Tuesday, November 08, 2005

"After Jihad" by Noah Feldman

I just finished reading the book "After Jihad" (America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy) by Noah Feldman, written in spring 2003, but updated with an interesting preface after the US invasion of Iraq. Noah Feldman, born in 1970(!), teaches law at New York University. He holds, among others, a doctorate in Islamic thought from Oxford. A former Supreme Court clerk, he was senior adviser for constitutional law for the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in the months after the U.S. war in Iraq. His writing has been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. He lives in New York and Washington D.C.

Here is a quick comment on the book:

1. The author strongly advocates the compatibility of Islam and democracy.
2. He rejects the predominant "wisdom" in the west that Islam and Democracy are inherently incompatible.
3. To support his claim, he brings up many arguments, chief among them:
a. Islam and Democracy are what he calls "Mobile Ideas" meaning that they are not rigid concepts but rather universal and flexible ones that can be shaped according to context and the peculiarities of the people and cultures implementing them. Islam, for instance, has proven this flexibility throughout history by taking different forms in places like Iran, Africa or Eastern Asia. Democracy, on the other side, has also been adapted to local realities in countries like India, etc.
b. He argues that secularism is not a necessary condition for democracy. Rather, the seemingly incompatibility between "the sovereignty of God” (Islam) and “the sovereignty of the people” (Democracy) is a deceiving one. The main condition for democracy, he adds, is that people should agree about the way they are governed, whether by rules coming from people themselves, by rules from other sources (be it God or any theory of fundamental rights), or by both. He says that this has been true for many western democracies and no one has ever denounced it as undemocratic.

In light of these elements, Noah Feldman states that an Islamic Democracy could be implemented under different forms. The spectrum is large and ranges from asserting solely that Islam is the religion of the state (symbolically only, without any Islamic form of the government) to declaring that Sharia is the only source of law in the nation (the other extremity), the ideal being, arguably, the statement that Sharia is one source of law among others. Of course, Muslims should undertake a significant endeavor to come up with a suitable relationship between elections, legislatures and governance so that they remain compatible both with democracy and with Islam, but this, the author argues, is not insurmountable and, actually, some Muslim thinkers have suggested a few theories in this regard.

Not only the author makes the case for the compatibility between Islam and Democracy, but he confidently claims that the only viable democracy in the Arab/Muslin world is, today, Islamic Democracy. This conviction is among the reasons why he strongly advices the US, particularly, to support a genuine Democracy in the Arab/Muslim world, even if that Democracy is Islamic and even if, in the short term, the elected leaders are not supportive of the US. For, over the long term, he adds, both the US and Moslem countries will benefit from the democratization of the Muslim world, and will enjoy mutual understanding and friendship.

One might think, in some places of the book, that the author is apologetic of the US and Israel policies (others might think the opposite!), but, thinking twice, the book, written that way, is probably more effective since it is more focused towards the goals rather than toward blaming this side or the other. Hence, the book might put on the defensive the belligerents and watchdogs that claim to hold the “wisdom” on how Islam should be looked at through western eyes…

Interesting also, is the dichotomy that the author draws between countries with oil and without oil, for the prospect of democratization in the Arab world. He logically states that the chances of democratization are much more larger in countries without oil, particularly the monarchies of Jordan and Morocco. Countries with oil, according to him, are less sensitive to outside pressure and use oil to silence their critics. Subtle differences exist here between monarchies with oil and secular dictatorships (Saddam’s Iraq and Libya).

I find the conclusion of the book inspiring: “To make the encounter of Islam and democracy peaceful and creative instead of violent and destructive will require patience, courage and self-knowledge. That would not have surprised the Prophet. The greater struggle, he promised, comes after jihad” (referring to the well-known hadith on the greater and lesser jihad!).

I certainly missed addressing many important issues raised by the author, as I informally wrote my feelings about the book, right the way after finishing it. Anyhow, the book is a must read and has been, from the outset, an authoritative work on the important issue of Islam and Democracy.