Interesting about Noble Drew Ali’s vision of Africans as pioneering arrivals in America is the way in which it shifts the temporality of migration. For starting with the Mayflower myth, in which religious dissidents in England become a free nation following their arrival in the New World, the conversion of one kind of group into another has routinely been understood in prospective and teleological terms. In the middle on the 19th century, for example, the establishment of Liberia as a country for emancipated slaves was meant to accomplish the transformation of a racial into a national group.
By literally grounding them in territory, these former slaves were to be released from the alienated property that was their own bodies, to constitute a people defined by economic and other interests founded in landed property. And by the same token their former owners were to be liberated from their own racial particularity to become universal and apparently unmarked citizens. From the US in the 18th and Liberia in the 19th to Pakistan and Israel in the middle of the 20th century, this way of converting a marked religious or racial minority into an unmarked national majority has been defined by a future-oriented temporality.
Unlike this history of racial and religious unmaking, never of course an entirely successful one, Noble Drew Ali’s vision is retrospective in character. It seeks to redefine the forcible migration of African slaves into a voluntary settlement by reworking the past so as to endow blacks with a freedom not dependent upon their former masters. Drew Ali’s “Moors” had to become pioneers, immigrants and settlers, just like white Americans. The term “African-American”, popularized a few decades ago by Jesse Jackson, serves to accomplish Drew Ali’s vision by equating blacks with immigrants in the age of multiculturalism.
Hannah Arendt had described American exceptionalism in precisely these terms, arguing in her book, On Revolution, that the republic was able to institute freedom in a properly political sense because it excluded Indians through genocide and blacks through slavery. This allowed white Americans, at least for the most part, to constitute a free and relatively equal stratum of the population unencumbered by the “social question” raised by the poverty and inequality that plagued Europeans and so doomed the French Revolution to violence, reversal and failure.
Compelled to address the social question, claimed Arendt, the French Revolution and its many successors throughout the world were unable to lend the political realm any autonomy, thus sacrificing institutionally stable forms of freedom to frequent social upheaval and the possibility of populist and other kinds of tyranny. Superior though it proved to be, then, America’s exceptional republicanism, based as it was on slavery and genocide, was unable to serve as a model for other peoples and countries, while nevertheless remaining an ideal founded on crime.
But as the example of Noble Drew Ali illustrates, the American exception continues to provide a model for its victims in a quite novel way. From the Moorish appropriation of freedom as agential choice, to the Nation of Islam’s ideology of internal migration in order to create a black Muslim nation within the United States, this New World history of freedom has managed to leave behind the violence and racial exclusion of its predecessor, and in doing so perhaps lent credence to Arendt’s contention of its superiority as a political idea.
If the 18th century revolutions in America and France were led or inherited by the bourgeoisie, and the 20th century ones in Russia and China by the peasantry and proletariat, how might we describe the Iranian Revolution that arguably represents their only world-historical successor? Foreshadowing the end of the Cold War only a decade later, and so the passing into history of the class subjects of its revolutionary predecessors, I want to argue that Iran began a new historical sequence and so constitutes the true exception in revolutionary politics.
Of course the Islamic Revolution made plentiful references to its predecessors, claiming to defend the interests of the poor and oppressed against both feudal and bourgeois forms of tyranny. And yet it firmly subordinated economic factors to the purely intellectual, ideological or indeed devotional ones represented by religion. And in this sense Iran opened up the revolutionary idea to a strictly philosophical reading of politics, one for which ideas or beliefs were the final determination.
This can be seen in the revolution’s curiously centrist class position, which its leaders routinely situated between the US and USSR initially, and after the Cold War, between the United States or Israel and Saudi Arabia (or the great and little Satans as Khomeini would call them). The “moderation” or “middle way” that Iran represented in such dualistic narratives suggests nothing so much as the political and conceptual marginalization of economic factors in its revolution. And in this way Iran might well have escaped the dominance of Arendt’s social question to become the American Revolution’s true heir.
Yet the language of non-exception hammered out not only by the Islamic Revolution’s “middle path” rhetoric, but also by its non-historical invocations of the eternal and conjoined character of prior revolutionary struggles the world over, deliberately eschews the theology of American exceptionalism—itself premised, as we have seen, on the disavowal of slavery and genocide. And I want to suggest that this denial of exceptionality indicates something more profound about the nature of sovereignty.
Carl Schmitt had famously defined sovereignty in the modern state as the ability and indeed authority to decide upon the exception, by which he meant the potential and on occasion actual power to suspend the norm or everyday legal order and its various freedoms. The sovereign was exceptional not only in his ability to suspend the norm, but also because his position both inside and outside the law constituted a scission that prevented the juridical closure of any political order, and in this paradoxical way made possible its freedom and protection.
For Schmitt, sovereignty was theological because it was absolute and transcended the very law it authorized. Its peremptory nature, so much like a divine command, suspended the everyday legal order based on human planning, utility and flourishing like a miracle breaking into quotidian life from the outside. In Iran, however, it is the everyday legal order that possesses divine authority and is absolute, eternal, and independent of any argument from utility. And it is the sovereign exception that interrupts sacred law with its purely human and therefore temporary injunctions based on expediency rather than emergency.
The legal principle allowing for the law’s suspension is called maslahat or expediency. While it might be linked with another, zarurat or necessity, this principle is not defined in terms of constitutional crisis and does not therefore possess the inevitability that is a quality of divine law. Instead sovereignty is understood in terms of human choice and so freedom. The emergency measures that manifest sovereign power for Schmitt, in other words, may in Iran be considered not an exception so much as a return to divine law, one accomplished by the abandonment of expediency as a purely human or non-theological form of sovereignty.
This apparently reversed form of the sovereign exception emerges from the critique of its European counterpart among movements as diverse as anarchism, communism and, in Asia and Africa, Gandhian non-violence and Islamism. Related to and referencing each other, these movements outside the West identified sovereignty with Satan (as both Gandhi and Khomeini did) and linked even its liberal forms in Europe and America with colonial expropriation elsewhere, just as Arendt argued that the equality permitting the American Revolution to institute freedom was based upon slavery and genocide.
The problem facing these movements was how to found a polity without sovereignty. Islamists like Pakistan’s Mawdudi recognized sovereignty’s theological character, but argued that for this reason it could only be perverted in human hands. The distance between the absolute power that Bodin or Hobbes gave to the sovereign in theory, and its much reduced political reality, claimed Mawdudi, opened up a gap in which such power could never match up to its idea and so made way for tyranny. By reserving sovereignty to God, it could be renounced and a self-governing society brought into being in its absence.
If for anarchists and Gandhians the renunciation of sovereignty resulted in visions of a stateless society, for communists and Islamists the state was crucial for an initial period, to consolidate their gains under a category like the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Mawdudi thought that the very archaism of the sacred law made it irreducible to the political logic of the modern state, premised as this was upon utility and necessity. It was additionally in the control of religious authorities based outside this state in society. The law, therefore, represented a social rather than properly political entity, whose task was to limit and roll back the power of the state by denying its sovereignty.
But by refusing to vest sovereignty institutionally, as for instance is the case with the Pakistani constitution, which reserves it for God not least as a consequence of Mawdudi’s efforts, it remains untethered and comes back to haunt a state that has ostensibly abandoned it. In some sense, and whatever their purely instrumental causes, the frequency of military and other coups (such as those exercised by mass mobilizations on religious grounds) in Pakistan signals the illicit return of sovereignty to a state that cannot do without it, having disabled its constitutional authorities from exercising such power.
As if taking warning from the fate of Pakistan, which was the world’s first Islamic republic, its second iteration in Iran did entail the institution of sovereignty. This occurred within a complex constitutional arrangement where the separation of powers meant that the Supreme Leader represented not the state but a society defined by sacred law as a universal and eternal entity transcending the state. Sovereignty, therefore, consisted in the exceptional interpretation and even indefinite (but in theory always temporary) suspension of this law for reasons of human expediency and in the name of the state.
Returning to Arendt’s formulation, we can say that the Iranian conception of sovereignty is secular insofar as it is meant to address the “social question” by way of expediency. And it therefore leaves the law eternal and untouched as a set of ideas and arguments conceptually detached from the principles of utility, necessity and human flourishing, all of which it nevertheless incorporated a priori. In this sense the sacred law, like the US constitution, institutes and preserves the freedom and autonomy of the political order.
While Khomeini, like Mawdudi, frequently proclaimed the union of religion and politics, his theory of sovereignty does just the opposite. In his political testament, Khomeini recalls a tradition from the Prophet stating that he left behind two trusts, the Koran and his successors the Imams. Forever linked, these trusts would nevertheless remain separated by tyranny and unbelief until the Day of Judgment. But this separation meant that no theocratic order was possible. And it was this indefinite if temporary deferral that made human freedom and sovereignty possible until the messiah’s return.