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  • Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East by Elizabeth F. Thompson
  • Amy Kallander
Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East, by Elizabeth F. Thompson. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2013. xiv, 418 pp. $39.95 US (cloth).

Elizabeth Thompson’s Justice Interrupted provides an insightful and engaging synthesis of how a range of liberal, Islamic, democratic, socialist, and radical movements across the Middle East interpreted and applied the concept of justice. Thompson reveals the deep intellectual connections and continuities between demands for constitutional reform, national sovereignty, land redistribution, and Islamic morality. Organized chronologically, Thompson writes the life stories of prominent political figures to gesture toward the Arabic literary genre of the biographical dictionary, though the book is intended for a non-specialist audience. Hence, her frequent references to regional and global movements also underscore her argument that political transformations in the Middle East were far from exceptional.

Thompson begins with the Ottoman Empire, and the bureaucrats (such as Mustafa Ali) who advised the sultans to undertake administrative reforms from the sixteenth century onward. They couched this advice in terms of justice, that while premised upon a hierarchical social order was based in law and responsibility toward the poor. Similar ideals were echoed by popular revolts over the following generations, and informed the Ottoman administrative and legal reforms of the mid-nineteenth century. Thompson demonstrates the significance of justice to an Islamic worldview that developed in tandem with the European Enlightenment, but was not a derivative of it. [End Page 618]

The book then details how the program of Istanbul’s ruling class was translated into “vernacular visions of social justice” (p. 53) by the peasants of Mount Lebanon, and liberal constitutional movements in Egypt and Iran. While European consular pressures limited the ability of the Ottoman state to implement broad political transformations (as demanded by Tanyus Shahin discussed in chapter two), the restrictions imposed by colonial powers are more explicit in the narratives of Ahmed Urabi and Nazem al-Islam Kermani. Thompson suggests similarities between the rise of a new educated middle-class demanding rights and equality with revolutionary transformations in Mexico, Russia, and China at roughly the same time.

The heart of the book lies in the second section (chapters four through eight) covering the period from 1920–1965. During this time, Thompson demonstrates how middle-class requests for participatory governance were ignored by the Great Powers at the end of World War I, and subsequently rejected by more populist movements. Justice was then reconceptualized as alternately prioritizing national sovereignty, Islamic justice, and social equality. Nationalism, too, became “a new model of justice” with the moral imperative of ensuring the survival of the ethnic-based nation (p. 149). I found these chapters rich and compelling whether focused on the Turkish writer and nationalist Halide Edib, or the politics of David Ben-Gurion and Musa Kazim in Mandate Palestine. Thompson explains how the primacy of defending national sovereignty contributed to the popularity of strong political leaders, and how Zionist claims of a “higher moral principle” were meant to justify the ethno-religious exclusivity of their proposed state (p. 130).

Even though religious beliefs interacted with and informed political ideals, particularly those embraced by liberals, another departure of the inter-war years is the emphasis on “Islam as a distinct and superior mode of justice” (p. 152). This was clearly the case in Hasan al-Banna’s ability to build a night school and a weekly newspaper in the 1930s into a nationwide network of community organizations, schools, health clinics, and welfare offices making the Muslim Brotherhood into a mass movement by the 1950s. Alongside his anti-colonialism and a devotion to the Egyptian nation, Banna articulated a vision of a modern government based on Islamic principles. In Iraq, the Communist Party under the leadership of Comrade Fahd mobilized workers and students into a popular revolt against British imperial rule, with such wide popular appeal that it continued to be a force in Iraqi politics long after his death. Similarly, Akram al-Hourani’s attention to rural conditions and economic injustice gained widespread popular support severely challenging the power of Syria’s...


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pp. 618-620
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