Power Punk: Noah Feldman

N.Y.U. law professor reviews Afghan constitution; After Jihad author is nice Jewish Muslim expert in black leather ankle boots.

When you’re a nice Jewish boy with a Ph.D. in Islamic thought from Oxford who teaches at New York University Law School and advises the United States government on how to bring democracy to the Muslim world, you just never know what’s going to come across your desk.

On a recent afternoon, Noah Feldman was in his N.Y.U. office inspecting two recent arrivals: the latest batch of hate mail, and a draft of the Afghan constitution sent by the U.S. State Department for his perusal.

He seemed proud of both. “I’m glad to put in my two cents,” Mr. Feldman said cheerily, referring to the constitution. His assessment? Not bad, but “it needs a clearer guarantee about no coercion in religion,” he said: It guarantees religious liberty to non-Muslims, but never spells out that the same guarantee for Muslims.

Dr. Feldman, 33, has studied Arabic since he was a teenager. These days, his scholarly interest is serving him better than he imagined when he graduated from Yale Law School in 1997. Then again, even if the world hadn’t changed with Sept. 11, the former Rhodes Scholar had other credentials: clerking for Supreme Court Justice David Souter-“a prince among men”-and, before that, Chief Judge Harry Edwards of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Well before Sept. 11, 2001-at the time of the attacks he was flying on the shuttle from Boston to New York, in his first month of teaching at N.Y.U.-Mr. Feldman had traveled widely in the Muslim world and written on the need to support democracy there. After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this spring, and Mr. Feldman frequently contributes op-ed articles to The New York Times .

Mr. Feldman, a centrist, is ultimately palatable to both the left and right. He seems more eager to make friends and doesn’t want to be defined by his enemies. “First of all, I don’t think I have enemies,” he said. He divides his critics into two camps: those who think he’s “too optimistic about the capacities for democracy and Islam to interact,” and others-especially on the left-who say he’s “an apologist for an imperialist foreign policy that calls itself ‘exporting democracy’ but is really about imposing U.S. will-and as far as Iraq is concerned, that we’re doing it by force.” He said both “perfectly reasonable” positions didn’t capture the complexities of reality. “There are 1.2 billion Muslims, most of whom are not living under free and democratic governments, and if we don’t take seriously the possibility that their religious faith will be engaged with democracy, where will we be then?” he asked.

Dr. Feldman speaks quickly, in perfectly formed paragraphs, with the casual ease of someone raised in the world of debate and conversation. The child of academics, he grew up in Cambridge. A graduate of the Maimonides School, a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Brookline, Mass., Mr. Feldman majored in Near Eastern languages and civilizations at Harvard. When he scored the Rhodes, he chose ChristChurch as the most Oxford-y. “When you go to Disneyland, you gotta go to Magic Mountain,” he said.

Dressed in rust-colored corduroy pants, zip-up black leather ankle boots and a tweed jacket, Dr. Feldman is a bit of a style dog for an academic. His wife, Jeannie Suk, is clerking for Justice Souter this year. He splits his time between N.Y.U. and Washington, D.C. The Supreme Court for Noah Feldman? “It’s not an aspiration reasonable people hold,” he responded. “It’s like saying you want to walk on the moon. What I want to do is make … a small contribution to the world of ideas-and if I get a chance to do public service, to do it.”

-Rachel Donadio