THE PLANK MARCH 24, 2008
In this week's issue, Leon Wieseltier has a great take-down of Noah Feldman's recent NYT Magazine article about Shariah. I found Feldman's article so misguided that I could not help myself from building on Leon's argument and pointing out some of the numerous flaws in Feldman's piece:
- Feldman claims that the reason Islamist parties are so popular in the Middle East these days is that they promise a return to Shariah as the guiding principle of governance. He bends over backwards, via a long-winded historical overview, to prove that Shariah is actually a code-word for "rule of law" in Muslim societies, and that people who want to implement Shariah really just want to implement the rule of law. The problem is that this argument is purely theoretical; in the hundreds of people I interviewed across the region in my two years as a correspondent there--including supporters of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia--I never once heard this rationale for supporting Islamist groups or parties. The three main reasons I heard were (a) politicians from Islamist parties were less corrupt than those from other parties; (b) Islamist parties are good at disbursing social services; or (c) people actually supported the more conservative elements of Shariah--like stoning adulterers and forbidding alcohol--not some lofty concept of "rule of law" that Feldman claims it represents. So while Feldman's theory may make sense in the libraries of Harvard, it doesn't really square with the reality on the ground
- Feldman tries to argue that Islamic scholars, as the ultimate interpreters of Shariah, serve as a counter-balance to power of political rulers. The problem is that the scholars are almost always appointed (and easily dismissed) by the rulers, which severely limits their ability to disagree with the rulers in any substantial way.
- Feldman asserts that by serving as a counter-balance to rulers, the scholars are "agents of stability and predictability"--factors that "were absolutely essential" to the flourishing of Muslim countries during the Islamic Golden Age. The problem is that, as much revisionism as Feldman would like to employ, Shariah is an inherently conservative tradition that propagates values and regulations that most in the Western world would consider retrogressive. So while these scholars may help keep their societies stable and predictable, the problem is that they remain stably and predictably retrogressive and exploitative to many. The only society today that has a cadre of independently powerful Islamic scholars along the lines Feldman describes--Saudi Arabia--is a perfect example of what happens when you take "rule of law" as inherently valuable and as an end unto itself (as Feldman does in his piece).
I certainly don't deny Feldman's aptitude as a scholar of Islamic history and jurisprudence, but I am more generally troubled by his know-it-all tone (a factor that plagued his other recent NYTMag article about being slighted by his Orthodox Jewish high school), in that he feels no need to back up any of his theories with actual proof or examples. His claims about Muslim public opinion, as I mention above, are not backed up with any data--statistics or even anecdotes. And for all his intricate theories of Islamic scholars acting as a counterbalance to rulers, he does not give even one example of the piece--in recent times or through Islamic history--where the scholars were actually able to exercise such power in any significant way.