Friday 9 May 2008

Like imperialism? Love sharia

The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, by Noah Feldman (Princeton University Press)

It’s hard not to read Feldman’s work as a belated apologia for his role in the Iraq’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) under Paul Bremer in 2003. Feldman was consulted on Iraq’s first constitution, a work so flawed that it took Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani’s fatwa against the basic democratic deficiencies of the proposed system to turn the situation around.

And if the whole Iraqi debacle is an example of what happens when imperial fantasies of Western democratisation meet the realities of foreign occupation and geopolitics at the barrel of a gun, then it is both ironic and fitting that Sistani ended up giving basic lessons in political theory to the CPA, and that with this latest work Feldman ends up embracing sharia as what the ‘Muslim World’ needs to sort itself out.

Not one for subtleties, apparently the whole spectra of Islamist philosophy and movements can be answered ’…with a single word: law’ (p6). To give him credit, Feldman does convincingly argue that sharia, despite being portrayed by the western media as being all about oppressing the people through limb amputations or punishing marital infidelity with stonings, has traditionally in Islamic caliphates served to regulate the rulers. Rather than the rulers creating the law whilst remaining themselves outside of it, Feldman argues that in the Caliphates and early Ottoman Empire that Sharia was used both to legitimate the ruler – who unlike in Christendom could not claim divine hereditary monarchy – and to constrain their activities. Sharia law existed within a symbiotic system which ultimately reigned in arbitrary despotism.

But by the mid-19th century it all started to go wrong. Governing elites in the Ottoman Empire realised they were lagging behind the West technologically and militarily and started to introduce Western Law alongside Sharia. In attempting to fuse the old and new systems, a codification process took place that displaced the traditional role of scholars as interpreters of the Sharia. Through this process, the traditional bind against authoritarianism in the ‘Muslim World’ was cut, leaving the post-Colonial states in a governmental legitimation crisis. In turn this gave rise to a newly established call in Muslim states to re-instate the sharia in order to relegitimate their political structures. The 20th century was therefore nothing more than a ‘brief aberration’ in an otherwise unbroken historical continuity. Hence the play in the title on Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and allusions to 19th century cyclical theories of history.

It may initially seem like nit-picking, but the problems with this thesis start from the very first premise, indeed in the title of the book. ‘The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State’ assumes that the Caliphate system and Ottoman Empire were in fact states, but almost all IR theorists would have a problem with this idea. To give a brief history of sovereignty, the modern territorial state is presumed to be a unique invention of the modern world that realists would trace back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Accordingly, the state was not just a new sovereign configuration of the fractured remnants of the Holy Roman Empire but a contiguous territorial space ruled by an absolute monarch of government. Whether you subscribe to the realist myth or not, the key point is that the state as we know it is a product of those Enlightenment processes which could be dubbed as modernity, rationalisation, or capitalism – take your pick. This modern state structure was subsequently exported throughout the world through the process of colonialism. But it was only after colonial powers withdrew that the hard territorial boundaries of the post-Colonial states had to be fixed, which explains the peculiarly straight state boundaries imposed on many regions of the world. What this tells us is that unlike in the Caliphates or Ottoman Empire, the post-Colonial state system imposed a new reality. No more could its citizens traverse boundaries freely and no more were there competing centres of power or overlapping juridical spheres. Instead, centralised state systems accrued powers upon vast swathes of people who owed them little or no loyalty.

The difference between these two regimes of power is well illustrated by the distinction between the now defunct concept of suzerainty and the familiar notion of sovereignty. Suzerainty is the regime of control that was exercised in most Imperial situations, from China’s pre-1951 relations to Tibet, to the British and French Imperial mandates and last but not least, the Ottoman Empire. It is a fundamental mistake to confuse it with our modern presumptions of sovereignty in international law. It was generally distinguished by a combination of hegemony of one power over another, along with a measured ambivalence on the part of the peoples of the conquered region. Again, this configuration represented a symbiotic situation: as long as the suzerain power did not attempt to impose excessively draconian or megalomaniacal measures upon the subordinate region, a social and juridical balance of power was struck.

This lengthy excursus is necessary to expose the central fallacy upon which Feldman’s entire thesis sits. The cracks that follow from such a simplistic categorical error are immediately obvious.  For example, take Feldman’s casual explanation for how the experience of the past comes to be refracted in the discourses of the present:

In the collective memory of the Muslim World, it is still dimly remembered that the classical Islamic state was a state that was governed by law and governed through law. (p21)

There is more in this assertion than meets they eye. I think we have already sufficiently problematised Feldman’s slippery recourse to such suspiciously vague categories as the ‘Muslim World’ and ‘Islamic state’. What is more troubling is the continuous use of the idea of ‘collective memory’ to explain the resurgence of contemporary Islamist movements. Feldman doesn’t explain what he means by this: is he, for instance, making a nod to the reactionary early 20th century theorists of crowd behaviour such as Gutave Le Bon? More likely, in my opinion, he is picking up on a genealogy of thought that has ironically been appropriated by secular Arab nationalist movements above all others. It is well known that the founder of the Ba’ath Party - which the coalition forces dissolved in Iraq early on in 2003 - Michel Alfaq proposed a vision of the Arab nation that drew heavily on the nationalist theories of Johann Fichte. In Fichte’s vision, language and culture found the individual and nation with a total historical continuity, therefore forming a potent ideology of collective memory and will which permitted him to propose extreme violence against the Jews. No wonder then the sympathies of the Ba’ath ideologues to Nazi Germany’s project.

Thus the fascistic logic of Feldman’s vision becomes clearer. His thesis is reducible to two fundamentally disturbing propositions: of the unbroken collective memory and will of the Muslim world (permanently ostracised from modernity) and their collective need for Law. These ideas elide easily into those actions in the Middle East framed in terms of ‘the only language these people understand is force’. Remember Yitzak Rabin’s orders to the IDF during the first intifada to break the bones of child protesters, and think the wilful abandonment of international law in the high-level sanctioning of torture and humiliation at Abu-Graib and Guantanamo Bay. How else can we explain Hillary Clinton’s recent glee at threatening to ‘totally obliterate’ Iran via the use of nuclear weapons?

What is of course excluded from this entire discussion is any reference to the most defining discourse in the Middle East: anti-imperialism. At no point does the text give any sense that contemporary Islamist movements are articulating their liberation theology in reaction to nearly seventy years of US funding of unaccountable dictators, CIA sponsored coups of democratic governments, international obfustication of a just Israeli-Palestinian territorial settlement or outright military interventions. At no point do we hear any reference to the Iran-Iraq war, in which Saddam Hussein’s invasion of the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran was systematically legitimated by the United States, armed and artificially prolonged, and resulted in one of the most devastating wars in terms of loss of life and infrastructure of the 20th century.

Rather than sidestepping any problems raised by imperialism by avoiding the topic, though, the book ends up enveloping itself in imperial logic. The late Susan Sontag drew a striking example of how the complete insensitivity, denial and rendering invisible of injustice can become a catalyst for racist atrocities, with the anger of the Other turning inexplicably hostile, irrational and needing to be subdued by a just force:

…Sontag compares the pictures of the tortured Iraqi inmates with the photographs of ‘black victims of lynching taken between the 1880s and 1930s, which show small-town Americans, no doubt most of them church-going, respectable citizens, grinning, beneath the naked mutilated body of a black man or woman hanging behind them from a tree.’ For Sontag, the meaning of the pictures ‘is not just that these acts were performed, but that their perpetrators had no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures show. (1)

Not that I am suggesting Feldman’s project advocates cruelty and violence, but rather in this book one cannot help be reminded of Lars Von Trier’s parody of the Iraq war in the film Manderlay. The well-meaning rich white girl Grace arrives in a dilapidated Southern plantation after the abolition of slavery, and is shocked to find a book of Law articulating how to regulate the ex-slaves and keep them in a socially subservient order. She attempts to free the slaves by establishing a new order of freedom and democracy. Things gradually slip into chaos and before you know it the book of Law is reprieved to re-establish the lost order. The final punch in the stomach is that not only has Grace reverted to the methods of the very Law she aimed to oppose, but goes on to find that the Law was not written by the evil plantation owners but in fact one of the elder ex-slaves.

It would seem that Feldman and Von Trier’s conception of the Iraq war end up in remarkable agreement on their pessimistic acknowledgement that the oppressed’s rage and disorder can only be resolved by a return to their own oppressive Law. Just as after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the righteous imperial violence of enlightenment can only maintain its dominance by affirming the most archaic cultural and social practices it seeks to overcome.

Put away those aspirations for importing Western universal values to Iraq then. The best that can be hoped is to sustain order by downgrading expectations and striking a balance between the imperial order and the re-invention of Sharia. As Feldman puts it:

…the aspiration to re-create a system of government that draws upon the best of the old whole coming to terms with the new is as bold and noble a goal as can be imagined. (p151)

You get the feeling that it won’t be long before this court philosopher is recalled to Iraq for another lucrative consultation project.


(1) Quoted in Arshin Adib-Moghaddam’s piece on the dehumanisation of Muslims in ‘Abu Graib and Insaniyat’ in the December 2007 issue of the Monthly Review.

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