The fall of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak has occasioned all manner of democracy happy-talk in the West. From the Democratic White House to the neo-con Weekly Standard, it is bliss to be alive at the moment that democracy is finally emerging in the Muslim Middle East, with all manner of boons to follow––free elections, respect for human rights, and the marginalization of the so-called religious extremists, all leading to peace and prosperity and the discrediting of Islamism.
But as so many coo, like Shakespeare’s Miranda, “O brave new world, that has such people in’t,” prudence dictates that we respond as Prospero does: “’Tis new to thee.” We’ve been here before, most recently in Iran in June 2009, when another revolution driven by tech-savvy, mostly secularist young people was greeted with the same excitement, only to see the uprising crushed. Go back to 1979, and the Iranian Revolution had its starry-eyed fans in the West, who thought the uprising against the Shah was likewise driven by secularist nationalists, democrats, and socialists seeking self-determination and democratic freedom. Yet within a few years the Khomeinists had triumphed, and an Islamic theocracy came to power and started nurturing and supporting terrorist organizations.
Those misreadings of events in Iran happened because of a failure to understand in their own terms the motives of the majority of Iranians. In 1979, many analysts in the West believed that the keys to hatred of the Shah and his regime were inspired not by religion, but by anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, liberal aspirations, and resistance to an oppressor seen as the puppet of American corporate and nationalist interests. This Western paradigm of post-colonial revolution discounted the role of religion, which in turn caused many to ignore the long-simmering religious opposition to the Shah’s secular regime and its modernizing programs, which were seen as “fundamentally opposed to Islam itself and the existence of a religious class,” as Khomeini it in 1963.
Thirty-two years after the Iranian Revolution, the same failure of imagination continues to compromise our relations with the Muslim Middle East, and inhibits an accurate understanding of Islamic dogma and theology and their relationship to jihadist terror. A few days before Mubarak’s fall, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asserted that the Muslim Brotherhood is “a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried Al Qaeda as a perversion of Islam.” As Barry Rubin and others have noted, this estimate is a fantasy that mistakes tactical duplicity for fundamental beliefs. Cut through all the sweet talk of Western journalists and jihadist apologists, however, and those beliefs remain the same: waging jihad against the West in order to establish an Islamic regime based on shari’a law.
But let’s not pick on James Clapper, for he is merely one of a series of government officials who have misrepresented the Islamic roots of jihadist outfits like al Qaeda. In August 2009, John Brennan, Obama’s assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, dismissed the Islamic roots of jihadism: “Nor does President Obama see this challenge as a fight against ‘jihadists.’ Describing terrorists in this way—using a legitimate term, ‘jihad,’ meaning to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal—risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve.” Nor should we just target Democrats: Bush administration officials indulged the same wishful thinking. In a New York Times op-ed in June 2008, two administration members wrote that jihad is “a quest to find one’s faith or an external fight for justice,” begging the question of what sort of “justice” Muslims have in mind.
So too in Egypt today, we need to avoid assuming the majority wants what we think of as political freedom, which assumes that universal human rights are innate to all humans and thus cannot be limited or withheld from citizens. Maybe some of the young professionals texting and tweeting in Tahrir Square believe that, but it’s the rest of the 85 million Egyptians whose beliefs will shape the new government and its policies. And the best available evidence suggests that those millions share many of the Islamist goals of the Muslim Brothers. For example, in a Pew survey last year, 84% of Egyptians support the death penalty for apostates, and 82% support stoning adulterers. These are not beliefs consistent with the foundational principles of democracy.
Given our history of misinterpretation, willful delusion, and sheer ignorance when it comes to Islam, then, it behooves us to exercise prudence and temper our hosannas about events in Egypt, and let the evidence of behavior and actions guide us rather than our wishful thinking. One sign to watch is the treatment of Egypt’s Christian Copt minority. No regime that limits, as Egypt does, the right of its citizens freely to pursue spiritual happiness without government interference can legitimately be called democratic, no matter how many fair elections are held. Before we start singing paeans to democracy in Egypt, let’s see if democratic principles, not democratic machinery like elections, manifest themselves not in words, but in action.
(photo credit: Ramy Raoof)