Politics and the Prophet

This article is a review of Fatima Mernissi, Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World, published under the title “Politics and the Prophet,” The New Republic, March 1, 1993.

Can Islam and democracy be reconciled? The vexed old question has enjoyed a revival since January of last year, when Algeria’s ruling party voided the results of that country’s first free parliamentary election. The election gave an overwhelming mandate to the party of Islamic fundamentalism, whose most outspoken leader affirmed that “it is Islam which has been the victor, as always, not democracy. We did not go to the ballot boxes for democracy.”

There are some in the West who have tried to sweep such fundamentalist disavowals of democracy under the rug. They include not only apologists for Islam, but also engineers in the democracy foundations, for whom no job is too big. The masses vote for Islam, they admit, but really they want democracy; the leaders talk revival, but really they mean reform. Yet the fundamentalists continue to spin their indictments of dimuqratiyya as a foreign and superfluous innovation. “One does not vote for God,” declared the same Algerian fundamentalist. “One obeys Him.”

Unlike many of the West’s democracy doctors, Fatima Mernissi entertains no illusions about the fundamentalists. Mernissi, a feminist who teaches sociology at the Université Mohammed V in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, has seen them up close. And they have seen more of her than they would like — “an educated woman, unveiled, agitating in the street in the name of the Charter of the United Nations and against the shari’a,” the revealed law of Islam. At times they have tried to smother her voice. Her earlier book, The Veil and the Male Elite, was banned in Morocco after its publication in France. In this newest statement from the front line of the cultural war, Mernissi has ventured beyond women’s rights into human rights. Yet now that a generational surge of Islamic fundamentalism threatens to stuff the ballot boxes of the Arab world, this courage is also quite useless as a realistic guide to what should be done.

Mernissi’s point of departure is a dissenting interpretation of Islam’s historical legacy. It is currently fashionable to argue that an Islamic civil society, born with the faith, survived and even thrived despite a rapid turnover of absolute rulers; that, under the tumultuous surface of politics, Islamic society maintained an inner harmony that lasted for a millennium, until the rude intrusion of the West. Mernissi will have nothing to do with this anodyne reading of history. She sees an Arab past marked by “incessant bloodbaths,” and a present haunted by “the phantom ship of those who were decapitated for refusing to obey”:

Opposition forces have constantly rebelled and tried to kill the leader, and he has always tried to obliterate them. This dance of death between authority and individuality is for the Muslim repressed, for it is soaked in the blood and violence that no civilization lets float to the surface. . . The West is frightening because it obliges the Muslims to exhume the bodies of all the opponents, both religious and profane, intellectuals and obscure artisans, who were massacred by the caliphs.

Such an utterance would incur general censure in many a university center for Islamic or Middle Eastern studies. It is all that more courageous to pronounce such truths from within a society where every schoolchild knows these caliphs as heroes of a golden age, and where every history textbook fixes the blame for the modern Arab malaise solely on foreign intruders. And there is personal risk in drawing too close a parallel between past and present, as Mernissi does when she avers that today’s Arab politicians, in power and opposition, “continue to succeed in gutting one of the most promising religions in human history of its substance.”

No eastern Arab land would long suffer such a voice, whose allusions to the despotism of the Damascus and Baghdad caliphates are too contemporary. These are countries where the earliest disputes of Islam still simmer, especially over the flame of the persistent dissent of Shiites. But North Africa, the far west of the Arab world, and as much Berber as Arab, is sufficiently removed from the early events that compromised Islam to see them with an altogether clear eye. So it was in the time of Ibn Khaldun, and so it remains today. Mernissi’s voice is not a lone one; it echoes those of other North African intellectuals, such as the Tunisian Moncef Marzouki, whose book of a decade ago caused an uproar. “Our past has been a series of plots and wars,” he wrote. “We are almost completely ignorant about those who were oppressed, crucified and murdered to keep the face of truth from being revealed.”

Historical Islam may have been dominated by despots and rebels, but Mernissi believes there has always been another Islam yearning to be free. This Islam had its origins in the egalitarian message of the Prophet, but also, and far more importantly, in the teachings of the ninth- and tenth-century rationalist philosophers, known as the Mu’taliza. They placed reason on the same plane as revelation and borrowed liberally from extra-Islamic sources, especially Greek philosophy. Mernissi compares them to the Enlightenment philosophers of the West, and makes them champions of humanism and individualism, whose doctrines so menaced rulers that they severed them with the sword. The stump has been “an infected wound that the East has been carrying for centuries.” But Mernissi, following her metaphor of mutilation to the end, avers that “having an arm amputated is not the same as being born with an arm missing.” A sense of the severed limb persists. By this logic, democracy is not foreign to Islam, and Muslims are wrong to fear that its spread might compromise the integrity of Islam. On the contrary, it would heal the injury inflicted by “despotic politicians” long ago.

The credibility of such an argument is probably not for an unbeliever to weigh. Islam is what Muslims make of it, and if Mernissi’s polemic is to succeed, it must defeat the opposing view of the fundamentalists. They argue that God revealed his sacred law, the shari’a, obviating all need for human legislation or legislators. The present secular rulers are tyrants not because they govern absolutely, but because they govern without reference to Islamic law. Implementation of this law is the primary duty of government; and if an authoritarian state enforces the law, then its legitimacy is indisputable. Indeed, just government should be authoritarian, because it rests upon the unquestionable authority of the law. The wise ruler should consult the leaders of society for their advice. But democracy, the perpetual plebiscite, is the very essence of arbitrary government, since it turns on popular whim. Participation in elections is admissible, perhaps, as a way to acquire power for Islam. But once that power is established, any means are permissible for its preservation.

Now to believe Mernissi, the masses have already chosen democracy overshari’a. As evidence, she offers (of all things) the massive demonstrations against the Gulf war, in which she herself participated. This outpouring, described in her book with an enthusiasm that evokes accounts of Eastern Europe’s revolutions, supposedly protested the absence of democracy and the waste of resources — both epitomized by Saudi Arabia, at that time flooded by foreign troops. The Western media portrayed these demonstrations as groundswells of fundamentalist xenophobia, but Mernissi claims otherwise, invoking the demonstration that she joined. “Fundamentalists were among the demonstrators,” she allows, “but many other groups were present, including all the branches of the Moroccan Left and thousands of independents like me, of all persuasions, from university students and professors to shopkeepers.”

But this evidence is equivocal at best. A better argument could be made that those demonstrations were neither about democracy nor Islam. If anything ran through the chanting crowds that filled the streets, it was anti-imperialism, a desire to see West’s nose bloodied just once — and an admiration for Saddam, who proved himself a man of honor by defying America and keeping his promise to attack Israel. It is one of the paradoxes of Mernissi’s quixotic vision that she sees so clearly across centuries but cannot make out the pattern of a crowd. The grim truth is that there have been no massive demonstrations for democracy in the Arab world, whereas the demand for an Islamic state has managed to fill boulevards, and not just during the Gulf war. The problem is not that the pro-democracy liberals fear coming out into the street. It is their fear that they would not fill it.

For, despite the efforts of Mernissi and others, the reading of democracy into Islam seems forced for most Muslims. It too closely resembles the strained attempt of a generation ago to read socialism into Islam. Those many dusty tomes on Islamic socialism are an embarrassment today, and caused some Muslim grumbling even when they were de rigueur. (“There is no God and Karl Marx is his Prophet,” ran a comic play on the Islamic profession of faith.) As Muslims have watched ideology supersede ideology among the unbelievers, they have stopped trying to reconcile Islam with the current vogue. Instead, they have rallied around a literalist reading of Islam’s sources as an anchor against successive waves of Western thought. The demagogues of contemporary Islam have worked this into a simple message of salvation through Islamic law, with which Mernissi’s intellectualized juggling of the sources cannot possibly compete. Fundamentalism’s leading spokesman, the Sudan’s Hasan al-Turabi, has put it bluntly: movements like those in Iran and Algeria “are without elitism or obsession with quality. They represent quantity and the people.” The aim is power, by packing the ballot boxes or the streets, and the fundamentalists have been unbeatable at both.

If democracy is to have any chance in the Arab world, its outnumbered friends, Mernissi among them, will have to forge alliances of convenience. They have two choices. They can negotiate with existing regimes, in the hope that the nudging of the West might ultimately produce a gradual transformation, or they can march with the fundamentalists and pray against all odds that they survive militant Islam’s excesses to emerge as equal partners. The starkness of this choice has been brought home by the events in Algeria, where a civil war may be brewing. The Arab world now stands poised on the brink of a great contest between an increasingly pan-Islamic fundamentalism and a region-wide alliance of threatened regimes. Wherever the gale strikes, the brave friends of democracy will have to scatter for shelter under one roof or the other.

And yet Mernissi, in a disturbing show of naïvete that may afflict the liberals as a whole, rejects all potential allies. The fundamentalists, who openly preach against democracy and would consign women to servitude, are hardly trustworthy partners. To her mind, however, neither are the regimes, especially those that have been supported or bailed out by the West. All of them have wasted the wealth of the Arabs on arms. One of them, Saudi Arabia, is already fundamentalist, and is singled out by Mernissi as the Arab regime “most contemptuous of human rights” — an odd determination, which can only inspire admiration for Saddam’s cover-up. Other regimes, in a grab for legitimacy, are deemed likely to play the fundamentalist card themselves, creating a “tele-petro-Islam” bounced off satellites to the entire Arab world, demanding obedience and preaching obscurantism. Mernissi still believes in the masses, but they have been duped, kept in ignorance by relentless media manipulation.

And so in the end, she envisions only one salvation: the West. In an act of supreme altruism, Mernissi concludes, the West should “use its power to install democracy in the Arab world.” It must support the demands of “progressive forces” against both regimes and fundamentalists, and even “promote the creation of a civil society.” For the Arab world, like it or not, has become a virtual ward of the West:

The American president has taken on ethical responsibility for the region, and along with him François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl and the citizens who elected them in the representative democracies of the West. Whoever consumes Arab oil is responsible.

If the West does nothing but back the status quo, argues Mernissi, it will “in great part be responsible for the avalanche of violence which will descend on all those who call for democracy, with women at the head of the list.”

This amounts to an appeal that the West take direct responsibility for rearranging the inner politics of the region — to build an empire of democracy. The petition deserves a hearing, for its liberal authors stand alone in the Arab world in their belief in democracy and in the West’s mission to defend freedom. True, there are some in the West, mesmerized by the sheer numbers of fundamentalists, who have begun to dream wistfully of a mass conversion of Muslim zealots into admirers of democracy and the West. But this is illusion. The fundamentalists, even as they flood the polling places, hold democracy in utter contempt and imagine the West to be on the verge of collapse, rotted away by unbelief and materialism. Liberals like Mernissi are democracy’s only true friends in Arab lands, and they are right to ask whether “the West will be a pioneer in establishing those universal values that it preaches and that we have come to love.”

But the West has other responsibilities too. It must assure the flow of oil out of the region. It must block the flow of weapons of mass destruction into the region. It must discourage aggression by ambitious states like Iraq and Iran. It must work to reconcile Arabs and Israelis, lest they launch an unimaginably destructive war upon one another. And the West must do all this at a time when the peoples of the former Communist countries are also in dire need of assistance if their own ventures in democracy are not to run aground.

For all these reasons, the West has balanced its commitment to democracy with support of those Arab regimes that endorse its other objectives. They include Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait and, yes, Saudi Arabia. The governments of these countries have been encouraged to make gradual progress toward political pluralism, within the limits imposed by the struggle against fundamentalist violence. The progress has been slow, and there have been disappointments. There will be more progress, more setbacks. But the alternative to this gradualism is a maelstrom of intervention and revolution, in a region armed to its teeth and seething with hatreds of every imaginable kind.

If Arab liberals reject gradualism and refuse to enter partnerships with reforming regimes, the cause of democracy will be lost. They no doubt would prefer that liberal democracy be established immediately, even through Western intervention, so that they might inculcate its values through the apparatus of the state. According to Mernissi, “The power of the modern West has been built by state propagation, through public schools, of that humanism that the Arab masses have never had the right to.” In this view, an Arab state governed by a liberal elite, controlling the media and education, could transform society from above.

But the liberals’ possession of the state, if conferred by the West, would constitute a short-lived triumph. The Mu’taliza, Mernissi’s heroes, also enjoyed a moment of power, when they gained the ear of a sympathetic caliph in the ninth century. They promptly instituted an inquisition, to make their rationalism prevail. But caliphs came and went, and soon the tables turned. If democracy is to stand on its own shaky feet, it has to evolve through a process of compromises — an abbreviated process, for time is short, but still a process that is itself proto-democratic, involving the establishment of balances between competing interests. Only such a process can generate the rudimentary values of pluralism, which owe nothing to state propagation and everything to the friction of politics.

Mernissi and the Arab liberals, in short, cannot escape the need for politics. Still, who cannot admire the pure flame of her own extraordinary humanism, and her refusal to compromise principle? This is a rare book, written from within the Arab world but without fear. It is dangerous to walk this path without minding one’s back, but it is also liberating.

© Martin Kramer