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Notre Dame Public Intellectualism Conference: Comment on Ahmad Moussalli: Islam and the Public Intellectual

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Last year my former student Eric Chaney wrote a paper "Democratic Change in the Arab World: Past and Present". In it he saw a striking difference between not the Arab lands but rather the lands of the original first two centuries of Arab conquest on the one hand, and the lands of subsequent expansion on the other. In the 28 countries that are lands of the original Arab conquest, there is a substantial "democratic deficit". In the 15 countries that are lands of subsequent post-Ummayad expansion, democracy is doing about as well as one would expect.

From this pattern Chaney concludes that there is little special about Islam, little special about oil, little special about desert terrain, little special about Arab culture, but that there is something special about the long-run historical heritage--about the political modes of domination established after the Rashidun, under the Ummayad and especially the Abbasid ruling dynasties. They led to a millennium-long withdrawal of religious and other intermediary forms of social organization from the task of criticizing the doings of the state to following the doctrine that the state is to be supported.

Now I at least do not think that a theocracy controlled by those of the Party of Ali who claim to speak in the name of the Occulted One is a step forward. And similar currents of theocracy among those following Traditional Practices seem similarly unwise.

But is there a middle way, a creative tension, something like the medieval European intellectual contest between the Emperor's University of Naples and the Pope's University of Bologna both arguing for the rule of law and the curbing of arbitrary power, a way--without a theocratic turn--for the ulema to take on a more active and prophetic critical role vis-a-vis the governments? Not Jerusalem speaking to Athens, but Mecca speaking to Baghdad?