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After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy
By Noah Feldman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
HC, 260 pgs. US$24/C$39.95
ISBN: 0-3741-7769-4

The Muslim's world future is freedom

By Steven Martinovich
web posted May 5, 2003

After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic DemocracyThe recent post-war unrest in Iraq, which has now included two incidents of American soldiers firing on Iraqi protestors, illustrates the long and very difficult road to bringing freedom and democracy to that country. It's also, unfortunately, reinforced the thinking of many people that Arabs -- and Muslims in general -- aren't capable of governing themselves. Without an autocratic leader, they believe, Muslim nations fall into chaos at a moment's notice.

Noah Feldman, a New York University School of Law professor with a doctorate in Islamic thought from Oxford, argues that the reality is far from that. Islam and democracy are not incompatible and Muslims crave democracy and the chance to express themselves. There is nothing preventing, he states in After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy, a nation that is Islamic in character to also be a democracy. Feldman writes that there is a tremendous thirst for democracy and the United States can play a leading role in bringing it to them.

It's a path, he admits, that is fraught with uncertainty. First, it would take a shift in American foreign policy. Traditionally, the United States has valued stability in the Middle East to maintain a cheap supply of oil. That has led it to support autocratic leaders, such as the Saud family in Saudi Arabia, instead of vigorously supporting political reforms. Once that policy shift occurs, Feldman states, the United States and the West will be faced with a short-term situation that may see newly democratic nations turn their backs political moderation, as we know it and embrace Islamists. Despite that, Feldman argues it's our long-term interests that should preoccupy our thoughts.

"Over the long run, the costs of sticking with the autocrats are great. Continuing this policy will array the United States and the West against the interests of ordinary Muslims, who will be unlikely to forget what they see as a betrayal of the values of freedoms and self-government that the U.S. and the West represent to them. It will send the message to Muslims that democracy is less an animating aspiration at the core of American values than a tool to be deployed cynically and selectively. Existing Muslim dreams of democracy will sour...Frustrated dreams of self-government will continue to attach themselves, however fleetingly, to any Muslim leader who purports to stand up to the U.S., even when he is a notorious butcher like Saddam or a marginal extremist like Osama bin Laden," Feldman writes.

Of course, before any shift in policy can occur, people need to be convinced that Islam and democracy are not mutually exclusive. Feldman argues that both systems rest on similar principles which include respect for your fellow human being, equality and obligations to society. Both contain universal truths, evidenced by the fact that each has spread rapidly outside of their birthplaces and survived contact with different cultures. Indeed, Islam and democracy have survived contact with each other in a handful of Islamic nations that are slowly embracing democratic reforms, such as Indonesia and Bangladesh.

Feldman does, of course, admit that Islamic democracies won't be quite the type of democracies we're used to in the West. It's unlikely that the separation of church and state will be enshrined in any Islamic democracy. Liberal democracies like ours tend to believe that a government needs to be limited in the amount of meddling it does in the private sphere. Islam, however, addresses questions asked in both the public and private sphere. While that doesn't prevent an Islamic government from protecting the rights of religious minorities, those same minorities may not feel entirely comfortable with their place in society.

Many Islamic democracies will also see strong participation, and likely electoral victories, by Islamists. Democracies are dependent on strong civil organizations and because their political efforts are often proscribed, Islamists have taken the lead in building those types of organizations. They will undoubtedly win power in many Islamic nations and there's no guarantee that they will seek closer ties with the West or be zealous in protecting the rights of non-Muslim minorities. That said, many of these same Islamists are, in theory, strong proponents of democracy because it's the key to maintaining power and building the trust of their constituents. Eventually, Feldman believes, they'll be dealing with an electorate less interested in anti-American politics, preferring instead that local issues were addressed.

While those, and other concerns, are valid, Feldman makes a persuasive case that the United States must accept the risks of promoting democracy in the Islamic world. Not doing so, he argues, will doom the Middle East to increasing instability with violent extremists continuing to capture power. Those elements may make the choice of whether we support those autocratic regimes for us. Failing to promote democracy, he believes, will create yet another generation of young Muslims who see America's foreign policy and its stated goal of promoting peace as hypocrisy defined. Though Americans believe that Muslims despise them now, Feldman says that's not entirely true and something America can change.

"Muslim anger at the hypocrisy of the United States may be wide, but it is not deep. It is a mistake to think that ordinary Muslims, or even Islamists, are inevitably or unalterably opposed to the U.S....Indeed, the very fact that so many Muslims say they are prepared to embrace democracy, a system they associate with the United States and its successes, provides striking evidence that anti-Americanism may be overcome if the U.S. loosens its embrace of rulers who do not responds to the needs or concerns of their people."

Feldman's theoretical work will be carried out in a vast laboratory. He was recently named head of the constitutional team with the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq. It will his team's responsibility to oversee and advise on drafting the constitution for a democratic Iraq. If Feldman and his team are successful they will in one stroke show that America is truly interested in the welfare of the world's Muslims and put pressure on the world's other autocratic Islamic regimes. If After Jihad is any indication, the road will be long but well worth it.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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