January 24, 2005


As many have noted, a fascist (there's really no need to tack on "Islamo-" anymore) purporting to be Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has threatened Iraqi voters, declaring them "infidels" if they prefer to elect their own leaders rather than be content to stare up at the boots stomping on their faces:

"We have declared a bitter war against the principle of democracy and all those who seek to enact it," a speaker identified as Zarqawi said in an audio tape on the Internet.

"Those who vote ... are infidels," he said. "You have to be careful of the enemy's plots that involve applying democracy in your country and confront these plots, because they only want to do so to ... give the (Shi'ite) rejectionists the rule of Iraq."

The Zarqawifascist pronouncement, whether ersatz or genuine, reminded me of something I read some time ago. Unlike Zarqawi, the author of these lines was not directing acts of terror aimed at his fellow man, rather, he was imprisoned for something he wrote. While in prison, he wrote more, including this observation:

Dictatorship is immoral even when it prohibits sin, democracy is moral even when it allows it. Morality is inseparable from freedom. Only free conduct is moral conduct. By negating freedom, and thus the possibility of choice, a dictatorship contains in its premises the negation of morality. To that extent, regardless of all historical apparitions, dicatorship and religion are mutually exclusive. For, just as in the body-spirit dilemma, religion always favors the spirit, so in the choice of between wanting and behaving, intent and action, it will always favor wanting and intent, regarldless of the result, that is, the consequence. In religion, an action is not valued without the intention, without "intent," that is, without an opportunity or freedom to act or not act. Just as coercive starvation is not a fast, so the coerced good is not good and is from the religious standpoint valueless. That is why the freedom of choice, that is, of action or lack of it, of abiding or transgressing, is the prerequisite at the basis of all prerequisites of all religions and all morality. And that is why the elimination of this choice, either by physical force in dictatorship or obedience training in utopia, signifies their negation. From this the idea follows that every truly human society must be a community of free individuals. It must limit the number of its laws and interventions (degree of external coercion) to that necessary extent in which the freedom of choice between good and evil is maintained, so that people would do good, not because they must, but because they want to.

The writer of these words is the late Alija Izetbegovic, a devout Muslim who recognized that tyranny, not democracy, is incompatible with Islam.

Posted by Ideofact at January 24, 2005 10:22 PM

I don't think it's accurate to call Zarqawi a fascist. A radical totalitarian Islamist seems more precise to me.

See here for an explanation.

Posted by: praktike at January 24, 2005 11:21 PM

I see what you're getting at, but I think in some ways it's a distinction without a difference. I can come up with as many parallels between Fascism and Islamism of the Zarqawi or al Qaeda variety -- the cult of sacrificial youth, the glorification of the mythical past, etc. etc.

I think I've used the term totalitarian at various points to describe some aspects of the Islamist project; Zarqawi, however, strikes me as being a fascist.

Posted by: Bill at January 24, 2005 11:34 PM

Bill, I am hving trouble finding all your Izetbegovic posts in your archives. Could you help me find them? I wanted to highlight your posts on his writing over at CoB.

I think I want to be the next Qutb. His non-evil twin, as it were. It occurs to me that I could just search-replace "Jew" with "Harabist" and be 99% done with the work...

Posted by: Aziz at January 25, 2005 10:26 AM

"a distinction without a difference"

Maybe. Ultimately, it's not a big deal I guess. But when I think of fascism I think of Statism first and foremost.

Posted by: praktike at January 25, 2005 10:26 AM

Or, if you prefer, take a look at Dan Darling's latest. e.g.:

"You can see where Qutb and Co. are indebted a great deal to Marx and his ideological descendants for giving them the revolutionary tradition, the vanguard of the proletariat, and the idea of smashing the state. The interesting twist here is that whereas the communist idea of world revolution was always kind of vague prior to the establishment of the Soviet Union, bin Laden and his fellow ideologues seem to be quite specific about how they intended to set about building their global theocracy. A large part of this is likely indebted to the sad fate of the Egyptian Islamists, who learned the hard way what happens when you try to be Stalin but end up being Trotsky."

Posted by: praktike at January 25, 2005 10:46 AM


I both have a great deal of respect for Alija Izetbegovic (May God have mercy on him) and in no way do I think that Islam calls for dictatorship or totalitarian government.

However, it must be said that the argument made in the paragraphs you quote, if taken seriously and literally falls apart quite quickly upon serious examination.

Indeed, to be admirable in the sight of God one must voluntarily choose to do good and abstain from evil and one must engage in acts of obedience with the intention to obey God. However, this has never been understood to mean that the government should (or MUST as is suggested) allow for the prevalence of evil and harmful actions so that people can CHOOSE not do them.

Is Izetbegovic calling for anarcy? Should murder, theft, riba, and illegal sexual intercourse be legal? No one would argue that murder and theft should be legal so people can CHOOSE not to engage in them out of pure motives. To suggest that illegal sexual intercourse and riba should be permitted would go against the Qur'an, the clear example of the Prophet Muhammad (saw), his righteous successors, and the consensus of Muslim scholars. I don't think that is what Alija Izetbegovic is calling for, I think he is making a point -- which may or may not be correct.

But, again, at least as you've stated it here Bill and trying to follow your consistent call re: Qutb to allow the text to mean what it says rather than reading other things into it, one must say that this is not correct.

So I ask you, Bill, to believe that murder and theft should be legal? I suspect you will make some kind of libertarian argument that sins/crimes that involve other humans should be enforced by government but so-called victimless crimes should not be. I see why this argument appeals to libertarians, but it is just simply not legitimate from an Islamic point of view. I say not legitimate because it goes against the consensus understanding of Muslim scholars throughout history as I mentioned above.

One could make a more complicated point that, for example, the evidence required to prove illegal sexual intercourse is so stringent that in practice it would not really be enforced by the government and due to the rights of privacy afforded in Islam, as long as one hides this sin, the government will not become involved. However, this does not mean that the act should not illegal, in fact it must be illegal and one of the clear responsibilities of any government of believing Muslims would be to establish the illegality of such acts.

In addition, one of the primary functions of any Islamic government must be to enjoin the good and forbid the wrong. That is, to faciltate the doing of good, and to discourage the doing of evil. This has never been seen as contradictory to the idea of free will being necessary for moral behavior.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at January 25, 2005 02:25 PM


I do agree with you that is important to understand the terms we use if we want them to be meaningful as anything beyond playground insults.

To just agree that Zarqawi is 'bad' or 'fascist' and therefore one shouldn't follow him are not helpful at all unless one understands the terms being used and tries to use them precisely. If people think Zarqawi shouldn't be followed because he kills civilians and opposes democracy than just say so.

Personally, I don't think Zarqawi has released any detailed set of statements or writings by which one could tell what his principles, if any, really are.

Most Islamists oppose democracy if it is taken to mean that the government must be secular and that man-made laws are completely sovereign.

Most Islamists are in favor of democracy if it is taken to mean that people should be able to freely choose their own leaders within the context of a system where it is understood that the Qur'an and Sunnah form the basis of the legal and political system.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at January 25, 2005 02:34 PM

Well, I'm not sure that Izetbegovic's quote requires me to defend it, but where does he suggest that murder be legal? Surely you're not suggesting, Abu Noor, that society should be so ordered that murder should be impossible? I am not quite sure how one would create a state in which that were the case.

Posted by: Bill at January 25, 2005 10:17 PM


Of course, as I stated explicitly in my post, "no one" including Alija Izetbegovic would argue that murder should be legal. I apologize if you feel I set up a straw man argument, but I am actually just trying to use the so-called Socratic questioning to find out what the quote, to you, really means.

His quote suggests that one must be given the freedom to choose between good and evil, so wouldn't making murder illegal and using the physical force and all other powers of the state to try and prevent murder be removing the free choice from people. Aren't there at least some people who would like to murder who are prevented from doing so from fear of state sanction? The quote suggests that this state of affairs makes true virtue impossible.

Government cannot make murder impossible but government should and must try to prevent murder in ways consistent with its resources and respect for other values like privacy, etc.

So, other than stating that Islam is incompatible with tyranny, with which I agree completely and Sayyid Qutb would agree with completely, I am not sure what the implications of Izetbegovic's statement is in your mind.

Incidentally, as I've argued many times before and shown explicit examples from Qutb's life, he, like Izetbegovic was not interested in forcing Islamic government on unwilling subjects. His primary activity was on educating and developing a desire amongst the Muslims, specifically of Egypt, to desire that their country be ruled by Islam.

If your point is that Alija Izetbegovic would not agree with the actions that are attributed to Zarqawi in Iraq, I agree. And Qutb wouldn't either. As to what Zarqawi really thinks and whether he has a political philosophy, as I've already said, I don't think there is sufficient information available for me to make any judgements on that.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at January 26, 2005 10:40 AM

"Is Izetbegovic calling for anarcy? Should murder, theft, riba, and illegal sexual intercourse be legal? "

"So I ask you, Bill, to believe that murder and theft should be legal? I suspect you will make some kind of libertarian argument that sins/crimes that involve other humans should be enforced by government but so-called victimless crimes should not be. I see why this argument appeals to libertarians, but it is just simply not legitimate from an Islamic point of view. I say not legitimate because it goes against the consensus understanding of Muslim scholars throughout history as I mentioned above."

No, certainly not anarchy. In a liberal society, people are free to choose their actions to the extent that they do not interfere with the liberty or property of others. Laws against murder and theft are legitimate not because murder and theft are immoral (which they certainly are) but because they impact the liberty and property of someone else. Beyond that people are free to act according to their own moral codes. Some people may do thinigs that I find morally abhorent but as long as they don't intefere with someone else's liberty or property, I (and the government) have no standing to force them to change. In short, don't legislate morality. This is not anarchy.

The islamic government you describe certainly falls within the definitions of autocracy if not necessarily dictatorship. A small group, the scholars you quote, get to define correct behavior and have the power to use force to coerce people to follow that code.

From your standpoint and your islamic moral code, such a government is certainly moral. From the standpoint of a liberal moral code such a government is certainly immoral.

The root conflict is that the two moral codes are incompatible. There's no point in arguing over the morality of any given institution when each side is using a different definition of morality.

Posted by: Marc at January 26, 2005 01:44 PM


I agree with you partly that we are dealing with different basic assumptions about the world between a committed Muslim and a secularist. In such a situation debate is not helpful but discussion can allow for different parties to understand each other better.

However, your conception of the Islamic scholars forming an autocracy is incorrect, at least in the way you framed it.

It is not the role of the Islamic scholar to determine what is moral in his own opinion but it is his role to engage in the process known as ijtihad from which one tries one's best to determine what the revealed texts (the Qur'an and the Sunnah) state on an issue.

One could argue that this sets up the scholar as ruler but only in the same way that one could argue that the members of the Supreme Court are an autocracy ruling the U.S. because it is their role to interpret, in teh final analysis what the constitution and other laws of the U.S. actually mean and how they might apply to a given situation. It is the revelation that rules, not the scholar. If a scholar was insincere in his efforts or otherwise hijacked the process to impose his own will upon people that would be a perversion and misuse of the system, not an expression of it.

I also wonder Marc are you arguing from a libertarian point of view? Certainly the mainstream political opinion in the U.S. traditionally has been that legislating based upon moral considerations is acceptable. Obviously there have always been tensions in the society about that due to different ideas of what is moral as well as the constitutional questions posed by legislating based on 'religion,' when for many people it is difficult or impossible to separate their 'morality' from their 'religion'.

So, to the extent that the U.S. legal tradition goes against what are you suggesting, does that mean that the U.S. is not a liberal society?

Thanks for your comments Marc, they have really helped me to continue to work through my thinking about the issues (in my own head, at least.)

By the way, as I allude to above (perhaps too subtly) the Islamic view on 'legislating' and/or enforcing 'morality' is complex and Islam does allow for realms of free belief, free choice, and privacy. As a matter of principle, however, it is clear that Islam does not only not see encouragement of morally good actions and discouragement of forbidden (immoral) actions as being permissible but in fact sees it as being an obligation upon every individual and upon governments.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at January 26, 2005 03:58 PM


What I see as the autocratic nature of the government is that the power to define correct and required behavior rests absolutely in a very few people and the coercive force of government is used to enforce that right behavior.

It is irrelevant to me if the desired behavior is based on study and reflection on sacred Islamic texts, or on Christian texts, or on Jewish texts, or on the New York Times for that matter. Moral behavior in a liberal society is not imposed and enforced from above. When the government is responsible for defining and enforcing moral conduct I think it is fair to describe it as totalitarian and authoritarian.

The argument that the US Supreme Court is autocratic invalid for a number of reasons. First, the court neither creates nor enforces laws. The intended purpose of the court is to provide a check on the authority of the executive and legislative branches. It is to ensure that those branches do not overstep the authority given to them by the US Constitution. Second, the power of the court is not absolute. If the court determines that a given law violates the constitution then there are mechanisms by which the constitution can be changed, with the consent of a large majority of the population, so that the court will no longer be able to find the law unconsitutional.

The US government, AS DESIGNED, is quite liberal and is in no way autocratic, authoritarian, totalitarian or theocratic. Of course, the government doesn't always operate as designed. I don't believe there is any doubt that the US government of today is from the classical liberal ideal. But the fact remains that we still have the option of changing it. I can still say that the emperor has no clothes without fear of being flogged for apostasy. I can criticize the government. I can lobby to make new laws or change or abolish existing laws.

I don't believe the same can be said of a theocratic government, be it Islamic, Christian or anything else. This was the moral problem I was trying to make in my original post.

The US is by no means a fully liberal society in the classical sense. Both historically and into the present day, laws are made based on moral and religious beliefs. That does not, however, mean that I believe this is the correct way to make laws. The point is that I can still argue against these laws, argue against these processes and work to convince others to see things in a different way.

Your argument seems to be that because the US government is not truly classically liberal I should not argue against a non-liberal Islamic government. That is false. I argue against both the non-liberal US government and the non-liberal Islamic government (and any non-liberal government be it Christian, budhist, hindu, socialist, communist, ...).

I understand that adherents to some religious beliefs may hold that the role of government is to enforce the religiously defined right behavior. But it must also be understood that with regard to liberty and freedom, such a belief is, as the title of Bill's original post says...


Posted by: Marc at January 27, 2005 12:03 PM


Actually I wasn't trying to say that you can't argue against non-liberal Islamic government because the U.S. government is not truly classically liberal.

I specifically asked you at the beginning of my post if you were a libertarian because it seemed that you were reflecting those ideas and it is true that a libertarian would have problems with both the current U.S. government as well as, as you put it, a non-liberal Islamic government.

As someone who has studied American history and law, I do think it should be clear that nothing in the American legal system as designed would indicate that legislation based on moral considerations is somehow illegitimate. Indeed, as time has passed, either because people have become more immoral or because morals have changed (depending on how you want to look at it) the prevalence of laws based on morality has lessened although certainly there are still many many exceptions. And, if we believe the pundits at least a sizeable portion of the electorate is concerned about having people in political and judicial power who will reflect their moral values, both personally and through legislation.

I'm not sure you understood my point about the Supreme Court in regards to why an Islamic Society would not be a theocracy (rule by clerics) but a nomocracy (rule of law -- in this case divine law). In any event, in an Islamic society there would also be mechanisms to correct the mistaken judgements of scholars or the tyranny of rulers.

I think we agree on the basic issue here. I do think we have different understandings of what the American system is and what an Islamic system would be but that's for another discussion.

The reason I've tried to push you a little bit is because where I am interested is understanding whether a person like you really believes that government should have no moral considerations.

As a person who disagrees with those in the society who are politically powerful on at least a good number of moral issues, I certainly see the appeal of saying they should not have any power to enforce their morals on me. What I have a hard time getting my head around is what kind of person could have influence over people, including political influence and not use it to try and accomplish good. My problem is I'm an idealist. I guess the reason I butt heads with Bill so much is I have a hard time being satisfied with 'striving for the better within the circle of the commonplace.' I believe each of us has a purpose greater than that.

God knows best.

Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at January 27, 2005 06:29 PM


I know you asked me if I am a libertarian, and I purposely didn’t answer because it was irrelevant to the discussion at hand, namely, can there be such a thing as non-dictatorial Islamic government. My own political beliefs have no bearing on nature of an Islamic government.

I am a classical liberal. I supposed that makes me a libertarian, but that term has collected so much additional baggage these days that I usually try to avoid it. Why, again, is this important?

You say you want to create a government based on the rule of ‘divine law’. Those laws handed down from God must certainly be obeyed absolutely and may not be questioned. Thus, what you propose is at best the Ultimate benevolent dictator. But that’s still dictatorship. Of course, because the laws are actually written by people interpreting sacred texts you really end up with a dictatorship of men rather than of God.

You mentioned in a previous comment that Islam allows for “realms of free belief, free choice and privacy”. That implies that are realms where freedom of belief, choice and privacy are not allowed. From the standpoint of religion that is perfectly valid. However, when you propose a government with the power to force correct behavior within those realms you move into totalitarianism. I realize that because you believe in this interpretation of divine law that you see this as a natural and correct form of government, but that does not change the totalitarian nature of it.

Consider, if you will, your situation if you lived under a government based on divine law as interpreted by the Catholic Church, or as interpreted by fundamentalist Protestants or by the Mormons or the Jews. I think would find such a government neither natural nor correct. That’s one of the problems with divine law. There are just so many to choose from.

This leads directly into the reason why I believe that government should not create laws based solely on moral grounds. To my mind, no one person or group has the absolutely correct moral code. Morality is not something that is bestowed from above, but rather is something that grows organically from below. I believe it is immoral for someone to forcefully impose their moral code on someone else simply because they have political power or influence. The use of force, which is necessarily what government does, to make people behave against their own moral code does not ‘accomplish good’, rather quite the contrary.

Demonstrate the good of your moral code by your actions in daily life. Explain rationally why you believe your moral code is superior to others. Look at the actions of others to find things worthy of emulation. That is acting to increase the good. Inflicting your beliefs on others by force is not.

Posted by: Marc at January 28, 2005 11:08 AM


I understand where you are coming from. Thanks a lot for your explanation. Believe me, I was not trying to force you or trap you by saying libertarian and I understand the problem with labels. Although I am not sure why classically liberal would have any less baggage than libertarian.

In any society there can only be realms of privacy. One does not have a right to privacy in public. Think about 4th amendment jurisprudence in this country.

On principle my argument would be that every society enforces at least some aspects of morality upon its citizens. Now, some may enforce less than others and you may think your imagined ideal society would not enforce any. I don't believe that's possible, and my point of bringing up the U.S. was because that's one society I'm very familiar with and I could give you a long list of all the moral values it tries to enforce legislatively.

So, actually the Muslim is in complete agreement with you that the idea of humans ruling over other humans through physical force is problematic. The Muslim solution is to have divine law rule, your solution is to have all those humans who are ruling apparently rule in some 'non-moral' realm where apparently it is okay to force people to do certain things. I think the idea of this non-moral ruling is a facade.

You can't tell me that when the government forcibly takes my money and invades Iraq, killing tens of thousands of Muslim civilians, that the government is not forcing its morality upon me. Any government that forces me to support its actions, a great number of which I find immoral is forcing me into immorality.

At least it doesn't force me to pray in a church or say Jesus is God right? An Islamic society wouldn't force such things on others either, that's what I mean by realms of privacy and free choice. But, one may be required to support financially or to obey generalized laws even though one may not agree with all of them. In fact, the Islamic system is more creative in the way it allows minorities to rule themselves, i.e. in certain areas Jews can be ruled by Jewish law and Christians by Christian law.

In terms of your last two paragraphs, I'm very tempted to agree with you but as always I think there are exceptions to what you say. Do you think it was wrong of the U.S. government to forcibly enforce moral choices such as racial desegregation in schools, public accomodations and housing. You are right that you can't legislate morality, but as Dr. King pointed out you can legislate behavior. And I think you should in certain cases. Not because it works perfectly or because it will always change hearts. You're right example and rational argument work better to change hearts, but because sometimes you can't just stand back and let certain things happen if you have the ability to change them. Of course if by you trying to change them, you are really sure you are just going to make things worse, than Islam agrees that you should not try to change them but work to change other conditions so that it will make things easier.

Sorry for the rambling. Thanks again for bringing this argument and explanation Marc and I sincerely appreciate your showing respect for the those of us who do believe in revelation and not resorting to ridicule. I have tried to show respect and understanding for your position, with which I would have agreed most of my life, and with which I still have a lot of sympathy, and I'm sorry if that has not shown through.


Posted by: Abu Noor al-Irlandee at January 28, 2005 04:52 PM


I’ll finish with this post. I think we’ve both made our cases and there’s no need fill up the comments section with a debate between a couple of wordy idealists. Thank you very much for an insightful and honest discussion.

I agree that all societies must have rules and laws and by definition, rules and laws limit freedom. The important question then is what is the basis for determining good laws; what is the metric for measuring the benefit of the law versus the loss of freedom. There can be no absolutes in this debate and the answers will vary over time. That is the nature of freedom, the ability to change your mind.

If you add absolutes to this equation, that is beliefs or behaviors that may not be questioned or discarded then you get a society that is, to some degree, not free. If the governed lose the ability to decide for themselves the rules under which they live, then freedom is lost.

The absolute may be in the form of a human dictator whose whims are enforced absolutely by physical force. The absolutes may also come from religion, which speaks for God whose rules are absolute by definition. In each case the society is not free, not because of the the rules, but because the source of the rules it ouside the control of the governed. That is the basis of my argument stripped down as far as I can take it.

Regarding making laws based solely on a moral basis was directed at things like this. Good people do X so X should be the law and people who don’t do X should be punished. If the definition of good is based on a religious absolute than this is simply a concrete example of the argument I presented above. There are other problems with this approach, namely that it doesn’t work very (if at all) in changing moral beliefs which is often why they are enacted, but that really is completely different discussion and I’m not going to open that debate here.

Again, thank you for an enjoyable debate. I wish you all the best.

Posted by: Marc at January 28, 2005 07:52 PM