Islamist sticker. Berlin, September 2011.

The Pakistani Islamist Abul Ala’a Maududi had polemical and highly complex views on the spiritual acceptability of democracy. Maududi’s criticisms were unmistakably protofascist, and framed the political outlook of Jamaat-e Islami, formed in British India, in 1941. Maududi believed that democracy constituted a form of shirkh (“idolatry”) along with other conventions of the period like the various forms of nationalism pursued by the broader Indian independence movement.

Ultimately, the Jamaat was ideologically flexible, based on political realities in Pakistan itself. For instance, Maududi’s original criticisms of nationalism as haram (“forbidden”) morphed into praise for a reactionary alternative he called “Pakistan Ideology.” Despite that evolution, his original beliefs on the matter channelled a spirit that is clearly still with us. This jihadist sticker is evidence of that fact, and although its appeal in the German Muslim ummah is limited, the anti-democratic attitudes it espouses warrant further exploration.

What does it mean to say Demokratie ist Haram (“democracy is haram”)? Here, the opposition appears to be based more in reactionary impulse than intelligent Islamic critique. We can spot this in the Qu’ranic citations. They are fragments of not only larger Surahs, but also individual verses. The translations are also debatable, as we can see in the Arabic hukm being placed in equivalence with the German gezetsebung (“legislation”). Hukm is a broader concept of structural politics than legislation, which is why one of the major slogans of the Arab Spring was yasqut yasqut hukm-al askar (“down down with military rule.”) It’s therefore highly contentious to claim that this snippet of the Qu’ran, which says “the hukm is for none but Allah,” is properly anti-democratic.

Of course, that brings us to new questions. It remains to be seen why this sticker would fuse hukm and gezetsebung to build an anti-democratic politics, rather than understanding the Surah as a mystical rejection of governing structures more broadly. One answer is that it’s a reactionary sticker, meaning that the point is less to present a sophisticated platform, and more to cobble together a vaguely ‘indigenous’ rejection of the prevailing socioeconomic order. It clearly succeeds, using fragments from the Qu’ran to simultaneously reach its intended audience of German-speaking Muslims, and frighten non-Muslims in its vicinity.

The problem with ending our analysis there is that I’m a Muslim familiar with German and Qu’ranic Arabic, and spotted problems in the sticker almost immediately. It doesn’t seem to be designed to convince its Muslim audience with specific theological argumentation. This was true of Maududi as well, who famously penned that Soviet-style Communism was as irreconcilable with Islam as liberal capitalist democracy. Maududi’s argument was that excessive materialism was present in both systems, in the latter with features like commodity fetishism, and the former with grim realities like an “equality of stomachs.” Instead, Maududi proposed that states like Pakistan should work towards an “equality of souls” that accepts the sovereignty of Allah, rather than seeking to appropriate divine qualities through an elusive mastery of individual and collective agency.

The Qu’ran and Hadith can only be used to vaguely supplement Maududi’s argument, which is based in a view of both democracy and shirkh that is purely reactive, and specific to our current historical period. Maududi was known to write phrases like “democracy is haram,” and those opinions relied less on theological specifics than appeals to subjective emotionality. His supporters have always felt their ambivalence towards, and outright rejection of, philosophical materialism, liberal capitalism, and Soviet-style Communist politics. The question therefore isn’t whether or not gezetsebung can be rationally argued as hukm, or if democracy is haram in a theological sense, but how implied models of governance and statecraft result in the audience yearning to express feelings of distress.

Parties like the Jamaat help their predominantly semi-autonomous peasant, small merchant, and lower bureaucratic base of support articulate their disenchantment through Islamic emotionality. That strategy isn’t going to die, although it may be contested on different terms. For instance, Ali Shariati was an Iranian thinker who sought to retool the “politics of affect” to shape alternative religious critiques, and his presence was felt in the contingents of Marxist Islamists who were active during the Islamic Revolution (before they were excluded from post-revolutionary society). However, it is difficult to predict how these discursive processes will evolve. Democracy itself may not be haram, but neoliberal democracy in countries like Germany can certainly feel that way, and thinkers like Maududi will be able to gain social traction as long as that remains the case.

 Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit