The Taliban and “Sovereignty”: Popular vs. Divine

September 9, 2021

As the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 approaches, the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) is looking back on the lessons American elected officials, diplomats, military leaders, national security experts, and religious freedom proponents have learned, and should continue to learn, from what led up to that horrific day and its aftermath. We focus attention, in particular, on the many religious factors surrounding 9/11. This article is the second in a series that RFI is publishing throughout this week.


The West macabrely parses every word issued by Afghanistan’s newly installed Taliban government.  What we hear, first and foremost, is that Afghanistan’s institutions will operate on shariah law. A Taliban official made this very point just a few weeks ago

‘There will be no democratic system at all,’ Taliban commander Waheedullah Hashimi said in an interview with Reuters. ‘We will not discuss what type of political system should we apply in Afghanistan because it is clear. It is sharia law and that is it.’

In her book, The Mighty and the Almighty (New York: Harper-Collins, 2007), former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright wrote about the clash of two competing conceptions of politics: 

The resulting turbulence [in the Muslim world] is the product of a momentous and inherently complex encounter between two profound ideas: that all power comes from God, and that legitimate authority on Earth comes from the people. (page 216)

Albright’s “resulting turbulence” is a philosophical clash between “two profound ideas,” or two contrasting notions of sovereignty. In short, the West’s political concept of popular sovereignty is viewed by many as incompatible with the Taliban and other Islamists’ religious concept of Allah’s sovereignty. Understanding these differences opens up the possibility for conservative Islamic societies to nonetheless embrace political equality, representative government, religious tolerance, and social pluralism. Highly religious societies—such as the United States, Poland, Hungary, Indonesia, and elsewhere—have made these choices. They are essential for human flourishing (this basic argument is adapted from my co-edited book, Debating the War of Ideas, New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009, with John P. Gallagher).

Popular Sovereignty in Western Democratic Theory

Popular “sovereignty” is a key precept of democratic theory, particularly in the American tradition.  Individuals willingly relinquish some of their rights to the state in exchange for protection.  However, in democracies this exchange is assumed to be undertaken freely; and thus, in theory, the creation and sustenance of the state is predicated upon the will of the sovereign populace. The American revolutionaries argued that their break with the English Crown was on just such lines: London had lost its claim to govern because it had abused its power—the sovereign people were asserting themselves in forming a new association.  The Declaration of Independence states: 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Hence, the “consent of the governed” assumes a sovereignty of the citizenry when it comes to governance.  However, that sovereignty is not a religious concept per se. Indeed, the Declaration states that rights (and thus human agency) are derived from a Creator, though the Founders were ambiguous about what that meant aside from some universal promise of equality and freedom for citizens. Additionally, the Declaration makes no claim that the sovereign people are the ultimate repository of truth or morality. In fact, the opening of the Declaration makes explicit reference to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” suggesting that an ultimate moral code does exist outside of the whims of the consenting governed.

Consequently, the idea of sovereignty in American democratic theory is a political idea for how governments should be established and operate—in ways that are consonant with morality and shaped by the sovereignty of the citizenry. That sovereignty only extends to the political realm, both to check unrestrained government power as well as to underscore the opportunity and responsibility of citizens to advance “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in a constructive manner.

Over time, the definition of a sovereign citizenry has expanded, evolving from encompassing only the male land-owning class (including proprietorship of human chattel) to incorporating all men and women, regardless of race, religion, or wealth. That expansion has coincided, particularly in the past half century, with a dramatic opening in the mores and moral strictures of American life, from the existentialism and postmodernism of academic theory—which questions any universal ethical code—to profound challenges to old patterns of society. Examples include: declines in religious practice, the claims of the sexual revolution, a new pluralism in religious affiliation (due in part to immigration and the presence of large non-Christian and non-Jewish diasporas), changes in family structure, and alternative claims of family (e.g., same-sex unions), and the like.

It is not necessarily the case that the Founder’s vision of a sovereign people directly caused this “dramatic opening” in American life, but a fundamental argument of its varied proponents is that the people have the right to define “the pursuit of happiness.” This, of course, is a key basis for the “culture wars” in American society over the past two generations. Competing claims about morality, law, and experience are ferociously debated by partisans, religious actors, intellectuals, and average citizens.

Thus, we have two conceptions of the American notion of popular sovereignty.  First, the notion of a sovereign citizenry was at first decidedly political, constrained both by the realities of political life (the Declaration says that, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes”) and by assumptions in political theory that “the consent of the governed” was a political principle, rooted in broader moral realities of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Second, ove
r time the United States and many of its Western allies have come to expand their definition of “citizen” just as their cultures and social mores have broadened to allow a far wider diversity of lifestyle choices. I robustly advocate for the former conception. But even proponents of the latter should be able to acknowledge that expanding popular sovereignty beyond fundamental civil rights and liberties of human beings to the “rights” of animals, trees, and even rivers is deeply troubling.  

The Muslim View of Sovereignty

For Islamists like the Taliban, al Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram, the sovereignty of Allah and the explication of that sovereignty via the Prophet Muhammad and the scripture is the justification for rejecting Western “separation of church and state,” as well as for government-sponsored prosecution and persecution of individuals charged with blasphemy and apostasy.  This confrontation was launched with Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones and In the Shade of the Qur’an a half-century ago (much of this material was first written in letters and journals and has subsequently been published in book form). Qutb argued that the West, and the authoritarian governments then in power in many Muslim countries, rejected the sovereignty of Allah over mankind. More specifically, he argues that humankind has rebelled against Allah’s truth and chosen not to listen to the interventions that Allah has sent in the person of the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran. For Qutb, there is not only a universal moral order, but also a socio-political order that is clearly specified in the Quran based on the sovereignty of Allah. God has provided man “divine guidance concerning everything…including faith, morals, values, standards, systems, and laws.” (In the Shade of the Qur’an, vol.5, 207)

It is beyond the scope of this essay to go deeply into the thought of Sayyid Qutb or the dozens of important voices on this subject. Indeed, a half-century later the debates still rage in many quarters of the Muslim world about these issues, both in theory as well as in the practice of democratic governments in Turkey, Indonesia, and elsewhere. What is important, however, is that for many Islamists, this view makes democracy at best problematic and at worst heretical because of the notion of radical individual freedom and the proposition that political institutions and the moral order are defined by popular sovereignty, both of which violate the sovereignty of Allah. Moreover, for the Taliban who believe that the Quran and hadiths clearly specify an enduring Muslim political order [a caliphate], democratic mechanisms such as parties and elections make no sense. As the Taliban spokesman said: “there will be no democratic system at all.”  

This debate is in fact playing itself out across the greater Muslim world. For example, several years ago radical Islamist Abu Bakr Ba’shir, leader of Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya in Indonesia, argued,

The path taken by many political parties in their effort to establish an Islamic regime is not the right path, because these parties adopt democracy. Democracy is not an Islamic means. Democracy runs counter to Islam, because it emphasizes the sovereignty of the people, whereas Islam emphasizes the sovereignty of Allah. Thus, if we are to submit to the law of Allah, Muslims have no choice but to say: ‘We hear and obey.’ In democracy, Allah’s commands may be open to discussion, and if we agree with them, we accept them, but if we do not agree with them, we reject them. Herein lies the flaw. Therefore, as long as the Islamic political parties endeavor to adhere to Islam by means of democracy, they will not achieve their goal.”

In short, an area in which religion and democracy intersect—or better, collide—is in the fundamental conceptualization of sovereignty and its expression in matters of faith, government, and society. The political philosophy associated with Western classical liberalism, desired by billions of people suffering under authoritarian regimes the world over, seems to be in direct conflict with Islamist voices like the Taliban, who demand not only Allah’s spiritual and moral sovereignty over the affairs of humanity, but Allah’s narrowly expressed guidance on socio-political systems, which contravenes any form of political popular sovereignty.

I do not expect the Taliban to change course. But we must challenge them on this point: why cannot representative, pluralistic, rights-protecting political systems reflect Allah’s sovereignty? Why are the practices of representative government (e.g., elections, political parties, constitutions, laws, minority rights) understood as incompatible with their form of Islam?  Indeed, the Quran and hadiths have a great deal to say about protecting minorities, honoring women and the vulnerable, and promoting justice for all. This was the basis for various, more pluralistic forms of Muslim-majority government in the past in Persia, Spain, and the Ottoman Empire, and today in places like Indonesia and Jordan.  Moreover, many of these societies saw tremendous social flourishing as people were able to live out their faith without being subject to the radical violence that the Taliban perpetrated from 1996-2001. It is time for the Taliban to carefully consider just what leads to human flourishing, and how they can honor God by caring for those He created.


Eric Patterson, Ph.D. serves as Executive Vice President of the Religious Freedom Institute. Patterson is scholar-at-large and past Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University and a Research Fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.