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.


Jawad said...

Thank you Jallal for the brief summary. I am looking forward to reading the whole book. I like Noah, he's an extremely intelligent fellow.

Some of the points you highlighted from the book are extremely important, yet often ignored. I have always explained to my friends that Islam in Muslim societies is not a compartment that can be moved but rather a constant energy that runs throughout society - in other words, it's everywhere: in our speech, our way of life, our formal education, and most importantly it is deeply engrained in our sense of logic. One of my friends once noted how we constantly use prayer in our normal everyday speech: e.g., allah i3aoun, allah isster, allah ihfad, allah ijib, ect. So in Muslim societies you can not separate religion from society but as Noah seems to understand you can reform the role it plays in governance all while honoring its prominence.

The other major point I have often repeated and that Noah mentions is the Oil curse. I wholeheartedly agree that Oil riches are a drag on democracy and good governance (only exception is Norway) because they create fertile ground for corrupt practices and give those who govern resources to rule by either bribing or repressing the governed.

Jawad said...

One other thing I forgot to mention - I don't know if Noah got into this in his book: The prophet left to his followers a mode of governance that is based on the principles of "advice and consent" through Majliss Choura and the legal foundation for reform through "Ijtihad". He made clear before he died that succession of leadership should be done according to the wishes of the people and not through tyranny like that he escaped and from which he liberated so many in the Arabian peninsula. This centuries before a democratic system was to emerge in the West.

The problem, as my mother would say, is not Islam - it is the Muslims.

Anonymous said...

God bless u'e Mom..she's right !
thank u Jallal for the review, it's really interesting and i'm definitely going to read the book,Inshallah ;)
one point concerning Jawad's comment.some use prayers in really weird situation: a collegue in Casablance used to say ioua ya rebbi yester ou malqaouhach 3amra..he was talking about the Bar next to Maroc Soir where i worked some years!!!
prayers are used in our daily speech but in most of the cases, they're just like "Tic", like "u know" in new york.

Jallal said...

Yes Jawad, he did address the Shura (consultation) issue. He basically alluded to the fact that the nature of this Shura was not specified in great details in the Koran, which left a large latitude to Muslims for implementing it. This is clear in my opinion. It gets obscured only by literalists (and they are many) that want to live in the 7th century.

Foulla, zwina hadi dyal le Bar! These prayers are rather part of Moroccan folklore now. Some are misplaced and many are self-conscious and make Islam a ubiquitous element in our daily life as Jawad said.

Anonymous said...

Stupid book, stupid ideas. The only real way to progress and civilization in the muslim world is secularism. Which is the most advanced Muslim country in the world? Turkey! And only because Kemal Ataturk expelled religion from the public sphere, confining it to the private realm, where it should be! If democracy is to become a victim in the process, so be it! There can be no such thing as "religious" or "Islamic" democracy. This is complete rubbish. Only secularism will do. Full stop.

Jallal said...

Obviously, looking at things that simplistically inevitably leads to the kind of conclusion you are drawing.

You don’t care about democracy, as your problem is Islam. Sounds familiar!

But one of the interesting things here, is that although Kamal had set up ultra-secularism as the political model for Turkey decades ago, the ruling party in this country at this very moment has an Islamic background!