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A liberal member of Tunisia’s parliament, discussing the writing of that country’s new constitution, brilliantly defines the entire issue of Islam and politics in one sentence. But before telling you the sentence, here’s the background.

The debate, as in Egypt and Libya, is over whether to make Islamic law, Shari’a, the fundamental basis of society. Note that this is usually written into constitutions that Shari’a is “the main source of law.” But if that’s done it means that every detail of every aspect of life would be set by Shari’a.

An Islamist member of parliament said the constitution must do so in order to be “responsive to the demands of the revolution.” In other words, he claims that Tunisia had an Islamist revolution. The same is being said regarding Egypt and Libya. Perhaps someday soon there will be more countries added to that list.

In Iran and the Gaza Strip there is no such debate because those who rule are certain that their revolutions are Islamic.

Now, here’s what Nadia Chaabane of a tiny liberal party says, the most important sentence that could be uttered on this subject: “Shari’a…needs a lot of interpretation.”

She continued, “Whose version will we follow? Moroccan interpretation, for instance, is not the same as Iranian….”

If it hadn’t entangled her in apparent support for the old regime she could have added the historic Tunisian interpretation as well.

Now actually I slightly edited the sentence to make the theme clearer. What she actually said is: “Shari’a is so vague and unclear; it needs a lot of interpretation.” Of course it often isn’t so “vague and unclear.” The Islamists often — perhaps I should say “usually” — have a strong argument when they talk about cutting off hands, killing converts to other religions, stoning women, suppressing Christians, hating Jews, and fighting jihad.

Yet, as with all religions, that doesn’t change the fact that interpretation is still needed and that in Morocco and pre-revolution Tunisia or pre-revolution Iran, for example, the interpretations that governed social behavior were much more liberal.

I know that you can pick up the Koran or a library full of Islamic texts and show precisely how verses mandate jihad, killing anyone who wants to leave Islam, slavery, world conquest, and lots of other things. It’s all in there and anyone who denies it either doesn’t know what they’re talking about or is lying.

The Islamists say that they are merely seeking to apply those texts. They assert that theirs is the only possible interpretation. There are those in the West who agree with them and assert that Islam is innately horrible, just as there are far more people in the West who insist — based on ignorance, mendacity, or wishful thinking — that Islam is inevitably wonderful.

But we are human beings living in the real world. And the truest of all answers is: It all depends. In late sixteenth-century England, being a Catholic priest was punishable by death; in France during the same period being a Protestant was to risk the same fate. Ultimately, power does not reside in the text but with those who interpret the text.

That is the basic reality.

Here is the basic problem: There are very few Muslims like Chaabane, though they are in highest proportion among Tunisians. And there are lots of Islamists. They have guns. They have money. They have fanaticism. They are willing to kill people to intimidate opposition and ready to provide social services to gain supporters. And the West is not really much interested in helping the moderates. Often, it even helps the Islamists.

So it is Chaabane and not the Islamists who is right in principle. Non-Muslims can argue all they want — with absolutely no real effect — that Chaabane’s road would be better for the Muslim masses or that moderate democrats will inevitably win. But that doesn’t mean her side is going to win. Quite the contrary, one worries and expects.

The West has a very different but parallel problem today. The threat to democracy there is the idea that the smart people, those with credentials, should tell everyone else what to do because they know what is best for them. That ideology — which is as old as Plato’s Republic in which he said the philosophers should rule — has now replaced the traditional left that exalted the working people.

Karl Popper, in The Open Society and its Enemies, and recently Mark Levin, in Ameritopia, have best critiqued this idea of the dictatorship of those who know best. In the Middle East’s case, as in the West’s past, the dictators are to be those who interpret religion best. In the West, it is those who interpret science, nutrition, the environment, political correctness, and other such things best.

No wonder the Western secular leftists don’t quite grasp what’s wrong with the Middle Eastern Islamists who also advocate a world governed according to my version of objective truth.

Each set of would-be dictators, for example, will tell you what you should or shouldn’t eat. In the Middle East it is based on the alleged will of Allah; in the West on the alleged will of science.

In each case, there are two parallel problems.

The first is individual rights, which can be defined as freedom.

The second is truth. As Chaabane puts it, “Whose version will we follow?”

Those who treasure liberty and democracy, who have advocated and built the most successful systems in world history, respond: I do not acknowledge that you possess absolute truth. Incidentally, in the West that doctrine has historically been called liberalism. The remarkable and unfortunate thing that has happened in the West today is that millions of people have been convinced to support the reign of authority over the rule of liberty in the name of that doctrine.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International
Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of
International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An
Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other
recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long
War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East
(Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of
the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog,
Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com

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