Jihad: What's ahead?

Three new books discuss political islam and life under Saddam.

Apr 23, 2003 at 12:00 am
Noah Feldman's After Jihad, a primer for peacefully bringing democracy to the Islamic world, has been rather crudely pre-empted by President George W. Bush's more aggressive tactics. Nevertheless, Feldman--a professor of law at New York University, scholar of Islam, and Orthodox Jew--still brings valuable insights to the table. In a series of brief lectures--the work was culled from policy papers given at Yale and NYU--Feldman makes the striking argument that, despite current events, the violent jihad will soon be a thing of the past.

Feldman argues against two ideas commonly held as the conventional wisdom: first, that Islam and democracy exist in a fundamental opposition, and second, that Islamist regimes will increase fundamentalist violence against the West. In fact, Feldman says, democracy and Islam are both "mobile ideas," capable of galvanizing and taking hold of nations, leading to "unanticipated new configurations," and the real danger lies in repressing democratically elected Islamist regimes. (Here, he cites the bloody civil war that has raged in Algeria for the past 10 years.) The fundamentalist violence, Feldman argues, that led to the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat--and fueled the resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan--is waning. Despite Sept. 11, the jihad is at its "last gasp" and al-Qaida is "politically irrelevant." The United States must fight the fear that a rising tide of Islamist politics would perforce harm Israel, and, by extension, must seek to uphold and not repress Islamist democracies.

You don't need to be a hawk to know that them's fightin' words. However, in a region in which, as Feldman tells us, Islamists are often the voices calling most loudly for democracy (another assumption smashed), he argues that the threat of fundamentalist regimes--a threat that, not incidentally, had us propping up Saddam Hussein not long ago--is not our greatest. The greater risk, Feldman writes, is alienating the people themselves.

This is a philosophically compelling--if impracticable--notion. Feldman gives it its due, calmly explaining how Islam and democracy could be synthesized, how Islam and democracy exist together today, and why the United States should embrace the pairing. At times, he is judicious to the point of seeming simpleminded--marriage laws in New York are not a fair comparison to how a religious state might repress individual freedoms, for example, and the question of Israel as it is regarded by fundamentalist regimes cannot be dismissed in a paragraph or two. (Many scholars will dismiss the book on the basis of the latter omission alone.) Still, Feldman's book presents exactly the type of philosophical and historical overview of the Middle East people currently seek, and his subtle analysis of governments across the Muslim world is apropos. The recent toppling of Saddam makes the arguments even more relevant. Whether we like it or not, soon we all may know firsthand if it is true that, as Feldman writes, "the alarmist argument is behind the curve."

Lizzie Skurnick writes for City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].