APRIL 9, 2008
"How is it that what so many Westerners see as the most unappealing and premodern aspect of Judaism is, to many Jews, the vibrant, attractive core of a global movement of Jewish revival? The explanation surely must go beyond the oversimplified assumption that Jews want to use halakha to reverse feminism and control women--especially since large numbers of women support the halakhists in general and the ideal of halakha in particular." These observations appeared in an account of the splendors of religious law in The New York Times Magazine last week. They were written by Baruch Spinoza. I'm sorry, I mean Noah Feldman. In a piece in the same journal of ideas last summer, about the bruising of his feelings by the alumni newsletter of his Orthodox Jewish day school, which responded to his marrying out of his faith by refusing to print his picture, Feldman reminded himself of Spinoza. (The "Mazal Tov" section of the school bulletin put him in mind of Yigal Amir.) Spinoza, of course, would never have written so glowingly about Jewish law, and neither would Feldman, and neither would I. I have altered a few words in his text. For "Judaism", read "Islam"; for "Jews," "Muslims"; for "halakha," "sharia." It was Islamic law that riveted him, and that he was promoting as a swell basis for a political order.
How did The New York Times become the voice of moderate Islam in America? I am being mischievous, but not entirely. There was the Times Magazine's notorious (at least I hope it is: we did our best here to make it so) salute to Tariq Ramadan, which was later followed by the appearance in the Times Book Review of Ramadan's endless and unbelievably banal sermon about the Koran. "At the heart of every heart's striving lies the Koran. It holds out peace and initiates into liberty." "As the universe is in constant motion, rich in an infinite diversity of species, beings, civilizations, cultures, and societies, so too is the Koran." Which rabbi or priest would be given pages in the Book Review to deliver the same apologetic tripe about the OT or the N? And now there is this essay in praise of sharia as a "bold and noble" inspiration for contemporary constitutionalism. On page 51 we are shown admiring photographs of covered women in a religious court in Egypt, and on page 52 we are shown admiring photographs of uncovered women in Nan Goldin's so-downtown-they'reuptown pictures of the expensive dresses of Paris. If the ulama fail to hold your attention, there is that flower between Mariacarla Boscono's legs. Meanwhile the advanced editors at the Times Magazine busily expose the depredations, of which there are many, of Orthodox Jews, first in Feldman's bathetic whine and then in a piece by Gershom Gorenberg on the indisputable cruelties of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel in the matter of Jewish identity. The anti-clericalism of these editors seems rather selective. I do not want The New York Times to become the voice of moderate Judaism, or of any Judaism. I want only that liberals desist from granting Muslims a reprieve from the rigors of liberalism.
In his discussion of Islamism, Feldman, who knows a lot more about Islam than I do, no longer rises to uphold the liberty of conscience. Instead he explains warmly that "to the Islamist politicians who advocate it or for the public that supports it, Shariah ... is expected to function as something like a modern constitution." He compares Islamic law to nothing less than "the American constitutional balance of powers." Philadelphia! But hold on. Reading Feldman's analysis, sharia begins to look rather unlike an apotheosis of progressive state-building. For the term "connotes a connection to the divine, a set of unchanging beliefs and principles that order life in accordance with God's will." It "is best understood as a kind of higher law." It is "a legal system in which God's law sets the ground rules." Political legitimacy in a regime of sharia is conferred not by the rulers or the ruled, but by "the scholars," who interpret--which is to say, invent--God's will, and appoint themselves: "judicial authority came from the caliph, but the law came from the scholars." In sum, a dictatorship of divines: malign or benign, but a dictatorship. (Today's Islamism does away with the scholars as "the constitutional balance to the executive," but demands "Islamic judicial review" of all legislation.) It may be that "shariah aspires to be a law that applies equally to every human being," but Feldman says little or nothing about its treatment of women and non-Muslims, or about the law of jihad.
When Feldman's essay appeared, I was reading a book by Abdullahi Ahmed An- Na'im, just published by Harvard University Press, called Islam and The Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari'a. It begins: "In order to be a Muslim by conviction and free choice, which is the only way one can be a Muslim, I need a secular state. By a secular state I mean one that is neutral regarding religious doctrine, one that does not claim or pretend to enforce Shari'a." This is what is bold and noble. The prospects for liberal democracy in many Muslim states are still dim--Feldman is weirdly at peace with the increasing popular support that Islamism enjoys in Egypt, Pakistan, and Jordan--but I do not see that the practical difficulties refute the philosophical principles. (The stupid priests and rabbis, they should have waited out the Enlightenment!) And there is a heroic minority, of various sizes in various countries, to stand with. I cannot tell the secularizers and the democratizers in the Muslim world that they have no need of Milton and Mill if they have Ibn Taymiya and Ibn Khaldun, and that they must be content to raise their children in a type of polity in which I would not be content to raise my own. I understand that the new can come only out of the old, but Feldman is not commending the new, he is commending the old. His offer of a shinier sharia is just another barter of rights for authenticity. This is not gradualism, it is pessimism. We know now that the cultural and intellectual discontinuity represented by democracy is never total, but we know also that the rupture is real, and that its pleasures cannot be experienced without its pains. For this reason, "Islamic liberalism" is a swindle, because it supports a fantasy of progress without tears. Feldman is shilling for a soft theocracy--for other people, naturally. This is, among other things, hypocritical. Don't Muslims, too, have the right to sin?
By Leon Wieseltier