It was very sad and unfortunate to see Egypt descend into mob violence earlier this week. With the entire world watching, the protestors had, up until now, conducted themselves remarkably well and inspired millions of people around the world, Muslim and non. Whatever its cause, I pray that the Egyptians return to the way of peaceful civil disobedience and set a standard of moral excellence that future democratic revolutions can emulate.
In spite of today’s conflagration, the people of Egypt have a historic opportunity to create an indigenous and authentic democratic government, one that will show the entire world that Muslims are indeed capable of aligning themselves with a genuine democracy committed to the highest principals. It would be truly awesome to see a democratic Egypt; one that while recognizing Israel’s right to exist and remain secure within its pre-1967 borders, insisted upon a fair and equitable two-state solution–a position the entire world subscribes to. One that was not “anti-Israel” for its own sake but rather because it was genuinely committed to human rights and the rule of law, and recognized that innocent Palestinians have suffered long enough. One that was opposed to any hint of war with Iran. One that would inspire the Arab and Muslim world to set aside its petty differences and unite as One. One that had a robust and honest foreign policy that would not succumb to foreign pressures but rather answered the calls of its people. And perhaps most importantly, one that gave every citizen in Egyptian society equal protection under the law and committed itself to investing in the country’s future– education, civic institutions, health care, and technology.
It would be wrong and premature to say that I am certain of this, but the more I reflect on it my belief is that a Muslim with leader with a strong “secular” bent is in the best interests of the Muslim world. Indeed, after the Prophet (pbuh) and the four rightly-guided caliphs, and perhaps Salah ud-din, Muslim rulers throughout history have been nominal Muslims at best, many of whom were profligates who indulged in drink and philandering. Despite their excesses, they were intelligent enough to empower elements of the religious class, give them a degree of autonomy, and most importantly, enabled them to participate in the political process. This was especially true during the Umayyad and Abbasid Islamic dynasties. It seems Mohammed Elbaradei is amenable to such a policy of honest power-sharing. The Muslim Brother are not God’s angels but they–and less so Hezbollah and Hamas–should not be conflated with groups like the Afghanistan and (especially) Pakistan Taliban, which represent the most savage sectarian religious movements in the world today. From what I understand, the Muslim Brotherhood obviously has a strong religious foundation to its political makeup but, as many Western commentators have pointed out, it also has a highly rational and sensible component. Maureen Dowd wrote a piece in the NYT yesterday in which she quoted a conservative thinker, Robert Kagan, who she calls a “neocon and Iraq war advocate.” She writes, quoting Kagan:
“The great fear that people have with Islamist parties is that, if they take part in an election, that will be the last election,” he continued. “But we overlearned that lesson and we need to get beyond that panicky response. There’s no way for us to go through the long evolution of history without allowing Islamists to participate in democratic society.
“What are we going to do — support dictators for the rest of eternity because we don’t want Islamists taking their share of some political system in the Middle East? We’ve got to put our money where our mouth is.
“Obviously, Islam needs to make its peace with modernity and democracy. But the only way this is going to happen is when people speaking for Islam take part in the system. It’s incumbent on Islamists who are elected democratically to behave democratically.”
Here I think Kagan makes good sense. Assuming he wins, Elbaradei and the new Egyptian leadership must demand that, in return for real and honest participation in any new elected government, the Muslim Brotherhood will agree not to overstep its mandate and intrude upon the rights of others. In other words, tell them: yes, absolutely participate in our decision-making process, live your life as Muslims to the fullest extent, without fear of imprisonment and torture chambers but, for the love of God, do not hammer your beliefs down other people’s throats and sow discord and enmity within our nation. Please, behave as Muslims–real Muslims. Conversely, the more secular elements must also agree not to overstep their mandate and agree to a power-sharing arrangement that is in accord with the wishes of the Egyptian people. Concentrated political power of any kind is dangerous, and Egypt’s prior and current secular leaders, particularly Gamal Abdel Nasser, have shown that Islamists do not have a monopoly on ruthlessness and violence.
I employed the phrase “rightly-guided caliphs” quite consciously. The truth is that more often than not, uniting State and religion provides for an extremely deadly combination. One does not need turn to Marx or Bakunin to comprehend that fact: when a leader is convinced not only of the soundness of his personal judgment, but that his actions are divinely-sanctioned, it’s no longer possible to reason with him. We see strains of that in the United States with intellectual and moral disgraces like George Bush, Sarah Palin, and Pat Robertson whose neurotic interpretations of the Bible and the Christian faith are very frightening to ponder. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions were indeed rightly-guided men who could administer justice in a fair and impartial way, and would frequently side with Jews and Christians in courts in which Muslims were the opposing parties. However, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing that Muslims today are cut from the same cloth. If I lived in the Muslim world, I would personally prefer to live under a Muslim president who largely kept his practice and understanding of the Islam separate from his administration of government. Congressman Keith Ellison is good example of that–he seems like an honest, decent, and just man who happens to be a committed Muslim. Certainly his belief system and worldview as a Muslim informs his moral, ethical and even political judgments, but they are not impressed upon others with intimidation, force, and coercion but rather considered in the context of other laws that he has sworn to uphold. There are thousands of committed Christian and Jewish judges who similarly uphold the law with fairness and equanimity, despite strongly held personal beliefs. Muslims can do the same.
Consider what an intelligent and practical political leader Umar (ra) was: during his reign he placed a moratorium on several criminal laws, including the punishment for theft, when circumstances were difficult and food was scarce. That’s a simple and straightforward example of the law being subverted to higher moral imperatives. Given the mess the Muslim world finds itself–how court systems are dysfunctional, how miscarriages of justice are the norm, and how convictions of “lawbreakers” are not founded on anything approximating convincing evidence, I think Muslims should unite in their demand that the ulema, in the tradition of Umar, place an immediate moratorium on the death penalty and all “hudud” punishments. I happen to be opposed to the death penalty on Islamic principle but this would at least be a start. Egypt could be the first Muslim country that does this. The United States itself temporarily banned the death penalty in the mid 1970’s after study after study showed that its system of capital punishment was inherently racially-biased and was being applied “wantonly and freakishly,” as though one was “being stuck by lighting.” Almost every week we read a new story about an innocent black man’s conviction being overturned upon the discovery of DNA evidence and the like. Indeed, in the United States, which unquestionably has the best legal system in the world, countless innocent people have been imprisoned and executed on false evidence. Imagine how many more innocent human beings in the “Muslim” world have been lashed, tortured, and lynched without a scintilla of evidence. Imagine how much more wanton and freakish the administration of “law and order” is in the Muslim world. What will the administrators of justice like the Taliban say when they stand before God and are asked, why did you stone and torture an innocent mother and father to death? Even more, why did you tell the world that you were carrying out God’s will and following example of the beloved Prophet Muhammad? Nothing could be a more obvious example of blasphemy than committing these subhuman acts in God’s name.