Egypt’s plight: “Moderates” to the rescue?
In the streets of Cairo, tens of thousands are clamoring to get rid of strongman Hosni Mubarak. Ominously the Muslim Brotherhood—the origin of Hamas, Al Qaeda and other jihadist outfits—is maneuvering to assume leadership of the protests. The Brotherhood is our enemy; its success in Egypt means greater peril for us (to put it mildly). But some protesters evidently despise the Brotherhood’s totalitarian political ideal. Where does that leave well-meaning Egyptians who want neither Mubarak nor the Brotherhood?
Beware of pinning your hopes on so-called political “moderates.” There are at least two related problems here.
1. In the Arab-Muslim world, the slippery term “moderate” encompasses those who are merely anti-Islamist–not necessarily pro-Western. Many Egyptians readily swallow anti-Semitic, anti-Western conspiracy theories (e.g. the Protocols of the Elders of Zion). Moreover, supporting Palestinian “resistance” (read: terrorism) against Israel is a conventional, mainstream, uncontroversial view. Egypt is one of the places where ordinary people matter-of-factly will tell you that America got what it deserved in the 9/11 attacks. Keep all that in mind, when you ponder what it would mean for so-called moderates to be elected into power in Egypt.
2. The other problem stems from the argument that so-called moderates can be a bulwark against the political power of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. In that part of the world, the political spectrum is far narrower than you may think: whereas Islamists want religion to be the all-encompassing principle of government, a typical “moderate” still acknowledges that Islam has some, albeit limited, role in government. True secularists are scarce and marginal. So could “moderates” in government prevent the Islamists from taking over? Ultimately, no. I touch on this in my book, and here’s part of the explanation.
The only intelligible meaning of “moderate” advocates of religion are those who try to combine devotion to faith with concessions to reason. They obey the dictates of Islam in some areas and not others, fencing off certain issues or areas of life from the purview of religion. Let us grant the premise that the West can find moderate Muslims and support them in a way that does not discredit them in Muslim eyes as saboteurs conspiring to undermine Islam. Could moderates really steer their culture away from the totalitarian movement?
The holy warriors hold that Islam must shape every last detail of man’s life. The moderates accept the ideal of Islam but shy away from the vision of total state. Moderates might agree to allow sharia to govern schools, say, but not commerce; to dictate marriage laws, but not punishments for blasphemy, apostasy, or adultery. Yet in doing so, moderates ultimately advance the agenda of the totalitarians, since even delimited applications of Islam to government constitute an endorsement of it as the proper source of law.
The tension between moderates and the totalitarians is unsustainable. What happens when the totalitarians push for expanding the scope of sharia a bit more? If sharia can govern banking and trade, for example, why not other aspects of life? Why not also institute Islamic punishments, such as beheading apostates? Having accepted in principle the ideal of sharia, moderates have no grounds to reject further means to that end. They can offer no principled opposition to the slaughter of infidels who refuse to submit, or of apostates who claim the freedom to choose their own convictions. In the face of the incremental or rapid advance of the totalitarian goal, the moderates are in the long run impotent. If Islam is the ideal, why practice it in moderation?
One news report tells us that the ostensibly “moderate” Mohammad ElBaradei has talked about setting up a governing coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The plight of Egypt — like that of much of the region — is intellectual. The protestors who genuinely do want a better future face no good options.
(P.S. What could help Egyptians? To address that fully would take a separate discussion. At minimum, I’d name three things: the embrace of genuinely pro-freedom ideas, secular government and individualism.)