James Turner Johnson

Professor of Religion
Rutgers University
Religion and Political Legitimacy: Three Models in Current Debate
Dr. Johnson is currently a professor of religion and associate in the graduate department of political science at Rutgers University. He holds a Ph.D. with distinction and M.A. from Princeton University. Johnson earned his bachelor's degree from Vanderbilt University and his associate's degree from Brown University. He has received numerous major awards and fellowships, including a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in 2004-2005. Johnson has published 13 books and written chapters for 21 books as well as many articles. He has presented at many college and universities, including Brown University, Cambridge University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, Princeton University, the United States Naval Academy, and the University of Michigan Law School.


Religion and Political Legitimacy: Three Models in Current Debate

In contemporary debate over the possible shaping of democratic societies in the Middle East the role of religion in majority Muslim societies presents thorny problems. American policymakers have already had to deal with some such problems in the creation of the constitutions and the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq. On another front, central to the tension between the United States and Iran is the role the Iranian constitution and government accord to Islam, to shari`a law, and to the clergy as interpreters of that law.

In these cases and elsewhere in the Middle East, the issue is whether or how to incorporate an older pattern of the placement of religion in majority Muslim societies, by which Islam is given pride of place relative to political and legal legitimacy, with provision for toleration, but restricted participation in public life, for adherents to certain other religions. The best understood alternative to the classic Islamic pattern in the Middle East is another model, one of strict removal of religion from the public sphere, rooted in European rationalism and epitomized in the French idea of laicisme. Yet the American constitutional system differs from both, in effect reversing the relationship given in the classical Islamic model, with political legitimacy implying the positive protection of diverse religious beliefs and practices and accepting a place for religious values in the public sphere. Each of these models has different implications for the role of religion relative to political legitimacy, and each accordingly bears different implications for the democratic structuring of society. Understanding them and their implications requires close analysis of their religious and philosophical justifications as well as their historical expressions.

The older Middle Eastern pattern derives from classical Islamic jurisprudence, where it is defined in thought on the nature of the dar al-islam (the "gate" or "house" of Islam) as a religio-political entity ruled by a person understood as a legitimate successor of the Prophet Muhammad, charged with the protection of Islam and governing according to Islamic law. In the dar al-islam the religion of Islam thus not only has pride of place, but stands as the principal pillar around which the society is organized; it is unthinkable for it not to be there. Without it, the dar al-islam would be no different from the rest of the world, which the early jurists understood as ruled according to various sorts of imperfect laws, with the result of constant strife; the jurists called it collectively the dar al-harb, the "gate" or "house" of war.

The dar al-islam thus conceived was not the same as the Islamic umma, the religious community of Muslims. It provided limited toleration, following the dictates of the Qur'an, for three other religions "of the book," that is, religions with a revealed text: Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Persons who belonged to the named religions, the various "people of the book" (ahl al-kitab) enjoyed protected status. These dhimmis could live in their own communities according to their own laws and customs except where these might conflict with Islamic law, when the latter took precedence. The dhimmi model, that of an Islamic state with a protected status for people of the book, who did not enjoy full status as citizens but nonetheless were given a certain autonomy within their own communities, provides, in effect, the default position within Islamic tradition, enshrined in classical Islamic law and jurisprudence, with a substantial historical record extending from the early caliphates through the Ottoman Empire and beyond. Contemporary radical Islam favors a restrictive interpretation of this classical model, as in the Iranian Constitution, which establishes Islam as the state's religion and central pillar of society, interpreting it according to the Ja`fari school of jurisprudence of Twelver Shiism, recognizing but subordinating the four established Sunni schools, and allowing subordinate dhimmi status to Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian communities.

Two particular examples of a second model, that of a strictly secularized society in which religious belief and practice are separated from the political sphere as completely as possible, loom large among contemporary secular Muslim intellectuals:  that of French laicisme (important because of the deep influence of French culture on Middle Eastern intellectual life) and that of the former Soviet Union (still an important reference-point for many on the left). On this model the traditional Islamic pattern is effectively theocratic and inherently oppressive, an enemy of reason and personal autonomy and a profound threat to political legitimacy. Correspondingly, for adherents of the classical Islamic model, this one of radical secularism is seen as opposed to religion and seeking to do away with it.

While some in contemporary American society advocate a place for religion relative to political life similar to this second one in important respects, a third model is little known or at all understood by Middle Eastern Muslim intellectuals as a group: that  laid out in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, where establishment of religion is rejected but religious freedom is explicitly named as one of several freedoms (those of speech, the press, of assembly, and of the right to petition for redress of grievances), historically understood as granted in rights given in nature, which Congress is forbidden to restrict. The issue here, then, is not whether the political community that is the United States depends somehow for its legitimacy on religious authority, for that legitimacy, the Constitution makes plain, depends on the will of the American people. Rather the issue is the protection of natural rights, expressed in certain freedoms, one of which is the freedom of religion. Protection of the freedom to believe and to practice such belief, whether individually or collectively, is thus a core principle. That it is not in the Constitution proper but appears in the First Amendment, constitutional scholars have observed, follows from the fact that this seemed so self-evident that the framers of the Constitution did not believe it needed to be stated there. 

This is a radically different model from either of the first two mentioned. But it may provide more possibility for fruitful dialogue with those committed to the classical Islamic model than is possible between adherents of that model and strict laicisme. Laique is typically translated into English by the word "secular" and vice versa, and the concept of a secular society, for those who think in terms of the model of laicisme, means no place at all for religion in relation to the political community. So far as democracy is presented in terms of such secularity--as opposed to religious establishment--there is no room for dialogue, only opposition between the two positions. But the American tradition is different. This needs to be made plain in dialogue about democracy in the Middle East, where religion very much matters.

© Copyright 2007. All rights reserved. Center for Christian Studies at Gordon College.