Apart from celebratory statements applauding what looks like to us democratic “people’s revolutions” against tyrannous autocrats, the uprisings sweeping across the Muslim Middle East have created great uncertainty for policy-makers as they try to calculate a response. Like war, revolutions take place in a “fog” that obscures the motives, loyalties, and demands of the people manning the barricades. Despite our projections of various motives on the revolutionaries––particularly the feel-good words “freedom” and “democracy”–– we simply don’t have enough reliable information about the goals and attitudes of the masses to calculate what sort of states and policies will be standing when the fog clears.
So the question we have difficulty answering is, what do those demonstrating and fighting in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, and Libya want? “Freedom” is the soothing and easy answer, one particularly flattering to us liberal democrats in the West. But there are two kinds of freedom: freedom “from” and freedom “to.” It’s obvious that most of the people rebelling want to achieve freedom “from” kleptocratic autocrats and dictators like Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, who have created what Natan Sharanksy calls “fear societies”: places where the tyrant uses surveillance, censorship, incarceration, torture, and state violence to protect his power and privilege. Even this obvious answer, however, must beware of assuming that all those fighting against such a tyranny are doing so because they believe torture, censorship and the rest are wrong on principle, rather than wrong because they are used by the wrong leader, or for the wrong reasons, or against the wrong people. Remember that the Iranian clerics who brought down the Shah, partly because his secret police imprisoned and tortured political enemies, killed more Iranians in one year than the Savak did in twenty-five.
More interesting and important is the second question: freedom “to” do what? No doubt many of the people want the freedom to make a living without paying bribes, or to improve their standard of living. Apart from these practical issues, though, we in the West automatically assume the answer will be the same things we want to do: speak publicly without fear of penalty, live under the rule of secular law, enjoy public tolerance of different religions and life-styles, experience equality regardless of creed, sex, or color, and pursue our individual notions of happiness without interference from the state. Yet the conflicting information we get from polls does not support such assumptions. In a Pew poll from last year, 59 percent of Egyptians said democracy is preferable to any other kind of government. In that same poll, however, 85% said Islam’s influence on politics is positive, 95% said that it is good that Islam plays a large role in politics, 59% identify with Islamic fundamentalists, 54% favor gender segregation in the workplace, 82% favor stoning adulterers, 77% favor whippings and cuttings off the hands of thieves and robbers, and 84% favor death for those leaving Islam.
These illiberal religious attitudes help to explain recent events in Egypt after Mubarak’s fall, including opening the border with Hamas-controlled Gaza, allowing two Iranian warships to transit the Suez canal, and more worrisome, the Egyptian army’s attack on the Coptic Christian monastery of St. Boula, assaulting three monks. The monks’ crime? Constructing a defensive fence to protect themselves from attacks by armed robbers and escaped prisoners. Also attacked were the St. Makarios and St. Bishoy monasteries, likewise for building defensive barriers. Such actions by the Egyptian army may sound irrational to us Western secularist democrats, but in Islamic law, Christian sacred buildings cannot be built, repaired, or altered without permission. Clearly, people who support this much religious interference in society and government are not going to be champions of democratic freedom and confessional tolerance as we know it.
One reason we fail to understand correctly Muslim attitudes towards the role of religion in the state is that Middle Eastern Muslim apologists have been adept at manipulating the language of liberal democracy and human rights when speaking to credulous or uncritical Westerners. There is no better example of this phenomenon than the 1993 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, written by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an association of 56 Muslim nations. This document is a minefield of duplicity for the unwary Westerner who thinks what Muslims mean by “human rights” is the same thing we mean. But the preamble should disabuse us of this assumption, for it affirms “the civilizing and historical role of the Islamic Ummah [global community of Muslims] which God has made the best nation that has given mankind a universal and well-balanced civilization,” and asserts “the role that this Ummah should play to guide a humanity confused by competing trends and ideologies and to provide solutions to the chronic problems of this materialistic civilization.” Those familiar with the Koran will recognize the reference to the chauvinistic verse 3.110, which calls Muslims “the best of nations raised for the benefit of men.”
In other words, “human rights” in Islam means the right to be a Muslim, to live according to Islamic law, and to spread the superior Muslim faith throughout the world. Once more, such a regime––even if its citizens have the right to vote––will not be a liberal democracy in which all individuals, regardless of creed, will have equal rights, or all enjoy freedom of speech if that speech “blasphemes” Islam or the Prophet, or act on any other right that conflicts with Islamic law.
On this evidence, then, a critical mass of the revolutionaries and their supporters want the freedom “to” institute a state in which Islamic law plays a dominant role in society and government. The implications of such states for U.S. foreign policy in the region of course are immense––for our obligations to Israel, our efforts to rein in Iran, the region’s foremost state sponsor of terror, and our war against jihadist terror. Regarding this last problem, consider that according to the same Pew poll, 54% of Egyptians to some degree consider suicide bombing justified, disagreeing only on whether it should be often, sometimes, or rarely used. But that so many believe it can be used at all should get our attention.
Getting right, then what motives and goals lie behind these uprisings is critical. But to do that we must heed the warnings of the great historian of Soviet totalitarianism, Robert Conquest: “We are still faced with the absolutely crucial problem of making the intellectual and imaginative effort not to project our ideas of common sense or natural motivation onto the products of totally different cultures. The central point is less that people misunderstand other people, or that cultures misunderstand other cultures, than that they have no notion that this may be the case. They assume that the light of their own parochial common sense is enough. And they frame policies based on illusions. Yet how profound is this difference between political psychologies and between the motivations of different political traditions, and how deep-set and how persistent these attitudes are!”
A failure of imagination, not just a failure of intelligence, is now the greatest impediment we face in properly understanding and crafting a response to the political tsunami flooding the Middle East.
(photo credit: Yogev Levy)