Jihad is Over! (If Noah Feldman Wants It.)

The newest face thrust upon us by America’s insatiable appetite for novelty belongs to one Noah Feldman. He’s a 32-year-old assistant professor of law at New York University and author of a new book (his first) entitled After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy. He’s also been anointed chief U.S. adviser to Iraq for the writing of its new constitution. This announcement has been greeted by laudatory pieces, in places as varied as the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Israeli daily Ma’ariv. The novelty? It’s the combination. Feldman is Jewish (raised in an Orthodox home); summa cum laude at Harvard (Near Eastern studies); conversant in Arabic; a Rhodes scholar with an Oxford D.Phil. in Islamic studies; and a law graduate from Yale. “The East is a career,” wrote Disraeli. What he really meant was that the East is a great place to launch a career. It’s now done that for young Professor Feldman, who will never again know obscurity.

The understanding of the Middle East can always use a new face. After all, America’s most credible interpreter of the Middle East and Islam is about to turn 87 (happy birthday to Bernard Lewis, May 31!), so you know there is a generation gap. But you expect new ideas from new faces. The problem with Noah Feldman is that his idea isn’t new. In fact, it’s the same idea first advanced about a decade ago by John L. Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University and America’s foremost apologist for Islamism. If you purchase Feldman’s After Jihad, you should shelve it between Esposito’s 1992 book, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, and his co-authored 1996 book, Islam and Democracy. They’re all essentially the same book.

The Esposito/Feldman idea goes like this: Islamists are really no worry at all. In fact, they are actually the best hope for democracy in the Middle East. Leading Islamist thinkers want democracy, and if Islamist parties were allowed to take power—which they certainly would do in free elections—it would be an improvement over the situation today. Even if Islamists declared “Islamic” states on assuming power, these regimes would probably be more or less democratic, provided you don’t insist on a narrow, culture-bound definition of democracy. The United States is making a big mistake by allying itself with autocratic rulers in the region, and it’s betraying its values too. It should encourage inevitable change in the Islamists’ favor, which is really in the U.S. interest.

To make this argument stick, you need to claim that “jihad is over.” Why? While it’s still on, too many so-called “moderates” apologize for it or even cheer it on. This is what happened in the decade between the Gulf war and 9/11. Esposito and his crowd were telling us that Islamism was evolving in new, peaceful, and democratic directions. In his 1992 book, Esposito assured us that the Islamist violence of the 1980s would recede, and that “the nineties will prove to be a decade of new alliances and alignments in which the Islamic movements will challenge rather than threaten their societies and the West.”

In fact, exactly the opposite happened. Islamist movements kept spinning off terrorism that grew ever more deadly, all of it justified as jihad, destroying the flagship American project—the “peace process” between Israelis and Palestinians—and finally killing 3,000 innocents in New York. This wave of terrorism was made possible in part by the refusal of the so-called Islamist “moderates” to condemn violent jihad in all its forms. Some even justified it in roundabout ways. They were effectively accomplices to the violence, and American apologists of the Esposito school contributed to the general complacency that made 9/11 an easy job.

Now Noah Feldman comes along to reassure us that the jihad has really abated this time. 9/11 and subsequent attacks are “the last, desperate gasp of a tendency to violence that has lost most of its popular support.” Al-Qa’ida is “politically irrelevant.” The “alarmist argument is behind the curve.” The mainstream Islamists don’t want jihad, they want democracy: “The Islamists’ call for democratic change in the Muslim world marks a fundamental shift in their strategy.” Feldman:

The Islamists never got a chance, really, to govern, and if there’s one central argument that I’m trying to press in the book, it’s that Islamists who say they are committed democrats, who tell you that they believe in democracy, who believe that Islam and democracy are deeply compatible, not incompatible, should be given a chance to govern. They’ve never been given that chance anywhere [sic!], and I think many, many people in the Muslim world—not all, but many—would vote for them.

As for U.S. interests, it would be a “mistake” to think that Islamists “are inevitably or unalterably opposed to the United States.” The United States should push governments, including friendly ones, to allow political parties and free elections, and let the chips fall where they may. “The experiment of Islamic democracy deserves to be run,” writes Feldman. In fact, “Islamic democrats are the best hope for the future of the Muslim world—and they deserve our admiration and our support.”

I won’t take on these arguments point by point. I did that in 1993, 1997, and 1998, and little has changed since then. The Feldman version suffers from exactly the same weaknesses as Esposito’s. When you get beyond generalities—Feldman’s empathetic attempt to think like a Muslim reformist—you discover that his real-life “Islamic democrats” are the usual suspects. The names and groups mentioned are either part-time “moderates,” or people who have too little influence in their own societies. The part-timers accept that democracy and Islam might be reconciled (up to a point), but they detest democracy’s greatest champion, the United States, and they loathe the one democracy in their midst, Israel. (Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who gets included in Feldman’s list of “Islamic democrats,” fits this profile perfectly. Feldman calls him “complex.” That doesn’t do justice to Qaradawi, whose performance I’ve witnessed first-hand. The great sheikh is against violent jihad on alternate weekdays.) As for Islam’s would-be Martin Luthers, these poor souls fill the footnotes of Western journal articles, but can’t get any traction at home. In fact, a lot of them aren’t even at home. They are in distant exile, because they’ve offended their governments or enraged the Islamists.

In my book on Middle Eastern studies, I devote a chapter to the overly optimistic thesis of Esposito and friends, and how it came to ruin. In After Jihad, Feldman picks it up, brushes it off, and presents it as state-of-the-art thinking. It isn’t. But it connects with something new in the United States: the idea that America’s next mission in the world should be the conversion of the Muslims to democracy. In the absence of broad-based democracy movements, the Islamist movements remain a constant temptation to wishful thinkers, some of whom occupy high office. And they’re more likely to believe Feldman than Esposito, because 9/11 struck Esposito full-force. He had to rush a book into print to cover his tracks, but he’s no longer taken at his word in Washington. Feldman, in contrast, is a complete newcomer, and has no tracks to cover.

Well, almost no tracks. Not only is Feldman an Esposito emulator. He is also an Esposito collaborator. In January of last year, he and Esposito co-organized a conference at New York University’s Law School, in cooperation with Bill Clinton’s presidential foundation. The topic: “Islam and America in a Global World.” NYU reported their collaboration in these words: “The Law School’s Professor Noah Feldman and Georgetown Professor John Esposito, both scholars of Islam and democracy, have worked closely with President Clinton’s office in structuring the day.” The “moderates” assembled for this exercise ganged up on the United States and its policies so relentlessly that Clinton felt driven to intervene after his formal speech. The New York Post covered the event under this headline: “Bill Fires Back at US-bash Powwow.” It would not be an exaggeration to say that Feldman’s sole previous attempt at organizing “moderate” Muslims on behalf of a U.S. president backfired.

So I am not persuaded by all the testimonials collected by the New York Times, from people who think that Noah Feldman is just the right man for the job. In an interview with the BBC, he was reported to have said that the United States “should back [an] Islamic Iraq.” In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Feldman warned against excluding “Islam-inspired politicians” from government, and added this: “An established religion that does not coerce religious belief and that treats religious minorities as equals may be perfectly compatible with democracy. The U.K. is a democracy notwithstanding the Church of England.” Well, the Shiite clerics in Najaf and Karbala are not the Church of England, and as a collective they can hardly be described as ecumenical. That sort of analogy, the stock-in-trade of Esposito, obscures much more than it enlightens.

And it leaves me wondering whether Feldman might be just the wrong man. Last night I attended a public lecture by Kanan Makiya, who stated that an Islamic republic in Iraq would be “a sure-fire formula for civil war.” In the first chapter of After Jihad, Feldman argues that Algeria might have been spared its traumatic civil war had the Islamists been allowed to assume power. It’s an open question. But Iraq is not Algeria, and an attempt to establish Islam in Iraq’s far more diverse society could provoke a civil war. It could also undo U.S. strategic achievements: Islamists, even the cheery Islamists of Turkey, have not been great friends of U.S. security interests. It would be tragic if what now looks like a victory were to be turned into a defeat, by our own lawyers. Feldman might know the feeling: I see that during the recount of the Florida presidential ballot in 2000, he went down there as a volunteer, and ended up as chief legal researcher to the Gore campaign. Feldman must know that the rules are half the contest, even in the most perfect of democracies. So why stack them against your best friends—and yourself? The United States is not an umpire, it has an interest in the future of Iraq, and its appointees on the ground have a duty to protect that interest. The completely disinterested promotion of democracy should be left to NGOs and Jimmy Carter.

I conclude. I wouldn’t have written at such great length if I didn’t think Feldman worth the attention. He’s very much worth it—and not because of his mission to Iraq. He’s smart, well spoken, and young enough to change. In an earlier entry on Esposito, I wrote that despite his “long record of error in interpreting Islamism, I haven’t despaired of him yet.” So I certainly don’t despair of Feldman, especially since a first book is always a source of later regret. Kirkus Reviews writes of After Jihad that it is “undercut by stolid academese and unduly rosy speculation”—a fair half-sentence judgment. But Feldman, I assume, will eventually give us an account of his Iraq tutorial at the hands of its scarred and avid power-seekers. Now that should be interesting.

Here’s a final point of order. I question the wisdom of all the to-do about Feldman’s Jewish upbringing. In America, it’s part of the novelty—so much so that Feldman seems to think that there’s no reason not to dwell on it. He has even said that his interest in the Middle East was kindled during a family trip to Israel. Oxford University’s former rabbi has published a testimonial to Feldman’s brilliance—in The Jerusalem Post.

Actually, Jewish scholarly appreciation of Islam is not at all novel: there have been plenty of Jews, including those of Orthodox upbringing, who have taken a sympathetic interest in Islam, and some who have even converted to it. (See my essay on the subject.) But these days—precisely because of the Islamists—you can’t be too careful. The last thirty-something American Jew who went out there, thought he had a rapport with Islamists, and even wrote favorably about Sheikh Qaradawi, was the journalist Daniel Pearl, who met a grisly end at the hands of his interlocutors. Pearl’s father has written that his son “showed that being Jewish does not mean being anti-Islam….Danny’s articles in The Wall Street Journal served in fact as Islam’s best advocates.” Unfortunately, Islam right now isn’t looking for Jewish advocates, but there are undoubtedly people in Iraq who would be delighted to bag an American Jew. I urge Feldman to watch his back. After Jihad? Don’t bet your life on it.

And that billboard? Ah, you’re curious about that billboard at the top of this entry. The “Jihad is Over!” message cropped up mysteriously on a Manhattan billboard one day in May 2002. It’s an allusion to a famous Times Square billboard that John Lennon and Yoko Ono sponsored in 1969, during the Vietnam war. That one read: “War Is Over! If You Want It.” For a few days, the motive behind the unauthorized posting was a mystery, until Ron English, a Manhattan pop artist, took credit. To Muslims, jihad may or may not mean violent struggle, but to publicity hounds it always spells self-promotion. By the way, the billboard sign is located in the East Village, on East 14th Street, a short walk up from NYU Law School (Washington Square South, or West 4th). Dare I speculate?

Professorial Pundits Place Iraq Bets

The war is underway, and most of the rationales for and against it are based on predictions. No one reasonably expects professors of Middle Eastern studies to predict military outcomes. But political outcomes, especially in the long term, are supposed to be their forte. And so here, for the record, are the predictions of four chaired professors of Middle Eastern studies, at leading American universities. At the end of the day, events will prove two of them right, and two of them wrong.

John Esposito is a University Professor (his university’s highest professorial honor) at Georgetown. His prediction, looking five years past a war:

It is likely that the Arab world will be less democratic than more and that anti-Americanism will be stronger rather than weaker. A military attack by the United States and installation of a new government in Iraq will not have fostered democratization in the Arab world but rather reinforced the perception of many… that the United States has moved… to a war against Islam and the Muslim world. To move to a military strike before exhausting nonmilitary avenues, and without significant multilateral support from our European and Arab/Muslim allies, as well as from the United Nations, will have inflamed anti-Americanism, which will have grown exponentially in the region and the non-Muslim world.

That’s a grim prophecy, although the very first part may already be falsifiable: could Esposito now name an Arab country that might be less democratic in five years—given that not one of them is democratic now?

In the opposite corner is Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton, past member of the Institute for Advanced Study, and best-selling author. He makes the opposite prediction:

I see the possibility of a genuinely enlightened and progressive and—yes, I will say the word—democratic regime arising in a post-Saddam Iraq. They will have been fully inoculated against the Fascist-style governments that otherwise seem to prevail.

Lewis again, with a bit more caution, but a steady optimism:

Clearly, Iraq is not going to turn into a Jeffersonian democracy over-night, any more than did Germany or Japan. Democracy is a strong medicine, to be administered in gradually increasing measures. A large dose at once risks killing the patient. But with care and over time, freedom can be achieved in Iraq, and more generally in the Middle East.

Do you prefer that your experts on “the Arabs” have Arabic names? Then take your choice. In one corner: Rashid Khalidi, who in September will become the Edward Said Professor at Columbia University. His prediction:

Irrespective of its cost or length, this war will mark not the end, but the beginning, of our problems in this region. Because, however much Iraqis loathe their regime, they will soon loathe the American occupation that will follow its demise. No expert on Iraq… believes that the creation of a democracy in Iraq will be a swift or simple matter; some believe it is not possible as a consequence of an American military occupation…. So we will not have democracy in Iraq. We will have a long American military occupation that will eventually provoke resistance…. Via a lengthy and bloody occupation of Iraq, via the establishment of U.S. bases there, via the direct control of Iraqi oil, we will be creating legions of new enemies throughout the Middle East.

In the other corner: Fouad Ajami, the Majid Khadduri Professor at Johns Hopkins. Ajami argues that the United States should aim high: “The driving motivation of a new American endeavor in Iraq and in neighboring Arab lands should be modernizing the Arab world.” His prediction: an American commitment will be decisive.

In the end, the battle for a secular, modernist order in the Arab world is an endeavor for the Arabs themselves. But power matters, and a great power’s will and prestige can help tip the scales in favor of modernity and change…. [U.S. victory] would embolden those who wish for the Arab world’s deliverance from retrogression and political decay…. It has often seemed in recent years that the Arab political tradition is immune to democratic stirrings. [But] the sacking of a terrible regime with such a pervasive cult of terror may offer Iraqis and Arabs a break with the false gifts of despotism.

So there you have them: the divided opinions of America’s leading authorities on the Middle East. Needless to say, they can’t all be right, so some of these predictions are going to come up losers. Will anyone remember? Possibly. But here is a safe prediction: it won’t matter, certainly not to the professional standing of the professors. Another professor (Robert Vitalis, head of the Middle East Center of the University of Pennsylvania), has put things in precisely the right perspective. The future, he maintains, “is unknowable.”

Administration figures are in fact gambling but there are real and predictable consequences to their betting wrong. Consequences for them personally I mean. This is not the case for virtually any op-ed writer or trusted ally of the Saudis or scholars who, from their perches in Palo Alto and Morningside Heights (or Center City), tell us what is really going to happen. There are no costs to them to being wrong, which is in part why so many pretend to be able to see the future with such remarkable acuity. Even after getting it wrong time and time again in the past 10 years.

How very, very true.

(Palo Alto and Morningside Heights…. Has Professor Vitalis been reading my Ivory Towers on Sand?)

ASIDE: Edward Said, who disagrees with Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, now claims that neither “has so much as lived in or come near the Arab world in decades.” Anyone with an ear to the ground knows that both of them show up somewhere in the Arab world every year. And I believe it’s been thirty years since Said left Morningside Heights to spend one of his sabbaticals in an Arab country. The amazing thing is that in the very same article, Said makes this admission: “In all my encounters and travels I have yet to meet a person who is for the war.” New York Times/CBS reports: “74% [of polled Americans] now approve of the U.S. taking military action against Iraq, up from 64% among these same respondents two weeks ago.” Perhaps it is Professor Said who ought to get out more.

Ask Professor Esposito

The fame of Professor John Esposito, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, rests upon his purported ability to sort Islamist extremists from Islamist moderates. Too often, he warns us, we wind up throwing all of the Islamists into one box. That’s a mistake, and to avoid it, we need none other than Professor Esposito, with his finely honed sense of who is extreme and who isn’t.

So I am puzzled. Professor Esposito has an academic partnership with one Azzam Tamimi, a Palestinian residing in London. They have co-edited a book. Tamimi has published another book in a series edited by Esposito (in the preface, Tamimi calls Esposito “my ustadh,” my teacher). Tamimi also runs something called the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London. Esposito sits on its board of advisors—the only American to do so. In short, this seems to be a close liaison. The problem is, Azzam Tamimi is Hamas.

This is no great secret. Palestinian political scientist Muhammad Muslih, in a study on the foreign policy of Hamas done for the Council on Foreign Relations, calls Tamimi “a Hamas member” (p. 18). Yes, he is an “academic” of sorts: he has a Ph.D. in political theory from the (ten-year-old) University of Westminster. And yes, he sometimes has interesting things to say about Islam and democracy. But would Professor Esposito have us believe that Tamimi is one of his Islamist “moderates”?

Consider, for example, an interview given by Tamimi to the Spanish daily La Vanguardia, issue of November 11, 2001. Headline: “I admire the Taliban; they are courageous.” Tamimi begins by assuring the interviewer that “everyone” in the Arab world cheered upon seeing the Twin Towers fall. “Excuse me,” says the interviewer, “did you understand my question?” Tamimi: “In the Arab and Muslim countries, everyone jumped for joy. That’s what you asked me, isn’t it?” The interview continues in this vein, to a point where Tamimi accuses the United States propping up all of the dictators in the Arab world. “They must be eliminated if anything is to change.” Interviewer: “And how to eliminate them?” Tamimi: “The people of those countries should rebel, fight, sacrifice, spill blood. The French Revolution cost lives. The American revolution cost lives. Liberty is not given, it is taken!” Later, Tamimi gives his solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict: “The Israelis stole our houses, which are today occupied by Jews from Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Morocco, Ethiopia, Brooklyn. They should return to their homes, and give ours back to us!…That’s non-negotiable. Therefore I support Hamas.”

Want more? In March, Tamimi accused the United States of shutting down mosques; a spokesperson of the U.S. embassy in London replied that his accusations “don’t seem to be based on valid evidence or any evidence at all.” Yet lo and behold, in May he turned up at a mosque in northern Virginia, where he gave an extreme lecture calling for the elimination of Israel (a Muslim press report described him as “visibly agitated”). In July, he was in South Africa, hammering at the same theme: “You do not share your home with a burglar and a thief; why wish this for the Palestinians? All of Palestine is for them.” And those suicide bombers?

Do not call them suicide bombers, call them shuhada [martyrs] as they have not escaped the miseries of life. They gave their life. Life is sacred, but some things like truth and justice are more sacred than life. They are not desperate, they are hopefuls…[The Israelis] have guns, we have the human bomb. We love death, they love life.

Now I don’t maintain that Tamimi is a terrorist or a material supporter of terrorism. I don’t even suggest that the United States should keep him from his appointed rounds in this country. (He was on the program of a dubious “peace” conference convened last month at the University of Rhode Island.) Perhaps he comes and goes so freely as part of some brilliant State Department scheme to keep a line out to Hamas. But Tamimi should be recognized for what he is: an unabashed apologist for a listed terrorist group.

And this brings us back to Tamimi’s liaison with Ustadh Esposito. After all, if Tamimi is some sort of “moderate”—and a candidate for close scholarly collaboration—then one wonders just where Professor Esposito would draw the line. My impression is that he has never met an Islamist he didn’t like. And I am left puzzled at just what an Islamist would have to say to enter his bad books.

But Professor Esposito can always prove me wrong. For example, he might resign from the board of Tamimi’s institute, in light of Tamimi’s statements over the past year. I’d welcome such a move on this very weblog. For despite Professor Esposito’s long record of error in interpreting Islamism, I haven’t despaired of him yet.