Can Democracy Grow in an Islamic Desert?
At a time when American administrators in Iraq are eager to build bridges between Islam and democracy, Noah Feldman's enthusiastically optimistic views on the subject just landed him a job at the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq. His task: helping USand Iraqi democrats draft a new Iraqi constitution.
A 32-year-old assistant professor at New York University Law School, Feldman holds a BA in Near Eastern studies from Harvard, a law degree from Yale, and a Ph.D. in Islamic thought from Oxford. He's reportedly fluent in Arabic, too. In the new book which drew him to everyone's attention, After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy, he takes a 'why not?' approach to Islam and democracy.
Using Western logic and pandering to a Western audience, he claims that both Islam and democracy are flexible ideas that can work together if Muslims put their minds to it.
That may be the case; millions of Muslim democrats have found a way to reconcile their faith with liberal governance. Unfortunately, in today's Muslim world, the more rigid traditionalists are often unwilling to compromise over the role of Shari'a in daily life,and to our chagrin, Islamic moderates are marginalized. So while Islamand democracy can work, and while it is in everyone's interest to find areas of overlap between the two, Feldman has in many ways ignored certain realities. He fails to draw from the hundreds of volumes ofIslamic jurisprudence produced over 1,400 years that often argue to the contrary, and fails to explain why democracy has yet to truly take root in the Muslim world.
As scholar of Islam Fatima Mernissi notes, many Muslims have traditionally 'fought against the advances of Enlightenment philosophy and banned Western humanism as foreign and 'imported,' calling the intellectuals who study it enemy agents and traitors to the nationalist cause.' This is certainly one of the biggest impediments - and something not even mentioned in After Jihad.
Among other problems, Feldman believes that 'unequal treatment of women, while reprehensible, should not be seen as an insurmountable barrier to democracy.' This kind of apologist thinking encourages Muslim democrats to ignore one of their greatest challenges. Feldman states that in Muslim theology 'everyone is equal before God.' Yet he neglects to mention that many interpretations of Islam hold a view of Christianity and Judaism as second-class religions (as seen through thepre-modern Dhimmi system, and even in some modern states like Sudan).Non-monotheists rank even lower; historically, many were slaves. These may be insurmountable obstacles in the struggle to synthesize Islam and democracy.
Moreover, Martin Kramer, an eminent scholar of Islam, points out that pre-modern, orthodox interpretations aspire to dominate other systems rather than work with them. Similarly, among modern Islamists, the Muslim faith is hailed as 'the final system, come to supersede capitalism and communism as the true key to power in this world. To fulfill its destiny, it must capture the state and rule.' Does this work with democracy?
In order to truly unite Islam and democracy, one must look at these and other tough questions. One must address the fact that there is no separation of mosque and state in the Koran, so a secular democracy might be seen as antithetical to many interpretations of Islam. The Koran also provides little guidance in the way of governance. While this could be seen as a blank slate open to the ideas of democracy, it has also resulted in the need for much interpretation by Islamic scholars. These interpretations are sometimes rejected and other times accepted by any number of the more than one billion adherents to the Islamic faith.
Given this incredible diversity, no scholar can back up Feldman's statement that 'the essences of Islam and democracy can be seen as compatible to the extent that both ideas are flexible.' The fact remains that some forms of Islam are flexible. Others, such as militant Islam, are decidedly not.
Indeed, militant Islam may be Feldman's Achilles heel. While he sees the ideas of Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb and other radical Islamist ideologues as central to the problem, he drastically underestimates the longevity of the movement they created. Feldman believes we are living in an 'After Jihad' era; he actually believes that militant Islam is on the wane. He states that the attacks of September 2001 were a 'last, desperate gasp of a tendency to violence that has lost most of its popular support,' and that 'the notion that an Islamic state should be created through holy war is an idea whose time has passed.' Al-Qaida's May 12 bombing in Riyadh proves Feldman wrong on both counts.
To be fair, the law professor is on target in other areas. He rightly states that the US can no longer afford to support Islamic autocrats; they are clearly obstacles to liberalization in the Middle East. He also correctly notes that 'where there
is both oil and a monarchy,' democracy will likely not thrive. Oil monarchies collect the money they need to survive 'from people outside the country. There is no fiscal connection between the government and the people.'
Another observation by Feldman is that Egypt's anti-Israel sentiment may be greater than anywhere else in the Arab world. The reason may reside in 'residual guilt at having abandoned the Palestinians' by way of the peace treaty with Israel signed in 1978.
Generally speaking, it appears that Feldman supported the US case for the Iraq war. 'A post-Saddam Iraq will inevitably become,' he writes, 'a laboratory for trying out the mobile idea of democracy in front of the whole world.' He even calls the US a 'midwife' for democratization. Feldman now has a chance to put his theories into practice. However, he recently told BBC that the US should support democracy in Iraq even if it is not secular in nature. If he holds to this, there is reason to believe that democracy in Iraq will fail. After all, the most successful Islamic democracy - Turkey - places a high premium on secularization. The Turks, as well as millions of other Muslim democrats, have demonstrated that Islam and democracy need not be antithetical - so long as humanism is given priority, in the end, over religious law.
The writer is a Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.