Sunday, July 06, 2003

Noah's lark
Thanks to my friend Tony Badran, I can report that the New York Times weekly book section is highlighting Noah Feldman, the ghostwriter of Iraq's future constitution, in particular his book After Jihad. Jonathan D. Tepperman has written what seems a lucid review of the book (which, admittedly, I haven't read), or at least of the issues raised.

According to Tepperman, Feldman's point is to argue that Islam and democracy are not incompatible, but then he adds: "Where [Feldman] parts company with the right, however, is in his unflinching insistence that democracy in the Arab world should be Islamic in character (although he hedges on just what that will mean)."

I can't judge a book I haven't read, but from a reading of the excerpt provided by the Times, two things come to mind: first, that Feldman has taken a conscious decision to see the glass a quarter full rather than three-quarters empty: he's right that Islam and democracy are not incompatible in theory, but the particular social contexts existing in the Middle East makes it far more likely that Islamist governments that are the by-products of decades of frustration and, often, repression will not be democratic and will not reflect the fact that, as Feldman writes, "Islam has a rich if imperfect tradition of tolerating intra-Islamic diversity of opinion on matters of religion."

Nor do Islamist movements that consider themselves morally in the right and sanctioned by God have any qualms about crushing perceived enemies.

Secondly, Feldman seems to have not a thing to say (again in the very slight window provided by the Times) about non-Muslim minorities in Arab countries. In a key passage he writes:

"If there is to be any way out of the impasse, it will have to come from imagining some kind of Islamic democracy. A democracy of Muslims with Islamic content need not be Islamist democracy, governed exclusively by Islamic law. It is far more likely to draw on Islam's values and ideals while simultaneously incorporating democratic principles, legal protections, and institutions. But even Islamist democracy, if it can be imagined, might have some advantages over autocracy."

But what about non-Muslims? Are they to be shoehorned into this rather convenient intellectual construct, no matter how progressive Feldman makes it sound? The Christian will legitimately ask: "Why should I pay the price for an Islamic democracy? Because Feldman thinks I will be respected as a second-class citizen; as a dhimmi?"

Maybe Feldman provides an answer later on in his book, but this formulation doesn't leave him much room to do so.

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