An airplane can depart from the Los Angeles Airport, the closest large airport to where I live, and land 16 hours later in Doha, Qatar (the trip is a bit longer, but not much longer, if you stop in Istanbul). In an inland section of the west of Doha, strategically removed and preserved from the bustle of the Gulf coast a few miles east, Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service (SFS) has a small branch-campus inside what is called Education City. In this City, the École des Hautes Etudes Commerciales de Paris, Texas A&M, Weill Cornell Medical School and Northwestern University each has a modest representation.
In Doha, having lost 11 hours of my life due to the 'time zone' convention (hours I will, of course, regain a week later), I submitted to my task. In one of the classes at the SFS, a former student of mine, now a professor at SFS, invited me to sit with a mix of mostly non-Qatari students (who grew up in Qatar) and a few American students. Bright students, easily on par with my own at the University of California; in certain respects, more alert and responsive to some of my puns and obscure points. The discussion went in multiple directions, including a revisiting of some basic questions in Islamic legal history, such as how Islamic law was made, where and when it was made (to simplify things for those who want a short line, it was made in Kufa Iraq, circa 800 CE), and like questions.
On two nights, I gave two public lectures, one titled 'The Crisis of the Sharia' and one titled 'Islamic Law Today.' The midsize room was full on both days, but not with the same people. In the first lecture, I defined the crisis of the Sharia as the absence of a professional class of legal scholars or jurists with whom the buck (of authority in the religious law) used to stop. The crisis hid an opportunity, where the tasks of old Islamic jurisprudence had to be discharged by a group of specialists and laymen. Complexity in authority by itself does not constitute an additional crisis, I maintain. The challenges facing the Sharia, when it functions as a personal, national, or transnational law, today have multiple angles that may be, or rather must be, considered patiently.
In the second lecture I spoke about these diverse manifestations of the Sharia in today's life. These include situations where individuals make life and death and other ethical decisions in areas where national laws are silent or accommodating of the Sharia as a religious (personal) law, cases where national laws (in Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia, etc.) build on modified versions of medieval legal doctrines that were developed the previous century and a half or so, and cases of transnational laws, such as Islamic finance and cyber jurisprudence--or fatwa-case laws that create, for the first time in Islamic history, global communities with no shared local custom or social standards. On the side, I met many residents and visitors from diverse affiliations and callings, some educational, some technical, some political.
The trip itself, I should not forget to mention, was enjoyable. On the plane I watched 'The End of the Tour,' a fairly unfair representation of David Foster Wallace, and a delightful-cum-sad movie about Dalton Trumbo. The latter reminded me of a famous slogan of the past (The Only Good Communist is a Dead Communist)--something Ted Cruz might want to adopt as one of his campaign slogans, mutatis mutandis, making it The Only good Muslim is a dead Muslim. One thing you notice everywhere you look, at any moment of the trip, especially in airports: There are many, many people in the world. Business class lounges are too busy. Expensive hotels and restaurants are busy. The quality of service, even at the highest and most expensive end, does falter from time to time, overweighed by the heavy weight of the users.
Where are the non-overlapping circles? Everywhere is the short answer. Even inside the small Doha (which is playing catch up with Dubai, but is clearly a decade or so behind), there are communities that are closed off to outsiders. There are multiple types of secular, religious, economic, and political clerisies unable to communicate outside of their groups. Perhaps out of a sense of self-importance, I thought my two lectures brought some of these non-overlapping folks into one room. On the one hand, there were people on my 'right' (the right of piety and religious reverence) who reprimanded me for using the word crisis (in relation to the Sharia) and rhetorically asked whether I would have used this word if I were not coming from where I was coming from (the US, that is). On the other, there were those who did not like what I pretended was a matter-of-factual statement, clearly un-attentive to the historical bent dominant in Islamic studies in the US, that the Sharia may just be having its heyday and enjoying its largest presence today, having conquered areas unknown to it in its history (you are welcome to disagree, if you can show me the evidence of a medieval equivalent of global Islamic finance or cyber fatwa-case laws).
The room where I spoke, I want to argue, was just a microcosm mirroring a larger version of it in the outside world. Outside in the world, there are diverse people of diverse voices. This, perhaps surprisingly, is what makes it safe to say nothing and pretend to be saying something and just as easy to talk nonsense. And this has been going on for long. So long, in fact, that irresponsible ideas have circulated everywhere and built acceptable forms of common sense (or common nonsense), such that thoughtful ideas do seem unbalanced, extreme, or worse.
The global community, and this is not limited to Doha, is fragmented, consisting as it were of non-overlapping circles. Stephen Jay Gould once tried to argue that religion and science were non-overlapping magisteria. I am not sure I buy that. But there are communities of diverse commitments, social or intellectual, ideological or factional (and I don't mean religious factions), which cannot overlap. Whole nations and even whole geographic regions also fail to understand their neighbors in the next nation or region, due to this or that commitment, choice, or way of being. I am not about to give potent weapons to those who want to argue that 'unreasonable' religious commitments may be responsible for the failure of all liberal, democratic nostrums to heal the world from its addiction to conflict. This cannot be a point I make, at any rate, because I think it is clear that conflicts are an additional element, on top of the inability or unwillingness to converse, and has its own causes.
The fragmentation of the global village is bound to get worse. I mean that social circles will likely overlap less and less. Global trends are less and less truly global; in reality, they are more and more regional. This is good news, at least on one front. The solution to the irking burden of America's global missionizing about democracy and human rights is to realize that the conditions for its success are not there. There is no point in talking, when no one is listening. It is not only democrats and republicans who do not listen to one another in the US; no one listens to anyone they don't want to listen to.
I had a great time. I should wish that I had the art and the patience excellent journalists and reporters have, which would allow me to say more about the trip, be more informative, and possibly relate my observations further to the ongoing, strange presidential campaign in the United States. But it is just as well that I lack the energy and capacity for that. I sat down wanting to write something that is both 'light' and does not exceed a thousand words, and I failed to keep it light and failed to keep it under a thousand words. I should just stop here.