TCS Daily


The Activist

By James Pinkerton - June 17, 2003 12:00 AM

What's the prospect for democracy in the Middle East? The evidence so far, we might say, is mixed. But one scholar, Noah Feldman 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, has decamped from his ivory tower in Manhattan to the ruins of the Republican Palace in Baghdad, 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 - from Iran, from Israel and its territories, from Iraq.

Islamic Snapshots

First, let's look at a dispatch from Reuters on June 12, headlined, "Iran protests may presage bigger storm ahead." A bigger storm is brewing, that is, over the turbaned heads of Iran's theocrats. As Tehran-based journalist Paul Hughes reports from amidst the protesting crowds in the streets, "Analysts say uncertainty in Iran is heightened by the fact that six years after President Mohammad Khatami's 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 broadcast on U.S.-based Iranian exile satellite stations which although banned in Iran are widely watched on illegal receivers." So two cheers, at least, for the argument that the democratization of technology leads toward, purely and simply, democracy.

But the second headline wasn't so optimistic. Here it is, from the June 4 International Herald-Tribune: "Muslims Lament Israel's Existence." The piece details the results of a poll conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, which surveyed more than 15,000 people in eight Muslim countries, from Morocco to Indonesia, plus the Palestinian Authority. So what was the takeaway of this bit of vox populi? By huge margins, these Muslim populations declared that the "rights" of Palestinians cannot be fulfilled as long as Israel exists. Indeed, other polls have shown that PA Prime Minster Mahmoud Abbas has an approval rating of between two and four percent. That's not a typo; in other words, beyond his immediate family, Abbas isn't much liked. To put it bluntly, it appears that the Arafat/Hamas-type suicide bombers have a lot more genuine popular support than the sort of folks, such as Abbas, that Israelis and Americans might be able to do business with. And there's more bad news in the Pew Poll: most of the Muslim populations have an extremely negative view of the United States, including eight out of ten 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.

And speaking of Iraqi Freedom, how's that going? Most of the headlines, from pro-war and anti-war papers, 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, 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." As an alternative, one might consult the June 14 Washington Times; the bullish headline reads, "U.S. using quick, decisive tactics to quell Iraqi attacks." The Times 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: "Iraqi Leader Criticizes U.S." What leader? Couldn't be Saddam Hussein, of course; he's not giving interviews - at least not to Americans. Rather, it's Ahmed Chalabi, the chairman of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), who told the paper, "We have to open up an Iraqi political process immediately."

In addition, 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, 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, as to the timing of an election.

Indeed, Bremer disbanded the 700-member Free Iraq Force (FIF), the military adjunct to the INC. The FIF was recruited and trained by the Pentagon, but in the words of one close observer quoted in the Post, working with the FIF was like "herding cats." So RIP, FIF.

But maybe not. According to a June 5 posting by Majid Barra of the Baghdad Independent Media Center, the FIF doesn't want to disband. Said one FIF-er, "We have received orders to stop the activities of the force and disband it, but we intend to be on the Iraqi street again, in different form." That could be trouble, in a part of the world where warlords and militias have so often dominated. (By the way, in case you're wondering about Majid Barra, I wonder, too. Never heard of him, in fact. But as we all know, the "blogger" phenomenon is real; indeed, even Iraqi blogging has taken off, to wit. That's the thing about democracy and its handmaiden, free speech: it takes awhile to sort out the ore from the dross in what Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once called "the marketplace of ideas.")

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? What gives him the assurance to proclaim, in his concluding section, "The Necessity of 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 alas, he isn't around to speak for his side of the argument, at least not in person; After Jihad was published in April; just days later, he was hired as a contractor by the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs and sent off to Baghdad to start working on an Iraqi constitution. He's been there for most of the time since, and he is 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 February 26 speech to the American Enterprise Institute, 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." Indeed, he continued:
There are hopeful signs of a desire for freedom in the Middle East. Arab intellectuals have called on Arab governments to address the "freedom gap" so their peoples can fully share in the progress of our times. Leaders in the region speak of a new Arab charter that champions internal reform, greater politics participation, economic openness, and free trade. And from Morocco to Bahrain and beyond, nations are taking genuine steps toward politics reform.

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, so Americans might wish to learn more about such pivotal Islamic figures as Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia, Yusuf al-Qaradawi of Egypt, and Abdolkarim Soroush of Iran.

But now here's the rub: by Western standards, these folks are a motley crew. Al-Qaradawi, for example, is a regular on Al-Jazeera TV; in his book, Feldman describes him as a "complex, problematic figure." That's probably a fair assessment of a man who condemned the killing of Americans on 9/11 as a "heinous crime against Islam," and 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 - most obviously, now that Saddam Hussein is gone, Egypt and Saudi Arabia - followed by the imposition of Koranic Sharia law, 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 also 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, willing to take his ideas all the way Baghdad.
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