Visiting professor discusses law, religion in Middle East and U.S.

On Wednesday Geneseo hosted guest speaker Hocine Fetni, who delivered "Law and Social Change in the Middle East and North Africa," sparking discussion on the spread of democracy and the role of the United States in the Middle East.

Fetni is a native of Algeria who came to study law in the U.S. and has since become a dual citizen. He has worked with human rights groups to allow those seeking political asylum to enter the U.S. from North Africa.

"It is the law that gives people a sense of hope. It is the law that gives people a sense of security," Fetni said during the opening of his lecture.

"We often take for granted the rule of law, such as the ability to get a passport," he said. "But the reality is, for millions, there is no chance of this happening."

Fetni's lecture primarily focused on the dichotomy between the codified state rule of law and traditional, religious laws, as well as how the interplay of these laws can affect social change.

"Law has trouble altering belief and tradition," he said. "Changing attitudes and beliefs does not happen overnight."

Fetni said that this transition of attitude must occur in order to foster social change using the law. Fetni gave examples related to Islamic law in the Middle East, and also to legal practices in the U.S.

According to Fetni, law in the Middle East and North Africa is divided into financial transactions that use Western law systems and social transactions, which are codified by Islamic texts.

Fetni compared the demands for the integration of religion and law in the Middle East to similar demands the U.S. faces as part of movements to incorporate more Christian elements into legal practices. To further this point, Fetni gave the example of the emphasis by media and politicians in the U.S. on social issues like abortion and gay marriage than on international or financial issues.

Delayed social change is tied to the rise of terrorism, said Fetni, adding that when an oppressed people have no venue through which to protest unfair social conditions, they are easily recruited to terrorist causes. "The only way to fight terrorism is to have democratic institutions," Fetni said.

Fetni concluded his lecture by advocating an end to the American support of corrupt governments. "It's about time we stand up for the rule of law throughout the world," he said.

Fetni's lecture then opened to questions from the students and attention turned to issues related to the United States' involvement abroad.

When asked about the role the United States plays as an exporter of democracy, Fetni criticized the invasion of Iraq as a failure to bring democracy to the Middle East. "There is no one formula that fits all countries," he said, citing the insistence of the Iraqi government to incorporate Islamic law into its doctrine.

Fetni also discussed the American involvement in Afghanistan. "Afghanistan is a place where empires go to die," he said, citing the rampant corruption in the Afghan government as an enormous obstacle.

"I liked the emphasis on the similarities between the Middle East and the United States," said senior Michaela Rahimi.

Fetni is a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has been teaching since 1988.