After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy
by Noah Feldman
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. 272 pp. $24.
Reviewed by Jonathan Schanzer
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Middle East Quarterly
Feldman was briefly retained by the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Baghdad to assist in the drafting of a new Iraqi constitution. The 32-year-old assistant professor at New York University Law School may well have landed this extraordinary job because of his optimistic views about Iraq. "A post-Saddam Iraq will inevitably become," he writes in After Jihad, "a laboratory for trying out the mobile idea of democracy in front of the whole world." He calls the United States a "midwife" for democratization.
A review of his scholarship, however, reveals a simplistic and overly optimistic "why not?" approach to Islam and democracy. Using Western assumptions and pandering to a Western audience, he claims that Islam and democracy are two flexible ideas that are compatible if Muslims just put their minds to it. Feldman, however, fails to draw this conclusion from the great storehouse of Islamic jurisprudence that often argues to the contrary. Rather, it comes from his own skewed interpretation of modern history—one in which countries like Pakistan and Iran are on the cusp of democracy.
There are other problems with his analysis. As noted by Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan scholar of Islam, many Muslims have "fought against the advances of Enlightenment philosophy and banned Western humanism as foreign and ‘imported,' calling the intellectuals who study it enemy agents and traitors to the nationalist cause." Feldman makes no mention of this powerful challenge.
He also misses the mark in stating that "everyone is equal before God" in Muslim theology. In reality, Muslims have historically viewed fellow monotheists as second-class citizens, while non-monotheists and slaves rank lower yet. Feldman seems to think that ignoring this reality makes it disappear.
In the end, however, militant Islam is Feldman's most major failing. While he recognizes the ideas of Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and other radical ideologues as problematic, he drastically underestimates the enduring nature of the movement they created. As his title suggests, Feldman lives in the happy delusion that we have reached an After Jihad era; he cheers himself with the implausible thesis that militant Islam has waned. The attacks of 9/11, he echoes Giles Kepel  in explaining, were a "last, desperate gasp of a tendency to violence that has lost most of its popular support," a description that willfully ignores reports from across the Muslim world of delight at bin Laden's achievement. And whence comes his conceit that the idea of an Islamic state created through holy war is "an idea whose time has passed"? One wonders how he would explain al-Qaeda's recent bombings in Casablanca, Riyadh, and Istanbul. As further attacks by militant Islamists prove Feldman wrong, one can only wonder and worry about his handiwork and be grateful that he left his position in Iraq.
 Reviewed in Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2003, p. 88-9.
Related Topics: Democracy and Islam, US policy | Jonathan Schanzer | Winter 2004 MEQ
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