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.