Political Culture and Democracy: An Analysis of the story of Abraham
by: Masoud Kazemzadeh, Ph.D.
Masoud Kazemzadeh, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor and Chair of the Political Science Program at the Department of History and Political Science at Utah Valley State College. This article is a much larger version of another article of mine published in www.iranian.com on July 1, 2003. The first 1/3 of the present article is similar to the first half of the article in iranian.com; and the latter 2/3 of the present article is totally different than the article in iranian.
Democracy is a relatively new system of government for humanity. Except for the brief existence of (partial) democracy in several Greek city-states some 2,400 years ago, we have not seen the existence of democracy in any country. The Persian Empire and its able founder Cyrus the Great [Koroush Kabir] introduced the notion of political liberties in the ancient world, including religious freedom. The Roman Empire combined aspects of Athenian democracy with the Persian practice of allowing the conquered to keep their religion, some political leaders, economic system. The rise of Christianity in 3rd century Roman empire destroyed religious tolerance for non-Christians and dissident Christian sects. Many dissident Christians had to escape persecution and found refuge in the tolerant Persia. Both the Holy Roman Empire and the subsequent monarchies were dictatorial. The only partial exception was the English in which the existence of a powerful and well-established landed feudal aristocracy was able since 1215 to restrain the absolute power of the king.
The rise of democracy can be traced to the process of Enlightenment and the undermining of the absolutist ideas in Europe in the past 300 years. Democracy and freedom require many things. Obviously, a system of government in which the people freely elect all the leaders is of prime significance. In addition, there are mores, ethos and other values among the population that SUSTAINS democracy and freedom. In other words, there have been many instances of a democratic system having been established but the democratic system was not able to CONSOLIDATE.
One of the factors that functions as a foundation for the consolidation of democracy is the relationship between the people and the leadership. There are two main ethos: (1) Absolutism; and (2) Pluralism. Absolutist ethos are based on BLIND OBEDIENCE. Pluralist ethos are based on human reason, relativity of truth, and the acceptance of diversity of perspectives.
1. On Absolutist Ethos and Culture
When people are socialized to blindly follow the leadership, the followers of the leader blindly follow leader X. Obviously, sooner or later leader A makes mistakes. The existence and prevalence of the ethos of BLIND OBEDIENCE gives rise to absolutist challengers to leader X. The opponent of leader X, called leader Y claims that leader X had it all wrong. That if only people blindly followed him, then everything would be perfect. This is how one king, or religious leader, replaced incumbent dictatorial leader in the past two thousand years in much of the world.
In the past 300 years, there has been the rise of the Enlightenment and liberalism (John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill) in Europe. The Enlightenment and liberalism embraced ethos borrowed from ancient Greeks and Romans and the notion of human rights, which was first instituted by Cyrus the Great.
In this essay, I use the story of Abraham and how this story has served as a foundation of blind obedience for the past 2000 years justifying absolutist systems of governance in Europe, and the Middle East.
In the Old Testament (Torah), there is the story of Abraham. Abraham could not have a child. So God gave Abraham a son. The son's name is Isaac. In the story of Abraham, God to test the faith and fidelity of Abraham tells him to cut the throat of his only son, Isaac. Then Abraham places a sharp knife on his son's throat to cut it. At the last second, God tells him to stop.
This story from Jewish religion has been placed at the center of Islam. Haj is one of the five pillars of Islam. ALL the pilgrims have to go through and act step by step what Abraham had done. The pilgrim walk round the Kaaba (the House of Abraham), then the pilgrims have to CUT THE THROAT OF A SHEEP in the manner that Abraham had to cut the throat of his only son.
There are three important questions that have significant impact of political culture of those who have been socialized with the story of Abraham.
A. WHAT is the goal (or moral, or purpose) of the story of Abraham?
B. WHO benefits from propagating the story of Abraham?
C. What sort of LEADERSHIP benefits from socializing the masses through this story?
Let me provide some answers:
Those who write these stories (or myths) initially were the Jewish rabbis. Obviously, this story was so useful and powerful tool for socializing the masses that both Christianity and Islam also adopted it. Islam raised this story to a central socializing ritual as one of the five pillars of the religion. Those who wrote this story had a purpose. What is that PURPOSE or GOAL of the story makers?
Clearly, the story says that individuals confront situations that they do no understand. They HAVE to BLINDLY OBEY those in the positions of POWER. Individuals may not understand the reasons why they are told to go to war and sacrifice their lives. This story says that one should suspend his/her reason, love of children and BLINDLY OBEY the source of authority. To question is to doubt; to doubt is to be what Islam calls "moshrek." So, when a government orders fathers to send their sons to wars, fathers would have a hard time to question and object to the authority.
Obviously, Abraham could have used his brain and ask God for an explanation. If God could not give Abraham a good reason why he should cut the throat of his son, then a reasoning person would disobey a bad order. But here the GOAL of the story of Abraham is to tell people NOT to QUESTION those in authority.
Leaders find this story so useful that they still after 2000 year socialize the children with this story. Every totalitarian dictator in the Middle East loves this story. Both kings and religious leaders claim that God has appointed them to rule over his flock. So, the authority of God is transferred to them and they constitute the authority on Earth.
ALL dictatorial leaders want their supporters to BLINDLY OBEY them. Whether it is Mohammad Reza Shah, Ruhollah Khomeini, Ali Khamanehi (Velayat Motlagh Faghih), or Masoud Rajavi, they ask their supporters to obey them blindly and not to question their authority. The Shah's slogan was: "Khoda, Shah, Mihan," [God, the King, Country]; Khomeini's supporters slogan was: "Hezb Faghat Hezbollah, Rahbar Faghat Ruhollah," [the Sole party is Hezbollah, the Sole Leader is Ruhollah]; the slogan of the supporters of Rajavi is: "Iran Rajavi, Rajavi Iran".
Let me re-state the answers:
A. the moral (or the goal, or the purpose) of the story of Abraham is that BLIND OBEDIENCE is GOOD, questioning and skepticism, and using one's brain is BAD. Follow the LEADER, do not question the wisdom of the LEADER.
B. Those DICTATORIAL LEADERS who do not have reason and logic on their side benefit from this story.
C. The DICTATORIAL leaders and those leaders who do not have logic on their side benefit from this story.
In other words, absolute dictatorship, absolute truths, absolute morality, and blind obedience are values that go together. They are spokes in a wheel that keep the tire attacked to an absolute dictatorial ruler.
The story of Abraham is embraced by those in power AND for those totalitarian leaders who want to replace one form of dictatorship with another form of dictatorship.
2. On Democratic Ethos and Culture
What sort of ethos is compatible with freedom and democracy? Freedom is always for those who think differently. Freedom is the ability to say and write something that those in power do not like to hear. Freedom rests on the foundation of doubt and skepticism. We are seldom certain of what the truth is, therefore we should allow ALL perspectives to be heard. Progress is always achieved when someone said things that had not been said before. Out knowledge is relative. We continuously learn more and discard what we find out was inaccurate. There are very few things that are absolutely true. It is not easy for mere mortals to know what the absolute truth is, if there was such a thing in many cases. We all have to use our brain to evaluate what we are told. We have to use REASON, LOGIC, EVIDENCE before we accept to do this thing or that thing.
Democracy means that the particular person in power is there temporarily until the people change him/her with another person. Democracy is a system in which the power is in the hands of the people. In a democracy, there is no such a thing as leadership for life or for a historical period. Democracy is a not a perfect system of government, because there is no such a thing as perfect system of government. We are all human beings and we ALL have made mistakes and WILL make mistakes in the future. There is no panacea to all social ills. We could only gradually muddle through. Through trial and error, we gradually learn what works and what does not. As situations and circumstances change, the older solutions become useless and the process of finding better solutions starts again.
We could and should try to make our situation better. We could not bring absolute harmony and absolute solutions.
If we want to see freedom and democracy in Iran, we should move away from BLIND OBEDIENCE. We should move away from absolute truths. We should be weary of those who want to impose absolute morality as they define them.
This is not to say that we are not absolutely certain of anything. The absolute relativism of the post-modernists is wrong. We do know absolutely that the earth is not flat. We do know that willful murder of an innocent 5 year old is wrong and immoral. Not all explanations are equally valid. There are good and bad explanations.
However, the criteria for judging is our mind, our rationality, our science, our logic. A bit of skepticism is good. A whole lot of reason is imperative.
In conclusion, what sort of ethos is coterminous with freedom and democracy? We should reject BLIND OBEDIENCE, we should reject ABSOLUTE truths, and those who want impose absolute morality.
Obviously, there is a need for leadership. The DEMOCRATIC leadership is 100% different than a DICTATORIAL leadership. A democratic leadership is OPEN to CRITICISM. A DICTATORIAL leadership closes off the avenues of criticism. A democratic leadership is open to a plurality of views and there is a REAL competition for leadership positions at ALL levels. A dictatorial leader selects and promotes those in the party which are yes men and women and sycophants [chaploos].
Our history is full of one dictatorial group and person opposing another dictatorial ruler. If we are to break this cycle of one dictator replacing another dictator, we need to change the ethos and values that give rise to dictatorial and totalitarian leadership and sheep-like supporters. We have to learn to use our brain. We have to learn to stand up for the rights of those with whom we disagree. We have to stand up to ALL dictatorial groups and leaders. This means that we have to be willing to pay the price of dissent. The larger the number of individuals who are willing to stand up to authoritarian persons, the lower the cost to each individual and the higher the likelihood of success.
Democracy is not replacing one dictatorial leader whom we hate with one dictatorial leader whom we like. Democracy is a system in which the PEOPLE FREELY choose the leaders in frequent intervals. Democracy presupposes freedom for all parties, individuals, to freely compete for all positions of power. Freedom of expression presupposes that all individuals are allowed to express their opinions unhindered. It is the people who after hearing and listening to all sides may vote for any one that they want (and change their views in a later election).
BLIND OBEDIENCE is the enemy of free thought. BLIND OBEDIENCE is the enemy of reason. BLIND OBEDIENCE to any leader is supporting a dictator. BLIND OBEDIENCE is the father of totalitarianism and dictatorship. It is no accident that Stalin had suppressed many of the works of Karl Marx. Once a group of French workers who had read the Communist Manifesto went to Marx and gave him a list of 10 or so positions and proposed to him that they were establishing a party with the ideology of "MARXISM." Marx looked at the 10 demands that were accurately taken out of Communist Manifesto. He thought for a second or two, and replied: "j'n se pas Marxist." [I am not a Marxist]. For Marx, liberation was not a bunch of people following a set platform and following a leader. For Marx, socialism was a society where the workers themselves would rule the society. Marx may have been wrong in assuming that the workers themselves through un-mediated role of the politicians and leaders could directly control the means of production and the running of the society. But Marx was right in the sense that placing him [Marx] as the sole ruler of a society would not be liberation, for workers were replacing one overlord (the capitalist) with another overlord. Liberation may occurs when the people themselves run their lives. Marx had assumed that it could be done without the mediation of a democratic state. In hindsight, we see that democracy could exist although through a REPRESENTATIVE SYSTEM.
The actual history of the world has illustrated that if we Iranians want to develop politically, economically, socially, we have to learn from the achievements and failures of others. If we do not want to replace one form of dictatorship with another, we have to have the courage to stand up to all those who demand BLIND OBEDIENCE. We have to use our mind, and ask for logical explanations. We have to ask for freedom and democracy inside political parties as well as outside political parties.
Democracy requires that we accept the rights of others to hold different views, perspectives, analysis and tactics. The acceptance of plurality of views is a pre-requirement of democracy. We should avoid character assassinations of those merely because they hold a different perspective than one's own. Democracy is based on the agreement that political differences be resolved peacefully and through going to the people for THEIR votes. This as I mentioned earlier requires respect for the freedom of others to hold opposing viewpoints and ideologies. Having as part of our cultural ethos, stories and rituals that socialize us to have blind obedience have to be challenged.
The three great Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- share many values that have not produced democracy in any country in which its clerics have assumed power. Democracy has emerged only in those polities in which there has been a separation of religion and the state. Many competing interpretations of Abrahamic faiths have emerged. One particular interpretation, usually referred to as fundamentalist variety, hold views most incompatible with personal liberties and pluralist democracy.
The fundamentalists in all the Abrahamic religions maintain that morality is anchored in absolutes of right and wrong. These absolutes are demarcated in the holy books. For example, the Ten Commandments or the list of sins [gonah] and good deeds [savab] tell the people what is moral and what is immoral. Therefore, punishments and rewards are decided upon through divine LAWS.
The non-fundamentalist versions of the Abrahamic religions bring human reason into the calculation of what is moral and what is immoral in addition to the basic positions announced in the holy books. For example, in the Old Testament, homosexuality is regarded as immoral. The punishment is death. In the Koran, the punishment for theft is cutting off hands and legs and for apostasy the punishment is death. Fundamentalists argue that God is omniscient and His decrees are independent of time, place, and culture. For fundamentalists, if the Holy Scriptures says that homosexuality is bad, therefore it is bad. If the divine law says that they should be killed, then it should be done. The non-fundamentalists are willing to use human reason to analyze the injunctions of the holy books and take into account time and place for considering what is moral-immoral and the punishment thereof.
Various modern secular scholars and philosophers have argued that morality changes according to time, place and condition. Marx, for example, argued that the economic structure of society gives rise to the notions of morality and immorality. For Marx and Engels, the slave mode of production, considers slavery as a normal and moral system. A feudal mode of production, regards serfdom as moral. A capitalist mode of production regards exploitation of a wage-earner is moral.
John Stuart Mill and other utilitarians, regard morality (like pretty much everything else) as "the greatest good for the greatest number." For John Stuart Mill, who was an avowed atheist, morality was what the inter-subjectivity of a generation as expressed in the social contract agreed was moral. For example, "murder" is immoral. The human society through its true representatives in a parliament would define murder and pass laws on its punishment. Therefore, the society reached a consensus what is moral and immoral and determines its punishment. It is human REASON that determines moral and immoral behavior.
John Rawls, of Harvard University, has a position somewhat between that of Marx and Mill. For Rawls, morality is a both a historically conditioned conception, but also it is human reason that at any particular historical juncture determines its particularities.
Bertrand Russell and Einstein were both democratic socialists. Russell was outright and avowed atheist. Einstein was agnostic. Both considered human reason as the major determinant of morality and immorality. Rawls, Russell and Einstein thought that extreme income (economic) inequality is immoral. All advocated high taxation on the rich and corporations and advocated a redistribution of wealth. Rawls defended the right of private property (as did Mill). Russell and Einstein believed that many forms of property might be justifiably nationalized. Who determines what should be done? The people through their true representatives determine that. For example murder, rape will be such defined and then the punishment will be meted out.
John Stuart Mill is the first civil libertarian. He was concerned that a majority might impose its notion of morality on a minority with a different opinion. John Stuart Mill came up with the notion of "self-regarding act" and "other-regarding act." If an action affects only (or primarily) one person, the state (government broadly defined) should not get involved in regulating it. The state should regulate "other-regarding" acts. This position is regarded as the "civil libertarian position."
For example, drinking wine is regarded as sin and immoral for Muslims and some Christians. For religious fundamentalists in these camps, these actions are immoral and anyone who drinks wine should be punished (lashes and the like). John Stuart Mill and civil libertarians argue that the state should NOT regulate drinking wine in one's home. This is self-regarding act and will affect no one but the person who is drinking wine. However, the state could and should make it illegal and punish if someone drank a whole lot and got behind the wheels of a car. Why? Because then that person could get into accident and harm others.
In conclusion, according to Mill, Marx, Rawls, Russell, Einstein, it is human reason that would say that in this historical period what is moral and what is immoral. What activities should be subject to regulation of the community and what sort of actions should be left to the prerogative of the individual to decide.
For these secular philosophers and thinkers, it is human reason that should determine morality, law and punishment. The rules, injunctions and laws of the Holy books belong to a pre-modern era of human history. To have polygyny (several wives) was not immoral 2,000 years ago, or 1400 years ago, or 50 years ago. Slavery was not immoral 500 years ago, 1500 years ago. Modern people consider many behavior that were promoted by the holy books as immoral, un- ethical in 2002. These include slavery, cutting off hands and feet, stoning to death, lashings, polygyny. Gouging of eyes may be regarded as cruel and immoral by many modern secular persons. An Islamic fundamentalist (or a Jewish fundamentalist) will regard that as the divine law. That is why we should base laws and morality not on what was decided 2000 years ago or 1400 years ago; but on what we human beings today regard as acceptable and/or unacceptable behavior.
Five hundred years from now, or 2000 years from now, our progeny may regard many things that we do as immoral.
What determines what is moral and what is immoral? I agree with the secular philosophers and thinkers that it is our collective consensus, reached through human reason and discussions that determine that. The precise determination will be reached through FREE elections where the people will elect their true representatives who in turn decide on what is wrong or right, and punishments shall be given for the violations of the laws. Civil libertarians would go further, and regard the state should only regulate those actions that are other-regarding.
In conclusion, to have freedom and democracy, it is imperative to have separation of religion and state. Moreover, we have to socialize our children to develop independent critical thinking abilities and avoid blind obedience. We have to begin practicing pluralism, tolerance, and scepticism. Cultures are not static; they change and evolve. We human beings determine our own destiny. There is no reason to remain bogged down in authoritarian political systems.
1. Paul R. Viotti, and Mark V. Kauppi, International Relations and World Politics: Security, Economy, Identity, 2nd edition (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2001), pp. 39-47.
2. Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., A Concise History of the Middle East, 7th edition, (Boulder: Westview Press, 2002), pp. 19-21. Goldschmidt writes: "Many foreign scholars were attracted to Persia, a tolerant kingdom in which Nestorian Christians, Jews, and Buddhists could worship and proselytize freely. Driven from a bigoted Byzantine Empire in the fifth century, Nestorian savants found refuge at the legendary Persian academy of Jundishapur, a center for the preservation of Hellenistic culture - indeed, the humanistic heritage of the whole ancient world. Scholars and students came form all parts of Europe and Asia to teach and study there, unhindered by racial prejudice, religious dogma, or political restrictions." p. 21. In the 4th and 5thcenturies the Roman Empire had declared Monophysites (known as Copts in Egypt, and in Syria as Jacobites), Arians and Nestorians as heretics and were suppressed sometimes very brutally.
3. The discussion on freedom is based on John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty."
4. For a detailed discussion on this issue see: Masoud Kazemzadeh, Marxism, Leninism, and Social Democracy: Ideological Premises of Dictatorship and Democracy (Los Angeles: Arta Books, 2001) ISBN: 0-9712441-0-3.
5. Leviticus, 20-13. Leviticus 20-9 prescribes death for anyone who curses his father or mother.
6. This would mean that had some of the most erudite human beings such as John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, or Albert Einstein been born Muslim, they would be killed as apostates. The following are some of Einstein's own words:
"It was, of course, a lie which you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbound admiration for the structure of the world so far as science can reveal it." Helen Dukas, Albert Einstein: The Human Side, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), page 38.
"I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own--a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty." Albert Einstein, Living Philosophies. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1931), page 6.
"Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism." Albert Einstein, Living Philosophies. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1931), page 6.
"I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic." Helen Dukas, Albert Einstein: The Human Side, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), page 34.
"It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously. I also cannot imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere. My views are near those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order and harmony of the universe which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly. I believe that we have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligations as a purely human problem- the most important of all human problems." Banesh Hoffmann, Albert Einstein: Creator and Rebel. (New York: Viking Press, 1972). page 95.
"The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and science lies in the concept of a personal God." Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), page 27.
"I cannot accept any concept of a God based on the fear of death or blind faith. I cannot prove to you that there is no personal God, but if I were to speak of him I would be a liar." Ronald Clark, The Life and Times of Einstein, (new York: World Publishing Co., 1971), page 38.
"Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much of the stories in the Bible could not be true." Ronald Clark, The Life and Times of Einstein, (new York: World Publishing Co., 1971), page 17.
"The man who is thoroughly convinced of the universal operation of the law of causation cannot for a moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events... He has no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion." Albert Einstein, "Religion and Science," in New York Times Magazine, November 9, 1930.
"I do not believe in the immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it." Helen Dukas, Albert Einstein: The Human Side, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), page 34.
"Since our inner experiences consist of reproductions and combinations of sensory impressions, the concept of a soul without a body seems to me to be empty and devoid of meaning." in above Dukas book, page 35.
"The mystical trend of our time, which shows itself particularly in the rampant growth of the so- called Theosophy and Spiritualism, is for me no more than a symptom of weakness and confusion." In Dukas' book cited above, page 35.
"Science has therefore been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death." Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, (New York: Crown Books, 1954), page 39.
Albert Einstein died unbeliever. He was cremated without a religious ceremony.
Bertrand Russell in his small and influential book entitled, Why I am not a Christian, wrote: "Religion is based, I think primarily and mainly on fear.... Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder that cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand... Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place the Churches in all these centuries have made it."
In another work, Russell wrote: "What I wish to maintain is that all faiths do harm. We may define 'faith' as the firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. When there is evidence, no one speaks of 'faith.' We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence." Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics, 1954.