Alcohol and the Iraq Elections: Thoughts on Religious Expertise
There is this mantra that broods over among many of the Muslim devout that “Islam is a complete way of life.” Thoughtful people like Ali Allawi or Sayyid Hossein Nasr mean by this that the manner in which all knowledge is taught in a proper Islamic society would be entirely reoriented so as to be, in Allawi’s terms, “God-centered.” Unfortunately, however, in the world we currently inhabit (as both of the above scholars would readily acknowledge, I believe), there is no such “Islamic” orientation to the study of the sciences, natural or social, or other forms of knowledge. The epistemology in all manner of human affairs is, it seems to me, deeply, fundamentally secular in just about everything other than those fields that are, in one way or another, theological.
And the unfortunate result of marrying this reality to the notion that Islam is a complete way of life is that you end up with religious scholars often opining about things that they don’t understand, they aren’t trained to understand and they can’t possibly be expected to understand, and those opinions being taken rather seriously. It is I suppose natural enough. Given that “Islamic social sciences” don’t really exist, if you are going to hear social sciences and get an Islamic perspective, all too often it’s a cleric delivering a Friday sermon who if you are lucky might have a bachelor’s degree in sociology or something. I suppose in a world where every celebrity is somehow given a pulpit to opine on such matters, this isn’t a tragedy. But to those of us who actually think that if you want to know something, you should probably learn it from the people who have dedicated their lives to it (ie not Bono), it’s rather unfortunate.
Let’s look at a few examples from the past two days. Today a Sunni cleric, Mahmoud al-Issawi, giving the Friday prayer here in one of
This sort of reasoning continued onwards in the sermon, and the guy said something along the lines of it being an economic consensus that, and I am quoting, “every dirham spent for your benefit is a dirham spent for the nation, and every dirham spent for your harm is harm to the nation.” Thus, on the basis of demonstrable links to crime (half the crime in
The point is certainly not that one cannot come up with sound religiously neutral reasons to ban alcohol. To the contrary, I’ve always found the West rather bemusing with its near religious faith in its ability to determine through “reason” which mood altering substances are too harmful to be permitted, and which may be consumed in moderation, with the line usually being somewhere between alcohol and marijuana. Some of us might think of that particular line as being a product of cultural disposition (ie snowboarders smoke dope, doctors have a glass of wine) more than rational determination, but anyway.
Rather, the point is, clearly this isn’t the guy to do it. This guy could tell you it’s forbidden. He could walk you through the texts to explain why that was. He could further give Prophetic examples to demonstrate his point. If he was thoughtful, he’d explain why the Hanafi position was for the entire classical era different, but I have yet to hear a Friday sermon that introspective. (Though again going back to the immediately preceding post this seems to be something nearly every lawyer knows in
But the preacher didn’t just do that, he tried to provide reasons based on empirical data, and clearly he lacked the capacity to do that. In fact, it sounded rather stupid coming out of his mouth. The near certainty of serious crime to follow a night of drinking was ridiculous; you don’t have to make such an empirically false claim to show a strong link between crime and alcohol. (A more reasonable argument would be enough crime happens following alcohol to justify its ban, for example, rather than what he said, which is that if you drink, and you’ll kill boys en route to sleeping with prostitutes and getting AIDS.) Doctors clearly do indicate moderate amounts of red wine might be good for health (as marijuana is good for glaucoma, not necessarily a reason to be legal, but a fact to recite if you’re going to make medical claims), and unless I’ve lost my mind, no decent economist who hasn’t gone senile even knows what “every dirham that goes to your benefit benefits the nation” even means, much less subscribes to it.
So much for the cartoon, now for a more nuanced version of the same thing, with broader effect, though not as silly. In
The problem is, while there’s nothing wrong with open lists, it seems rather clear from talking to the experts that they aren’t that terribly significant in affecting outcome. A “closed list” is one where a voter is basically handed a slate of competing party lists, and picks any one they want. (Shi’a Coalition, Kurdish
Why doesn’t it matter? Because realistically, nobody can actually name 100 people in any list. I work in the Parliament almost every day and I’d be lucky to get to 30. So what’s going to happen is a few people at the top might get rearranged, but then the balance of the members are basically going by order on the list. The
But the street doesn’t feel that way, especially after Sistani spoke, and so we’re going towards open list which theoretically give voters “more choice.” But it’s unclear to me why precisely the opinion of a Grand Ayatollah on a matter of an open list or a closed list in a national election is a matter to be taken into account. I’ve got great respect for Sistani, no doubt, but this isn’t his area of specialty. It’s not mine either, but we’ve got plenty of world class experts in the house, they’ve showed me after hours of this stuff, and I get it now. Not like them, but after hours of charts and flow charts and examples I needed to do my own work in the Iraq Parliament, I get it. And yes, I think I get it better than the Grand Ayatollah. That this sounds sacrilegious to some might demonstrate the extent to which the clerics are assumed to be experts in all matters under the sun, when in fact this is really a technical issue, not a matter of the “will of the voter” or anything else that could possibly involve core matters of democratic government, much less sacred Muslim text. I would never compare this to the idiocy of the antialcohol dude above, except to say both are examples of clerics going beyond their particular area of expertise, one a thoughtful and smart cleric doing it carefully and conservatively, and the other (far more minor) figure engaged in logic contorted verbal diarrhea.
So what’s the harm then in the second case, particularly if the Grand Ayatollah is merely helping the street get that which it is leaning towards and clearly open lists aren’t bad? Couple of things. First of all, it seems that we have something approaching (though not quite being) a religious ruling, a hukm shar’i from a high Shi’a cleric that closed lists are not legitimate means of choosing leaders, or at least are vastly inferior to open lists. I’m not sure that’s a wonderful precedent to adopt when there will we hope be more Shi’a majority democracies in the future and one of them might well decide to endorse a closed list system.
Secondly, and more importantly for Iraq now, the broad assumption is that open lists make a profound difference in outcome, and that as a result, the Grand Ayatollah has caused the same power shift, in the same positive direction, that occurred when he demanded elections for the Assembly that wrote the Constitution. Except that WAS a power shift, that was originally a US engineered caucus that was by the power of the Grand Ayatollah’s words alone changed into a vote for a democratic body. The people were almost surely radically different than what Bremer had wanted. That was huge. This on the other hand is changing a couple of names at the very top of a list.
So the massive change that the street is expecting with these elections if they are open list is not going to materialize. It’ll be the same Parliament with the same people doing the same things. Maliki might gain, ISCI might lose, or vice versa, I don’t project, but it’ll be the same basic parties with some power shifts, but not a radically different group with a radically different agenda. Open lists won’t change that, and aren’t nearly as profound a difference as the believers seem to think. That could be disappointing to people not expecting that, which at this point is just about everyone without the technical expertise.