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May 19, 2003

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

Martin Kramer Fisks the latest ME "expert."
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. (You can get the gist of Feldman's book from a short piece in the Boston Review, a segment on the publisher's website, a draft of a chapter left on the web, and a long radio interview with the author, broadcast last month.)

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: [more]