Le Monde hosted a fascinating debate recently, concerning whether, “L’islam politique est-il dans l’impasse?” Phillipe d’Iribarne suggests that the recent coup in Egypt, combined with the struggles of Islamist governments in Tunisia and Turkey, has a dual significance for the fate of “political Islam” (pleonasm?). On the one hand, this turn of events is a marked setback for specific parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. On the other hand, however, the responsiveness (in Egypt, at least) of political structures to popular outcry (in this case, the massive protests that presaged the coup) suggest to Iribarne that an Islamist might yet be able to offer a favorable interpretation of this turn.
“L’imaginaire politique de l’islam,” writes Iribarne, “est marqué par de grandes attentes envers un bon pouvoir, attentif au bien du peuple, épris de justice et d’honnêteté, à l’écoute de ceux sur qui il veille, attente qui s’accompagne de la conviction, appuyée sur la vie du Prophète, qu’un tel pouvoir peut exister – qu’il concerne la réalité et pas seulement le rêve. Savoir qui exerce ce pouvoir n’est pas l’essentiel.” Likewise inessential, he suggests, is democracy, especially considered narrowly in terms of elections, which have been “sacralisé” in the West. “Dans le monde de l’islam – on vient de le voir avec la destitution de Mohamed Morsi –, la légitimité des détenteurs du pouvoir n’est pas liée au respect d’une procédure, suffrage ou autre, mais tient à la manière dont ils répondent aux demandes du peuple.”
In this judgment, I hear a striking echo of Rousseau’s account of a political community’s “general will,” which transcends the individual wills of citizens, and imposes itself upon them. “The general will alone may direct the forces of the State to achieve the goal for which it was founded, the common good…. Sovereignty is indivisible … and is inalienable…. A will is general or it is not: it is that of the whole body of the people or only of one faction.” A referendum, if it yields only a bare majority or even a plurality in favor of some course of action, amounts, for Rousseau, only to an cartography of political faction; it remains for the will of the whole people — the people as sovereign, as the body-politic — to overcome factionalism and conscript the individual’s will into obedient service: “Whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be forced to obey it by the whole body politic, which means nothing else but that he will be forced to be free.”
Rousseau, of course, was famously a bit dodgy regarding how the general will makes itself heard above the din of individual wills — and the same dodginess seems to me to crop up precisely at this point in Iribarne’s account of Islamism’s commitment to a politics ostensibly more democratic than democracy itself. And both political theories are noticeably unconcerned with the prospect that the collective’s self-realization might require heinous violations of individual’s rights (assuming that these exist, whether they be conferred or natural, socially specific or universally human).
Mercifully, both accounts prove essentially needless once we inject a decent theory of count-action [a la Wolterstorff, esp. in Understanding Liberal Democracy] into our account of voting — according to the particular conventions of the state in question, a simple majority or plurality of votes can count as the collective decision of the state. We are helped not a bit by Rousseau’s romantic and mystifying notions of the collective sovereign’s binding the individual to true freedom, a notion that has indisputable genetic links to twentieth century totalitarian regimes (note esp. the famously opening line of the Social Contract, which ominously foreshadow Marx: “Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains”).