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?