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Despotism and the Roots of Muslim Rage
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By Khalil Habib, February 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

Why are Islamist groups successful and on the rise? The essence of these organizations’ success lies in their ability to respond to the daily lives of Muslims whose struggles are largely ignored by fragmented and/or oppressive regimes and rival sectarian parties.

An entire generation has come of age since the leaders who are currently being challenged were at the heights of their powers. The new and less passive population is ready to push out the old. All that remains for these despots are relationships with military forces that have shown a dwindling willingness to support them in the face of such extraordinary opposition. “What right do these old men now have to rule us?” this new generation wonders. For now at least, they have ceased to fear those who have ignored and marginalized them for decades—their own rulers. We are witnessing the direct effect of life under despotic government.

Despotic government exists when a single individual holds supreme power, unfettered by laws, and governs according to his whims. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, and the state ignores the basic government obligations, such as education and opportunity. Police and security forces have for so long been used only to bolster corrupt and decaying regimes or to put into place tyrannical ones.  As long as despotism rules in the Arab world the only hope for relief (spiritual, if not physical) is religion. Religious extremism thrives where despotic governments rule and fail to answer vital domestic challenges. In order to see why, let’s take a step back and listen to what the great Enlightenment political philosopher Montesquieu has to say about the relationship between despotism and religion.

In order to understand a particular nation and the events that take place within it, one must first turn to the principle of government that operates there. According to Montesquieu, there are three forms of government: republican, monarchical, and despotic. Each form of government has a principle, a set of “human passions which set it into motion” and makes it act (SL 3.1).* Under a republican government, the people as a political body are sovereign and govern through elected representatives. In monarchical government, the royal prince or family has the sovereign power but governs according to established laws. Montesquieu defines despotism, which is a form of government he argues should be avoided at all costs, as government that consists of a dictator or ruler unrestrained by laws whose will dominates the entire state and who rules according to his arbitrary will and caprice (SL 3.2).

The Middle East is notable for its near total absence of genuine republican government. As Saddam Hussein once infamously remarked when asked what form of law governed in Iraq: “The law is what I say it is.” In such despotisms, the national army and the state police are the instruments of the dictator’s will. Life in that part of the world is either governed by monarchies, which do not always have the welfare of the people in mind, or despotism.

Montesquieu says that religion (both moderate and extremist) will always be powerfully present where no constitutional restraints, such as a separation of powers, exist to moderate despotism. In such a condition, religion is often the only viable restraint on the ruler where no legitimate political authority is allowed or possible. For Montesquieu, religion will always rule in Islamic regions because despotism is likely to be the only means of establishing order in that territory (SL 24.3). To see why, let’s consider how law and order are established under autocratic rule.

Despotism requires “extreme obedience” to a ruler’s will (SL 3.10). In order to be governed in this manner, citizens must be reduced to subjects and to servility through fear and intimidation. Honor and self-esteem are dangerous to despotism, Montesquieu says, because a “people capable of much self-esteem would be in a position to cause revolution . . . Therefore, fear must beat down everyone’s courage and extinguish even the slightest feeling of ambition” (SL 3.9) by “putting fear in the heart of their subjects” (SL 4.3). Consequently, “[Despotism] glories in scorning life, and the despot is strong only because he can take life away. How could honor endure a despot’s” humiliating and arbitrary whims? (SL 3.8). Robbed of their dignity and under constant threat of harassment and death, the populace in turn falls into line and is left with only their “instincts” and their “obedience” (SL 3.10). Only fear exists in this form of government. “Honor can be found only in states whose constitution is fixed and whose laws are certain.” Non-despotic government can, by contrast, as much as it wants and without peril, maintain itself by its laws. “But when in despotic government the [ruler] ceases for a moment to raise his arm . . . all is lost, for when the spring of the government, which is fear, no longer exists, the people no longer have a protector” (SL 3.9). Apparently, it was in this sense that the ousting of Ben Ali and Mubarak stoked the hope for change across the Arab world.

Life under despotism fosters a thirst for spiritual redemption through inspired religion and religious practice: “There is, however, one thing with which one can sometimes counter the [despot’s] will: this is religion. One will forsake one’s father, even kill him, if the [despot] orders it, but one will not drink wine if the [despot] wants it and orders it. The laws of religion are part of a higher precept, because they apply to the [despot] as well to the subjects” (SL 3.10). To those who live under despotism, religion becomes the only thing that can elevate them from a state of despair, especially when life under despotism is unbearable, oppressive, and hopeless, “because religion, even a false one, is the best warrant men can have of the integrity of men” (SL 24.8). When corrupt officials, added to the constant fear of punishment and humiliation by their governments, close off avenues of opportunity, the oppressed will turn to religion to satisfy their rage and desire for vengeance and justice. Islam fills the vacuum created by despotism and offers consolation for the hopelessness and misery that so often exists under despotism. To see the connection between despotism and religion, we need only turn to the chapter entitled “Temples” (SL 25.3), where Montesquieu makes the following general remark concerning the affection of Muslims for their holy places: “Indeed, nothing consoles men more than a place where they find the divinity more present and where all together they give voice to their weakness and their misery,” for religion “is the last refuge of the unfortunate” (SL 25.3) “ . . . witness the tenacious obstinacy of the Mohammedans . . . men are exceedingly drawn to hope and to fear, and a religion that had neither hell nor paradise would scarcely please them . . .  Thus, the very poverty of peoples is a motive attaching them to that religion, which has served as a pretext for those who have caused their poverty” (SL 25.2).

Humans must satisfy their natural desire for dignity and self-respect somehow; if they cannot get these from their own government and rulers, they will seek them in the transcendent rewards promised by their religion.

Montesquieu, however, is interested in religions “only in relation to the good to be drawn from them in the civil state,” and only insofar as they provide happiness in this life (SL 24.1). When life in this world proves to be unbearable and the value of human life is cheapened, hope for salvation in the next life becomes attractive.

But here’s the rub. Once happiness is only to be found in the next life, political laws lose their restraining influence and the promises of martyrdom become the only source of pride and honor. In a chapter entitled “How the force of religion bears on that of the civil laws,” Montesquieu has this to say: “The idea of a place of reward [in the afterlife] necessarily brings with it the idea of a region of penalties, and when one hopes for the former without fearing the latter, civil laws no longer have any force. Men who believe in the certainty of rewards in the next life will escape the legislator; they will have too much scorn for death. How can one constrain by the laws a man who believes himself sure that the greatest penalty the magistrates can inflict on him will end in a moment only to begin his happiness?” (SL 24.14). In other words, once the laws lose their force, governments default into despotism because political and legislative attempts fail to establish rule of law. The breeding ground for religious ideology is set into motion by the inherently corrupt nature of despotism.

According to Montesquieu, moderate, non-despotic government is better suited for religions that in principle allow a separation of church and state, and despotic government results where no such separation is possible or desired. “When religion establishes the dogma of the necessity of human actions, the penalties of the laws should be more severe and the police more vigilant so that men, who without them would let themselves go will base their decisions on these other motivaters; but if the religion establishes dogma of liberty, it is something else again” (SL 24.14). For Montesquieu, “human laws made to speak to the spirit should give precepts and no councils at all; religion, made to speak to the heart, should give many counsels and few precepts” (SL 24.7). Islam, however, combines law with religious precepts. By making politics inherently religious, Islam turns every political problem into a religious issue where opposition to religious reforms is met with accusations of blasphemy. Secular politics allows opposing parties to split the difference without risk of compromising religious belief and without causing sectarian schisms within society.

The failure of despotism to fix the daily lives of citizens is the secret behind the success of such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations that, through education largely unavailable from any alternate source, are able to preach the ideology of dignity through radicalization. The cycle continues with no possible resolution in sight. This is the reason the Muslim Brotherhood insists that only with the restoration of an Islamic Caliphate will the problems in Islamic nations be resolved. The alternatives are few: governments must either offer viable concessions to the people to improve their daily lives, or brace themselves for a rise in radical Islamist ideology. Until then, there is no shortage of religious and political entrepreneurs who will skillfully manage this rage to their own ends.

* All quotations are taken from Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, ed. and trans. Anne M. Cohler et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

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6 Comments
Gary Aminoff on Feb 24, 2011 at 3:20 pm

I think this is an excellent analysis of why the Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood are successful in the Middle East, and, importantly, a viable solution is presented.

David Meyer on Feb 24, 2011 at 4:27 pm

An excellent application of Montesquieu, whose analysis of the Islamic world is so timeless that it seems fresh off the morning headlines. One question to ponder, however, is that although the recruitment into radicalism is far greater in the Muslim world, how would Montesqieu, or you, explain the growing number of terrorists recruited out of democratic Western societies like the US, Germany, France, and Britain?

Madeleine on Feb 25, 2011 at 12:50 am

Although several points are completely valid, it seems rather ignorant and close-minded to focus only on Islam and its role in a despotic government. The many situations concerning despotic governments coincidentally have a connection to Islam more than other religions, but the article implies that the people reacting to oppressive governments are solely in the Arab world. Clearly, any form of government that is oppressive will find opposition and it seems as though this point is visible in present situations in the modern day and Montesquieu came from a time when none of this was occurring. Also, the use of the passive voice throughout this article seems very surprising for someone of such a high caliber and is distracting from the possible quality of this article.

CMan on Feb 25, 2011 at 12:24 pm

The author's application of Montesquieu's philosophies to what is happening in the world today, specifically in the Middle East, is absolutely warranted. To dismiss Montesquieu because of the era he lived in is asinine. That would be like dismissing America's founding fathers when, in actuality, their ideas for government were brilliant. The author did a fine job of drawing parallels of historical philosophy to modern day topical events in a very succinct way.

Lee Trepanier on Feb 26, 2011 at 9:08 am

It will be interesting to see what will happen in the future in the Middle East, especially with regards to their economics. As Montesquieu points out, commerce is the one of the pillars of a republican or at least tolerant society; and the economies in the Middle East (except Israel) are economically dysfuncational. It would appear that if the new regimes are able to address the economic question first, there may be a good chance for them to succeed as a non-despotic regime.