THE question bound to preoccupy readers of Noah Feldman’s ”After Jihad” — the only reason most readers will pick it up in the first place — is to learn what kind of future the author envisions for Iraq.
The reason the answer matters, and that Feldman himself is suddenly so newsworthy, is that he has just been tapped by the Bush administration to help draft Iraq’s new constitution. His selection stunned most observers: although Feldman is extremely accomplished and has a background in Islamic as well as United States constitutional law, he’s very young (in his early 30’s), was raised an Orthodox Jew and worked for Al Gore during the Florida vote recount. Nonetheless, he’s already been to Baghdad and back.
For good or ill, however, this slight book doesn’t reveal much about how Feldman plans to handle his new responsibilities. He devotes just a few pages to Iraq: it’s only one of the many op-ed-length chapters that make up this somewhat disjointed work.
Feldman’s project in ”After Jihad” is to focus on a more general question: how can political Islam and democracy be reconciled? The answer matters, he writes, because Islamism is one of the few vibrant intellectual movements alive today in the Muslim (especially Arab) world. Repressive governments have found it much harder to shut down mosques than political parties. Canny clerics have tapped into widespread anger while providing much-needed social services that corrupt governments have failed to offer. As a result, political Islam now seems the only alternative to autocracy for many of the planet’s 1.2 billion Muslims. Should elections be held in their countries, Islamists of one stripe or another could dominate.
According to Feldman, however, such a result needn’t worry us. On a theoretical level, he finds nothing irreconcilable between Islam and democracy, and argues that they actually have a lot in common. As ”mobile ideas,” both view everyone as equal; both are flexible (adaptable to different cultures and circumstances) and relatively simple.
True, Islamism’s image may have been tarnished in the West by extremists. But that savagery was the work of a few fanatics. ”Sept. 11, and the sporadic attacks which have followed,” he writes, ”are the last, desperate gasp of a tendency to violence that has lost most of its popular support.” In contrast, Feldman points to reassuring counterexamples like the rise of moderate Islamic parties in Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco and Turkey, and to the writings of reformers like the Tunisian exile Rachid Ghannouchi to show that fusions of Islam and democracy are not only possible, but inevitable.
With these arguments, Feldman has thrown himself into the center of an unruly brawl now raging in policy circles over what to do with the Arab world. One faction consists of the cautious staff members of the State Department, pessimists (or ”realists,” as they prefer to be called) for whom culture is destiny and the Middle East an unredeemable mess. Another camp is represented by thinkers like Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, who are almost as critical of Arab states as the pessimists but advocate a new American imperium to remake the region. Still a third faction includes scholars like Graham Fuller and John L. Esposito, who have so much faith in Arab reformers that they oppose outside interference.
And now Feldman has staked out territory squarely in the middle. On the one hand, he joins with Lewis and company in pushing for America to intervene on the side of democracy. Feldman is unabashed about his support for Western activism: ”If these methods sound interventionist,” he writes at one point, ”that is because they are.” Such language makes him sound at times like one of Donald Rumsfeld’s wild-eyed neoconservatives. Where he 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).
Eying this debate from the outside, how should a lay reader sort out the battling experts’ radically different views? Feldman himself provides a kind of answer. Deciding whether to trust in Islamic democracy is a bit of a gamble, he admits. Push for open elections in the Arab world, and the short-term result may be radical, anti-American governments. But ignore the urge for democracy and the United States risks engendering an even bigger backlash. Besides, Arab dictators run the real danger of bloody overthrow. Thus, ”in the starkest terms, the question is whether to entertain the risk of disaster in the form of a revolution that is not certain but would be extraordinarily costly, or to take on the less costly risk of destabilization that definitely accompanies a process of democratization.”
This account gets far more right than it gets wrong; uncritical support for Arab dictators (including, at one time, Saddam Hussein) has indeed been a disastrous policy, and a betrayal of America’s revolutionary democratic example. The main problem with the choice Feldman offers, however, is his presumption that moderation will ultimately prevail. For that to happen, we have to rely on the Islamists not to interfere with future elections once they themselves win office. Unfortunately, Islamists have proven unreliable protectors of pluralism: for example, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s mullahs assembled a broad-based republican coalition to topple the shah in 1979 — and then proceeded to undermine and eliminate every rival. Absolutists and fundamentalists tend not to be good compromisers.
As for Iraq, Feldman is now almost uniquely well positioned to help shape the rules of the game there. And one of the few things Feldman does promise for that country’s future is that it will be Islamic as well as democratic. A few words of caution, however. Iraq’s main fault lines are ethnic, tribal and sectarian. Feldman says very little about the role of economics, class or culture in the development of democracy — factors that could play an even greater role than religion. Furthermore, Iraq is famously split between two very different forms of Islam: Shiite and Sunni (to say nothing of half a million Christians). How can Islam play anything more than a symbolic role in government when future voters cannot even agree on the definition of ”Islamic”? Untangling that knot may prove impossible. Let’s hope that in trying, Feldman doesn’t overlook the solution that has worked pretty well in the West: a secular constitution that favors no one religion at all.
America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy.
By Noah Feldman.
260 pp. New York:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24.