Noah Feldman


On his book The Arab Winter: A Tragedy

Cover Interview of May 26, 2020

The wide angle

The book grew from almost two decades of trying to interpret the trajectory of political developments in the Islamic and Arabic-speaking worlds—and from my efforts as an engaged outsider seeking to enable liberal, Islamic-democratic constitutionalism in the Middle East and North Africa.

Writing in 2003, before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I predicted in After Jihad that free elections in Arabic-speaking countries would lead to experiments in Islamic democracy, and I encouraged the United States to let those experiments run their course in the name of democratic self-determination.

In 2004, after a truncated stint as constitutional advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, I explored in What We Owe Iraq the ethical consequences of the Iraq invasion and what already appeared as the contradictions and dire failures of the occupation that followed.

In 2008, in The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, I tried to deepen the continuing debate over Islamic democracy by offering some hypotheses about how classical Islamic constitutional design had worked, how it had failed, and what challenges it would have to overcome in order to solve contemporary governance challenges.

Since 2011, I have watched Islamic democracy rise and fall with stunning speed in Egypt and observed the antidemocratic ideology of the Islamic State drive its own horrific cycle of death and destruction. Islamic democracy was tried, briefly, in Egypt—and it failed, for complex reasons not necessarily inherent to the undertaking.

In contrast, in Tunisia, where I was a constitutional advisor and an observer, I saw firsthand the alternative of gradual, compromise-driven constitutional politics, complete with the liberalization of the leading Islamist party there. Islam and democracy have cohered there. Yet what emerged is not Islamic democracy.

In the depth of the failure of Islamic democracy and the Arab winter, I feel no longer young and idealistic but chastened and middle-aged. Nevertheless, midlife demands meaning-making as much as or more than does youth. This book is an attempt at that.