The Price of Unity

Separatism is filling the news it seems these days, we have the Scottish independence referendum, Brexit, Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq and now Catalonia is seeking to separate itself from Spain. It is a basic political problem inherent with democratic governments: where are the boundaries of sovereignty of the people? Should the British voters as a whole be able to impose Brexit on the Scots, the Welsh and the people of northern Ireland even though in those regions, the majority clearly voted to remain in the EU? If so then why? What is wrong with the people of Crimea voting to join and be part of Russia?

It is a basic dynamic of how agreements are made which is the basis of political legitimacy. Political power is based on either imperial force by the maxim of “might makes right”, or on the basis of justice by the maxim “right makes might”. While we see tyrannical power of government being used to arrogate to themselves all kinds of new rights to restrict freedoms of various regions and citizens as oppressive, this is countered by the readiness of those who are oppressed to fight for their rights. Both are using might to gain their rights. The ebb and flow of these political and sometimes military battles reaches some kind of equilibrium by negotiation with new mutual recognition of rights. Democracies reflect this dynamic though parliaments that give voice to the various factions allowing each new act of decision making to be a new negotiated agreement. But the tyranny of the majority can cause splintering, especially where regions are concerned and have a local opposing majority. Regional autonomy, as happens in federal governments, may be helpful to allow for regional cultural differences to weigh in the balance of keeping everyone united in other ways.

Keeping the peace politically needs agreements that are constantly renegotiated and renewed and this is the price of unity. Often the differences come down to economics. Richer regions often object to other regions getting more government spending out than they pay in, in taxes. This is the case in Catalonia today. It was the case in Scotland. It was the case in Ukraine. A large part of the Iraqi Kurd separatism is based on the perceived oil wealth.

In the early divisions on the Muslim world too the payment of tax in the form of Zakat was also key. I would argue that this is at the root of the split in the Muslim world between Sunni and Shia Muslims. According to generally accepted reports from the time of the first successor to Muhammad (pbuh) as the leader of the Muslims, some groups of people declared that they would not pay Zakat to the new leader. They argued that their agreements were with the previous leader not the new one. The new leader declared that he would be ready to fight them to force them to pay their zakat to his government. This declaration was disagreed with by most of the community at the time, on the basis of the Qur’anic instructions about only fighting those who fight against you – even if they are apostates from the religion. (for more on this point read the post

This practice of preserving unity by force was to become the defining characteristic of much of the political leadership of the Muslim world. Despite early attempts to reach agreements through shurah as instructed in the Qur’an – for more on this read – the pre-Islamic practices of monarchies and dynastic rule took over. Shia Islam goes back to a crucial point where Ali the grandson of the prophet Muhammad(pbuh) after being elected though community consultation was eventually defeated by a leader who began dynastic rule that didn’t pretend to be based on the free consent of the people and hence their agreement. The rule of that leader was by imperial force of might makes right. The term “shia” comes from the word “partisans” in that they were partisans of Ali who were opposed to his rival.

In a broad sense Sunni Islam declares that the price of unity is imperial rule – allowing the ruler to impose himself against the will of the people who wish to split off. Shia Islam is about the right to split off from an oppressive ruler and fight against him. Although most Sunni Muslims think of themselves and the word Sunni to mean following the sunnah of Muhammad, this is not so. It is that sunni Muslims have followed the sunnah of the leaders of the Muslim community after Muhammad(pbuh) and in particular, followed them even when they were engaging in might makes right imperial rule.

Ali had his own rebels who wanted to split off, known as the “khawarej” they refused to pledge allegiance to Ali in much the same way as some had refused to pay zakat to Abu Bakr. However, Ali refused to fight them unless they fought him. In this Ali was upholding the Qur’anic instructions. The need to negotiate a solution was understood, and many efforts were made, but ultimately the pre-islamic patterns re-established themselves as mentioned above.

After this time the partisans of Ali were driven underground as a persecuted minority and Ali had to be cursed in every Friday prayer for the next few generations. They returned the favour cursing the other leaders including Abu Bakr and Umar and Uthman. This sowed a deep division focussed around personalities and political leaders. But at its core is the issue of separatism: when is it right to be ready to declare your independence from a tyrannical power, who imposes their rights over your rights and demands your obedience without your agreement. The answer as with all these matters is in the Qur’an if we care to listen to God’s guidance:

“If two groups of the believers fight, you should try to reconcile them; if one of them is clearly oppressing the other, fight the oppressors until they submit to God’s command, then make a just and even-handed reconciliation between the two of them: God loves those who are even handed”(49:9)

I hope that, in Syria such a reconciliation happens, and in all other places where civil war or other imperial wars threaten. This is where the real work needs to be done in peace making, recognising everyone’s rights so that the rich and powerful do not oppress the poor and weak but instead give some of their wealth to help them be able to stand up for themselves. Key to this are two basic teachings of Islam the prohibition of usury – see – and the Zakat obligation see –

Reconciliation does not mean assimilation though. It means recognising and respecting differences instead of being proud of language, nation or race or even religion. From the first treaty that established the government led by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) there has been recognition of the rights of followers of different religions to live according to their consciences and their own laws. Nationalism does not need to have the idea of the sovereign nation state as emerged from the exclusively Christian peace treaty of Westphalia, which embodied the idea that everyone within the state was to follow the religion and the laws of that state. This is driven from a particularly Christian notion of vicarious atonement where the religious authorities say, obey us and we have the authority to forgive you. In Islam, individual moral accountability is the main message, and this requires above all else freedom of moral choice including which religious opinion to follow. This ethos is what has meant that Islam has, perhaps uniquely set the example for the world of multiculturalism and tolerance. Each nation – or ummah – can and should have freedom to develop their own rules which they govern themselves by, and those nations need not be defined geographically.

Perhaps in this way the issue of separatism and the limits of sovereignty can be solved…