Posts Tagged ‘“Don’t View Egypt’s Coup with a Western Lens”’

Commentary: Egypt’s Coup (addendum)

July 10, 2013


            In an op-ed essay in July 9th’s Christian Science Monitor, Professor Nader Hashemi warns us, “Don’t View Egypt’s Coup with a Western Lens.”[1]  He observes that many Western liberals have been quick to celebrate the Egyptian military’s choice to remove the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood government from power, as this government had proven itself to be not only incompetent but also authoritarian and repressive.  Instead, Western liberals want a government more, well, Western:  secular, egalitarian, respecting classic liberal values of personal freedom.  Since the Muslim Brotherhood opposes many of these modern, secular values and liberal culture on principle, their overthrow means freedom for the Egyptians.  If I understand his argument, we could imagine that the citizens of the United States, or the European Union or some other modern secular state woke up tomorrow to find that some theocracy had overthrown centuries of democratic progress and imposed religious law on the secular and individualistic majority.  Of course we would see a “coup” by our military not as treason or a threat to democracy, but as a defense of the democratic national heritage.  Nader argues, however, that this image is wrong-headed.  The Muslim world, by and large, has no such history of democratic institutions.  It has to work out for itself how to develop those institutions and traditions.  It is a different culture, and the only way it is going to evolve into a truly democratic and modern world is through the expression (and eventual exhaustion) of Islamist politics.  These are the political institutions that have been there for the people when their authoritarian governments were more interested in oppression and self-aggrandizement than in governing; naturally, these are the parties that the people will turn to first to try to establish a government based on a popular mandate.  If they reveal themselves to be incompetent, then the people will vote them out, and themselves grow in the process as they learn about democracy by exercising democratic rights and responsibilities.

            Arguably, my own essay here falls into that trap.  I have been first struck not by the differences between the Muslim world and our own political situation, but by the parallels.  I still believe those parallels are real, but if we want to understand the Arab Spring and its ramifications, we need to remember that it is an Arab Spring, and that its results will be and must be Arabic.  And despite large Christian populations in Egypt and Palestine and Lebanon, and smaller Christian populations elsewhere, and Western-influenced secular liberals in many cities, that Arabic culture is Muslim.

            While I really have little to add to Dr. Hashemi’s discussion of Muslim politics, I would suggest that perhaps our problem is deeper than he suggests.  We not only fail to understand Muslim history and politics; we misunderstand our own.  Let’s take a minute to remember our own journey towards the Western, liberal, secular world we inhabit today.  Before the American Revolution, all major European powers were dominated by authoritarian monarchies with state-sponsored religions, persecution of minorities, legalized slavery and patriarchalism.  In fact, the only real difference between Muslim and European nations was that Muslims were generally more tolerant of Jews and black-skinned peoples than Europeans were.  While the Enlightenment had led to the ideas of Church/State separation and equal rights for all, those were mostly just ideas.  Muslims enslaved Christians, Christians enslaved non-Christians, everyone enslaved women—-Muslim women had more legal rights than Christian women, but still fewer rights than men.

            The social forces unleashed by the Reformation and Enlightenment finally led to an attempt to found a nation based on the ideals of religious freedom and equal rights for all citizens.  However, it was hardly a straight path.  Under the Articles of Confederation, even freedom of religion was not guaranteed; states passed laws repressing some religions and promoting others (it being “the Presbyterian Insurrection,” it was good to be Presbyterian, or Episcopalian or some other establishment religion; riff-raff like the Baptists were suppressed).  After the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the U.S. Constitution we have today, individual rights were somewhat better protected; but until the Bill of Rights was passed years later, freedom of speech and religion were not fully protected.  Most likely, the sort of “I need my gun to protect me from the government” language common today would have been illegal under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, passed even after the “right to free speech” was supposedly protected.  In addition to this restriction on the rights of citizens, the majority of Americans were denied citizenship altogether.  Millions were enslaved because of the color of their skin; even more were enslaved because of the shape of their genitals.  Women were not allowed to vote, were often banned or restricted from owning personal property, could not work to support themselves but were instead assumed to be supported and governed by a male protector:  a father, husband or older brother.  A woman who worked could count on making less than a man might make for the same work, if it were a job open to both (such as teacher), possibly being fired if she married, and if she did work after marriage her wages belonged to her husband.  And if were white and male, you still could be denied the right to vote if you didn’t own enough property; voting was too important to be trusted to the poor.  Slavery only officially ended after the Civil War, but Reconstruction was effectively a time of terrorist insurgency that sought for the next hundred years to create shadow institutions of government that would resist full emancipation.  No one got elected in the South, I was told as a child in the 1960’s, without at least the tacit endorsement of the Klu Klux Klan.  And even if much of the nation did allow non-whites to vote and work freely, the right to vote was withheld from American women until 1920.

            So, officially, non-whites had to wait until about ninety years after the American Revolution to gain the right to vote, and women had to wait nearly one-hundred and fifty years.  It wasn’t until our third President, Thomas Jefferson, that we even admitted that the minority who were allowed to vote should also be allowed to speak freely, even if their speech sounded subversive to the federal government.  It took us nearly one-hundred and eighty years to fully implement the abolition of slavery in Southern states.  And we expect Arabs, who have lived under increasingly authoritarian and oppressive regimes for centuries, to become secular democracies, with complete freedom of speech and religion and complete equality of all gender and ethnic groups, in one year?  We got to make mistakes and fail miserably to uphold “government by the people, of the people, for the people” for nearly two centuries, but we lose patience with others after six months?

            The only way to learn to be free is to be free.  Being colonized by a free country does not teach a people to be free any more than being chained to a post in the yard of a marathon runner can make one a runner.  At most, it can make you envious of the one who exercises such freedom as you cannot, and make you long to try yourself one day.  But when that day comes, you will have to work the kinks out of your muscles on your own.  And it may be a long and painful process, and it may be frustrating and pitiful to watch to someone who sees you failing and doing it wrong and making mistakes he or she made already.  And you may never really succeed.  But the only way is to try to do it yourself.  And that is what Western nations have to remember as they watch emerging democracies taking their slow, hesitant, unbalanced steps towards freedom and the rule of reason.  That doesn’t mean we can’t help them when they fall, but we have to let them get up and try again in their own way, as we did.


     The latest headlines say “hundreds dead in violent crackdown.”  I think it’s too soon to give up all hope for Egypt, but this is clearly an appalling development.  Egypt needs to find a way to give Islamists, moderate secular Muslims and even non-Muslims a voice—Egypt has a very large Christian minority, and is home to one of the oldest branches of Christianity.  Given that Islam came to Egypt at swordpoint and the land became Christian voluntarily under the Roman Empire before the persecutions had even ceased, you could argue that Christianity is more a native religion than is Islam.  So Christians deserve a voice, but the majority is Muslim; the only point here is that in Egypt, Christianity is not the religion of the colonizer but is rather a religion of the people, even if it is a minority of the people.

     Reports of semi-military gangs of Muslim Brotherhood youth terrorizing Christian neighborhoods, painting crosses on Christian stores and so on are likewise appalling.  The Muslim Brotherhood is behaving exactly like the German Nazi party.  If you want to show you are defending your culture, don’t imitate the worst examples of an oppressor culture that considered yours to be subhuman.  But if the Muslim Brotherhood is imitating Nazism in its infancy, the Egyptian military is imitating Mubarek at his full-grown worst.  At this rate, by the time there are democratic elections, there will be so much blood spilled and so many who feel violated and victimized that it will take years to heal the wounds to Egyptian society.  Earlier, I compared this to the bumpy road our American Revolution traveled; but now it seems to more like the European Reformation, with the Muenster revolt and the Peasants’ War and so on.

I doubt the Muslim Brotherhood would be very grateful if we stood up and supported their democratic right to rule as the winners of the most free election Egypt has ever seen.  Still, they did win, and they do represent a large portion of Egyptian society despite their manifest ineptitude in the practical tasks of running a government.  Egypt needs them to be part of the national conversation.  And historically, Islamist politicians oppressed in Egypt have later caused trouble worldwide—some of al Qaeda’s leadership began as Islamist politicians who turned to terrorism after a stint in Mubarek’s prisons.  Government brutality fosters terrorism, and often only succeeds in driving the terrorists out of their country of origin to become global jihadi.  We need Egypt to return to the path of dialogue as much as Egypt needs this.

[1] Nader Hashemi, “Don’t View Egypt’s Coup with a Western Lens,” July 9, 2013  (