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After Jihad by Noah Feldman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pages, $24) President George W. Bush recently told an Iraqi-American crowd in Michigan that he was confident democracy could flourish in Iraq. But what kind of democracy will it be? Just days before, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asserted that America would not permit an Iranian-style Islamist government to rule Iraq. These statements reflect an ongoing debate in the West: Can Islamic nations be trusted to elect reasonable representatives, or does their culture doom them to repressive regimes? Can democracy and Islam coexist? Noah Feldman’s book, After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy, offers some timely insights on the apparent conflict between democracy and Islam. Now a constitutional law professor at New York University, Feldman earned a doctorate in Islamic thought at Oxford. Drawing upon his sophisticated understanding of political systems and Islamic history, Feldman tries to cut through misperceptions about the nature of Islam and democracy. He argues that the two ideas are indeed compatible, and what’s more, he says, the long-term benefits of democracy far exceed the potential short-term costs of giving Islamists a voice in government. Feldman begins by characterizing Islam and democracy as “mobile ideas” — concepts that appeal to a wide range of people in a variety of cultures because they are simple, flexible, and apply equally to all people. Both assume all people are created equal and are equally deserving of justice. Looked at in this way, Feldman says, the two ideas are very similar. He concludes that given such important shared assumptions, the two concepts can be synthesized into an Islamic democracy. All that is needed is the appropriate diplomatic nudges from the international community. Most Westerners have a less optimistic view of Islam, based primarily on the radical statements and actions of people Feldman identifies as “Islamists.” The Islamists represent a relatively recent development, who, in contrast to ordinary Muslims, “see Islam as a comprehensive political, spiritual, and personal worldview defined in opposition to all that is non-Islamic.” Their calls for restrictions on everything from popular music to women’s freedom sound anything but democratic to Western ears. Yet Feldman believes that most Muslims do not share the reactionary views of Islamists. Although they want politicians who uphold Islamic moral values, they do not necessarily want a government that will enforce those values on everyone. Feldman sees an important distinction between a government that draws upon the beliefs and traditions of Islam, an “Islamic” government, and a government run by religious zealots. The popularity of Islamist groups remains a troubling issue for the West, and Feldman tackles it by describing the political climate of most Islamic countries. For decades, Western governments have supported autocrats and monarchs in the Middle East, partly out of fear of the violently anti-Western rhetoric of Islamist parties. But Feldman contends that this support has been counterproductive, only strengthening their appeal among ordinary Muslims. In countries where secular political opposition is prohibited or brutally repressed, Islamists project the only voices of dissent. These groups also have an air of moral authority, as most Muslims view the religion itself as an advocate of justice. Feldman’s knowledge of Islamic thought comes into play here, as he offers a brief history of the relationship between Islamic scholars and their governments. There is, he says, an Islamic tradition of clerics acting as government watchdogs. Islamists exploit this role, although, unlike scholars, they usually lack an extensive religious education that might moderate their views. Feldman wisely points out that promoting democracy would force Islamist groups to live up to their promises. He feels that if elections are held, Islamist parties will win many seats, but the governments that emerge will still be subject to the will of the people. Most Muslims do not wish to live in a state that tells them what to wear and what to read, and any government that tried to impose such restrictions would suffer in the next election cycle. Feldman believes that an important property of democracy is that it fosters multiple options for citizens. Over time, moderate parties would emerge and succeed in Islamic democracies. Right now, most Muslims have only two choices, the Islamists and their own repressive governments, neither of which is particularly appealing to them or to the West. Feldman’s most intriguing insights come in the latter part of the book, as he discusses what ordinary Muslims really want and believe. He uses the phrase “after jihad” to refer to the current state of the Muslim world. It underscores his view that after suffering decades of violence, most Muslim feel that “the option of holy war now seems spent, peripheral, unrealistic, and indeed distasteful in the light of the violence of September 11.” Failing to see any conflict between their religion and democracy, they believe it is the only system that will ensure justice in their societies. Feldman offers his vision of what democracy in the Islamic world might look like, emphasizing that Islam will play a vital role, whether Donald Rumsfeld likes it or not. “Separation of religion and state is not likely anywhere in the Muslim world in the immediately foreseeable future,” he writes. After years of living under corrupt regimes, only Islam has retained any kind of moral authority for most Muslims. Moreover, Feldman is quick to point out, many of our Western allies, most notably Britain, lack formal separation of church and state. He offers an exhaustive description of the different ways the two might be balanced, using the few democratic or semi-democratic Islamic nations as case studies. In the last two years, many popular books have promoted the reactionary idea that Islam and the West are on a collision course, locked into a battle for cultural dominance. Feldman’s measured interpretation is a breath of fresh air. Although his book tends more toward academic diplomacy than spirited advocacy of his own ideas, he offers realistic advice for troubled times. For instance, he supports tying foreign aid and trade packages to democratic reform in Islamic nations. Democracy, he says, will increase security, as these societies become more transparent and their actions more predictable. Most importantly, unlike the apocalyptic pronouncements of many other works, Feldman insists that his ideas are not a foregone conclusion; if the West wants a functional democracy in the Islamic world, it’s going to have to work for it. Feldman opens his book with a story about the prophet Muhammad. As his troops return from battle, Muhammad congratulates them: “You have made the finest of returns; you have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” The story seems an apt parable for America’s situation. As our troops return home from the war, we face the larger task of creating a stable government in Iraq. Hopefully, Feldman’s analysis will prove correct, and Muslims will be our eager partners in the greater jihad. Meredith Johnston works in television news in New York City.

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