“We Vote for a Candidate Who is First a Muslim, Second an Afghan and Finally, Someone Who Can Serve His People.”

In No Hurr(i)y(ya) for Freedom?


A report  by the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) includes these observations which echo the depressing conclusions of Western scholars of Islam recorded several decades ago in The Encyclopedia of Islam. Although utterly ignored by US media, the AREU’s initial post-elections report highlights the Afghan voters Islamic motivations for going to the polls:


Largely absent from election coverage in the international press was the importance of Islam in bringing people to the polls. Mullahs and other religious figures played an important role in encouraging participation. The district mullah spoke at a district council meeting in Qara Bagh a few days before the election, describing how it was everyone’s religious duty as a Muslim to select their leader. Other respondents described how voters should select a candidate who was a “good” Muslim (they often used the word neek, which translates simply as “good” but has strong religious connotations) or had a good understanding of Islam. As one voter described, “We vote for a candidate who is first a Muslim, second an Afghan and finally, someone who can serve his people.” Others, in response to pressure to vote for a certain candidate, pointed to the fact that the only people in the voting booth were the voter and Allah. This religious rhetoric was often mixed with the idea of national duty-one older male voter from Dasht-i Barchi told the research team that “we should vote, as it is our obligation and responsibility, just like it is our responsibility to pray.” This amalgamation of national and religious duty is unsurprising considering the tendency in Afghanistan for religious and national identity to merge.


In March of 2006, I discussed the stark difference between Western and Islamic conceptions of freedom, and what this meant for attempts at “democratization for Muslim nations. This yet unbridgeable chasm was on display in the recent Afghan “elections,” defying the popular (and soothing) explanation provided in the media, that voting was somehow an act of defiance against the Taliban.



Hurriyya (Arabic  for ‘freedom’) and the uniquely Western concept of freedom are completely at odds.  Hurriyya ‘freedom’ is — as Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) the  lionized ‘Greatest Sufi Master’, expressed it — ‘being perfect slavery.’ And this conception is not merely confined to the Sufis’ perhaps metaphorical understanding of the relationship between Allah the ‘master’ and his human ‘slaves.’


The late American scholar of Islam, Franz Rosenthal (d. 2003) analyzed the larger context of hurriyya in Muslim society. He notes the historical absence of hurriyya as  “..a fundamental political concept that could have served as a rallying cry for great causes.” An individual Muslim “…was expected to consider subordination of his own freedom to the beliefs, morality and customs of the group as the only proper course of behavior…”


Thus politically, Rosenthal concludes,  “…the individual was not expected to exercise any free choice as to how he wished to be governed…In general, …governmental authority admitted of no participation of the individual as such, who therefore did not possess any real freedom vis-a-vis it.”

Bernard Lewis, in his analysis of hurriyya for the venerated Encyclopedia of Islam, discusses this concept in the latter phases of the Ottoman Empire, through the contemporary era. After highlighting a few ‘cautious’ or ‘conservative’ (Lewis’ characterization) reformers and their writings, Lewis maintains, “…there is still no idea that the subjects have any right to share in the formation or conduct of government—to political freedom, or citizenship, in the sense which underlies the development of political thought in the West. While conservative reformers talked of freedom under law, and some Muslim rulers even experimented with councils and assemblies government was in fact becoming more and not less arbitrary….”


Lewis also makes the important point that Western colonialism ameliorated this chronic situation: “During the period of British and French domination, individual freedom was never much of an issue. Though often limited and sometimes suspended, it was on the whole more extensive and better protected than either before or after.”


Several decades ago Bernard Lewis concluded his Encyclopedia of Islam entry with this observation,  “In the final revulsion against the West, Western democracy too was rejected as a fraud and a delusion, of no value to Muslims.”


Decades later, the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit report affirms Lewis’ assessment as if nothing had changed substantively, despite great, ongoing expenditure of US blood and treasure:


…among older, more rural voters, democracy was condemned as embracing western values and moving away from tradition, reflecting more widespread concerns with the meaning of democracy in Afghanistan

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