Noah Feldman is young, a mere 32 years of age, calm, small in stature, sharp and brisk. Not the person you would expect to be at the center of what appears to be a boisterous fracas between the regimes of the West led by Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush and the Muslim-Arab world. Although the showdown is centered in Iraq and Afghanistan it has implications as well for Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the Palestinian Authority and by extension, the entire Middle East.
Feldman was recently in Toronto for speaking engagements and because I had a request in to interview him for “Dispatches,” a weekly CBC radio program I produce, his assistant told me if I waited I could do the interview in person rather than stick him in a cold studio in New York or Washington. In the interview he expressed the same idealism and vision contained in “After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy.” (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2003).
It is not totally clear how and why Feldman decided to write ‘After Jihad,’ but Richard Primus, a college friend and a law professor at University of Michigan, recalls that Feldman’s interest in the Islamic legal tradition predates his interest in modern American law.
He grew up in Boston an Orthodox Jew and learned Hebrew and Aramaic at the Maimonides School, a private school in Brookline, Mass. At 15, he started to learn Arabic and now speaks it fluently.
He graduated top of his class at Harvard where he earned a degree in Near Eastern Studies before moving on to Oxford where he was a Rhodes Scholar earning his doctorate in Islamic thought. He did his law degree at Yale before taking his first teaching position at NYU on Aug. 29, 2001. Assistant
Dean at NYU law school described Feldman’s PhD as equipping him with the ability to offer a “boutique Islamic law course for the 10 students who would have been interested in doing it.” Two weeks later Kramer said “this useless PhD became incredibly valuable.”
So valuable that hiding out in the world of academia was not to be Feldman’s calling. The first offer came earlier this year from the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq when he was asked to be its senior adviser for constitutional law and with that position assist in the writing of Iraq’s new constitution. He spent two months on the ground in Iraq and if anyone thought it would dampen his idealism, they were in for a surprise. He described his role as constitutional adviser as providing examples of what other governments have done and explaining what has or has not worked. “You’re an option provider, the critical decisions are made by the people,” he said.
Today he is in constant demand with calls from countries in the Middle East. He describes Islam and Democracy as powerful “mobile ideas” perhaps the only two that exists today. “Mobile ideas claim to work always and everywhere,” and because of that “they can clash.” “But mobile ideas also tend to be very flexible, and therefore capable of coming together in intriguing ways to produce unanticipated, new configurations.”
And this is what he is hoping for, a new configuration between civil society, the populace, and the rulers or the state apparatus. “Islamic democracy is not a contradiction,” he argues, “nor is it a paradox but an increasing number of Muslims have come to believe a synthesis is desirable because they understand that “secularism of the Western variety is not a necessary condition of democracy.”
Feldman is convinced that Muslims desire a new political reality and one that cherishes their participation in the affairs of the state while enshrining their basic freedoms and rights, not least of which is their allegiance to Islam as faith and upright moral conduct. Feldman is not saying that they desire western style democracy and certainly not Bush and Blair style democracy. He is aware that they’ve seen the ugly face of Islamic extremism and they don’t wish for that either.
Feldman is neither calling for a wholesale reshaping of the political reality in the Muslim world by the dominant Western powers nor is he advocating that the Muslim world should be left to its own devise. He comes down somewhere in between the two extremes but that should not be misconstrued as fence-sitting nor dodgy.
Feldman’s balanced idealism runs into trouble when it bounces against the pillar of trust that has all but disappeared from Muslim-Western relationship. The Islamists doubt whether the corrupt leaders in their countries who are funded and armed by France, the United Kingdom and the United States, will ever allow them to participate in free and fair elections. The existing regimes in the Muslim world, and the powers in Washington and London, on the other hand, doubt whether the Islamists, if they do come to power, will genuinely uphold pluralism and not turn the state into an absolutist theocratic entity.
Feldman’s image of a Muslim Democrat is a person who identifies with Islam as a religion but is not threatened by those who don’t share the same beliefs. It is a person who is willing to uphold the liberty and equality of all human beings before God regardless of gender or ethnicity.
Feldman is deeply conscious that this is possible because he knows from years of study that the Quran and the Prophetic tradition upholds the freedoms and essential liberties that enable democracy to function: free speech, free thought, free association and something that many Muslims today tend to forget in their blind support for the acts of vigilante ‘Mujahids’ who take the law into their hands, and that is an unbinding allegiance to due process of law.
‘After Jihad’ then is a cogent argument for a fusion between Islam Democracy. The alternatives will be an inevitable clash between the two because one professes it has God on its side and Western Democracy professes it has military might on its side and is willing to use it with reckless abandon to protect what it deems is in its own interest.