Istanbul Conference Traces Islamic Roots of Western Law, Society

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, February 1997 | Go to article overview

Istanbul Conference Traces Islamic Roots of Western Law, Society


Istanbul Conference Traces Islamic Roots Of Western Law, Society

When history texts record the imposition of the Magna Carta on King John by the English nobility in 1215, they don't reveal where those English aristocrats got the idea for a charter defining the duties of a sovereign toward his subjects, as well as subjects toward the sovereign. In fact, according to Imad al-Din Ahmad of the Minaret of Freedom Institute in Bethesda, MD, the genesis of European legal structures, as later reflected in the Magna Carta, was brought back by Crusaders who were influenced by what they had learned in the Levant about the governing system established by Salahuddin (Saladin), Sultan of Egypt and Syria. In comments on "Culture and Economics: Islam and a Free Society," Ahmad told participants in a three-day conference in Istanbul Sept. 15-17 that much of the West's understanding of liberalism in law, economics and society has roots in medieval Islam.

The conference was sponsored by the Association of Liberal Thinking of Ankara, a Turkish think tank established in 1994 by Professor Atilla Yahla of Hacettepe University. The conference, or "workshop," as it was described in the program, focused on issues of political economy, culture and religion as related especially to individual liberty and limited and democratic government. Discussion was wide-ranging, emphasizing especially economic theory and governmental regulation, relationships between religion and a market economy, and how Islam may be understood as congruent with a free society.

Among Turkish participants were professors Eser Karakas of Istanbul University, Mehmet Aydim of Ege University and All Karaosmanoglu of Bilkent University. Other participants from Turkey included Besim Tibuk, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Serdar Aktan of the Turkish-Arabic Bank, and Suseyin Sak of the Office of the Prime Minister. European speakers included professors Burhan Ghalioun of France and Hardy Bouillon of Germany. Participants from the United States included Deepak Lal of UCLA, Leonard Liggio of George Mason University in Virginia. Antony T. Sullivan of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, President Imad alDin Ahmad of the Minaret of Freedom Institute, Dan Peters of the Philadelphia Society, S. Fred Singer of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, and Jo Kwong of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. The conference was organized in conjunction with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Germany and the Atlas Economic Research Foundation at George Mason University.

The desire for democracy and human rights is in no way a monopoly of the West.

"Liberalism," as that term was understood and employed at the conference, had precisely the opposite meaning of the word "liberalism" as used in the contemporary American context. The "classical" or "European" liberalism of interest to the conferees extols market economics, free trade, private property, decentralization of political power, and maximization of the freedom of individuals to the extent that such personal liberty is not inimical to a cohesive and stable society. In short, the "liberal" ideas discussed in Istanbul were what many Americans understand as "conservative." But whether liberal or conservative, what was remarkable about the notions debated in Istanbul was their appeal to Turks and Muslims. Given recent signs of similar interest in the Arab world, what transpired in Turkey indicated that the desire for constitutional government, democracy and human rights is in no way a monopoly of the West.

To illustrate his reconstruction of the Islamic roots of European law, Imad al-Din Ahmad noted that as early as the Christian reconquista of Spain. local Christians accustomed to Islamic rule insisted that their new masters sign agreements similar to those they had long had with their Muslim overlords. Those agreements specified that no monarch was above the law. This adherence to a rule of law to which both kings and commoners were subject, Ahmad maintained, was in fact an enduring gift of Muslim Spain to Christian Europe. …

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