During several notable speeches since 2003, including both inaugural and State of the Union addresses, President Bush has repeatedly stressed the paramount importance of promoting freedom in the Middle East. Speaking in an almost messianic idiom, he has termed such a quest “the calling of our time; …the calling of our country”. Most recently, he reiterated this theme while speaking to The American Legion on February 24, 2006, and offered the following sanguine assessment of progress:
Freedom is on the march in the broader Middle East. The hope of liberty now reaches from Kabul to Baghdad, to Beirut, and beyond. Slowly but surely, we're helping to transform the broader Middle East from an arc of instability into an arc of freedom. And as freedom reaches more people in this vital region, we'll have new allies in the war on terror, and new partners in the cause of moderation in the Muslim world and in the cause of peace.
Despite President Bush’s uplifting rhetoric and ebullient appraisal of these events—which epitomizes American hopes and values at their quintessential best—there is a profound, deeply troubling flaw in his (and/or his advisers) analysis which simply ignores the vast gulf between Western and Islamic conceptions of freedom itself.
“Hurriyya”, Arabic for freedom, and the uniquely Western concept of freedom are completely at odds. Hurriyya “freedom”, as Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) the lionized “Greatest Sufi Master”, expressed it, “being perfect slavery”. And this conception is not merely confined to the Sufis perhaps metaphorical understanding of the relationship between Allah the “master” and his human “slaves.” The late American scholar of Islam, Franz Rosenthal (d. 2003) analyzed the larger context of hurriyya in Muslim society. He notes the historical absence of hurriyya as “a fundamental political concept that could have served as a rallying cry for great causes.” An individual Muslim “was expected to consider subordination of his own freedom to the beliefs, morality and customs of the group as the only proper course of behavior…” Thus politically, Rosenthal concludes, “…the individual was not expected to exercise any free choice as to how he wished to be governed…In general, …governmental authority admitted of no participation of the individual as such, who therefore did not possess any real freedom vis-à-vis it.”
Bernard Lewis, in his analysis of hurriyya for the venerated Encyclopedia of Islam, discusses this concept in the latter phases of the Ottoman Empire, through the contemporary era. After highlighting a few “cautious” or “conservative” (Lewis’ characterization) reformers and their writings, Lewis maintains,
…there is still no idea that the subjects have any right to share in the formation or conduct of government—to political freedom, or citizenship, in the sense which underlies the development of political thought in the West. While conservative reformers talked of freedom under law, and some Muslim rulers even experimented with councils and assemblies government was in fact becoming more and not less arbitrary…
Lewis also makes the important point that Western colonialism ameliorated this chronic situation:
During the period of British and French domination, individual freedom was never much of an issue. Though often limited and sometimes suspended, it was on the whole more extensive and better protected than either before or after.
And Lewis concludes with a stunning observation, when viewed in light of the present travails in Iraq and throughout the Muslim world, President Bush’s hagiographic assessment notwithstanding:
In the final revulsion against the West, Western democracy too was rejected as a fraud and a delusion, of no value to Muslims.
Hamas’ resounding victory in the January, 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections represents, unfortunately, a much wider trend in the Islamic Middle East. Each time open or even relatively open elections occur, authentic Islamic movements either emerge with outright electoral victories—as in Iraq, Kuwait, Morocco, and the West Bank/Gaza—or at minimum, bolster their representation dramatically, as happened in Egypt under more controlled (i.e., governmentally constrained) circumstances. Historian Meir Litvak notes aptly that this consistent contemporary phenomenon, “..highlights once more the power of Islam as the primary framework of identity in the Arab world, and the structural weakness of non-Islamist ideologies and political movements”.
The great 20th century scholar of Islamic Law, G. H. Bousquet, wrote in 1950,
Islam first came before the world as a doubly totalitarian system. It claimed to impose itself on the whole world and it claimed also, by the divinely appointed Muhammadan law, by the principles of the fiqh, to regulate down to the smallest details the whole life of the Islamic community and of every individual believer....the study of Muhammadan law (dry and forbidding though it may appear to those who confine themselves to the indispensable study of the fiqh) is of great importance to the world today.
Bousquet’s admonition to study Islamic Law (Shari’a), or at least recognize the profound importance of its influence on basic Muslim conceptions, has perhaps even greater urgency more than a half-century later, in 2006. While electoral processes in the Islamic Middle East may have further enfranchised the Shari’a-based understanding of hurriyya, it is delusional to equate this conception with the freedom espoused by John Stuart Mill in “On Liberty”.
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