagreement within a short, specified period of time. In thus positioning himself (and the military) above “a crisis of the state” Sisi was enabled by the emotional rhetoric of popular sovereignty to present his unilateral resolution of that crisis (for which Mursi’s obduracy was said by opponents to be entirely responsible) as an affirmation of the People’s will.[59]

In his book published shortly after the January 25th uprising the poet Yasir Anwar recounts incidents that exemplify secular feelings of unease and repugnance for the vocabulary of Islamic tradition, including such banal phrases as inshā’allah.[60] But the main interest of that book lies in its desire to transcend the political categories used by Marxists, liberals, and Islamists in their polemics:

We have escaped from a prison of politics to a prison of old books. No one sees this world with his own eyes, only with the eyes of others: this one is a Marxist, that one a Wahhabi, and a third a Sufi. We are all in need of a translator because we don’t share a common language (lughatnā laysa wāhida). How can Ibn Taymiyya debate with Marx? How can Hegel converse with Ibn Arabi? If disagreement is considered a source of culture and a sign of its fertility and vitality, cultural despotism and polarized thinking reign supreme over the present scene. Faced by the dominance of [social] fragmentation and splintering, the idea of eliminating the other has taken the place of accepting the other, of the relationship of neighborliness, of the interweaving [of different ideas] – all this has disappeared.[61]

Anwar’s complaint that “no one sees this world with his own eyes” is problematic, of course, because no one can do without authoritative knowledge accumulated from the past; in that sense our own eyes are also the eyes of others who have preceded us. But he is right to draw attention to the significance of friendship and antipathy in exchanges between people who do not always recognize the disparity of times to which the people they draw on or dismiss belong. Heated debates across radically different traditions, he says, seem endless and fruitless because appropriate sensibilities and the exercise of imagination are both lacking. Certainly mutual distrust and hostility have been major features of political life in Egypt ever since January 2011. Especially in times of political upheaval, fear, suspicion, and misattributions of intention render trust—and therefore friendship—extremely fragile.

            But first: why is rational debate of primary importance to democracy? One answer is that it has a decisive outcome and is therefore the best way, in politics as in law and natural science, of determining the truth. Liberals typically represent “religion” as appeals to divine authority, and that is why (liberals believe) debates about “religious belief”—or debates generated by it—are passionate, inconclusive, and prone to violence.[62] Less well known is the liberal state’s dependence on early modern arguments for capitalism,[63] in which the idea of “interest” increasingly displaced the idea of “passion” as the principal mode of politics. The good that is calculable (“economic value”) was considered superior in politics to the good that isn’t (“religious value”) because only the former could be conclusively assessed. This discursive move gave the market its ideological claim to being a neutral mediator for resolving conflicts over value, a claim that has since become central to the secular tradition of the modern liberal state. The electoral process itself has adapted itself in several ways (resource investment, targeting swing voters, gaining and losing seats) to the idea and practice of the market. The market has become part of liberal commonsense and liberal governance: no pursuit of sectional “interests” within the sovereign state, no politics; no free commerce, no paradigm of political liberty. It’s this formula that underlies the emergence of the modern state according to which politics now comes to be the interest in gaining access to the total system of social control embodied in the sovereign state for the realization of calculable goods. Although the inconclusiveness of debate about “religious belief” was originally a reason for proposing that appeals to transcendence be excluded from the domain of politics and confined to the private sphere, today inconclusiveness is no longer grounds for excluding debate from politics. Indeed the inconclusiveness of argument (such as over the manner and degree of state intervention in the economy or in religion), the turnaround of party government, is part of that inconclusiveness that is now regarded as a political virtue, a sign that “liberal democracy” is at work.

To understand how the “democratic promise” of the past appears in the present, how the authority of the 2011 uprising was aborted and replaced by another, one needs to attend not only to connections between the power of the state and popular resistance to it, but also to the constitution of subjects who adjust fully to modern sovereignty—as well as of those whose conditions of existence are incompatible with it. The subject is not only, of course, what he owns and thinks but also how he/she has learnt to move and sit and speak and feel in different situations—and what he or she wears and eats. So my final comment on Anwar’s complaint is this: It is not simply that public views are now mutually unintelligible (which they are), or that debate is interminable (which it is). It is that, like the destructive shifts following capitalist crises, the fractious time of petty dispute and distrust overwhelms the temporality of learning discursive traditions, on recognizing how dependent one is on others, and living accordingly.[64] The power of the modern sovereign state resides not only in what it promotes but also—and especially—in what it disables when it joins with a particular economy (capitalism) and a particular metaphysic (nationalism).   


There are several excellent studies of Egypt’s acquisition of liberalism—including a vocabulary of “freedom,” “equality,” “progress,” “the moral sovereignty of the individual,” and so forth—since the latter part of the nineteenth century, interrupted only partly by its socialist phase under Nasir, and then resumed in the liberal policies of Sadat.[65] These are, however, not simply moments in Egypt’s past; they are integral to a contradictory present in which people invoke aspects of the country’s political traditions: The beginning of state welfare, state funded education, and secularization—as well as the growth of the secret police and the military.[66] Nasir’s state reforms of Egyptian society and economy are usually set in opposition to the “liberal” periods that preceded and succeeded his rule. Thus much Egyptian political history since the defeat of 1967, and especially after the death of Nasir in 1970, is seen by the left as the unraveling of the state structure even though the military and security apparatuses retained and even enlarged their presence in it: various state functions and projects were privatized, and the so-called Islamic Current in urban society emerged as the most important organized opposition to the secularizing state.[67] There are certainly different ways of marking out political times in Egypt but underlying all of them since the late nineteenth century is the aspiration of its ruling classes to “catch up with” modern time, whether in a “liberal” or a “socialist” Egypt.

It is not always remembered that Nasir’s land reforms benefitted farmers who were considered to be “efficient” and “productive,” as against the very large population of poor peasants,[68] that after Nasir’s death the long-standing project of increasing efficiency and productivity helped to promote arguments for free enterprise rather than state ownership as the engine of growth and the precondition for national welfare. Whether the state is or is not despotic, “efficient growth” is its primary function together with maintaining its continuity and strength, and rulers have thus become receptive to arguments for privatization and marketization. And it is the continuous dislocation effected by the logic of the market that renders tradition increasingly precarious. The unities enabled by market-promoted lifestyles—fashions in clothes, foods, corporal appearance—are not to be confused with the embodied disciplines of tradition that Shaykh Usama talked about because fashion is ephemeral. One can take up fashion or abandon it whenever one feels like it.

As in other parts of the globe, the idea of freedom of the individual in modern Egypt has merged with the idea of the free market, expressed in part in the Supreme Constitutional Court’s reforms of the bureaucratic laws that were seen to be holding back private enterprise.[69] In the period of economic and political liberalization a plethora of NGOs has created an expanding space of “civil society”: middle-class activists, with institutional funding from Euro-America and entry to Western networks, telling their fellow-citizens to claim their rights as free persons from their state and to produce more efficiently in a free economy.[70] One result has been that this “civil society” has become further alienated from the predicament of the urban and rural poor.[71] Market time with its emphasis on the sovereign consumer not only undermines much of the continuity of everyday life but also disrupts the time necessary for cultivating trust that goes beyond the interests of the individual.

Over the last few decades the increasing circulation of money from rentier income has contributed to rapid social mobility that has helped undermine past solidarities and commitments, and created personal aspirations together with resentment at the failure to realize those aspirations.[72] Several years ago, the prominent Egyptian social critic and political economist Galal Amin bewailed what he saw as a change in people’s behavior: Promise keeping, pride in one’s work, and loyalty to old relationships, are, he wrote, now rarely valued.[73] Hisham al-Hamamy, advisor to Abdul Mun‘im Abu-l-Futuh, cites an expression to describe what he sees as the growth of self-interest in Egyptian society: gildi wa gaybi, literally, “my skin and my pocket,” that is, “all that matters is what affects my body and my money.”[74] From a relativistic perspective (according to which the successful individual is the sole judge of what is ethical behavior and the successful nation is the sole criterion of what is justice) the principle of gildi wa gaybi cannot be faulted.

With the increasing complexity of social-economic life, relationships have a tendency to become oversimplified and crude. The space of genuine friendship, critics say, is disappearing. With the growth of consumerism deepening differences among life chances grow too;[75] continuity with the past, essential to friendship, is devalued.[76] When some people speak of growing corruption (fasād) in Egyptian society it is the autonomous self they claim to see emerging everywhere. To what extent these reactions reflect a sense of anxiety on the part of the older middle classes about rapid social mobility that sometimes seems to threaten them is difficult to say. If looked at carefully, of course the matter is complicated: People still belong to families and associations, and they claim they have friends. Nevertheless, commitment to others—and trust in them—is in considerable tension with the liberal incitement to individual autonomy. It would be interesting, in this regard, to trace the changing discourse of ethics as it reflects the increasing subjectivisation of morality—that is to say, the increasing shift of moral authority to the “conscience” of the autonomous individual. Thus today, in Egypt as elsewhere, secular moderns—especially those belonging to the middle class—define ethical behavior by appeal to conscience, or by reference to good/bad consequences. This subjectivization of morality (so different from shari‘a traditions like amr bi-l-ma‘rūf) makes it much more difficult to develop a coherent moral language with which citizens can collectively criticize state policies.

When the middle classes welcome the modernization of Egyptian society, they point to individual autonomy as the basis of economic enterprise and efficiency and to its rejection of religious group identity in politics. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century restructuring of Egyptian society and polity towards what was conceived of as modernity encouraged a new form of governmentality: subjective self-fashioning (based on freedom from external constraint) that has increasingly eroded the conditions for tradition in embodiment. But it is not quite correct to say that the pervasive corruption of Egyptian society that accelerated with marketization has removed any space for ethics. What one sees, I suggest, is a new form of ethics that is gradually overtaking the old: a morality modeled on the law in which the individual legislating his or her transcendental principles for him/herself stands in tension with the legislation of the sovereign state.

Hostility to the presence of “religion” in the public sphere is part of being modern. It is a reflection of the fact that the concept and practice of “religion”—as well as of “politics” and “ethics”—are in process of being formed or radically reformed in modern liberal society. Thus one might point out that “religion” has not been excluded from the state: Azhar has acquired an increasingly public role in the post-coup era. Working in close collaboration with the Ministry of Religious Endowments, the present Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar, Ahmad at-Tayyib (who supported the military coup), aspires not only to greater prominence in the public domain but also to greater collaboration with the state in the extended regulation of mosques, preachers, Islamic research centers, some university faculties, etc., and seeks to project an Islam “appropriate to the twenty-first century,” as he has put it. But two points need to be noted about that Islam. First, “true Islam” is the product of a calibration; it excludes “extremism,” that is to say, Islam that uses “illegitimate” violence; hence it is more often referred to as “moderate” or “liberal” Islam that assigns the use of violence to the state. Second, its attachment to the state is a form of “administration,” not “politics.” Although politics takes place within the framework of the modern state its typical form is the political party by which it competes for power with other parties. In that sense “moderate Islam” is not political. It is a force in the service of state authority, an instrument of modern sovereignty for the protection of modern sovereignty—an aim to which the Muslim Brotherhood has also been committed.

In his oration before an audience of senior military and police officers celebrating the “October 6 victory” in the 1973 war against Israel, Shaykh Ali Gum‘a, previous Grand Mufti of Egypt, denounces the Muslim Brotherhood as a sectarian minority, as “heretics and traitors” (khawārij), as “dogs of hellfire” (kilābu-n-nār), and therefore as deserving of slaughter by the military protectors of the nation. In the video of this event the military authorities are visibly satisfied with this theological denunciation, one that conforms to the government’s branding of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.[77] Shaykh Ali Gum‘a’s posture is neither surprising nor new because as a Sufi adept he is known to have close religious connections with many members of the security police (and, so it is said, of Sisi himself) who therefore come to him for spiritual advice.

There is “true religion” and “false religion” for everyone (including the state) to whom “religious tradition” matters. Making this distinction is part of what conflicting claims to orthodoxy within tradition do, as articulated by Shaykh Ali Gum‘a. But the construct of religion itself allows outsiders to attribute beliefs, practices, and attitudes to other traditions (“yes, that is their religion, and that is why all its believers are our enemies”). In the Schmittian politics thus generated, friends are essentially those who share one’s enmity towards defined others. The aim of this politics is to defeat the enemy and eliminate or convert him to “real” orthodoxy and orthopraxy—whether inspired by divinity or by humanity. 


A question I have tried to address in this essay is why liberals and the left in Egypt sought to exclude “religion” from political space. The short, familiar answer is: they tend to see the future as the continuous progress of mankind led by secular states, and therefore tradition (especially “religious” tradition) as divisive and a source of political discord. The result is not only a distrust of religion’s attempt to enter politics (the space that seeks to control society as a whole) but a visceral hostility towards “religion” as the political enemy rather than the military or multinational coporations.

I have already argued against the claim that religious disagreements are typically inconclusive and therefore should be excluded from the rational debate that democracy requires. I might add that theological disagreements are themselves resolved—which is one way that religious traditions evolve. It is true that such resolutions presuppose certain assumptions that others may not share, but that is a problem common to all situations where opponents are unable to reconcile their fundamental values. This impasse doesn’t in itself inevitably lead to violence, and not all eruptions of violence draw on “religious” values. However, my aim in this essay is not to “defend religion”; it is to explore a problem that remains generally obscured in the secular hostility to what is assumed to be “religion.” I argue that the problem with “political religion” is not religion but the politics that derives from the sovereign state.

Many Egyptians have an understandable concern at the attempts to impose an Islamic personality on a country containing diverse traditions and identities.[78] But the crucial question is not why should an Islamic identity not be imposed on Egypt. It is: What is there about the modern state that requires a homogeneous political identity? The modern state seeks a singular personality for itself in the exercise of sovereignty, and claims that this is necessary for the progress and modernization of its subjects. The desire to assert and preserve the unity of the People rests on a political metaphysic that is shared by liberals and Islamists alike, a metaphysic that underpins the modern concept of sovereignty: The belief that there is such a thing as a homogeneous nation, that a homogeneous nation has the right to absolute independence represented by a state, and that the state must reflect the nation’s singular personality. Thus a common complaint against Mursi was that he was not acting as the leader of all Egyptians. This was never problematized publicly by questioning in what sense a President elected by a majority of citizens in a heterogeneous state can be “the leader of all Egyptians” as opposed to being the legitimate head of state and defender of its constitutional personality (made more difficult by the repeated rewriting of the constitution). Like all heads of liberal democracies, he responds to the conflicting interests of fellow citizens by yielding to those who exert effective pressure on his government, whether through elections or financial pressures or personal allegiances. Even the Supreme Constitutional Court is not the ultimate guardian of a unified people in Egypt.

One may recall here a remark Michel Foucault once made in relation to the Iranian revolution: “Concerning the expression ‘Islamic government,’ why cast immediate suspicion on the adjective ‘Islamic’? The word ‘government’ suffices, in itself, to awaken vigilance.”[79] Naive critics of Foucault have taken his interest in the Islamic Republic of Iran as evidence of his “romance with political Islam” (in response perhaps to his early criticism of the left-wing romance with “revolution”). But they are mistaken: Foucault’s reaction to the Iranian revolution is his concern (as so often in his writings) to think beyond clichés, and in particular to formulate questions about how truth is manifested in connection with the exercise of self on self, “the relation between the truth and what we call spirituality”—a topic that preoccupied him in his last years.[80] In the comment I quote he is posing a question about the modern state’s practice of sovereignty and the sovereign subject in that state. For the modern state (including varieties of the liberal state) is held together not by moral ideals and social contracts but by technologies of power, by instrumental knowledge—and also, importantly, by the way it requires dependence on and demonstration of truth: traitors are those who conceal the truth.

The genealogy of the modern state is to be found primarily not in legal, constitutional histories but in the evolution of the concept and practice of “politics” conceived of as the autonomous apparatus of control by the state—and by those who have access to the state through political parties—over the life of an entire society. This evolution emerged in and helped define modern Europe, later to be adopted, adapted, and imposed in the Middle East (and elsewhere). Medieval European legal theories of status regni tended to have a personal view of power according to which the ruler possesses or even embodies the institutions of government, although the modern state’s genealogy, as Quentin Skinner has pointed out, lies in advice-books for magistrates and in the mirror-for-princes literature that emerged from them, especially in Renaissance Italy. In that retrospectively traced tradition it was argued that the most important requirement for the prince to maintain his state as a prince was to keep control of the power structure within one’s regnum or civitas. This vindicated the idea that there is an autonomous “civil” or “political” authority whose purpose is to regulate the public affairs of an independent community, and to reject interference by any outside power in its own civitas or respublica.[81] Thus according to Hobbes, sovereign power is alienated to and vested in “an artificial man” who is neither the ruler nor the ruled but the apparatus of government that it is the duty of rulers and ruled to maintain. The concept and practice of the state’s monopoly of legitimate power, as well as of its external and internal sovereignty, together belong to this discursive tradition. Liberal celebrations of the modern state do not recall that its emergence involved the crushing of city freedoms by rising territorial princedoms based on modernized military force and centralized social discipline.[82]

Crucial to political sovereignty today is the founding distinction between “citizen” and “alien.” But in premodern times the distinction between someone born and bred in a particular place and another who has come from elsewhere to settle in that place was socially recognized but that fact defined no legal privileges and disabilities. The distinction that mattered in premodern law (and is not recognized today) was between “free” and “slave.” The distinction between “alien” and “citizen” is not only massively evident in the modern state but has been a crucial step in its formation.[83] Since the paramount aim and duty of the modern state is the maintenance of its sovereignty, it assumes the authority to expel or intern aliens where their presence constitutes a “threat to security.” Under circumstances it perceives as critical, the state may even deprive citizens of their civil rights, defining them by emergency laws as actual or potential “enemies of the state”—as in the case of members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who find themselves (like Palestinian and Syrian refugees) in the modern category of “aliens.”

There is a tendency nowadays to identify the modern state with “liberal democracy,” a political arrangement to which, minimally, the rule of law, the separation of powers, the election of parliamentary representatives, and the right to public dissent are said to be central. But “modernity” is usually used to mark historical time, and also to refer to an assemblage of values, institutions, and projects that are not entirely coherent—two senses that are often assumed to overlap. This identification seems to me problematic, however, for at least two reasons. First: There are states—authoritarian and/or religious—that have an arguable claim to being considered “modern.” How would one characterize the Islamic Republic of Iran? As not modern but still Islamic? As not really Islamic but modern? As neither modern nor Islamic? These questions are relevant to any serious assessment of Mursi’s alleged attempt to “Islamize” the state in Egypt: Was he trying to turn the state back to a premodern—because “religious”—time or was he simply moving forward on the modern principle of state sovereignty as the representative of a predominantly Muslim society?

The second reason why the identification of the modern state as a “liberal democracy” is not satisfactory can be put this way: The liberal democratic state can transform itself into forms that are neither “liberal” nor “democratic.” Thus there are clear indications in the secular United States that civil rights—the freedoms that a liberal state is constitutionally required to articulate and defend—are being openly eroded. This is not due to accident, or to some eternal human vice. Many of the reasons for such transformation are intrinsic to its liberal character—most importantly, its commitment to securing the life and property of its citizens, to making them fully safe. Popular struggle to oppose that erosion is extremely difficult because it is not simply a matter of the restoration of rights but of confronting an elaborate structure of state protection, control and secrecy that is almost impossible to dislodge.[84] Hence the typical liberal problem of “how difficult the trade-off between liberty and security can be in a democratic society”[85] that is confronted in Egypt (as elsewhere in the “war against terror”) today. This gives cause for worry about liberty to some citizens while offering to others an opportunity for extending state security and state power—for the sake of property if not always of life.

The crucial point about the modern nation-state is precisely its mobile and contradictory character: on the one hand its commitment to defending the citizen and securing general welfare and progress, on the other hand to defending the state so that it can fulfill this commitment. Because the latter task takes priority over the former, it calls for the accumulation of secret information about the entire subject population in order to preempt any possibility of subversion by a minority within it. In societies heavily dependent on information technology (like the US) this can be done by sophisticated techniques such as the National Security Agency uses. But in all revolutionary societies this has been done by recruiting as many of the ordinary population as possible into becoming secret informers on neighbors, colleagues, friends, and relatives. What is at stake, after all, is the patriotic citizen’s duty to defend his/her nation-state, and the latter’s task of defending and transforming society in a progressive direction.[86] The incidental result of this mode of defense, ironically, is a general increase in fear and anxiety, and thus a greater desire for social tranquility. A recent documented study by Husni Hammada[87] has shown how Gamal Abdul Nasir, committed as he was to creating modern Egyptian subjects,[88] sought to build a comprehensive network of informers in “revolutionary Egypt” to make sure that people were speaking and thinking in the right way. Writing about the increase of denouncers in the urban flow of ordinary life in Cairo, the journalist Belal Fadl speculates as to whether Sisi will be able to realize Nasir’s dream of a nation in which everyone is a potential denouncer of his or her fellows.[89] The denouncer-patriot is essential to the national project of transforming Egyptians into a secular democratic people. This kind of system is made less important by the new information technologies for collecting “private” data that liberal democratic governments in the West now use.

The Anglican philosopher Stephen Clark has argued that looked at critically, liberal arguments for political obligation within the modern state have no force, and that consequently the only alternatives are between anarcho-capitalism and a theocratic state, and it is the latter he endorses: “Either the state can have no authority beyond that of a simple police force (if it has that much), or else it must be supposed to embody a sacred, moral purpose that constrains or contains all lesser purposes within society.”[90] The questionable assumption here, shared by those who urge the sacralization of the state and those who don’t, is that in the absence of political sovereignty nothing but social chaos and ruthless individualism can obtain.

Instead of answering the question “A secular or a religious state?” one might try to imagine what politics not focused on the sovereign territorial state might look like. In order to do so one would need to draw on older ideas that have been pushed out by the narrative of secular progress since premodern times, such as the absence of rigid territorial boundaries and the presence of overlapping authorities. One can belong to “a People” without thinking that it must therefore complete itself by governing its own territorial state.[91] It is only with the arrival of the modern concept of sovereignty that jurisdiction and territoriality have come to be defined in terms of each other, although some ambiguity remains on this point in international law, most acutely as it relates to the new humanitarian norm of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P).

The primary question is how far rights and duties attaching to civil status can be negotiated (just as they now are in international law) without an overarching authority. But whereas the latter regulates relations among sovereign states one might think of a plurality of groupings, each with its institutional order and purpose, but overlapping in membership and/or territory and each capable of being continually readjusted through negotiation. In the absence of sovereignty there would be no distinction between international and domestic law. The negotiation between relatively equal parties would build mutually recognized custom (“urf

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In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran closed a speech at the United Nations with a call for the "mighty Lord" to "hasten the emergence" of Imam Mahdi, a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad. Shia Islam holds that the Mahdi, as the redeemer of Islam, will return from hiding to rid the world of injustice. This belief made Ahmadinejad’s plea more than a pious invocation: Some analysts speculate the president was seeking to sow chaos by using religion to further his political goals. The debate reached a boil in May 2008. During a nationally broadcast speech Ahmadinejad suggested that Imam Mahdi supported the day-to-day operations of his government, a claim that brought condemnation from Iran’s powerful clerical elite. The president also indirectly accused senior clerics of economic corruption, further upsetting the Iranian clergy and shining a rare spotlight on the increasingly tenuous relationship between politics and faith in post-revolution Iran.

Birth of Political Islam

While some would date the birth of political Islam to the life of the prophet, political and religious disagreements that have arisen since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 have their roots in the evolution of the contemporary Iranian state. In 1925, a young military officer, Reza Khan, led a coup that deposed the 131-year-old Qajar dynasty and founded the Pahlavi dynasty. After being named shah, Reza Khan pursued relations with Germany, angering Britain and Russia, and prompting those powers to invade. British and Soviet troops left in 1946, but foreign influence only intensified with the advent of the Cold War. Nationalists, led by Mohammad Mossadeq, rose to power in 1951. But the CIA and British intelligence colluded to topple him two years later, restoring the exiled Pahlavi dynasty to power in the form of Reza Khan’s son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. The shah repressed Iran’s Islamists, however, and his restoration fostered anger among the general population. By 1979, this discontent boiled over into outright revolution, forcing the shah to flee. On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini returned to Iran from exile in France—though most of his fourteen year absence was spent in the Shia holy city of Najaf, Iraq. He then proceeded to muscle aside the Communists and secular parties that had worked with the Islamists to overthrow the shah, and assumed the levers of power, ending Iran’s monarchy.

Revolutionary Ideas

Under Khomeini the Iranian religious and political landscapes were dramatically transformed, making Shia Islam an inseparable element of the country’s political structure. Khomeini ushered in a new form of government anchored by the concept of velayat-e faqih, or rule of the Islamic jurist. In his 1970 book, Hokumat-e Islami: Velayat-e faqih, Khomeini argued that government should be run in accordance to sharia, or Islamic law. For that to happen, an Islamic jurist—or faqihmust oversee the country’s political structure. Constitutional changes following the revolution established a system of government based on three pillars of power—the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. But sitting atop the Islamic Republic’s power structure was Khomeini.

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The stated aim of the Iranian Revolution was to upend the reign of the shah and restore Islamic ideology to Iranian society. "Khomeini used the emotional power of Shia lore and imagery not only to help him seize control of Iran but to lay claim to Shiism’s very soul," CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Vali R. Nasr writes in his 2006 book, The Shia Revival. But more than a reshuffle to the religious hierarchy, Khomeini dramatically altered the state’s political landscape. Iran’s new leader, Nasr writes, "made Islamic fundamentalism a political force that would change Muslim politics from Morocco to Malaysia."

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He did this by turning Shia Islam on its head. In a series of lectures delivered from exile in the early 1970s, Khomeini began arguing that in the absence of the Imam Mahdi—also known as the Hidden Imam or the twelfth imam of the Shia faith—that governments should be run by those with a higher rank among clergies. It was a revolutionary concept in Shia clerical thought, says Afshin Molavi, a Middle East expert at the New America Foundation. As such, "It was rejected by the majority of senior ayatollahs in Iran." But the concept found an audience among young revolutionaries in Qom, Iran’s religious center, and formed the theoretical backbone of the movement that would later demand the overthrow of the Pahlavi regime. By the end of the decade Khomeini had succeeded in instituting his ideas, Molavi says, "by the sheer force of his will" as an "uncompromising revolutionary."

A New Political Framework

Today, Khomeini’s teachings and precedents have evolved into a system of government that combines elements of Islamic theocracy with bits of democracy.

Unlike the U.S. system of governance, church and state are inexorably linked in modern-day Iran, and religious precepts form the backbone of Iran’s political structure. In theory, the Iranian power structure appears akin to Western frameworks, with clear demarcations of power. But in practice the Iranian system is dominated by a small cadre of religious clerics and revolutionary forefathers. While Iran’s massive clerical establishment may hold religious sway, their political influence is contained to a few. According to statistics attributed to German scholar Wilfried Buchta, of the five thousand ayatollahs in Iran in 2000, only eighty participate in government. Gregory F. Giles, an American scholar who has studied the Iranian system of government, writes that an informal "four rings of power" (PDF) permeate the formal government structure. Most of those in the center are revolutionaries close to the supreme leader.

Molavi describes this concept as a system of insiders (khodee) and outsiders (gheyreh khodee) that govern the Iranian establishment. Only insiders—or supporters of the revolution—are granted a wide degree of latitude in criticizing the regime or shaping its future. By contrast, outsiders face harsh repercussion if they speak out of turn. "Few outsiders—secular nationalists or liberal democrats or opponents of the Islamic Republic—have a public voice in the debate," he writes. This top-down autocratic formulation translates into a complex mix of elected and non-elected institutions (BBC) that, in practice, are less democratic than they appear:

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  • Supreme Leader. At the top of Iran’s political and religious pecking order is the supreme leader. The de facto leader of the executive branch, the leader oversees the military; appoints military and judicial leaders; supervises the constitution; and sets general state policy. The supreme leader also appoints senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guards. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s second supreme leader, assumed office in June 1989 after eight years as Iran’s president. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes that while Khamenei lacks the "popular support, charisma, and theological qualifications" of his predecessor Khomeini, the current leader remains the "single most powerful individual" (PDF) in the Islamic Republic.
  • Assembly of Experts. An eighty-six-member body of senior clergymen, the assembly elects the supreme leader. Appointed by popular vote, the assembly is charged with reviewing the leader’s work; it can, in principle, dismiss the leader, but never has. It is also unclear how carefully the assembly monitors the supreme leader’s activities; all notes of the group’s biannual meetings are confidential. In September 2007, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected speaker of the assembly.
  • President. Officially sitting atop the executive branch, the president is in practice second to the supreme leader. Nationally elected to four-year terms, Iran’s president is constitutional mandated to be a Shiite Muslim. The power of the president has varied historically; many observers speculate the office’s fortunes are closely tied to the political whims of the supreme leader. In January 2008, for instance, Ayatollah Khamenei reversed a decision by President Ahmadinejad and ordered the president to supply heating fuel to remote Iranian villages. The move was seen as a major rebuke to a president under fire for poor economic performance.
  • Majlis, or parliament. A 290-member body of deputies representing all thirty of Iran’s provinces, the Majlis introduces and passes legislation. Members are elected to four-year terms. Five seats are reserved for religious minorities. The approval of candidates, however, requires the blessing of the Council of Guardians, the most influential body in Iran. Hundreds of reformist candidates we barred from the 2008 election, political interference that drew widespread criticism from international monitors. Conservatives now dominate parliament. The clerical makeup of the Majlis has also changed in the last two decades. In the early 1980s, 51 percent of the Majlis were clerics. By 2002 they made up just 12 percent of the body.
  • Council of Guardians. Twelve members—six theologians appointed by the supreme leader, and six jurists approved by the Majlis—that review legislation and election candidates for consistency with Islamic law. In the early 1980s the council intervened forcefully to prevent a number of parliament-passed laws, including numerous land reform initiatives. In 2002 the Council rejected legislation that would have limited the use of forced confessions in criminal trials. More recently, the council disqualified hundreds of reformist candidates before parliamentary elections in March 2008.
  • Expediency Council. Created by constitutional revision in 1988, the administrative body of clerics, scholars, and intellectuals was formed to resolve disputes between the Majlis and the Council of Guardians.
  • Supreme Court. The highest judicial body in Iran, its members are chosen by the head of the judiciary, who is appointed by the supreme leader. With thirty-three branches—all but two in Tehran—the court sets judicial precedent and serves as a court of appeals.
  • Special Clerical Court. Overseen by the supreme leader, the clerical court is used for trying members of the clergy for crimes, including "ideological offenses." This court has effectively silenced many of the regime’s clerical critics.

Cracks in the Foundation

Debate over Islam’s place in the Iranian political structure is as old as the revolution itself; religion’s influence on politics has oscillated over time. During the presidential tenure of Mohammad Khatami, for instance, political and diplomatic reforms weakened the role of religion in policymaking, thereby reducing the clergy’s influence over society. Among the influential critics of the theocratic regime during the Khatami era was Abdulkarim Soroush, whose political magazine, Kiyan, long served as a monthly forum for religious intellectualism in the 1990s until it was shut down in 2001. Much of Soroush’s criticism was directed at Khatami; he accused the president of failing to make good on his promises. The sentiment gained traction among the electorate, and reformists were upended in the 2005 presidential election by the conservative Ahmadinejad.

Those who continue to advocate for the separation of church and state say they face increasing hostility in the Ahmadinejad era. In late 2006, dissident cleric Seyyed Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi accused Iranian authorities of targeting his supporters and waging a campaign to discredit his movement. The ayatollah told U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that "real Islam is free of political ornaments," and that the Iranian public was losing faith in God because of the government’s lackluster economic policies. In September 2006, Amnesty International reported that more than three dozen Boroujerdi followers were arrested and detained at Tehran’s Evin Prison (PDF).

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Dissent is also widespread among the Iranian populace. While social unrest reached a peak during the so-called Tehran Spring of the late 1990s and early 2000s, thirst for reform continues today. "There is a rising tide of anti-clericalism among ordinary Iranians as a result of the failures of the Iranian Republic," Molavi says. Staggering inflation, unemployment, and stagnant wages have prompted a popular, if subdued, ideological backlash against the clerical elite. "Everyone will tell you the anecdotes of clerics having trouble getting taxis to stop for them on the street. This was not the case before the revolution." But Sadjadpour says Iran’s leaders have cracked down on open criticism of the regime in recent years. "That type of discussion …has really essentially died down."

A President’s Religious Views

Ahmadinejad has upset clerical insiders for an entirely different reason: his advocacy of a cozier marriage of Islam and politics. In a speech to theology students in April 2008, released a month later, Ahmadinejad went further than ever in expressing his belief that Imam Mahdi—also known as the Hidden Imam—steers the country’s political engine. The assertion deeply angered the country’s ruling clerics. The claim "undermines the cleric’s fatwas and their role in government," writes Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. If the imam were behind all government action, Khalaji says, Ahmadinejad would theoretically bear no responsibility for failure. Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, head of the Combatant Clergy Association, made the same point in May 2008. "If Imam Mahdi is managing the world’s affairs, couldn’t he do something about the economic mafia? Is the [expensive price of] rice a result of his management also?"

There is another, arguably more esoteric reason for the unrest. According to the doctrine of velayat-e faqih, Iran will be governed by a supreme leader until the appearance of the Hidden Imam (Economist). By claiming the Hidden Imam guides his moves, Ahmadinejad is seen by some as seeking to usurp the authority of the supreme leader. A recent speech (Rooz) by one of Ahmadinejad’s closest allies accusing the country’s most powerful senior clerics of corruption was interpreted an another sign the president seeks to weaken his rivals. Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University, sees recent events as clear indications of the president’s political goals. "Those who have written off Ahmadinejad in the coming election have a lot of explaining to do," Sick said in an e-mail message to colleagues in June 2008. "He is a ferocious competitor … and a supremely ambitious politician who is a threat to the entire post-revolutionary establishment."

The Road Ahead

As Ahmadinejad’s foray into Islam suggests, the balance of religious and political power in Iran is fluid. In his 2008 analysis of the supreme leader’s politics (PDF), Sadjadpour concludes that the death of Khamenei could usher in an era of critical reflection on the regime’s very structure. Khamenei himself is said to have questioned whether any one cleric could replace Khomeini after his death, and before his own appointment predicted a council of three to five clerics would have to rule. Molavi says this format could again come into play following Khamenei’s exit. But Sadjadpour says rule by council has one major flaw: it would be at odds with the Iranian constitution, which states that "the leader be an individual."

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