TitleVictor Kal on Theocracy and Democracy

Political Theological Jiu Jitsu to the Max!

15 Jul 2010

■ Nima Emami
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The Green Movement has expressed itself through a peculiar strategy that has been called “cultural jiu jitsu” by Charles Kurzman. What people have been doing could be thought of by analogy with the Asian martial art called jiu-jitsu:

“According to the International Jiu-Jitsu Federation, jiu-jitsu – the “gentle art,” or the “art of subtleness” – does “not aim to neutralize power with power but rationally absorb an attack and convert that energy to the opponent’s own detriment.” That’s a good summary of the strategies of the Green Movement – to use the power, to use the rituals, to use the history of the Islamic Republic against the leaders of the Islamic Republic.” (1)

Jiu-jitsu aimed at civil disobedience consists of many different styles. Next to cultural jiu-jitsu, there are also political jiu-jitsu, philosophical jiu-jitsu and theological jiu-jitsu. All of these can be intertwined, for example when citizens chant “Allah Akbar.”

Victor Kal

In my opinion, such a fighting style is also exercised by Victor Kal, who is Jewish and teaches philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. Being a good metaphorical martial artist, Kal’s appearance is that of a shy and humble man, thus deceiving opponents who are subsequently caught off guard. Recently, he has developed some new techniques concerning “theocracy and democracy.” Before I ask the reader to concentrate for the upcoming mental battle, I would like to refer to the powerful and notorious Mike Tyson who said that a good fighter is a happy fighter. One should fear a fighter who feels at home in the ring, who is in control and enjoys what he is doing. (2) To learn the difficult art of theological jiu-jitsu then requires a certain joyful and playful attitude that can put old dogmas in brackets to make space for new ideas: Kal is no stranger to irony and willing to do experiments. Moreover, it is never sure if the fight is going to be won.

The reason why philosophical and theological jiu-jitsu is important to many Iranian intellectuals who support the Green Movement, and also to Victor Kal, can be explained sufficiently with a simple metaphor. Everyone knows or perhaps hopes that the ideal Islam, or any other religion, is like a walking stick. In this case, Islam supports people in their difficult journey in our world. But of course, a walking stick can also be used to beat people up. In that case, one could come to the conclusion that this walking stick has lost its value and needs to be thrown away or even broken. A good martial artist however, especially one trained in the art of jiu-jitsu, prefers to “absorb an attack and convert that energy to the opponent’s own detriment.” Jiu-jitsu fighters are always practising with sticks. What to do when you are attacked with one? The ideal is to capture the stick, without wasting energy, and to use it to increase one’s own power. The following is based on an unpublished essay, and on several conversations, in which Kal has tried to use this strategy to think about the relation between “theocracy and democracy.” (3) His odd thesis is in a nutshell that a theocracy can only flourish in a liberal democracy and a liberal democracy only thanks to theocratically orientated citizens. Has this philosopher lost himself in abstract thoughts and gone mad?

Everyone knows or perhaps hopes that the ideal Islam, or any other religion, is like a walking stick

The word democracy is popular. All governments favor being perceived as democratic. The word theocracy however is not as popular or, to put it bluntly, seen as a backward ideal. It is not uncommon to read about a “totalitarian theocracy,” or a “medieval theocracy” (4) or simply that a theocracy is “is the worst” and that “the nearer any government approaches to Theocracy the worse it will be.” (5) So that is why I asked Kal why he insists on using the word theocracy to which he replied: “Because it is a weapon used by an oppressor. I want to take that from him.” In other words, theological jiu-jitsu is not a Sufistic withdrawal from worldly battles but an active form of resistance, unarming and wielding the very weapon of the enemy, making it one’s own. According to Kal, “we must own the word theocracy.” But is such a thing even possible? Kal is not the only one interested in increasing the agility of the mind to win political, cultural, philosophical and theological bouts. Hamid Dabashi for example said recently: “The Green Movement … is essentially neither Islamic, nor anti-Islamic, neither secular nor anti-secular. It absorbs the secular and the faithful in order to achieve a higher level of self-realization.” (6) What Kal is considering in his philosophical experiment is taking this logic to the max to see what happens with a notorious word such as theocracy. Taking theocracy away from the authoritarian opponent is like defeating his champion. In other words, Kal’s ambition will prove to be a huge and complex challenge.

Both supporters of theocracy or democracy think the other represents something terrible

Kal wants to reconcile and rehalibitate two opposing moving or motivating forces. On a personal, ethical, level these are piety versus emancipation and on a greater, political, scale they are theocracy versus democracy. These forces are entangled “in a battle to the death,” because where one party wins, the other must lose. This is the controverse of on the one side an Islamic Republic and on the other a liberal democracy. Supporters of both sides think the other represents something terrible. Theocracy is associated by liberals with a patriarchal and authoritarian clerical regime. Liberalism is associated by conservative Muslims in favor of the Islamic Republic as responsible for moral decay, what they see as the horror of a permissive society. Kal contends that we are dealing here with manichaeism, i.e. with an easy scheme of light versus darkness. Both sides accuse each other of darkness. Where one sees emancipation being blocked by religion, the other sees that faith and piety have lost their moral and political weight. Kal is concerned that a manichaean dichotomy between theocracy and democracy creates such easy categories of us and them, friend and enemy. In fact, the existence of the enemy is the condition for the possibility of the existence of both. Because the manichaean dichotomy is comfortable to those who need the enemy to justify their own activities, there will be resistance to any attempt to dissolve it. From the manichaean perspective, Kal’s unusual thesis that theocracy and liberal democracy need each other is an erroneous confusion. But in the tradition of philosophy, his stance is not very new at all.

As far as is known, the word “theocracy” was used for the first time in the first century A.D. by Flavius Josephus, famous for his recording of first century Jewish history, although the concept existed already before that. (7) “Theocracy” designates the ruler of a people and their society, not very different from an aristocracy (rule of the best), an oligarchy (rule of the rich), a monarchy (rule of a king) or a democracy (rule of the multitude). By God himself, but through Moses, a Law had been given to the Jewish people, which Law they took upon them to observe it, and so a theocracy was established. But simultanously they were obliged to obey the Roman Law which was the political regime of the time. Kal’s (modern) interpretation of this episode in Jewish history is that we find here already a distinction between state (Roman Law) and society (Jewish theocracy). “For Josephus, the theocracy is not as much a political as a religious regime.” Whether this account of history is accurate or not is not my concern. Instead, I think this vision of state and society, with its “double engagements”, is interesting for us today.

Double engagements are natural to philosophers. The most famous example of such a theocratic citizen in the history of philosophy is of course Socrates. The answer to the question of how to live can only be given to Socrates by the transcendent Good, which he does not possess. Therefore in Plato’s “religion” Socrates is put in relation to something absolute, something that cannot be relativised or manipulated, the idea of the Good. But Socrates is protected from a dangerous absolutism because he refuses to get rid of his skeptical side: the Platonic theocracy is a critical one. A political system that wants to force him to accept its idea of the good is unacceptable for him. The belief that Socrates has in a higher good makes him defy the authorities of Athens: “I have the greatest fondness and affection for you, fellow Athenians, but I will obey my god rather than you …” He does this for the sake of Athens: “I believe that no greater good has ever befallen you in our city than my service to my god…” “The fact is, if I may put the point in a somewhat comical way, that I have been literally attached by God to our city, as if to a horse – a large thoroughbred, which is a bit sluggish because of its size, and needs to be aroused by some sort of gadfly.” (8) Each liberal democracy needs its gadflies to upset the status quo by posing irritating questions. Kal warns us for the easy belief that “absolutist” religion could a priori not produce such peaceful and critical individuals but only fanatics. Socrates resists injustice by creating a distance between him and the status quo. He does not identify without reserve with either state or society. He does not simply obey what his government demands of him, but he also does not impose truth on his state since he localizes the Good, or God, in a transcendent, unreachable, realm. The Good, whether it is the face of the Other, God or whatever men call it, will not reach us automatically. (9) According to Socrates, one must always first prepare for receiving the truth. So the difference between what is expected from people in a permissive society and what is expected from the Socratic individual is that the latter, as a free citizen, is held responsible for his (limited) capacity to receive from the Good. In this sense liberal democracy cannot do without theocracy.

Kal reminded me that this combination of “freedom and responsibility” is also not alien to modern philosophy. In his writings on religion and the liberal democracy, Kal usually refers to the importance of Immanuel Kant and especially his Religion within the bounds of Reason alone (1793). When reading this very important, unfortunately often neglected, book, it is not hard to see that Kant favored the establishment of a theocracy. Kant was also the author of the famous essay What is Enlightenment (1784), a tremendously influential document of the history of emancipation. It seems then that philosophers such as Socrates and Kant did not endorse a dichotomy of piety versus emancipation, or the rule of God versus the rule of men. (10)

Perhaps, the late grand ayatollah Montazeri was right when he stated, after the disputed elections of 2009, that the Islamic Republic was neither Islamic nor a Republic

For Kant, freedom was not the ability or juridical right to do whatever we want. Kal put it like this: “You are a free human being, because something is expected from you [by God].” What is expected is nothing less than the victory of good over evil, “Der Sieg des guten Prinzips über das böse.” A victory, which Kant believes will never come if God does not assist us, would result in the founding of a divine rule on earth, “die Gründung eines Reiches Gottes auf Erden.” Such a kingdom of God aims at realizing the victory of the good over evil. All of this might sound strange, or even scary, but such fears dissappear when Kant insists on a distinction which Kal calls decisive for every modern nation: the distinction between state and society. On the one hand, the state, created artificially through man made institutions, can use force to prevent anarchy and to protect citizens from each other. But simultanously, in the realm of morality the state is incapable of using force without creating a perverse moral motivation. “What is decisive for Kant”, Kal said with a smile, “is that legality, being a “correct” person, means nothing morally.” “The liberal democracy creates a new problem: it is supposed to be sufficient to behave correctly; if one wants to be a good human being or not is from now on a private matter and in that sense indifferent. Behind the tidy façade of legality and decency is a raging nihilism.” Kant would not approve of friendly liberal citizens who live isolated and selfish lives. Instead, he dreamed of the establishment of a theocracy, but only as a phenomenon in society. Piety for Kant meant that it is not enough to be a correct human being from the perspective of the law of the state. Rather than simply striving to be happy law-abiding individuals, Kant’s theocratic citizens strive to become good people worthy of happiness. Kal leaves no room for suspicions about his intentions: “As a political phenomenon, the theocracy is unthinkable.”

“For the true theocracy to flourish, it must become the Republic of Iran”

Whether Kal’s political theological Jiu Jitsu is a fighting style worth learning will only be decided by the outcome of its application. Perhaps, the late grand ayatollah Montazeri was right when he stated, after the disputed elections of 2009, that the Islamic Republic was neither Islamic nor a Republic, but if we are to understand Kal’s rehabilitation of what we mean with a theocracy, what does that really mean for the future of the Islamic Republic? “Is the ideal the Republic of Iran or the Islamic Republic of Iran,” I asked, since Kal’s logic leads to the conclusion that the only true opinion would be to say that the very idea of an Islamic Republic is wrong to start with because we must separate the role that religion plays in society from the power of the state. Kal’s answer was again crystal clear: “For the true theocracy to flourish, it must become the Republic of Iran.”

(1) See Panel I of the conference held at the New School, www.politicsofresistance.com.
(2) Tyson, documentary (2008) directed by James Toback.
(3) For interested readers who can read Dutch a selection of recent essays by Kal: “Theocratie en democratie”, verschijnt eind 2010 in Tijdschrift voor Filosofie, Leuven. “De liberale democratie en de religie”, Teylers Genootschapslezingen, Haarlem, 2008. “Afscheid van de moderniteit? Over het einde van de secularisatie,” in Strijdbaar of lijdzaam, G. van den Brink en E. van Burg, red., Heerenveen, 2006.
(4) Hamid Dabashi. Iran, A People Interrupted. New Press, London and New York, 2007.
(5) C.S. Lewis. On Stories and other essays on literature. Harcourt, New York, 1982: 75-76.
(6) Episode 22: Interview with dr. Cornel West on www.weekingreen.org.
(7) Contra Apionem II 16.
(8) Plato. Apology 29-30.
(9) This was indeed the unrealistic hope and faith of Levinas who lacked the sceptical attitude of a Socrates.
(10) Moreover, even heretics such as Hobbes, Hume and Spinoza insisted on the importance of religion as a necessary fiction.

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