Posts Tagged ‘Islamists’

Commentary: Egypt’s Impending(?) Coup

July 8, 2013

While I primarily seek to address philosophical and theological topics, sometimes I just want to write about politics.  I do try to apply my theological, philosophical and scholarly training to the situations I analyze.  I hope you enjoy, and maybe find something useful. 

Commentary:  Egypt’s Impending(?) Coup

Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.  Mark 12:17  (NRSV)

 

 

            I recently read an article on President Morsi’s failure as a leader, and how it has led Egypt to the brink of political collapse.  The author, Amotz Asa-el, argues that Morsi’s mistake was the same that John McCain made in 2008:  failure to recognize the importance of economics.[1]  It occurred to me that this seems to be a chronic problem for religious politicians, whether Muslim Brotherhood or the GOP.  —–“Now stop right there!  The GOP is nothing like the Muslim Brotherhood.  They aren’t trying to overthrow democracy or impose a state religion; they defend democracy and the Constitution from bloated government budgets and power-grabbing.” —- Yes, you are right.  There has been a lot of loose talk for years equating Republicans with the Taliban, as if killing a boy for flying a kite was somehow morally equivalent to offering tuition vouchers for parents who want to send their children to religiously-run private schools.  The GOP is not the Taliban.  For that matter, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the Taliban, either.  But in the politics of the Religious Right in the USA, there are faint echoes of other, more blatantly theocratic voices; and the lessons we can gain from Morsi might help the GOP as it undertakes its much-publicized self-analysis.  More importantly, though, it might help all of us understand our world and ourselves a little better.

First, liberals need to admit that Republicans are not trying to establish a theocracy.  Conservatives need to admit that there are many Americans, called “Christian Dominionists” or “Christian Reconstructionists,” who do openly express the desire to use the Constitutional protections of free speech and freedom of religion to, in their own words, overthrow that same Constitution and establish a Christian theocracy; and furthermore, much of the Religious Right supports their agenda either entirely or in part, and the Religious Right in turn is the driving force among “social conservatives” within the Republican Party, so the views and policies of Christian Dominionism have an inordinate influence within the GOP even when the true agenda of the original purveyors of those ideas is not recognized.  It is as absurd to say “Republicans are Christian Taliban” as it is to say “No Christian Taliban are Republicans.”  If “Christian Taliban” is popular shorthand for Christians who wish to impose a rigid, intolerant version of Christianity on the rest of the nation, either by force or initially through more subtle means, then there are “Christian Taliban” in the U.S. who are politically active within the Republican Party today; and there are many more who would not endorse their whole agenda or welcome the Dominionist end-game, but who wittingly or unwittingly ally with key parts of their agenda to impose their version of “God’s Kingdom” upon the individuals and social institutions of this nation (such as weakening “the kingdom of education” through government financial support of private schools and home-schooling, with the ultimate intention to replace public education).

So let’s admit that there are some relevant parallels between the methods and intentions of Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and some U.S. Republicans.  Both groups are religiously motivated, and look to the next world rather than this one for their ultimate validation.  Both believe that God has called them to use the political structures of secular democracy to establish a society that is more “scripturally based,” though they disagree somewhat on what that means.  And while they disagree as to which Scriptures should provide the foundation for society’s laws and policies, the actual policies they advocate are very similar:  suppression of homosexuality, government control of women’s reproduction,[2] suppressing pornography,[3] suppression of scientific research and teaching,[4] laissez-faire capitalism,[5] and above all, suppression of religious nonconformism.[6]  If a government is in place that will enforce proper values, God will be pleased and will bless the nation; so this-worldly solutions to problems like economic decline, environmental collapse or crime are misguided and unnecessary.[7]  If a large portion of society seems to disagree and social unrest increases, that just shows how much we need to impose Godly rule on society; democracy leads to pluralism and disagreement, but if everyone would just convert to one religious code then all social unrest would cease.  Besides, if I have declared myself and my friends as the Party of God, then anyone who opposes us is not just a political rival with different economic or moral theories; my opponents are ungodly, evil, symptoms of the cancer that is threatening our culture, and compromise with them risks drawing down the wrath of God upon myself and the nation.

            I had written up to this point when the “threatened” coup became an actual “coup?” depending on the speaker.  Whether diplomats call it a “coup” or not, we philosophers of a pragmatic streak tend to fall back on the logical principle, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck and lays eggs like a duck, it’s a duck.”  I’m seeing just now an interesting op-ed piece on the New York Times editorial web page, that is agreeing with much of what I had thought about the Egyptian situation.[8]  I am particularly struck by an argument which the author, David Brooks, borrowed from another author:  that the Muslim Brotherhood, and any Islamist, simply denies causality since to imply the world was a causal system would diminish God’s power.  Instead, the Islamist simply rejects any fact that does not feel right.  To switch to a Colbertism, the Islamist embraces truthiness rather than truth.  My concern is that this is a universal trait of all religious ideologues, and that this same trait now drives much American politics, and that if we wish to understand ourselves or others we must understand the problems with religious politics.  But I digress.

Morsi was done in by the fact that he is not a big fan of facts; he’s a big fan of principles, theological principles, having little connection to the rule of the material world he was attempting to govern.  My contention is that Morsi’s ignoring of economic realities is of one cloth with other religious conservatives who ignore science or history at their whim (and their peril).  A second problem with theocratic politics is that it protects incompetence in both theology and politics.  A good example of this is Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr.[9]  Sadr was never a good seminary student, never much of a theologian, but he had his father’s fame and his Iranian political connections to fall back on; in American terms, he sounds like the classic legacy student.  These connections allowed him to build a political party and a brutal militia.  And while the Sadrists were able to provide street-level services almost as well as the Americans could (and used their military force to prevent the Americans from providing better health and other basic aid to the people of Iraq, thus eliminating that source of competition), they were never very good at the basic work of government; but because so many of their followers are motivated by religious loyalty and piety rather than practical concerns, they have a solid political base.  So Sadr covers for his theological incompetence with political clout, and hides his political failures under his religious mantle.  He is not, however, the only current political leader to combine poor theology and poor management into a successful career, either in or out of the Middle East.

And thirdly, this is indeed poor theology.  “Theology” is the attempt to take the religious revelations and teachings about the divine and present them in some sort of rational structure.  Any sincere religious individual or community has had experiences where the simple, nursery-school theology that equates God with Santa Claus (or the djinn in the lamp, or whatever premodern, paganish gift-giving spirit is recognized in the culture) did not match up with the felt experience.  Ultimately, in most major religions this leads to an attempt to set religious experience in a wider cosmic context, seeking to see the value of what is because it is while still seeking to make it better.  Evil and suffering become not just uncomfortable facts to be ignored or misfortunes to be blamed on outsiders who don’t believe as “we” do; they become challenges both to our own egocentrism and our own moral complacency, calling us both to humility and to moral action.  But the same religious thinking that rejects causality also seeks to put God in a nice theological box, as if God alone were the only reality we could causally understand; if I do x, God will inevitably do y.  If I drive out the gays, God will protect the nation for hurricanes and terrorist attacks.  If I drive out the Christians, God will inevitably restore the nation to material prosperity and to its rightful, righteous place as the head of a worldwide caliphate.  If I commit suicide while killing a bunch of God’s enemies (who, big surprise, are also the very people I would have gladly killed on my own time), God will reward me with all the good things of this world which I didn’t have but always lusted after (the ascetic Muslim fanatic sees God as a pimp who will provide unlimited sex, while the humble Christian sees God as a political powerbroker who will make him a ruler in the Kingdom of Heaven, with a golden crown and a gleaming throne).  Instead of submitting to God’s will, the theocratic believer temporarily submits to God in order to get God to submit to him later.  That’s not piety or love; that’s trading.  Piety says, “Many of the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” and yet still strives to be one of the good ones who is “first” not out of an expectation of always being “first,” but only out of love for the universe and its source and a desire to contribute to the task.

Both the Islamists and the American social conservatives have these shared traits:  a rejection of the causal laws and material requirements of this world while simultaneously demanding rulership of this world; a tendency towards political and theological mediocrity while using power in one sphere to impose its will in the other; and a fetishism that seeks to turn the numinous and the holy into a lucky charm giving power to attain quite worldly and egocentric satisfactions.  Morsi’s problems were, thus, “in the cards,” as an idiom based on another such fetishism would put it.  Does that mean his overthrow is a good thing?  Or is it the death of democracy in Egypt, and perhaps in the Arab world?

What is democracy?  I would say that it is primarily a mechanism to prevent civil war, by allowing political disagreements and struggles to be carried out through political mechanisms rather than by force of arms.  When the will of the majority is the guiding principle of the nation, and the desires of majorities are sufficiently met so that they still feel themselves to be part of the ongoing national project, the society works.  The Muslim Brotherhood loved the part about the will of the majority being the ruling power, as long as they were the majority; but there were many other groups that still had both a vested interest in Egypt’s national project and the power to express their desires.  When the democratic processes were not sufficient to allow the Christians, the liberal secularists, the middle class in general to participate in the life of the nation, the official democratic structure was overthrown.  But that does not necessarily mean a more informal democracy is not in action.  In the U.S. we went through a period of anti-sedition laws, the Whiskey Rebellion, and other crises before we hit upon the Bill of Rights, including free speech and Church/State separation, to protect the rights of minorities while respecting the will of the majority.  We still had a Civil War, which many millions felt was the death of democracy in America as the anti-slavery forces imposed their will by force upon people who thought their property rights over other people were both God-given and democratically established.  Democracy survived and grew despite, and even because of this breakdown in democracy.

I regret the coup in Egypt.  As someone more knowledgeable than I said some years ago, the Islamists have to be allowed into the democratic process, allowed to implement their policies, and shown to fail.  As long as authoritarian means keep them out of power, they can blame the world’s wickedness for everything.  But the Islamist strategy, among diverse groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and even al-Qaeda, has been pretty much the same:  promise an end to the endemic political corruption of their societies and provide basic social services from cooking fuel to hospitals, win elections because of the people’s confidence that they will continue to provide for their social needs, and then use that power to put all those social services on the back burner while the “important” work of earning God’s blessing by banning alcohol and requiring long beards and child marriage becomes the main national agenda.  When the people protest that they signed on because of the promises of social services and not for forced social conformity, the religious longing for a holy war is awakened and the popularly elected theocrats resort to violence and warfare against their “enemies” both domestic and foreign.  It would probably have been better to let the Islamists be defeated in an open election.  But if Egyptians themselves decide that they have learned the lesson themselves and are ready to try for a true democracy, they can still attain a stable and modern society.

And I would say that the social conservatives and Religious Right in this country follow much the same pattern.  In Texas, millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent on repeated special sessions of the state legislature, all in an attempt to ram through the virtual abolition of the right to choose abortion which the Supreme Court of the United States has affirmed is protected by the Constitution.  The party that ran on the promise to save money is now spending it, not on badly needed social services but instead on a political power-play intended to impose a particular religious ruling on others.

Democracy works because it is responsive to the will of the people.  As Amartya Sen argued in his Nobel-prize winning work, democracy is economically more powerful because any democratic system has to provide material prosperity; an authoritarian system can spend money on guns, on largesse for the political elite, on whatever it wants, but democracies have to provide economic development.[10]  And democracy works politically because it creates buy-in among the citizens.  When all, or as good as all feel they have a vested interest in the society and that it respects and represents their interests, there is loyalty among the citizens and a willingness to work within the governmental institutions and informal cultural systems; when sizeable numbers feel alienated and disenfranchised, they are likely to choose to opt out of the social contract through violence, crime and parasitism, or to de facto form a new community and attempt to overthrow their oppressive overlords. Democracy works best when it is a system for seeking consensus, for trying to reach the broadest possible appeal consistent with implementing workable policies; it starts to break down when ideologues and demagogues promise one thing (economic prosperity) but deliver another (shelving economic concerns and focusing instead on winning “the culture wars”).

So is democracy dead in Egypt?  If the Egyptian people believe it is dead.  A true democracy would aim to create buy-in for Islamists, Christians, the poor, the middle class, the wealthy, men, women, everyone.  Democracy used as a tool by theocrats has failed, since consensus and practical solutions to real-world problems was never a priority for Morsi; but that does not necessarily mean it can never work.  Maybe this is more of a reset on the democratic project; I hope so, at any rate.  Only a society that is truly responsive to its people’s needs and in which citizens truly feel a sense of inclusion and joint responsibility can be truly stable.


[2] suppressing abortion of course, but also suppressing birth control generally, while limiting a woman’s ability to work outside the household for the same pay a man would get, and so on.

[3] which always thrives when suppressed, but is more easily controlled by men; look at the widespread prostitution and pornography available both in the Victorian Era and in the 1950’s

[4] specifically paleontology, evolutionary biology, astronomy and anything else that might lead to information conflicting with a prescientific, literalist interpretation of religious scriptures

[5] because socialism is unwarranted government interference on the rights of individuals and undermines the moral and religious value of charity, while government imposition of private virtue supports rather than subverts personal moral worth

[6] because “freedom of religion” means freedom of the right religion from oppression by all others; but freeing others from wrong religion, by law or force, is good; and the Islamist or Dominionist always is certain that his particular brand of religion is the unadulterated “good.”

[7] For example, Pat Robertson famously blamed feminists for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and homosexuals for Hurricane Katrina, because God would have protected us from these things if only the nation had been governed according to the religious teachings of The 700 Club.

[8] David Brooks, “Defending the Coup,” The New York Times July 4, 2013 (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/05/opinion/brooks-defending-the-coup.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0)

[9] Lucky Severson, “Shia-Sunni Conflict,” Religion and Ethics Newsweekly September 29, 2006 (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2006/09/29/september-29-2006-shia-sunni-conflict/1795/)

[10] This works, Dr. Sen argues, if the society is a true democracy, having not only free elections but also a free press, rule of law, and truly free markets not dominated monopolies (either government or private), foreign control (as in colonial India, which he analyzed extensively) or in any other way not really accessible to or controllable by the people themselves.

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