Thursday, May 12, 2005


The Chance for Islamic Justice

(Via Winds of Change)

Bernard Lewis, writing in Foreign Affairs , introduces the thesis that, for Muslims, the political terms “justice and injustice” are the nearest equivalent for the western sense of “freedom and slavery.”

He describes the inspiration that struck Sheikh Rifa'a Rafi' al-Tahtawi, a professor at al-Azhar University in the early nineteenth century, who had the opportunity to visit Paris following the arrival of Bonaparte in Egypt.

Lewis explains that in Arabic, the western sense of “freedom” would generally be translated into a word viewed as the opposite of “slavery,” rather than in some sense of the ability to exercise and enjoy rights as we understand them.

Sheikh Tahtawi was originally puzzled by the frequency and ubiquitous manner in which the French spoke of freedom, as Lewis elaborates:
“[Sheikh Tahtawi] obviously at first shared the general perplexity about what the status of not being a slave had to do with politics. And then he understood and explained. When the French talk about freedom, he says, what they mean is what we Muslims call justice. And that was exactly right. Just as the French, and more generally Westerners, thought of good government and bad government as freedom and slavery, so Muslims conceived of them as justice and injustice.“
Lewis goes on to explain that, among the many Arabic words that would be translated to the English word, “justice,” the most common, adl, means "justice according to the law" or sharia. And Lewis stresses a point not often noted in modern commentary about Middle Eastern politics:
“If a ruler is to qualify as just, as defined in the traditional Islamic system of rules and ideas, he must meet two requirements: he must have acquired power rightfully, and he must exercise it rightfully. In other words, he must be neither a usurper nor a tyrant.”
And further,
“Muslims have been interested from the very beginning in the problems of politics and government: the acquisition and exercise of power, succession, legitimacy, and -- especially relevant here -- the limits of authority.”
Lewis approaches the challenge of growing democratic traditions in the Middle East from an almost forgotten tradition of political legitimacy in Arabic political traditions. He suggests that the ruler’s authority derives from a “contract between the ruler and the ruled in which both have obligations.”

Having recognized and identified these not widely recognized strains in Arabic political history and culture, Lewis by no means underestimates the challenges to dust off and apply these traditions to modern states and societies. Here, he acknowledges the deep entrenchment of autocratic and despotic rule prevalent in the Middle East, despite no historical roots in the Islamic past. Lewis also identifies another vital component missing from the Arabic political consciousness, the absence of any notion of citizenship.

For all this, Lewis sees hope in the Iraqi experience (and experiment). For one, Iraq enjoys the significant dual benefits of infrastructure and education. According to Lewis, leaders prior to Saddam were able to invest their significant oil revenues in transportation and education related infrastructures. In spite of the grave damage done by Saddam (and subsequent sanctions), “an educated middle class will somehow contrive to educate its children, and the results of this can be seen in the Iraqi people today,” states Lewis.

Lewis also acknowledges the traditional status and position of women in Iraq, in terms of their access and opportunity, if not in some western sense of “rights.” Lewis draws a parallel to a similar strength of western democracies:
“In the West, women's relative freedom has been a major reason for the advance of the greater society; women would certainly be an important, indeed essential, part of a democratic future in the Middle East.”
As presented here, the source of Lewis’ cautious optimism lies not in western hopes and aspirations for the Middle East, but in Muslim political traditions. Lewis concludes hopefully, and urges steadfastness and patience, resolute in purpose:
“The creation of a democratic political and social order in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East will not be easy. But it is possible, and there are increasing signs that it has already begun. At the present time there are two fears concerning the possibility of establishing a democracy in Iraq. One is the fear that it will not work, a fear expressed by many in the United States and one that is almost a dogma in Europe; the other fear, much more urgent in ruling circles in the Middle East, is that it will work. Clearly, a genuinely free society in Iraq would constitute a mortal threat to many of the governments of the region, including both Washington's enemies and some of those seen as Washington's allies.

“The end of World War II opened the way for democracy in the former Axis powers. The end of the Cold War brought a measure of freedom and a movement toward democracy in much of the former Soviet domains. With steadfastness and patience, it may now be possible at last to bring both justice and freedom to the long-tormented peoples of the Middle East.”

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