Separation of Mosque and State? Not Necessarily, Says One Scholar

By Michael Alexander

Published June 20, 2003, issue of June 20, 2003.
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After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy

By Noah Feldman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pages, $24.

* * *

Last month, the Bush administration announced that it had selected an unknown 32-year-old Jew to advise the Iraqi people in the writing of their constitution. When the news first broke, The New York Times furiously began asking a series of questions concerning the appointment, beginning with: “Who is Noah Feldman?”

If his new book is any guide, Feldman is a serious thinker who has grappled with the fundamental issues surrounding the coexistence of Islam and democracy. As he argues in “After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy,” instead of insisting that religion and democracy must be separate, Americans must recognize that Islam is a possible carrier of democracy –– and that encouraging this relationship is in our country’s long-term foreign policy interest.

The thrust of Feldman’s book is to show that Western fears of Islam have precluded our usual belief that democracies, even religious ones, are better than the mess of dictatorships, monarchies and angry populations that currently burden our foreign policy. If the wills of Muslim peoples are given fair opportunity for self-representation and state power, Feldman argues, Islamic anger with America will dissipate. After all, “Islamic politics is not inherently anti-American.”

Still, shouldn’t we fear the conflation of religion and democracy in the Middle East? Doesn’t true democracy require the separation of church and state? Not necessarily. Feldman begins by stating the overlooked fact that when democracy has spread beyond America, its new form rarely replicates our familiar version with its constitutional establishment clause separating church and state. Feldman, a law professor at New York University, notes that most European democracies do not guarantee such a separation, and some even continue to sponsor official state religions. In the Middle East, should countries other than Israel ever enjoy democracy, those democracies will likely have to incorporate Islam. In fact, Feldman reminds us, most cries for democratization in the Islamic world have come from religious interests, people who wish to combat the autocracy of their secular states with the Islamic will of the people –– the Islamic street, as it were.

There is much to be said for Feldman’s position. Just as there is nothing in normative Islam to contradict democracy, neither does Islam preclude friendly international relationships between Islamic countries and non-Islamic ones such as America.

But the same cannot be said so confidently about

the Islamic position concerning Israel. From an American point of view, Feldman’s argument to aid Islamic democratic movements is realistic and even hopeful. But for those of us also concerned with Israel, any form of Islamic state power, democratic or otherwise, cannot be viewed as calmly.

Indeed, for many countries, including Israel, India and the Philippines, Feldman’s question about the possibility of Islamic democracy is not the most pressing one. Rather, it is whether Islamic politics can tolerate any power over Muslims other than Islamic power.

Despite the differences Islamic leaders might have with the United States, North America does not sit smack in the middle of the traditional Islamic empire. Islamic and Arab anger at Israel over what Feldman calls “Palestinian rights” and “Palestinian suffering” will be recognized by readers of this newspaper as euphemisms for a broader problem that both political Islam and Arab nationalism have with any non-Muslim or non-Arab having state power over Muslims and Arabs. For most of the angry Middle East, the plight of Palestinians is a symptom and a reminder of a more fundamental challenge for normative Islam, namely Jewish state power over a portion of the Levant. Already, inklings of Islamic democratization in Egypt, Jordan and even Iran have instantly paired themselves with anti-Israel and even antisemitic sentiments, and have managed to impede the peace process.

It would seem that the traditional fusion of religion, power and territory in Islamic political theory remains alive and that it implies if not an inherent conflict between Islam and the Jewish state, then certainly a normative and longstanding one. Though we may not like them, dictators and monarchs have kept that conflict in check. Islamic democracy will likely bring the anti-Israel sentiments of normative Islamic politics to power. What the voice of the Islamic street will demand when in power is totally unforeseeable. Democracies don’t always wage war for the most rational reasons.

One of the most enlightening lessons of Feldman’s book is one with which he himself probably would not agree. Since the end of the Cold War, American and Israeli interests have not coincided so readily, and Israel is no longer a very helpful piece on the chessboard of foreign policy. Whereas Feldman has set down an inspired and lucid agenda for American foreign policy, what such a policy would mean for Israel cannot be claimed with equal conviction and promise. Feldman suggests that the special relationship between America and Israel is solid and will remain so, and he assumes a kind of continued confluence of American and Israeli interests, including commercial and democratic ones, but some readers will not see the real political basis for his optimism. Feldman has written an incredibly important and savvy book, a book that predicts the likely course of Islamic democracy insofar as America chooses to encourage it, and a book that argues forcefully, coherently and indeed hopefully for America to choose this way. But he leaves some of us to worry that over the next few decades, many Americans will come to see detente with Islamic politics as a tangible pot of gold to be found, while they will increasingly view Israel’s security to be as elusive as the rainbow. Jews have much to think about in the new world order.






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