Lost cause, bright future, or something in between? A Rhodes scholar with a doctorate in Islamic thought surveys the prospects for democracy in countries dominated by Islam.
Although Islamic fundamentalism, which Feldman (Law/NYU) also calls “political Islam” and “Islamism,” has understandably grabbed the headlines, he insists that the possibility of a looser relationship between mosque and state exists. Democracy and Islam can clash, but they can also be synthesized. With subtlety and discernment, Feldman identifies the rhetoric of justice not only as a principal appeal of Islamic fundamentalism but as a potential bridge between the religion and democracy. Just as helpfully, he discusses the diverse conditions and histories that underlie Islam around the world. Oil-driven states, such as Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, offer little chance for peaceful change, since petrodollars eliminate the need for significant taxation and, consequently, the consent of the governed. In contrast, other governments have better odds of becoming more progressive; Jordan, for example, has been edging toward greater parliamentary participation under King Abdullah. It is difficult to argue with Feldman’s contention that American pressure on dictators such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak would stand in the best moral tradition of our foreign policy while also refuting anti-American sentiment. Yet his arguments for recognizing Islam’s “rich if imperfect history of tolerating intra-Islamic diversity of opinion on matters of religion” lose some persuasiveness because he fails to really acknowledge that the Koran and its interpretations are often as ambiguous as they are rich, giving rise to the sword as much as to peace. More devastating, the words “perhaps” and “maybe” appear so often that they begin to sound like wishful thinking. “Perhaps Islam has a greater capacity for flexibility and accommodation than Westerners tend to believe on the basis of incomplete information and nervous projections” is the kind of waffling that may well provoke the response, “Perhaps not.”
A sincere plea for the US not to let a Burqa Curtain descend on more Islamic countries, undercut by stolid academese and unduly rosy speculation.