The Blogiston Post

Politics, money, and war.

Wednesday, July 16

book review

Feldman, Noah. After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2003. ISBN 0374177694

Democracy is messy.

The very idea of an Islamic democracy is alarming for many Westerners in the aftermath of September 11th. But the policy of maintaining the status quo of unelected autocrats, dictators, and "rentier nations", and ignoring power struggles that result in civil war, has already proven catastrophic.
The absolutist thinking that insists on arraying movements like "democracy" and "Islam" against each other in inevitable conflict has led us badly astray. Shared by skeptical Westerners and some hard line Islamists, it has led to mistaken reasoning, and hence to mistaken policies. Specifically, it has led the United States and Europe to ignore the possibility that Muslims want freedom as much as anybody else. It has led Western governments that pride themselves on their own democratic character to embrace dictators for reasons of short term self interest, forgetting that in the long run, the support of autocracy undermines their own democratic values and makes enemies of the people who are being oppressed with Western complicity.
Noah Feldman has written After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy as a book that explores the question in three parts. Part One looks at how Islam and democracy can be synthesized so that they remain true to themselves. Part Two looks at existing states and shows that the seeds of democracy are there. Part Three demands that Western nations, the United States in particular, take a vested interest in seeing democracy succeed. Practical steps that might lead to successful democratic societies are suggested.
The point is that as a moral matter, Muslims, like everyone else, should have the opportunity to make basic decisions about government for themselves. The fact that a country is not democratic, however, is not good evidence that its citizens do not wish for it to be more democratic. If Muslims choose democratic government, then they ought to be assisted in achieving it. If, on the other hand, they choose something else, that, too, should be permitted to exist undisturbed.
Those expecting a concise and explicit answer in Part 3 of After Jihad will be sorely disappointed; but Feldman reminds his readers that successful democracy comes from within, and cannot be imposed from without. As Iraq begins the process of forming a new government, as Afghanistan continues its own internal struggles, After Jihad is as much about Western foreign policy as it is about the form of Islamic democracy likely to result from 21st century Muslims who yearn for change.

Feldman reviews the various forms of government that currently exist where Islam is the dominant religion. He explores what is meant by the very concept of "democracy". He sees the advent of an Islamic democracy as a "mobile idea" — one that can accommodate the unique cultures of nations as diverse as Malaysia from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia from Pakistan, Egypt from Indonesia.

After Jihad proposes that monarchies hold the greatest promise of democratic reform, as kings make way for necessary social change while simultaneously attempting to hold on to their thrones. Dictatorships pose the greatest challenge: with little outside influence, interaction, or contact from Western nations, and with their citizens powerless to effect change except through the use of armed force. A surprise for many readers will be the optimism and excitement that Feldman holds for internal democratic reform in Iran.

Feldman's examination of the governance of oil states is of particular interest. While no one likes to pay taxes, citizens derive concrete benefits that are denied them when under the rule of "rentier nations". Rentier nations are those that rely on the sale of their natural resources rather than on income taxes to pay for social services.
At the structural level, democrats realize that a government that does not tax its people also lacks most incentives to respond to the people's desires.
Feldman opens After Jihad with a short history of the brief success, followed by tragic failure, of a fledgling Islamic democracy in Algeria. In 1989, mass protests led to elections ushering in a newly formed Islamic party in 1990. Before a second round of elections could be administered, at the insistence of Algerian generals, the leaders of the newly formed party were arrested and jailed, the party was banned, and the elections cancelled. As a result of their oppression, the party turned to armed resistance.
In a speech that has cast long shadows over subsequent American policy, then Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian explained that while the United States favored democracy, it opposed elections that would provide for "one person, one vote, one time."
The ensuing civil war led to the deaths of 100,000 Algerians.

This short narrative acts as a wakeup call for Western readers throughout the rest of the book.

After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy is relatively short; Feldman's explication of the language and history of foreign nations unfamiliar to Westerners is easy to follow. Feldman provides numerous references and footnotes, all of which the reader will wish to dive into because the references provide context and not just scholarly evidence. Feldman's excitement at the prospect of what Islamic democracy holds is contagious. His exuberance is sure to be well received by the Iraqi people whom he is now advising as they explore ways to craft a new constitution.

Will the West embrace and support Noah Feldman's mobile idea of an Islamic democracy as an option for a new form of government in Iraq? The future is unknowable, but as After Jihad has clearly laid out:
Change is needed before it is too late.
Review by Susie Dow, editor of The Blogiston Post at She can be reached by email at Originally posted at Failure is Impossible

For an informative article on Noah Feldman and his work assisting the Iraqi people with a new constitution, see American Will Advise Iraqis on Writing New Constitution by Jennifer 8. Lee May 11, 2003.


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