Nonoo Is Good News
No, it’s not a typo. Nonoo is Ebrahim Nonoo, who has a fascinating opinion piece in this week’s Forward (boy, with all the press I give those folks, I oughta start drawing commission). Mr. Nonoo is himself more than a tad interesting, considering that he is a member of the upper parliamentary house of the Kingdom of Bahrain and is also . . . Jewish.
Although his essay begins with the bracing sentence “Whenever I hear the word democracy, I shiver,” it is the farthest thing from a jihadist rant. It is, instead, an enlightening treatment of both the advantages and flaws of Western-style democracies and a persuasive case that there may well be a better form of governance than pure democracy, which Churchill famously termed only the second worst way of ordering a society, all others being first. Nonoo notes the wide-ranging societal dysfunctions secular democracies facilitate or even engender, such as progressive dissolution of the family unit in various ways, reliance on debt to maintain artificial living standards and a liberal justice system based on moral relativism, but he also freely acknowledges the benefits of economic growth and personal freedoms that democracies confer on their citizens.
Because democracies have produced such mixed results, Nonoo argues that a country like his, which, while still a monarchy, recently reconstituted a constitutional, parlimentary form of government, ought not be beholden to the precise democratic model that the United States has been aggressively promoting in the Middle East. Rather, countries committed to basic governmental reform should be free to chart their own courses of incorporating the positive aspects of democratic ideals while eschewing its more deleterious features in favor of a faith-based approach that preserves traditional religious and moral values. As Nonoo puts it:
So while we in Bahrain wholeheartedly embrace certain aspects of democratization, there are some Western ideals that we do not wish to import. We are creating our own brand of liberalism, one which operates within the confines of our religious, ethnic and social criteria. The social contract we are constructing will guarantee Bahraini citizens their rights — within the framework of priorities and values that are dominant in our society.
Nonoo’s principled insistence on a very selective embrace of Western democracy is an excellent antidote to a certain dissonance that I, and presumably others, feel in observing the dawning of democracy in various, previously benighted places and the ongoing campaign to export the same to other, still-benighted locales.
Consider Afghanistan, for example. Reading the delirious press dispatches from Kabul after its liberation as they described the freedom at last to indulge in MTV and blaring rock music was for me an experience of mixed emotions.
To be rid of a cruelly atavistic Taliban regime was, to be sure, a cause for great rejoicing; but were it to be replaced with the militantly secular tyranny of ideas that has left contemporary Western man adrift in a meaningless universe and set our societies on a course of seemingly irreversible decline that would, just as surely, be no cause at all for celebration. So too, one might instinctively respond positively to the freeing of Afghan women from the extremely constrictive mode of dress previously imposed upon them; but, from an authentic Jewish perspective, ought one not also be saddened by the inevitable introduction of brazenly immodest Western garb (or lack thereof) and the concomitant devaluation of women’s dignity and the trampling of deeply important notions of modesty and restraint?
Although Nonoo’s context is his native Bahrain and the political transformation now occurring therein , his essay provides a rough glimpse of the way a State of Israel might look were it to be guided largely by Torah principles, even if not as a full-fledged theocracy. Although, pending the hoped-for advent of the Messianic era, such a state of affairs might seem today like no more than a pipe dream, Nonoo’s blueprint is still well worth pondering for the implications it holds for the ideal relationship, both attitudinal and practical, of Torah observant Jews to the thankfully free and beneficent societies that host them.
One last note: Essays like this one demonstrate the folly of Torah- observant Jews reflexively aligning themselves with the conservative position on every issue. If our sole allegiance is to Torah, we will sometimes find ourselves to the left of those positions and, at times, as in this matter, we’ll out-conserve the conservatives.