By Noah Feldman.
Reviewed by Bassam M. Madany
One of the most urgent challenges facing Muslim nations today is their willingness to espouse democratic principles and act upon them in our ever shrinking and globalized world. Several books dealing with Islam and politics have appeared in the last few decades. Noah Feldman’s book has the distinction of treating the subject in a very hopeful manner, notwithstanding the events that have rocked parts of the Muslim world since the First Gulf War. This book could not have appeared at a more auspicious time as the United States is working hard to establish democratic regimes in Afghanistan, and Iraq.
The book is organized around three major themes: The Idea of Islamic Democracy, Varieties of Islamic Democracy, and The Necessity of Islamic Democracy. I am very impressed by the author’s coverage of vast areas of the Muslim world. To peruse its pages one gets an up-to-date description of politics and political activities from Indonesia all the way to Morocco. This feature makes the book very helpful to students of contemporary Islam.
Having thus far drawn attention to the positive aspects of “Islam and Democracy,” let me say that I found the book rather abstract, with the author assuming all along that Islam and democracy, can, and should coexist.
At the outset, the book would have been very helpful to the average reader, if certain clear definitions were made at the beginning of the work. The word ‘democracy’ cannot be simply understood etymologically. Across the last few centuries, it has acquired a specific political baggage. Thus, for North Americans, Europeans, the peoples of India, South Korea, and Japan, democracy implies political freedoms, the rule of law, a parliamentarian form of government, and the guarantee of the rights of minorities. Is “Islamic” democracy to be a unique genre of democracy? Nowhere in the book did I find any serious discussion of the rights of ethnic and religious minorities within the future and hoped-for democratic Islamic regimes.
While the notes at the end of the book refer to many sources that the author had consulted, it is not clear whether Noah Feldman did research dealing with the topic in Islamic languages such as Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Urdu, and Malay. I don’t mean that a writer on Islam has to know all these languages; however, an ability to consult Muslim scholars writing in their own languages for domestic readers on this subject, would have made the book more realistic in its forecast for the future of democracy in Islam.
It is my conviction that a prerequisite for the rise of democracy within Islamic countries is the renewal and modernization of the Arab mind. Dr. Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, an Egyptian scholar, undertook such a project in several books as well as in the Kuwaiti journal, “Al-‘Arabi.” He called for “the opening of the door of Ijtihad” as well as for the jettisoning of the irrational elements in the Arab-Muslim intellectual heritage. Until such serious thinking spreads in the Muslim world, no kind of democracy can take root and flourish.
One sign for the rise of a true democratic spirit within Muslim lands is to see whether self-criticism is allowed and practiced. For example, there is a general tendency among Muslim thinkers to brand every policy vis-à-vis their world, undertaken by Western countries as bearing the marks of another “crusade.” The implication is that only Islam had a right to conquer territories outside Arabia. Nowadays, the crusader wars (1099-1291) are not glorified or celebrated by any descendants of the Crusaders. It is high time that those wars be placed in their proper perspective. As Bernard Lewis put it in "The Arab in History":
“At the present time, the Crusades are often depicted as an early experiment in expansionist imperialism --- a prefigurement of the modern European empires. To the people of the time, both Muslim and Christian, they were no such thing. When the Crusaders arrived in Jerusalem, barely four hundred years had passed since that city, along with the rest of the Levant and North Africa, had been wrested by the armies of Islam from their Christian rulers, and their Christian populations forcibly incorporated in a new Muslim empire. The Crusade was a delayed response to the jihad, the holy war of Islam, and its purpose was to recover by war what had been lost by war --- to free the holy places of Christendom and open them once again, without impediment, to Christian pilgrimage.” P. 139
Quite often, Turkey is mentioned as the only true democratic country in the Muslim world. But this is true only up to a point. Elections are held, and governments change. Beginning as a purely secular republic under Atatürk’s autocratic rule, the Turkish Republic has evolved into a more tolerant country where Islamic parties may exist and even participate in elections, and form governments. But if judged by the universal understanding of what a true democracy is, Turkey falls short of the mark. It oppresses ethnic minorities (like the Kurds) and the lot of religious minorities (Christians) is worse than under the Ottoman rule.
When dealing with Pakistan, Noah Feldman asks the question, “Why has democracy done so poorly in Pakistan? Is Islam somehow at fault, given that neighboring Hindu-majority India has managed to preserve its democracy for half a century?” (p. 125). The answer he gives, partially blaming geography, is unconvincing. The same applies to his dismissal of the remarks of V. S. Naipaul in his latest book, Beyond Belief P. 208
As the author nears the end of his book, he has an eloquent chapter dealing with “Imagining an Islamic Democracy.” “What would an Islamic democracy look like in practice?” This description, or rather this hopeful forecast, is very touching. One only hopes that it would come to pass before too long. The very title of the last chapter (which is also the title of the book) is “After Jihad.” Our author remains hopeful, notwithstanding the history of Islam during the last fourteen hundred years. He looks forward to a period in world history when Muslims would no longer understand jihad as a struggle against the “other,” but as an inner struggle to master one’s self and become a better Muslim, truly submissive to the will of Allah. Judging by events taking place in mid-2003, it seems that the “old-fashioned” jihad is still going on. Still, let’s hope that there is going to be an “After Jihad.”