June 9, 2007


Between Jerusalem and Athens, a Muslim 'third way' (Dalia Mogahed, June 07, 2007, Lebanon Daily Star)

One of the foremost experts on what he refers to as Islamic democracy, Noah Feldman, explains in his book "After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy" how the Western paradigm has focused on two diametrically opposed models of government, each tracing its origin to one of two ancient cities: Jerusalem, the birthplace of Christianity, and Athens, the birthplace of democracy.

In broad strokes, Jerusalem represents a model in which religion is dominant, there is no separation between church and state, and is characterized by near-absolute rule by an emperor who is also the head of the church. Athens, in contrast, represents reason, where religion is strictly "privatized," the god of science is dominant, and the people have a direct say in who is to lead them.

Western history is characterized by a dynamic tension between these two cities. This leads to the assumption that if a society's conception of an ideal government does not fit neatly into the secular Athens model, it must of necessity be opting for the Jerusalem model. In this binary paradigm, no third choice exists.

However, Feldman asserts, Islam's political history originates in another city altogether, Medina, the place of origin for both Islam's spiritual and democratic tradition. A recent Gallup survey shows that while there is a great deal of diversity among Muslim nations, some salient themes emerge which fly in the face of conventional wisdom. One of these findings is Muslims' widespread support for Sharia - Islamic religious principles that are widely seen as governing all aspects of life, from the mundane to the complex.

Often assumed in the West to be an oppressive corpus of law supported by only a small handful of fanatics (and especially detested by women), the incorporation of Sharia as one source of legislation enjoys the support of a majority in the eight Muslim-majority nations surveyed. Perhaps more surprising is the general absence of any large difference between men and women regarding their support for the incorporation of Sharia into governance. The only outlier is Turkey, where 57 percent say that Sharia should not be a source of legislation.

But how is Sharia understood by the majority of Muslims? Does its inclusion mean a rejection of democratic values and a call for the absolute rule of an infallible clergy? The findings suggest that this is not the case. The vast majority of those surveyed, in addition to expressing their admiration for political freedom in the West, say they support freedoms of speech, religion and assembly, as well as a woman's right to vote, drive and work outside the home. Indeed, majorities in every nation surveyed except for Saudi Arabia (where the number is 40 percent) also believe it appropriate for women to serve at the highest levels of government in their nation's Cabinet and National Council. In addition, a mean of 60 percent say they would want religious leaders to play no direct role in drafting a country's constitution (and even among those who take the contrary view, most would want clerics limited to an advisory function).

One need only read Mr. Feldman's book, Divided by God: America's Church-State Problem--and What We Should Do About It, to see that the city that matter is the one on a Hill, and that the peculiar Anglospheric genius lies in erecting an Athenian system upon a Jerusalemic foundation. Islam will need to do likewise.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 9, 2007 8:44 AM

erecting an Athenian system upon a Jerusalemic foundation. Islam will need to do likewise.

Indeed, but this is totally contradictory with your support of sharia. Sharia is, by definition, unreformed and without an Athenian system on top. Please explain.

Posted by: PapayaSF at June 9, 2007 2:09 PM

The Athenian system can just adopt shar'ia, as we adopted several thousand years of Judeo-Christian, Roman and common law. Indeed, we could adopt shar'ia easily enough.

Posted by: oj at June 9, 2007 3:33 PM