This is an excellent article (thanks Maury!) that discusses the rise of Shi'i democracy. I will post only the first part because it's so long, but you should read the entire article if you want to learn more about Shiism. The author refers to Lebanon as a Shia majority country, which is interesting because I grew up believing that the Shia in Lebanon have a plurality, not a majority. I have also heard some people claim that the majority of Lebanese are actually Sunni. Before the elections in Iraq, I was hoping that a secular government would be formed in Baghdad, but it should not be surprising that the Iraqi Shia voted for religious leaders who are viewed by many as being fundamentalists. The Iraqi Shia have been plunged into war and poverty for decades, and history has shown that in times of war and poverty, people often turn to religion.
On a side note, I would like to point out that it makes more sense to call it a Shii democracy (as opposed to Shia democracy) as Shii is the adjective (and singular) form in Arabic - see 'FYI' in the sidebar to learn more. Also, I wish journalists would start spelling it Nejef (like it sounds) rather than Najaf. I don't know how many times I have heard American journalists call it 'Najoff'.
PS: Until 2003 I thought Iraq and Iran were the only countries in the world with Shia majorities.
In contemporary Shiism, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Najaf (the holiest center of Shiism) has been the marja with the largest popular approval since the death of his mentor Abol-Qassem Khoi in 1992.
Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part article.
The Other Islam
Discussions about the democratic deficit in the Muslim world tend to conflate Sunnis and Shias as culturally homogeneous groups. Nuances about diversity within Islam only come up related to the regional variation in practices and political institutions (e.g. Middle Eastern Islam, North African Islam, South Asian Islam, Central Asian Islam, and Southeast Asian Islam). Some scholars make the distinction between Arab and non-Arab countries with regard to their political culture and regime type. The unspoken assumption in studies proving the proclivity of Muslim countries toward authoritarianism is that sectarian schisms within Islam do not matter much when it comes to attitude and receptivity to democracy. Whether there are well-delineated differences between Shias and Sunnis in the way they conceive of—and construct—political authority has not been given much serious research. This is a surprising omission in contrast to the extent to which political scientists have debated the impact of the Catholic-Protestant schism on the evolution of capitalism and democracy in the Western hemisphere.
Blindness to the Shia-Sunni divide in the literature on democratization is likely to be the result of glossing over the smaller sect of Islam, Shiism, which claims no more than 15 percent of the world's Muslims. Most Western depictions of what is termed "Islam" focus implicitly on Sunnism and Sunni political culture, except when the case studies of interest are Shia-majority countries (Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan). That there exists another Islam, Shiism, with its own identity and at least 200 million worldwide adherents, is largely bypassed. Perhaps there is something to "Shia democracy" as a concept that might hold a ray of hope for furthering democracy in the Muslim world. If deep-set Shia-Sunni differences are theological, social, and economic in nature, then one should expect non-random differences in their political culture and preferences too, which in turn might translate into differing orientation to regime types. The general framework of this essay is provided by Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel's theory (2005) that causation runs from values (culture) to institutions (democracy or authoritarianism) and that values differ systematically from culture to culture. If Shia and Sunni communities have systematically different cultures, they should a posteriori be different in their political infrastructures.Part I
Shia Communities as Democratizers
Masoumeh Ebtekar, the first female vice president of Iran under the reformist former President Muhammad Khatami, recently remarked that Shia gains through electoral means in Iraq will "encourage us (Iran) to open up, since we see a different example of governance but with similar mentality that is also Shiite" (2005, 58). This sentiment is echoed by the prominent Iranian dissident intellectual Abdol Karim Soroush's thinking that as the Shia majority in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq comes to power, there will be a shift in "the overall balance among Shiites toward democratic legitimacy and away from the idea of clerical rule we see in Iran" (2004a). Historian Juan Cole buttresses this school of thought by noting that between April 2003 and January 2005, Shias underwent a remarkable development in legal thinking about democracy that is not new and that will outlive the contingencies in Iraq:
The ideals of elections, representation of the people, expression of the national will, and a rule of law are invoked over and over again by the most prominent Shiite religious leaders. Unlike Khomeini in 1979, they are completely unafraid of the term "democracy" and generally see no contradiction between it and Islam. (2006, 34)
The first full-length treatment of the subject of Shias as democratizers has been given by Vali Nasr, another Iranian thinker, who extends the range of the projected democratic tide beyond Iran to Shia-populated parts of the Middle East and South Asia. The gist of his argument is as follows:
Shias are both an objective and a subjective democratic force. Their rise in relative power is injecting a robust element of real pluralism into the too-often Sunni-dominated political life of the Muslim world. Many Shias are also finding democracy appealing as an idea in itself, not merely as an episodically useful vehicle for their power and ambitions. (2006, 180)
Shias, unlike Sunnis, are supposed to be rebellious by nature and opposed to dutifully obeying authority that lacks legitimacy. Historically repressed and discriminated, Shiism's ideal was always to fight against Sunni injustices and tyrannical rulers. Since the origin of the Shia-Sunni split in medieval times, Shia imams (spiritual leaders descended from the Prophet Muhammad) invoked a fear of revolt among Sunni Caliphs and were countered with persecution, imprisonment, and killing. To survive persecution in the Sunni-dominated Caliphates and Ottoman Empire, ordinary Shias had to hide their sectarian affiliations (taqqiya) and their imams escaped to Iran and India to seek refuge. The germs of anti-authoritarianism and protection of minority rights were thus, according to Nasr, inherent in Shiism from the very beginning (c. eighth century A.D.).
The break Shias initiated from Sunnism centered on what they considered to be the morally just kind of political authority. In contrast, the Sunni understanding of worldly power concentrated on a preoccupation with order, not the quality of rulership. The theory of government developed by medieval Sunni jurists was to uphold any government as long as it maintained stability and order and protected the Muslim (Sunni) community. Shiism emphasized the substance and quality of a regime much more than its form, an important congenital characteristic that would resonate with the evolution of democracy in modern times. Imam Ali's political testament (ahd) and Imam al-Sadiq's instructions to the Shia governor of Ahvaz, both of which entered Shia political culture by the 11th century, contain the patrimonial theory of just rule and fair treatment of subjects by kings. Respected ulama of the Safavid period (17th century) reiterated these themes with special emphasis on the rights (haqq) that subjects have against rulers. They stressed avoidance of tyranny, accountability, and access of holders of temporal authority to subjects. To Mulla Baqir Majlisi,
if kings show gratitude for their power and domination and if they observe the rights of the subjects, their kingdoms will last. Otherwise, they will soon disappear. A king will remain while he is an unbeliever, but not while he is a wrongdoer. If a possessor of knowledge should act badly with his flock, his knowledge will soon be taken away; otherwise, it will be increased. (Chittick 1988, 291)
The idealistic expectation of accountable and fair rulers in historical Shiism was revived by Ayatollah Na'ini of Najaf during the time of the Iranian constitutional revolution of 1906. He persuaded the Shia ulama of the time that while the world awaited the return of the twelfth imam (hidden from human perception), "the form of governance most compatible with Shi'ism is democracy-shaped and defined by a popularly ratified constitution" (Milani 2005, 27). His contemporary and fellow constitutionalist, Sayyid Imad Khalkhali, wrote, "In our time, sovereignty is founded on justice, fairness, and the principle of equality, as is obvious from the Europeans" (Dabashi 1988, 339). Mangol Bayat (1982) argues that Shia intellectuals of the modern era who employed Western ideas of constitutionalism, sovereignty of the people, liberal democracy, and secularism, were in fact carrying on the long-established tradition of dissent in Shiism. Despite loud calls for Westernization from as early as the mid-19th century, their thought was in spirit and form deeply rooted in the Shia norm of standing up to absolutist despotism. It is noteworthy that pro-democracy trends such as these did not evolve with as much depth or sophistication in the history of Sunnism, a faith that spoke the language of rulers more than that of the ruled.