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  • Religion, Democracy, and Iran:A Modest Proposal
  • Fred Dallmayr (bio)

Islam demands loyalty to God, not to thrones.

—Mohammad Iqbal

About the term religion as used in the title, I offer a preliminary remark: Religion derives from the Latin religare, which means "to connect" or "to reconnect." What is here reconnected? Basically religion aims to reconnect humans with the divine or "God," where the latter means something unconditional and unconditioned, something beyond human caprice or control, something that cannot be domesticated, possessed, or marketed. Hence, religion as used here is radically different from the "idols of the markets," or what is sometimes called the "religion of the market."

The question I want to raise here is, can democracy be religious and how can it be religious? How can religion be brought into modern democracy, and how can modern democracy be reconciled with religion? In the famous formulation of Max Weber, modernity means basically a process of "disenchantment." So how can modernity be re-enchanted or at least permit a measure of re-enchantment? In his Political and Social Essays, the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur addresses forthrightly the situation of the religious believer in the modern world, especially in modern secular society. Quoting from scripture (Matthew 5:13), he insists that believers are meant to be "the salt of the earth"—a phrase militating against both world domination and world denial, that is, against the dual temptation of either controlling or rejecting worldly society. As he writes poignantly, "the salt is made for salting, the light for illuminating," and religion exists "for the sake of those outside itself," that is, for the world that faith inhabits.1 In Ricoeur's view, religion—including (especially) Christianity—has been for too long enamored or in collusion with political power and domination, a collusion that has exerted a "demoralizing effect" on believers and nonbelievers alike, driving them to "cynicism, amoralism, and despair" (123). However, the situation is perhaps not entirely bleak. When it emerges from this collusion, he adds, religion "will be able to give light once more to all men—no longer as a power, but as a prophetic message" (123).

As one of the great world religions, Islam faces the same challenges. Like Christianity, Islam has been sorely tempted by the lure of worldly power and public dominion; this at least is the impression given by a large number of its adherents, especially by many so-called Islamic governments and Islamist movements (often labeled or rather mislabeled "fundamentalist" in Western media). As in the case of Christianity, this lure of collusion is baffling and disconcerting—given the strong commitment of Islam to equality and its opposition to any kind of idolatry, [End Page 503] that is, to the substitution of any worldly images or power structures for the rule of the one transcendent God (tawhid). How can Muslim believers be expected to submit or surrender themselves to any worldly potentates, no matter how pious or clerically sanctioned, if their faith is defined as surrender (islam) to nothing else but the eternal "light" of truth? How can they be asked to abandon their religious freedom (in the face of the divine) for the sake of contingent political loyalties to rulers who often lack even a semblance of public or collective legitimation?

As in the case of traditional Christendom, Islam's collusion with public power has often exerted (in Ricoeur's words) a "demoralizing effect" on believers and nonbelievers alike, driving many of them to "cynicism, amoralism, and despair." In this situation, it is high time for Muslims and all friends of Islam to take stock of the prevailing predicament. Concisely put, it is time, not to abandon Islam in favor of some doctrinaire secularism or laicism (which does not have sufficient resources to resist the idols of the market), but to reinvigorate the "salt" of Islamic faith so that it can become a beacon of light both for Muslims and for the world around them. Differently phrased, it is time to recuperate the genuine meaning of Islam as a summons to freedom, justice, and service to the God who, throughout the Koran, is called "all-merciful and compassionate" (rahman-i-raheem). The following...


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