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.”