An Islamic Optimist

What’s the prospect for democracy in the Middle East? The evidence so far is mixed. But one scholar, Noah Feldman (search) of the New York University School of Law, counts himself as “cautiously optimistic.”

Fortunately for the cause of democratization, this particular scholar, author of a new book, After Jihad: America and the Struggle for the Islamic Democracy (search), has decamped from his ivory tower in Manhattan to the ruins of the Republican Palace in Baghdad (search), there to see if his ideas can be made to work.

But before assessing Feldman’s chances, we might consider three brief journalistic snapshots of the Islamic world in mid-Jihad (search):

Islamic Snapshots

A June 12 dispatch from Reuters (search) was headlined: “Iran protests may presage bigger storm ahead.” A bigger storm is brewing, that is, over the heads of Iran’s (search) theocrats. As Tehran-based journalist Paul Hughes reports from a street protest, “Analysts say uncertainty in Iran is heightened by the fact that six years after President Mohammad Khatami's (search) election, patience with his stalled attempts to bring greater democracy, justice and social freedoms has evaporated.”

And as is so often the case in these proto-democratic situations, technology plays a potentially liberating role; Hughes notes that many of the young marchers said they had “answered calls to attend a rally at Tehran University (search) broadcast on U.S.-based Iranian exile satellite stations which although banned in Iran are widely watched on illegal receivers.” So two cheers for the argument that the democratization of technology leads toward democracy.

But the second headline, “Muslims Lament Israel’s Existence” from the June 4 International Herald-Tribune (search), wasn’t so optimistic. The piece details the results of a poll conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project (search), which surveyed more than 15,000 people in eight Muslim countries, including the Palestinian Authority (search). By huge margins, these Muslim populations declared that the “rights” of Palestinians cannot be fulfilled as long as Israel (search) exists.

Other polls have shown that PA Prime Minster Mahmoud Abbas (search) has an approval rating of between two and four percent. To put it bluntly, it appears that the Arafat/Hamas (search)-type suicide bombers have a lot more genuine popular support than folks such as Abbas, with whom the Israelis and Americans might be able to do business. And there’s more bad news in the Pew Poll: most of the Muslim (search) populations have an extremely negative view of the United States, including eight out of 10 Turks. Which might explain why the democratically elected Turkish government backed out of an initial agreement to let the U.S. use Turkish facilities as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom (search).

And speaking of Iraqi Freedom, how’s that going? Most of the headlines have one thing in common: they don’t dwell much on the state of Iraqi democracy. That’s evident across the ideological spectrum. The June 13 edition of the left-leaning Guardian (search), for example, featured the defeatist headline, “Resistance to occupation is growing”; the story asserted that anti-American “attacks occur daily -- more than a dozen every day in the past week.” The June 14 Washington Times (searchoffered the bullish headline, “U.S. using quick, decisive tactics to quell Iraqi attacks.” The Times (search) quoted top American general David McKiernan speaking optimistically of his pacification program: “I would hesitate to predict it will stay that way forever, but it’s been quiet for the last couple of days, and it’s been a success.”

But whether or not America is in a “quagmire,” as The Guardian eagerly asserts, it does appear that Iraqi democracy has been delayed, if not necessarily denied. Here’s one more headline, from the June 14 Washington Post (search): “Iraqi Leader Criticizes U.S.” What leader? Couldn’t be Saddam Hussein, of course; he’s not giving interviews. Rather, it’s Ahmed Chalabi (search), the chairman of the Iraqi National Congress (search), who told the paper, “We have to open up an Iraqi political process immediately.”

Chalabi has a long list of suggestions, such as the creation of a 25,000-man Iraqi security force. Yet of late he’s been offering most of these recommendations to Americans in America, because Paul Bremer (search), the American administrator in Baghdad, has been moving in the opposite direction; he is evidently skeptical that Chalabi, who was in exile from Iraq from 1958 to 2003, has any support in his native country.

And since Chalabi seems like an electoral loser, Bremer has contravened the many promises made by his short-termed predecessor in Baghdad, Jay Garner (search), as to the timing of an election.

So there it is, Islamic democracy in various nascent forms. In Iran, it’s the struggle for the soul of the country, between young reformers - we hope they are reformers - and old ayatollahs. In Israel and the Palestinian areas, the people appear to be speaking, and they are speaking, at least on the Palestinian side, for more fighting. And meanwhile, in Iraq, it’s hard to tell who’s a democrat, and the one democrat that most Americans might be able to name, Chalabi, seems to have been sidelined by the United States. So it would appear that democracy - at least the kind of democracy that we like, with outcomes that we deem acceptable - is a ways away.

The Necessity of Islamic Democracy

So where does Feldman get off being an optimist about Islamic democracy? Well, having a Ph.D. from Oxford in Islamic thought, as well as a law degree, he does know something about his topic. But just days after After Jihad was published in April, Feldman was hired as a contractor by the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs (search) and sent off to Baghdad to start working on an Iraqi constitution. He’s declining all interview requests.

However, in an interview I conducted with him in October 2002, he maintained that “democracy and the ideology of democracy are growing in the Islamic world.” As he said then, Islamists may have resorted to violence and terror in the past, but increasingly, they haven’t felt that they had to, because they can get what they want -- and keep what they want -- through honest ballot-boxing.

So in a sense, Feldman anticipated President George W. Bush’s (search) Feb. 26 speech to the American Enterprise Institute (search), in which he said, “It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world -- or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim -- is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life.”

But there’s a catch, Feldman said last year: “The reality is that the democratic opposition movements throughout the Middle East are likely to be Islamic.” And so just as it would be nice if Muslims studied such democratic exemplars as the ancient Greeks or the Founding Fathers (search), so Americans might wish to learn more about such pivotal Islamic figures as Rachid Ghannouchi (search) of Tunisia, Yusuf al-Qaradawi (search) of Egypt, and Abdolkarim Soroush (search) of Iran.

By Western standards, however, these folks are a motley crew. Al-Qaradawi, for example, condemned the killing of Americans on 9/11 as a “heinous crime against Islam,” yet praises Hamas for its suicide attacks on Israelis.

What unites almost all Islamic democrats, Feldman asserts in the book, is a commitment to overturning autocracies in dictatorships in the Muslim world, followed by the imposition of Koranic Sharia law (search), including the veil for women. One might ask, is it really democracy to live by ancient theocratic rules - -even if women, too, vote for the practice? Well, that’s what rubs about democracy: it doesn’t always work out as one might like. Or, as Justice Holmes said, freedom is “not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

None of this will be easy. As Feldman observes in his book, the Islamic concept of  Jihad   is about the struggle within, even more than the struggle without. And so he says, “To make the encounter of Islam and democracy peaceful and creative instead of violent and destructive will require patience, courage and self-knowledge.”

Do Muslims have that capacity within themselves? And do Americans have the capacity to help see it emerge, in Iraq and elsewhere? That’s the test. And one who is being most tested right now is Noah Feldman, a man who is both a scholar and an activist -- a true activist, willing to take his ideas far beyond the seminar room or the magazine page, all the way Baghdad.