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Book Reviews

Prophecies of Arab Disorder

Abdellah Hammoudi, Denis Bauchard, and Rémy Leveau (eds.), La démocratie est-elle soluble dans l’Islam? (CNRS Éditions, Paris, 2007).

In May 2005 a large number of specialists of international standing met in Paris to discuss democracy in the Arab world at a seminar organised jointly by the Institut Français des relations internationales and the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia of Princeton University. The title chosen for this meeting, namely ‘La démocratie est-elle soluble dans l’Islam?’, which is taken up by the volume that contains the proceedings of this seminar, is to be located in a debate – which by now has been going on for two centuries – on the compatibility of Islam with modern ideas and institutions. This debate was accelerated by 11 September and the Bush doctrine on the exportation of democracy. It is no accident that a large part of the discussions in this volume centre around – more or less directly – the role of the West, both when reference is made to democratic pressure or interference (Denis Bauchard) and to the case of the interaction between a ‘demand for modernising reform’ and an ‘identity-based and social demand’ (Abdellah Hammoudi), and when interesting continuities (of a rhetorical character as well) are established, as Henry Laurens does, between what Napoleon did in Egypt and the American war in Iraq. Naturally enough, there are more direct forays into the effective failure of the policy of George W. Bush (cf. the article by Hicham Ben Abdallah al Alaoui). It is certainly the case that although not much time has passed since the publication of this volume, the recent revolutions in North Africa have rapidly made this debate appear superseded. It thus becomes interesting to trace in the various papers those pathways which, although they did not lead explicitly to the revolutionary outcomes of recent months, nonetheless help us to identify and understand the forces which in recent years have acted at the deepest level in Arab societies, and which we should still bear in mind. In a certain sense, what the condition of Arab countries actually was at the time was all too clear. This is what, for example, Nader Fergany, the principal author of the Arab report on human development for UNDP declared: ‘If the current situation – which is marked by failure at the level of development, by internal repression and by foreign appropriation – should continue, in Arab countries we will certainly witness more intense social conflict’ (p. 211). For that matter, the increasing discontent that exists finds expression in a public opinion which, as Mohammed El Oifi affirms, although it is systematically neglected or subject to strong attempts of manipulation both internally and externally, will exercise ‘in the years to come lasting pressure on Arab governments’ (p. 202), above all because of the rapid development of information technologies. And Islam? It is impossible to assign to it a univocal role. In Saudi Arabia, for example, religious discourse, which is based upon the Wahhabism of State, ‘blocks political debate and obstructs the appeals to reform and participation which could make themselves felt in the country,’ as is demonstrated by the penetrating analysis of Madawi Al Rasheed. In other contexts, for example in Egypt or Morocco, it is Islam itself which is taking part in the demand for reform. And this is the subject on which Malika Zeghal reflects in what is probably the most stimulating paper to be found in this book. This author, in fact, attempts to go beyond the question of the compatibility of Islam and democracy by rejecting a resolving of the relationship between ‘tradition interpreted (that of Islam) by political actors and the working of a system of political competition’ (p. 97) in terms of ‘perfect concordance’. Indeed, ‘this relationship, constructed by the actors, is transformed through the ideological production of the actors who shape the flexible materials of political and/or religious repertoires’. This does not mean that Islam ‘does not have a political transformational capacity but, rather, that it shares this capacity with other cultural, political and material resources’ (p. 99). This is perhaps one of the most suitable keys by which to understand how Arab-Islamic societies could evolve in the future.

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