The parliamentary elections that have begun in Egypt will impress only the most starry-eyed of democracy champions. These are the people who, like Senator Joe Lieberman, think that the “Arab Spring” is all about people “demanding lives of democracy, dignity, economic opportunity, and involvement in the modern world.” What we’ve seen so far instead is the growing success of Islamist parties demanding a greater role for Islam and shari’a law in running their countries. Our failure of imagination that has reduced events in the Middle East to our own historical paradigms and ideals continues to compromise our foreign policy in that region, and endanger our national interests.
For example, since we prize freedom, human rights, separation of church and state, and tolerance for a variety of ways for individuals to pursue happiness, we think everybody else values or defines those ideas the same way we do. But what we call freedom, many Muslims see as a soul-destroying license and destructive self-indulgence. As the Ayatollah Khomeini preached in 1979, such Western-style freedom is a “freedom that will corrupt our youth, freedom that will pave the way to the oppressor, freedom that will drag our nation to the bottom.” Decades earlier, Muslim Brothers theorist Sayyid Qutb, along with Khomeini the most critical influence on neo-jihadism, likewise had scorned Western “individual freedom, devoid of human sympathy and responsibility for relatives.” Similarly, al Qaeda theorist Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote, “The freedom we want is not the freedom to use women as commodities … it is not the freedom of AIDS and an industry of obscenities and homosexual marriage.” For the faithful, true freedom is the freedom to live as an observant Muslim in harmony with Allah’s precepts, something far different from what we in the West mean by political freedom. So too with our ideal of human rights, which in Islamic terms means the right to be a faithful Muslim without any interference. That’s why Article 24 of the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam reads, “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’a.”
This failure to imagine the world-view of those unlike us is worsened by our failure to understand that “democracy” is more than just the mechanics of voting. As G.K. Chesterton said, “We shall have real Democracy, when … the ordinary man will decide not only how he will vote, but what he is going to vote about.” The evidence of elections in the Middle East so far––in Algeria, Gaza, Lebanon, and Tunisia, which have all seen Islamist parties triumph––suggests that most ordinary Muslims want democracy not to institutionalize Western goods and ideals such as personal freedom, individual rights, or tolerance for minorities, but to integrate more thoroughly Islam and shari’a into government. In Egypt this is the explicit program of the organization poised for success in the democratic elections, the Muslim Brothers. Their 2007 draft platform proclaimed that “Islam is the official state religion” and “the Islamic shari’a is the main source for legislation.” Nor are these demands for more religion in government coming just from a well-organized, unified minority. In a Pew poll from 2010, 85% of Egyptians said Islam’s influence on politics is positive, 95% said that it is good that Islam plays a large role in politics, 59% identified with Islamic fundamentalists, 54% favored gender segregation in the workplace, 82% favored stoning adulterers, 77% favored whippings and cutting off the hands of thieves and robbers, and 84% favored death for those leaving Islam.
Nor will we see in Egypt the sort of religious tolerance sanctioned by the Western separation of church and state. So far this year, 80 Christian Copts have been murdered, some by soldiers, and their churches attacked and destroyed. The intolerance that breeds such violence finds its sanction in traditional Islam, at least according to Sheik Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Cairo’s prestigious Al Azhar University. Gomaa calls Christians “infidels” and quotes the Koran’s injunction to “Fight … the People of the Book [Jews and Christians] until they pay the Jizya [tribute] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” This faith-sanctioned intolerance explains why only 48% of Egyptians look favorably on Christians, despite the presence of 8 million Christian Copts, and a scant 2% look favorably on Jews. It is hard to see how a liberal democracy as we understand it can flourish in such an environment of intolerance.
Given these faith-based attitudes, if a majority of Egyptians democratically vote for policies that will incorporate the prescriptions from shari’a into government policies and laws, the result will not be anything close to what we mean when we extol democracy and human rights.
Even more important than our simplistic view of democracy, and our blindness to the incompatibility of democratic principles with Islam, is our failure to acknowledge how much more significant religion is for Muslim identity than it is for ours: “In most Islamic countries,” historian Bernard Lewis writes, “religion remains a major political factor,” for “most Muslim countries are still profoundly Muslim, in a way and in a sense that most Christian countries are no longer Christian … in no Christian country at the present time can religious leaders count on the degree of belief and participation that remains normal in Muslim lands … Christian clergy do not exercise or even claim the kind of public authority that is still normal and accepted in most Muslim countries.” A Pew poll from this year confirms the truth of this observation in Egypt, where 46% of Egyptians identified themselves as Muslims first, while only 31% identified themselves as Egyptians first.
Despite all this evidence for the powerful role of religion in Muslim identity, we continue to understand the Muslim Middle East and jihadism in terms of our own categories and ideals. Thus we have tried to explain Middle Eastern political and social dysfunctions of the last 80 years in terms of nationalism, fascism, communism, economic failure, and now the illiberal dictators whose overthrow will presumably usher in a springtime of liberal democracy and political freedom that will eliminate the conditions creating jihadist terror. But all these Western-imported ideologies and explanations do not find traction with most Muslims, who see their problems as resulting from a crisis in Islam that has allowed peoples who once trembled at Allah’s armies to dominate the world. As Lewis points out, since Islam’s retreat in the 17th century in the face of European penetration of Muslim lands, “the most characteristic, significant, and original political and intellectual responses to that penetration have been Islamic. They have been concerned with the problems of the faith and the community overwhelmed by infidels.” This observation was confirmed recently by the Muslim Brothers Supreme Guide Muhammad al-Badi’: “The Muslim nation has the means [to bring about] improvement and change … It knows the way, the methods, and the road signs, and it has a practical role model in Allah’s Messenger, [the Prophet Muhammad] … who clarified how to implement the values of the [Koran] and the Sunna at every time and in every place.” Al-Badi’ further explains that this “change” will be brought about not by democracy, but by jihad: all Muslim regimes “crucially need to understand that the improvement and change that the [Muslim] nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death just as the enemies pursue life.” Democratic elections thus are a means to an end, not the end itself. As Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan puts it, “Democracy is like a train. We shall get out when we arrive at the station we want.”
Starting with Iran, for over 30 years we have misunderstood the Middle East because we have refused to acknowledge the role of Islam as the central dynamic of most Muslim hearts and minds. Now we are indulging the magical powers attributed to “democracy” and “freedom” to continue avoiding that truth. As a result, we have colluded in the overthrow of rulers like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who at least served our interests, in favor of Islamist groups explicitly hostile to them, as we may soon find out when democratically elected, illiberal Islamic regimes increasingly pursue policies that threaten our security and interests.
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