Very interesting post, Maha. I’ve also thought a lot about anarchism and Islam and having lived in the tribal parts of the Arab world for so long believe I have built up a little better understanding of both. I think tribal society is relevant because this is the social origin of Islam and because tribal people live in a stateless world.

Your substitution of INSTITUTION for STATE is useful, particularly when discussing Islam since this religion – at least the dominant Sunni track – has no institutionalized authority structures. The reason for this is the absence of sacerdotal authority. In this way, Sunni Islam resembles Protestantism, especially in its early manifestations, such as Lollardry, which outright denied the authority of priests and the right of every person to form their own interpretations of the Bible through private study and public dialogue, and to live by those interpretations.

I agree with Sarah, it is about rules that are socially agreed. Modern Western political organization is based, to a large degree, on the notion of a social contract. This means that people in society voluntarily submit to society’s rules as a kind of condition of membership. Those rules may be changed by mutual consent, and this need to change the rules is what generates democratic institutions of governance.

The key piece is coercion. Typically, the state will declare a monopoly on coercive violence which it will use to enforce its rules. Returning to tribal societies, those who placed themselves outside of the social and political structures were simply “removed from protection” and we find this type of formula repeatedly in Islamic sources to describe those who are both within and without the community of believers. In pre-modern European societies, this concept was known as “banishment” and we see this used as a punishment in Romeo and Juliette.

A less idealized anarchism would focus on the importance of individual autonomy within a social and political world organized around democratic principles that included critical participation. This reminds me of an idea I recently found in David Rose’s book, An Intellectual History of the British Working Class – that ideology is the source of oppression and that culture is the destroyer of ideologies. Culture, very widely defined, could be seen as that body of amorphous personal and social experience that pervades society and roots it in its own past – the social memory of centuries. This is the collective experience of the “body politic” which we use to guide, to decide, to debate and to consider, outside of narrow ideologies which only serve to restrict choice and determine action based on the preferences or interests of a coherent minority of opinion.