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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #22 (May 25, 2004), page 16.

American know-how

After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy

By Noah Feldman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003

Hardcover, 260 pages, $24.00

By Douglas Spangle

A funny thing happened when I picked up this book. I glanced to Noah Feldman’s photograph on the inside flap of the dustjacket, which pictured the grinning face of the author. Something about it, not about his face specifically, but about his type of face, was familiar. It came to me then. I had recently been to see the movie version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, with Brendan Fraser as Alden Pyle, the quiet American of the title. Noah Feldman’s face seemed similar to Fraser’s in its open sincerity, offset with a touch of guile. And I noted that the movie’s premiere was held back on account of the events of 9/11.

Greene’s tale of the early American involvement in Saigon and Pyle’s seeming conviction that Vietnamese society could be saved by modern American know-how paralleled our country’s precipitate invasion of Iraq. But the fancied resemblance between a young scholar of Islamic jurisprudence and a movie actor is hardly an adequate basis for a book review.

In its broad outline, there is little to disagree with in Feldman’s conviction that Islamic societies need to accommodate themselves to democratic institutions in order to deal fairly with all segments of their populations, that fundamentalist regimes counterproductively repress women and ethnic minorities, that authoritarian governments easily and often become vicious and corrupt, and that neither form of governance can deal with dominant Western societies on an equal footing.

The problem, as Feldman presents it, is that the elements needed to form democratic societies in the Mideast are difficult to isolate and problematic to put together. He believes that the nations of the West may be able to play a constructive role in the formation of such societies.

He concedes that the Western nations have had at best a spotty history in doing so; and, of course, the United States is no less fallible and misguided than any. He finds hopeful signs of progress, though, in countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Morocco, and Egypt, though all have a very long way to go towards being truly free societies. He presents a recent cautionary horror story in Algeria, of alternating and brutal fundamentalist and military regimes — and of course, the common citizens’ suffering.

In the course of presenting his thesis, Feldman sketches a history of the Islamic political world. It is a fair accounting, though it does show some signs of oversimplification and is occasionally inaccurate, usually in small ways, hardly worth taking exception to. But I have the unsettled and perhaps irrational feeling that his idea of the Islamic world’s possibly being amenable to American social and political ideas on a large scale is overly optimistic.

To complicate matters, the ranks of the old-style American experts in Islamic culture have suffered attrition over the years, by age and changes in the political climate. Feldman seems to be one of the best-known young scholars in the field.

Of course, there is the wrong-headed American invasion of Iraq to consider, which has happened since the book was written — and it does make things look a little different. I understand that Noah Feldman has done work with the Iraqis and occupation forces there in crafting a new constitution.

Would it be unpatriotic to question if good old American know-how by itself can make the situation right?

At any rate, I look forward to Noah Feldman’s future book about his experiences in Iraq.


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