Sovereignty and the argument against terrorism

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Sovereignty is one of the most important notions of political thought. Perhaps it is as central as the very distinction between the polis (public) and the oikos (private), the res publica (common good) as the midpoint of political practice, the division of powers within a state, and the separation between primary and secondary law. In the present article we will argue for sovereignty as a substantive concept of practical morality, concerning the supreme authority over a given polity. Once we have provided for an adequate outline of the subject, we will comment on the argument against jihad-inspired terrorism.

[also see: Can Europe defeat ISIS? Should it?]

From a philosophical perspective, ethics is not about a series of best practices for ensuring a post-death reward for the individual. It rather is the study on the abstract structure of the qualities of intersubjective relations. Put simply, it is about the principles, the universalisable rules, for living in accordance with reason as a nature/world-dependent community of persons. At least that is how one may interpret the tradition of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who, among others, perceived of ethics as a realm of practical reason within the broader framework of politics (such as Plato’s Republic, parts of the Socratic dialogues Meno, Crito, Protagoras, Gorgias, Apology, as well as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics).

Couched in those terms, ethics and every instance of practical reason such as sovereignty, are decisively secular. Secular means “temporal”, as being of the world and of human institution.

State sovereignty as opposition to theocracy

Theocracy is a political system in that its main characteristic is the supreme rule of ecclesiastical doctrine over all political affairs. To that end, theocracy differs from religiosity, from the practice of living in accordance with the teachings of religion.

There have been several theocratic systems in Europe throughout the centuries. Some examples are the Roman Empire following the adoption of Nicene Christianity as its official religion, the Byzantine Empire notably during the rule of Theodosious I and Justinian I, and the Holy Roman Empire.

The modern understanding of sovereignty was developed during and after the late Middle Ages as an opposition to theocracy. This partly had to do with the fact that certain territories wanted to have independence from the Pope. To establish arguments for independence from papal rule one had to first draw the distinction between political and mystical affairs; a distinction that is dissolved within a theocratic order.

It thus is no coincidence that such intellectual lodestars of early modern political thinking as Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes wrote on politics during times of civil unrest, at a period in history when papal dominion was contested even from within the ranks of organised religion (i.e. the Protestant Reformation).

Bodin was the first philosopher to explicitly refer to souveraineté in his Six Livres de la République. His otherwise secular and absolutist conception of sovereign rule can be understood as having found its way into the French Revolution, in particular Article 3 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen:

The principle of any sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation. No body, no individual can exert authority which does not emanate expressly from it.

Similar to Bodin’s souveraineté as absolute authority was Hobbes’ Leviathan. The state was the realisation of a contract of sorts between the people, it was above any given piece of legislation as it was the source and the arbiter of all legality. In the Hobbesian sense, the state was independent from external interference and was established as the supreme ruler for the purposes of promoting social cohesion and guaranteeing peace (a rudimentary conception of the “social contract” can also be discerned in Plato’s Crito, in particular the explanation of Socrates as to why he would not flee from Athenian rule).

That understanding of the territorially-confined state as independent from foreign interference also forms the essence of the Peace Treaty of Westphalia. This concluded the Thirty Years War, a series of conflicts that in one way or another involved the imposition of ecclesiastical canon over regions that wanted to preserve their autonomy over religious affairs.

The three connatural principles of territoriality, independence, and equality that formed part of the Hobbesian and Westphalian understanding of state rule, do apply to this day in the norms concerning sovereignty and the self-determination of peoples (see in particular Article 2 of the Charter of the United Nations).

The post-WWII spread of constituted republics and the European integration process as an ongoing experiment in transnational democracy (see my free ebook), point to an evolution of national sovereignty as democratic sovereignty, as ultimate rule of the body politic within an overarching framework of constitutional and international rules that found a practical morality. In this sense and contrary to early modern thinking, sovereignty is absolute only from a global perspective, from the international community at-large, while it is decisively limited if seen from a purely national vantage point.

At any rate, sovereignty is a secular concept; one that stands at odds with theocratic or religion-based hegemonic tendencies.

Secularism and organised religion

All European Union Member States are more or less secular. They are constituted democracies that operate in accordance with the rule of law. Within those states there are organised religions, as well as groups of people who hold no theist beliefs, while some states may even have an official religion. That these may be allowed to [co-]exist is not because of theological or ecclesiastical reasons, but due to the application of the practical reason of tolerance and the freedom of thought and faith.

In this respect, when a secular writer such as the present author suggests that the problem of religious fundamentalism of the jihad sort is not Islam per se, we do not propound a theological or religious proposition. We are merely arguing that Islam is recognised within Europe as being legal, while its church and practitioners are operating in accordance with the constitutional and secondary provisions of the European legal order. The same applies for all legalised religions. They are accepted and tolerated for being in line with contemporary practical morality and only to the extent that they conform with it.

To that end, when we condemn jihad we are arguing against a certain interpretation of religious doctrine that runs contrary to the practical reason that constitutional democracy establishes. Again, the claim is not theological. It is not about which interpretation of religious dogma is true or more truthful. That is of no concern to democratic sovereignty. All interpretations of religion are equally valid only in terms of—and with regard to—their compliance with the constitutional order of the state. Any faith-based movement that infringes this set of rules and values, any religion-inspired attempt to violate even the essential features of the polity, namely, public order, public security, and public health, is illegal, and inimical to effective practical morality.

The criterion for tolerating any and all faith systems is the constitutional order and international law, with the ethics they embed. This is important because it reminds us of our primary allegiance to the “social contract” of the democratic state. It also enables us to avoid false dichotomies which may lead us down the slippery slope of religious fanaticism and xenophobic intolerance.

Islamophobia and freedom of expression

With the above in mind, we may turn our attention to more immediate issues. We will focus on a certain claim of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a French leftist leader. Here is his tweet, which seems to capture a general trend:

Translation: “I contest the term islamophobia. We have the right not to like islam just as we have the right not to like catholicism.”

Though I agree with the salient point on the freedom of thought and expression, I do think there is a difference between being critical of some or all types of theism and being outright antagonistic, of intentionally adding fuel to the fire. The French do have a certain interpretation of the freedom of expression that tends to be broader than those of other peoples. That is their judgement call. Yet freedom of expression should not be exalted to the point of being able to make any inflammatory “iconoclastic” statement without constraints whatsoever. A more dialectical disposition is advised, so as to be critical of a certain view for its falsity not out of a self-serving whim to be provocative and controversial.

As for islamophobia, we should be careful with our arguments, especially leftists who tend to be atheist or agnostic (I am the latter, which does not mean that I “dislike” any one religion, but only that I am not at all convinced by religious claims about the world). It is one thing to harbour a visceral fear of something, of Islam in this case, and another to condemn certain interpretations of that religion for their capacity to engender violent or other illegal tendencies. Those are unacceptable because they infringe the constitutional order.

This is not about political correctness. That is a false ideal, a convenient rhetorical device for obfuscating various forms of structural oppression or for being apologetic about certain shortcomings of the state. We should not hesitate to defy any and all taboos. Yet any defiance of this sort has to be grounded in reason and be proportional to the matter at hand. Defiance for the sake of provocation, or for differentiation from the mainstream under the pretence of being an alternative to the establishment, can end up forming a dogmatism of sorts, of the individual’s or the group’s demands to elevate their status to that of a certain elite, to enjoy an implicit special position among the rest of society. The guiding light is practical morality with its universalisable values, something that is, in other words, a common good, not some bashing or fear of Muslims qua Muslims disguised as free speech.

Instead of arguing about the degrees of correctness among sets of religious beliefs, we should turn the discussion toward searching for concrete evidence regarding societal issues, and the real problems that may underpin the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism. Perhaps the impetus to radicalisation is exogenous to religion, such as a life in poverty, structural violence, segregation, exclusion from political representation, etc.

Democracy and sovereignty are not self-evident

The fight against the terrorism of ISIS and other similar groups is an effort to safeguard the achievements of secularism from a type of religious fundamentalism. In carrying such a struggle we must always remain conscious of Europe’s political tradition and of the long history of central aspects of our practical morality such as democracy and sovereignty. Those are not given to us regardless of what we may be doing. They are not in the nature of things. They have been established through the ages against various forms of oppression.

Democratic sovereignty, the constitutional order, and international law are in many ways the most recent advances in the history of political thought. They have to be understood as steps forward in a path that takes human society from fear to understanding, from arbitrariness to order, exceptionalism to universalism.

To be sure, what we do have is neither perfect nor complete. There is much room for improvement, such as in ensuring a fairer distribution of resources; an equal treatment of all social groups, including their recognition and participation in the commons; a self-aware and sensible alignment of production, consumption, and social experience with the limits of nature; a more direct, transparent, and inclusive decision-making system; and so on.

Still, what we do have is relatively better than what we had in Europe in the first half of the 20th century, or during the Middle Ages. Remaining committed to the normative achievements of the present order is a prerequisite for improving them and expanding their scope. It also is the safest way to avoid the endogenous rise of various forms of intolerance and racism, as well as prevent the recrudescence of theocratic beliefs as the false and misguided antipode to the jihad of the self-styled Islamic State.

The argument against terrorism is to remain committed to the practical reason of democracy, constitutionalism, and international law.

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