Whoever says that modern Arab intellectuals have not engaged in intelligent analysis and criticism of their society, its values and its politics has not read the books of Fatima Mernissi. A Moroccan sociologist, she writes from a feminist perspective, this time about Islamic concepts of freedom, order and responsibility, and their compatibility with democracy. She argues that establishment Islam, that conveyed by the state, has stressed the importance of order and obedience. In this version of Islam, limits on individual freedom must be respected for the sake of communal interests, the past must be veiled and women must be secluded. Other strands of Islam have encouraged the exercise of reason, respected public opinion and valued compassion, but these sentiments have been discouraged by ruling elites anxious to protect their own privileges. The author is at her best when she identifies the origins of a concept in the early days of Islam and shows how it has survived into the present, with all the connotations that can make words like "freedom" seem dangerous. She conveys the social setting in which extremist Islamic movements wave the banner of revolt against oppression while ignoring the corresponding need for tolerance. There are moments of real brilliance and insight in this extended essay. At times the attempt to relate the current crisis to the recent Persian Gulf conflict seems strained, but her fundamental message is powerful and worth hearing.
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