Islamist threats to democracy
If Islamist groups triumph in Egypt's upcoming parliamentary elections, they will play havoc with the goals of the revolution, says Ahmad Naguib Roushdy
For more than five months since the January Revolution, Egyptians have had to shoulder the burdens of the last 60 years of military rule. At the top of these burdens have been economic malaise and rising crime, both due to the failure of the ruling Higher Council of the Armed Forces (HCAF) to establish security in the country and not the result of the revolution, as some have claimed.
There have also been sectarian rifts, not only between Muslims and Christians, but also between moderate Sunni Muslims and conservative Muslim groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis who follow Wahabi Islam. Such groups have been trying to exploit the revolution and take over the government. There has been popular anger among the revolutionaries that the military has only made token efforts to punish those who attacked and killed protesters during the revolution and that it has even arrested some protesters, trying them in military courts and sentencing some of them to imprisonment. It has been claimed that the military has arrested women and forced them to undergo virginity tests lest they claim that the police have raped them.
The revolutionaries have demanded the protection of human rights, freedom of expression and of the press, an end to military trials and the establishment of security in the country, given that the increase in crime has caused the economy to grind to a virtual halt. Some Arab and Western writers have mistakenly claimed that this situation of increased criminality has itself been caused by the revolution.
On Friday 8 July, thousands of unhappy men and women of all ages, professions and political affiliations returned to Tahrir Square in Cairo and to revolutionary places in other cities to express their anger at the country's military rulers. They were galvanised by the latter's reluctance to expedite the trials of former president Hosni Mubarak, his sons and others responsible for crimes committed during his rule. It now appears that the country's military rulers have been trying to contain the revolution, appeasing the demonstrators by arresting Mubarak and others, but delaying their trials. For this reason the 8 July demonstrations were dubbed "the Revolution of Anger". The international media has reported that, for many in Egypt, nothing has changed since the revolution first erupted in the Tahrir Square.
Of course, people have good reason to be disappointed and angry. Real political and social justice, and transparency in governance, will not be achieved if Egypt's military rulers do not establish genuine democracy. Furthermore, if the proponents of a sectarian regime, such as the Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wasat Party, succeed in getting a majority of the seats in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, this could cause havoc for the revolution.
In my 21-27 April 2011 article in Al-Ahram Weekly, I argued that the Egyptian revolution had been treading a bumpy path, making it difficult for it to reach its destination. Now I realise I was too optimistic. The revolution's path is crumbling, and the danger of Egypt falling under a sectarian government is making the picture darker by the day. Such a government would strip the Egyptian people of their aspirations for democracy, equality and freedom of expression. It would put Egyptian Muslims in the category of "the other", as many writers in the United States and the West did to Muslims in general after the events of 11 September 2001. It would further accelerate negative views about Muslims having Western citizenship, possibly causing them to be viewed as second-class citizens.
The fact that the Salafis and other Islamist groups want to establish an Islamic regime that would abuse human rights and muzzle freedom of expression, as occurs in Iran and Saudi Arabia, encourages Western countries in their negative views of Muslims. Saudi Arabia, with its oil wealth, is trying to spread Salafi-style Wahabism in the Islamic world. Men of violence would dominate as a result, and women would be obliged to stay at home, covering their bodies from their faces down to their feet when they went out. Women would be forbidden to drive, and they would not be able to be passengers in cars except with men from their immediate families not legally permitted to marry them, meaning a father, a brother or an uncle. Ironically, a woman in Saudi Arabia can ride in a taxi driven by a man who is unrelated to her.
One preacher from an Islamist group has reportedly claimed that there is no separation in Islam between politics and religion and that Islam regulates every move a person makes, whether in the bathroom or in bed. I wish he had elaborated. Another preacher has been blunter, claiming that a husband and wife are forbidden to make love while naked. Most recently, a further preacher has claimed that Islam mandates circumcision for women. I think the Egyptian Medical Association should call for an investigation of this, because this preacher has been practising medicine without a licence. Doesn't he know that doctors worldwide do not perform this kind of operation because of its harmful effects?
Isn't it strange that many of these preachers concern themselves with sexual behaviour more than with quality of life or justice? It may appear profane to mention it, but a Facebook blogger has lately observed that these preachers seem to have their brains in the lower part of their bodies. However, the preachers' conduct drove the blogger to express what he thought of them: their opinions contradict the democratic principles enshrined in constitutions based on universal human rights. It further contradicts the basics of Sharia law, which preceded western constitutions in protecting human rights, including the freedom of expression and religion, and obligated rulers to govern according to principles that made justice the foundation of governance.
Although Islamic civilisation helped to pull Europe from its self-described "Dark Ages" in the mediaeval period, the Islamic countries later fell into a deep sleep, while Europe awakened and experienced a renaissance. Freedom of expression and assembly became sacred in the West, even though, in many democratic systems, rulers and parliamentary representatives reluctantly accepted these things in order to win elections. Many rulers would still prefer to have a free hand in governance and often find ways to get around provisions in constitutions that protect freedom of expression. Even in the United States, where this freedom is cherished, it took 146 years after the enactment of the First Amendment to the Constitution before freedom of expression was guaranteed. Only after abuses during the administrations of several US presidents, including John Adams and Woodrow Wilson, did the Supreme Court in 1931 enforce this Amendment to protect freedom of speech and the press.
The sweeping language of the amendment says, "Congress shall make no laws... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press," and on every occasion that this freedom has been an issue in the US federal courts, the judges have interpreted the amendment in such a way as to build the great structure of American liberty. For this reason, Anthony Lewis, a prominent American writer and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, mentions in the introduction to a 2007 book entitled The Freedom that we Hate that American society is "the most outspoken society on earth. Americans are freer to think what we will and say what we think than any other people and freer today than in the past. We can bare the secrets of government and the secrets of the bedroom. We can denounce our rulers and each other with little fear of the consequencesâê¦ Hateful and shocking expressions, political or artistic, are almost all free to enter the marketplace of ideas."
Lewis is right, and he could not resist saying what he believes in although he knows better than anyone that even after the Supreme Court's landmark decision American presidents have found a way to limit that freedom when it conflicts with what they wish to do. President Nixon, for example, tried hard to stop the New York Times from publishing the so-called Pentagon Papers leaked to it by a former official at the Pentagon and regarding US actions in the Vietnam War. Nixon wanted to put the editor of the New York Times on trial for endangering the country's security, but he failed to do so.
Later on, the American press unveiled the secrets of Nixon's involvement in the Watergate scandal, which drove him to resign in order to avoid impeachment. Lewis himself was subjected to harassment by the White House during George W Bush's first term as president, when Lewis criticised Bush for the invasion of Iraq. Bush managed to force the New York Times to end its affiliation with Lewis.
The United Nations has moved recently to protect Internet bloggers threatened by governments around the world, democracies included. In a report by the UN special rapporteur presented last June to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the organisation called for access to the Internet to be treated as a human right of freedom of expression that should not be censored without a court order.
This kind of freedom has never been practised in Egypt or in any other Arab or Muslim-dominated country. But the Egyptian constitution of 1923, though not perfect, did afford more protection of the freedom of expression than constitutions enacted since 1952, and the Egyptian judiciary has often confirmed the right of freedom of expression and of the press, though not to the extent of the Western world. In 1926, the late Taha Hussein, popularly called the Dean of Arabic literature, shocked the Islamic establishment in Egypt when he published his famous book On Pre-Islamic Poetry, referring to poems written before the advent of Islam.
In this work, Hussein attempted to criticise the way the Sharia had been interpreted by Islamic jurists in order to protect religion, and he called for us to doubt what we read in order to establish certainty, a method he had derived from Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician. Hussein did not intend to discredit Islam, as was claimed at the time by the then imam of Al-Azhar, the oldest Islamic university established more than 1,000 years ago. The imam was outraged at the book and accused Hussein of insulting Islam, describing him as a heretic. As a result of the imam's pressure, the government banned the book and referred Hussein to the country's prosecutor-general. Many writers and scholars defended Hussein's right to freedom of expression, however, including Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad, a brilliant man of letters and a great historian and thinker.
The prosecutor refused to put Hussein on trial, arguing for his right to freedom of expression. Hussein, in an attempt to avoid a complete ban on his book, deleted the first two chapters that had caused much of the trouble and republished the rest of the book under the new title of Fil-Adab Al-Jahili, or "On Pre-Islamic Literature". It is available today, but the book in its original version is still banned. It is time for it to see the light once again.
How can we expect any kind of democracy if the Islamist groups take over the country, when one preacher has reportedly said that he equates revolutionaries who criticise the military rulers with the murtaddins, renegades who defected from Islam after the death of the Prophet Mohamed? That preacher's views allow him to equate actions by Egypt's military rulers with those mandated by divine revelation to the Prophet, meaning that he has, in a way, made the military new gods.
The conduct of the Salafis and other conservative Islamic groups and states that follow the Wahabi sect in Saudi Arabia and the Shias in Iran has helped to encourage enmity towards Islam and Muslims in Western countries, especially after the events of 11 September 2001, when many in America accused American Muslims, the majority of them from the Arab countries and Pakistan, of being a "fifth column", meaning traitors or spies, that had helped Al-Qaeda in its destructive actions. Such people's aim was to kill Christians, destroy Israel and end Western civilisation, such critics said, pushing the West back into the Dark Ages. Gone were the days when Islamic civilisation had helped the West to be what it is now.
In fact, the events of 11 September 2001 drove some American politicians and writers, especially the neo-conservatives, in their own way like the Salafis, to call for the internment of all American Muslims, following a similar action taken by president Roosevelt regarding Japanese Americans after the destruction by Japanese airplanes of the American fleet docked in Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, causing the US to enter World War II.
This inhumane and undemocratic idea emerged again after hearings conducted in March by Peter King, a Republican member of the House of Representatives and chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, investigating what King described as the increasing possibility of Islamist terrorism in America. King accused American Muslims of being extremists, of believing in discrimination and being isolated from American social traditions. He also claimed that they had not cooperated with the government in its efforts to prevent future terrorism incidents.
There is no evidence supporting King's claims. But there is no doubt that he was driven by what was reported at the time of the 11 September events, namely that 15 of the hijackers were Saudi citizens, meaning Salafis of the Wahabi sect, the same sect as that followed by Bin Laden himself, also a Saudi citizen from a Yemeni family. King had presumably also noticed the infiltration by Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood of the crowds of revolutionaries in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
Fortunately, King's claims were met with strong criticism from many of his colleagues, who were all Christians except one Muslim in the House of Representatives, the first Muslim US congressman. They accused him of racism, saying that he was targeting Muslims and sowing the seeds of hate against them and making them scapegoats for future incidents. They were keen to assert that terror in America is not committed by Muslim extremists alone, but that it has also been committed by some Christian extremists, such as Timothy McVeigh, who destroyed the Federal Building in Oklahoma in the 1990s. They also equated King with senator Joe McCarthy, who conducted hearings in the early 1950s to investigate what he claimed was the spread of communism in America and accused politicians and union leaders of being agents of the former Soviet Union, including Ronald Reagan during his acting career. Ironically, after Reagan was elected president in the 1980s, he became a staunch enemy of communism and was famous for his description of the former Soviet Union as "an evil empire".
It is clear that Peter King and the neo-conservatives are fearful that Muslim extremists might take over governments in the Arab countries and establish Salafi or Iranian-type regimes there that could spread to countries friendly to the United States. Such regimes would not be democratic and could not achieve social justice.
This is what writers Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg have called "Islamophobia" in their book Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy, published in 2008. They state that in a survey conducted in the US about people's feelings about Islam, they discovered that the words "Islam" or "Muslims" were associated with violence, such as "Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 tragedies, and Palestinian suicide bombers", ideas and practices associated with oppression, such as "Jihad, veiling and Islamic law", and places limited to the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran.
The authors also found that respondents in the survey believed that Muslims and Islam were dominant factors in many of the world's conflicts and injustices. It is not a surprise to notice that the majority of Muslims, who constitute one fifth of the world's population, live in either developing or undeveloped countries.
As I argued in my previous article in the Weekly, the Egyptian revolution is still suffering from the slow actions taken by the military to establish democracy and security in the country. This has made investment and tourism shrink, though this has also been affected by fear of the Islamist groups trying to take over the country. It is true that reforms take time, but the slow action of the military and its impatience with criticism is causing a lot of concern.
It was a surprise to read in the US media on 27 June that American senators John McCain and John Terry, after talks with the Egyptian HCAF, had expressed, in the words of the New York Times, "confidence that the caretaker military rulers wanted to transfer powers to an elected government as soon as possible." This was a surprise because the US has been supporting dictatorships, including the regime of former president Mubarak, in the Middle East in the interests of securing its own national security.
That was what the senators were also concerned about. The United States is still docking its sixth fleet in Bahrain and supporting Saudi Arabia in efforts to help Bahrain suppress protests against the royal family, and it was also for this reason that US president Barack Obama was hesitant at the beginning of the Egyptian revolution to ask Mubarak to resign, only doing so when he saw that the revolution was popular in the Western world and among the American people and media.
It was only after the brutal killing of revolutionaries in Tahrir Square by Mubarak's police and party thugs that Obama called for Mubarak's resignation. Instead of commending the HCAF for the way it is governing the country, McCain and Kerry should have urged it to heed popular demands to establish security in the country, give Egyptians the right to freedom of expression and assembly, and establish the social justice that was destroyed by Mubarak when the rich became richer and the poor became poorer. On the political side, the senators should have advised the HCAF to enact a new constitution before the parliamentary elections in order to prevent the Islamist groups from having an unfair advantage.
Yet, it seems the US is still hesitant. While it has shown support for the revolution, it has also declared that it will start a dialogue with the Brotherhood. During the Cold War, the US also cooperated with Islamist groups in Egypt, contending that Islam was a shield against communism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the US strengthened its relations with the Islamist groups under the presidency of the late Anwar El-Sadat, and in particular with the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamia, led by Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, even after he was accused of ordering the assassination of Sadat.
The lesson to be learned from the above is that the United States does not care about the kind of regime governing a country, as long as the latter is ready to cooperate with it and stay in its sphere of influence. Ironically, all the Arab countries that are friends of the United States are dictatorships. The US will not object to an Islamist government in Egypt if that is in its interest either.
Many observers believe that the treatment of Egyptian political and economic ills will ultimately decide whether the revolution has achieved its goals. Failing to meet popular demands will mean the outbreak of a further revolution, however, this one being a "revolution of hunger".
* The writer is an international lawyer.