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Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

By Danielle R. Sassoon

Danielle R. Sassoon ’08, a History concentrator from Leverett House, graduates from Harvard College this year.

NOAH FELDMAN, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008.

In The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, Noah Feldman laments that “much analysis of the Muslim world insists on an artificial distinction between the historical past, the preserve of a professional guild of historians, and forward-looking political analysis”. Feldman seeks to transcend this divide in his new book by examining the recent rise of Islamism, and its potential for political success, in light of the way concepts of law and justice functioned and succeeded in the original Islamic states. “In essence then,” he writes, “the call for an Islamic state is the call for the establishment of Islamic law”. A Harvard Law professor, Feldman examines how sharia was implemented into governing law under the Ottoman Empire and why its authority ultimately collapsed. Through this historical exploration, Feldman hopes to illuminate the obstacles facing Islamism today in its current quest for legal authority.

Feldman focuses on the class of scholars within the Ottoman Empire and its role as legal authority and counterweight to the caliph. According to Feldman, the scholars exercised control over sharia’s meaning, interpreting the divine law and acting as a restraint on the caliph’s power. The caliph relied on the scholars for legitimacy and divine sanction, which created an institutional balance of power that gave stability and longevity to the Islamic state. Feldman argues that this institutional balance of power is what ensured justice in the Ottoman Empire, and that it is also exactly what is lacking in today’s Islamism.

Downplaying the importance of colonialism in eroding the legitimacy of the Islamic state, Feldman attributes the collapse of the Islamic state to codifications that preceded World War I. These new arrangements displaced the scholar class without substituting a correspondent institution in its place. Feldman attributes the current lack of legal justice within Islamic states to the continued absence of legitimate institutions to validate the sharia and restrain the leaders. He highlights a crisis of authority facing Islamism in the absence of a scholar class: without an institutional legal authority endowed with divine right, Islamic leaders have difficulty legitimating an interpretation and application of God’s law.

Drawing on examples beyond the Ottoman Empire, and looking at the legal development of Saudi Arabia in particular, Feldman demonstrates the need for an institutional balance of power within Islamism. Looking at the continued influence of the scholar class in Iran, Feldman acknowledges that a scholar class will not necessarily be suited to serve the current structural needs of Islamism. He emphasizes that what is needed are institutions, but that the institutions demanded by today’s Islamism may be different from those that succeeded in the past.

Feldman’s history and analysis is accessible, clearly argued, and politically relevant. Frequently drawing analogies to American and European legal development, he emphasizes that Islamism’s potential to succeed rests in its ability to find its modern day equivalent to a scholar class, which will bring increased stability and balance of power to the rising Islamic state. The reader, however, cannot help but wonder whether Feldman’s legal and academic background has led him to focus on abstract concepts at the expense of acknowledging the practical problems—such as discrimination—that are still a fundamental aspect of sharia. While it is fruitful to examine the present through the lens of the past, Feldman fails to address how the inequalities perpetuated through sharia are to be accepted in today’s world. I, for one, am unwilling to share Feldman’s optimism, when he fails to address how sharia’s systematic intolerance toward nonbelievers, homosexuals, and many women’s lifestyles can be made to cohere with modern, democratic values and human rights.

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By Elizabeth K. Brook

Elizabeth K. Brook ’10 attends Harvard College and is a Literature concentrator in Adams House.

BENAZIR BHUTTO, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West
, New York: Harper/HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.

When Benazir Bhutto, the famous Radcliffe College graduate who twice served as Prime Minister of Pakistan, was assassinated last December, she left behind a recently written book about the main sources of conflict in the Islamic world. The book, Reconciliation, was published posthumously early this year. It will no doubt interest many New Society readers for its riveting accounts of Ms. Bhutto’s first-hand experiences and its bold discussion of a timely and controversial topic. The book does not fail the reader’s expectations.

Throughout the work, Bhutto presents historical examples, analysis, and opinion. She also offers a brave solution for breaking down the barriers to peaceful relations between Muslims, and between Muslims and the West. In the first chapter, Bhutto focuses on what she believes are the two main sources of tension in the Islamic world. The first is the internal conflict between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist Muslims. The second is the anger many Muslims feel toward the West based, in part, on its perceived inconsistency, unfairness, and meddling.

In the first chapter, Bhutto introduces the reader to her own life and in sharing several anecdotes and reflections, creates an intimate atmosphere and establishes a persuasive, authoritative voice. The fifth chapter is similarly impressive. It draws a clear and concise distinction between ‘clashers’ and ‘reconciliators’—people who think that a clash between Islamic and Western culture is inevitable, and those who think that the two must be reconciled. Bhutto then leads into her plan for the future in the sixth chapter, which I believe is the climax of the book. It presents a detailed outline for a step-by-step reconciliation between the East and the West. Bhutto first calls for the reconciliation of the internal tensions within Islamic culture and then outlines a plan to modernize the Islamic world. Her ambitious plan is superbly constructed and effectively articulated. It is certainly the highlight of her work, and this section alone makes the book a must-read for people who are interested in bringing equality, justice and harmony to the Islamic world.

The second, third, and fourth chapters are weaker, simply due to the volume of the material concerned, and the complexity of the issues she addresses. She attempts to offer a single, complete and correct reading of the Qur’an in Chapter Two, and Chapter Three tells the history of the intersection of Islamic culture and democratic governance across twenty-four countries in less than 80 pages. Chapter Four is devoted to an explanation of the political situation in Pakistan over the past 40 years. While these “fact-based” sections of the book are informative, they often appear over-simplified and are peppered with statistics that are un-referenced and evidently carefully selected. The reader cannot but question the partiality of the “facts” offered.

Worse, perhaps, than merely simplifying complicated historical episodes, Bhutto sometimes makes contradictory arguments. In Chapter Two Bhutto calls for relativism, while simultaneously presenting her reading of the passages of the Qur’an as authoritatively correct. The brevity of the discussion of the political climate of each country in Chapter Three lends those sections an anecdotal tone. Ironically these “summations” of historical events are, by their inherent nature, incomplete. Chapter Four provides a detailed, and purportedly distanced, account of the political situation in Pakistan, which is inevitably colored by loyalty to her family and defense of her own governance.

For all their flaws, however, these historical sections serve to ground Bhutto’s vision for a united, peaceful Middle East on an understanding of past failures. For the most part, these attempts are persuasive and ultimately, the book provides an interesting historical and political analysis of many of the tensions in the Islamic world. Bhutto comes across as heroic and unwavering in her belief in freedom and human rights. The after-word, written by her family, proclaims: “This book is about everything that those who killed her could never understand: democracy, tolerance, rationality, hope and above all, the true message of Islam…We commit our lives into making the message of this book into her legacy and the future of a democratic Pakistan. And ultimately we know we will succeed because, in her own words, ‘Time, justice and the forces of history are on our side.’”

Alas, as one reviewer, Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, reminds us, “the idea of Benazir Bhutto has always been more powerful than the reality.” Bhutto presents herself as brave and committed democrat and liberal. But, as Zakaria notes, her leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party was profoundly undemocratic and plagued by charges of corruption. She allowed no internal party elections and bequeathed her party to her 19-year-old son, Bilawal—in keeping with the traditions of her feudal and exceedingly wealthy family. Bhutto herself inherited the leadership of the Party from her father and, as Zakaria uncompromisingly puts it, ran it “like a personal fiefdom.” The gap between the book’s bold message and Bhutto’s own political legacy will no doubt trouble the critical reader.

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