In America and in Egypt, should a majority religion inspire political life? How will Islam play a role in the struggles for democracy happening now in Egypt and other parts of the Muslim world?
All societies present an entangled mesh of values, with many contradictions that never get sorted out. In America, religion is a particularly tangled strand, and despite the Founding Fathers’ clear intention to provide freedom of religion and the separation of church and state, some Americans insist on re-arguing the point continuously. In their vehemence they contradict another typical value that they hold, an irrational worship of the Constitution. But that’s how society is meant to be when people elect to be free.
The case of Egypt, as it convulses toward becoming a democracy, is similar and at the same time radically different. The sad truth is that a tiny sliver of the rich, privileged, and Westernized — the very people the West thinks are "just like us" — deserve to be overthrown. They took unconscionable advantage of their privileges, imposing repression on the bottom 90% of society. No one seems to dispute that it’s time for Egypt to play catch up with the rest of the world and its long trend toward democracy.
Yet this raises the bugaboo of the Islamist factions, the religious conservatives who see the U.S. as a sworn enemy of their faith. The West was burned by the Iranian revolution and its steady drive toward anti-Western belligerence, along with its support for terrorism and the chimera of a world where every country bows to the Prophet Muhammad. A leading expert of the Arab world, Bernard Lewis, years ago predicted that if popular uprisings succeeded in toppling the dictatorships that span from the top of Africa throughout the Middle East, the new governments would be dominated by religious fundamentalism. It was a dark prophecy, and it remains the most feared prospect as viewed by the U.S. We called for elections in Palestine, only to punish the Palestinians when they chose Hamas as their ruling party. We fled Lebanon in the midst of religious strife. We stood by helplessly as Iran moved in the wrong direction, and now many see the Shiite clerics gaining a strong hold in Iraq, hiding discreetly behind the scene.
This is a long preamble to saying that Muhammad cannot be kept out of Arab politics. The Westward-looking elites in the Arab world are secular — even Saddam was secular — but they hold power by brutal means. Ironically, it was the economic rise of Egypt and Tunisia in recent years that has largely fueled the discontent in the streets, for suddenly, as in India, the poorest people see a glimmer of hope for achieving dignity and economic progress. Even so, religion will be a big part of the mix. On one side, Egypt watchers tell us that the Muslim Brotherhood won’t take over the country; one is reminded of Iraq watchers who assured the neocons that invading Iraq wouldn’t lead to religious strife, given how secular that country was.
The root that runs deepest in every Arab country is Islam, and one of the ideals of the faith is that everything in life — art, politics, law, and daily habits — must revolve around God’s strict rules. Having written a book about the Prophet, my immersion into Islam showed me, with regret, that their is a fine line between what the religious conservatives want, which is religious totalism, and what the Taliban delivered in Afghanistan, which is religious totalitarianism. I have no predictions about Egypt, which was founded by Nasser as a modern secular state on the basis of Arab nationalism. We can only stand by and see how the entangled mesh of values in Egypt unravels. The worst of one system may give way to the worst of its opposite — let’s hope not.
Published in the Washington Post/On Faith