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New Book Takes Fresh Look at Islamic State


Can Islam and democracy coexist? Harvard University law professor Noah Feldman believes they can. In his new book, "The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State," published by the Council on Foreign Relations, he argues that a modern state governed by Islamic principles can provide political and legal justice to its citizens, but only if new democratic institutions emerge to balance the power of religious leaders.

Professor Feldman's new book opens with a look at what went right with the world's first Islamic states. He describes a succession of Middle Eastern caliphates – beginning after the death of the Prophet Muhammad 1400 years ago – that lasted for several centuries. Feldman says these governments endured because of the unique balance of power that was written into their Islamic, or Sharia-based constitutions.

"The balance was created," Feldman explains, "because the ruler, whom we call the Executive, did not have power to say what the rule was. Instead, the power to interpret God's law lay with a group of people called scholars, or the 'Ulama.' And those scholars had the responsibility to apply the Islamic legal traditions to the political reality around them. That gave them the real power to limit what the ruler was able to do." The Harvard law professor observes that any constitutional system succeeds only if it maintains a balance of power, if no one group or individual in the society has total power. That balance, he says, was key to the success of the original Islamic states.

Feldman says there were attempts, especially in the waning years of the 19th century Ottoman Empire, to make the Sharia system more like western legal and political systems. But he says the Ottoman Empire's constitutional reforms destroyed the Islamic state's delicate balance of power by attempting to codify Sharia. They took what was traditionally a common law body of principles, ideas and values, interpreted by the Islamic scholars, and turned them into a set of rules that could be looked up in a book. With this, scholars lost their purpose and the ruler retained absolute power.

Feldman contends that after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, many newly-independent, majority-Muslim countries inherited political systems where caliphs ruled without effective limits on their power by a judiciary or an elected legislature or any other force in the society. Re-establishing those counterbalancing institutions, Feldman believes, can pave the way for the emergence of a modern Islamic state – especially in the Arab world.

"The polling data suggest," says Feldman, "that in many Arabic-speaking countries and indeed in many Muslim countries – more broadly – the public says they would like to vote for political parties that support Sharia. And as those politicians get support, that is how new Islamic institutions will be coming to being."

Feldman says the growing desire in the Muslim world to create Islamic democratic states is connected to people's widespread belief that secular political systems – as they've known them in their countries – have been corrupt, unjust, and unsuccessful. Many Muslims, he adds, believe Sharia-based governments will be more fair and honest, and, with the right mix of democratic institutions, committed to the rule of law.

"The Sharia system itself traditionally was a system that subscribes to the rule of law," Feldman points out. "If the people who are running the state who are elected believe that their form of Sharia is compatible with the equality of all people, the equality of men and women and the equality of Muslims and non-Muslims – and indeed, many of the politicians running on Islamic platforms say they believe that – there is no reason it cannot be compatible with constitutional democratic government."

Professor Feldman played a significant role in helping to draft the new constitution of U.S.- occupied Iraq. He notes that both the Iraqi and Afghan constitutions make Islam the official state religion and Sharia the source of their laws. And even though both documents were drafted under the shadow of U.S. occupation, Feldman believes they were conceived under relatively free conditions, and represent important models for other majority-Muslim states considering democratic reform.

The problem, says Feldman, is that some elected Islamists might subscribe to a radical view of Sharia, in which it is impermissible for Muslims and non-Muslims to be equal, or for men and women to be equal. Should such radical views become law, he notes, then the Islamic government ceases to be democratic.

Professor Feldman says the United States is willing to work with any Sharia-based Islamic government, provided it is peaceful and democratic. At the same time, the Harvard law professor believes it is dangerous for the United States to support Arab dictatorships who offer security and stability in the region, while ignoring a trans-national Islamist movement like the Muslim Brotherhood.

"To my mind, the case of Egypt is a perfect example," Feldman explains, "to see that when there is a transition from (President Hosni) Mubarak to the next president, it is managed in a way where the U.S. puts pressure on Egypt to allow a greater degree of democracy and freedom in the elections. And I think that simply transitioning to another Mubarak, either literally or figuratively, who governs without legitimacy or support from the most active political movement in the country is, in the long run, not a recipe for promoting U.S. interests."

Feldman hopes his new book, "The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State," gives readers in the West reason to be hopeful, not fearful, about the emergence of modern, Muslim-ruled governments. The Harvard law professor is confident that governments inspired by their religious faith but tempered by a democratic rule of law can be productive and peaceful partners with the non-Muslim world.

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