Given these faith-based attitudes, if a majority of Egyptians democratically vote for policies that will incorporate the prescriptions from shari’a into government policies and laws, the result will not be anything close to what we mean when we extol democracy and human rights.
Even more important than our simplistic view of democracy, and our blindness to the incompatibility of democratic principles with Islam, is our failure to acknowledge how much more significant religion is for Muslim identity than it is for ours: “In most Islamic countries,” historian Bernard Lewis writes, “religion remains a major political factor,” for “most Muslim countries are still profoundly Muslim, in a way and in a sense that most Christian countries are no longer Christian . . . in no Christian country at the present time can religious leaders count on the degree of belief and participation that remains normal in Muslim lands . . . Christian clergy do not exercise or even claim the kind of public authority that is still normal and accepted in most Muslim countries.” A Pew poll from this year confirms the truth of this observation in Egypt, where 46% of Egyptians identified themselves as Muslims first, while only 31% identified themselves as Egyptians first.
Despite all this evidence for the powerful role of religion in Muslim identity, we continue to understand the Muslim Middle East and jihadism in terms of our own categories and ideals. Thus we have tried to explain Middle Eastern political and social dysfunctions of the last 80 years in terms of nationalism, fascism, communism, economic failure, and now the illiberal dictators whose overthrow will presumably usher in a springtime of liberal democracy and political freedom that will eliminate the conditions creating jihadist terror. But all these Western-imported ideologies and explanations do not find traction with most Muslims, who see their problems as resulting from a crisis in Islam that has allowed peoples who once trembled at Allah’s armies to dominate the world. As Lewis points out, since Islam’s retreat in the 17th century in the face of European penetration of Muslim lands, “the most characteristic, significant, and original political and intellectual responses to that penetration have been Islamic. They have been concerned with the problems of the faith and the community overwhelmed by infidels.” This observation was confirmed recently by the Muslim Brothers Supreme Guide Muhammad al-Badi’: “The Muslim nation has the means [to bring about] improvement and change . . . It knows the way, the methods, and the road signs, and it has a practical role model in Allah’s Messenger, [the Prophet Muhammad] . . . who clarified how to implement the values of the [Koran] and the Sunna at every time and in every place.” Al-Badi’ further explains that this “change” will be brought about not by democracy, but by jihad: all Muslim regimes “crucially need to understand that the improvement and change that the [Muslim] nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death just as the enemies pursue life.” Democratic elections thus are a means to an end, not the end itself. As Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan puts it, “Democracy is like a train. We shall get out when we arrive at the station we want.”
Starting with Iran, for over 30 years we have misunderstood the Middle East because we have refused to acknowledge the role of Islam as the central dynamic of most Muslim hearts and minds. Now we are indulging the magical powers attributed to “democracy” and “freedom” to continue avoiding that truth. As a result, we have colluded in the overthrow of rulers like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who at least served our interests, in favor of Islamist groups explicitly hostile to them, as we may soon find out when democratically elected, illiberal Islamic regimes increasingly pursue policies that threaten our security and interests.
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