When a state lacks democratic mechanisms, it has no way to channel dissent. The society it rules over begins to take all its grief, humiliation, and thwarted desires, and cram it down its own throat. Eventually, of course, the strategy fails—and often to spectacular and violent effect.
I’m referring to the ongoing mass protests in Egypt, coming on the heels of protests throughout the region. Egypt is emblematic of the democracy deficit running across much of the Middle East and North Africa, a particularly Arab problem (though it is not caused by Arabness; I only mean the deficit afflicts Arabs especially). In this sense, Egypt also speaks to the great failure of many modern Muslim-majority societies.
The Need for Collective Self-Esteem
Unlike Third World countries like Brazil, India, and China, many Muslim-majority societies traded their organic traditions for authoritarian states that have brought little economic benefit or sense of dignity. (At least a Chinese citizen can reconcile an absence of political freedoms with an obvious escape from poverty). Egypt is, in this sense, the most excellent example.
Hosni Mubarak has presided over the impoverishment of a country that used to be at the center of Arab culture. Once among the wealthiest provinces of the Ottoman Empire dating all the way back to the Roman Empire (which explains the whole Mark Antony and Cleopatra thing), Egypt has become a non-factor in the region. The country with arguably the world’s oldest functioning university contributes little to global knowledge, and its Islamic scholarship is outclassed by dynamic institutions in what were once the fringes of the Muslim world.
Some 40% of the population lives below the poverty line. The country has spent years under martial law. Torture is routine. Police brutality is all but expected. Cairo is a polluted, overcrowded, chaotic sprawl. Its economic growth empowers the few and further impoverishes the many. It should come as no surprise, then, that Egyptians of different classes and professions have been out in the streets by the tens of thousands. The classic Qur’anic image of despotism is Pharaoh, Moses’ opponent, and most Egyptians regularly refer (discreetly, of course) to Mubarak as a particularly pathetic Pharaoh.
State of the Union: Nothing for Middle Eastern Democracy
But let’s not kid ourselves. Mubarak will not just let his people go. And one of the reasons the president feels he can get away with his crackdown (beyond, of course, the fact that we have never really tried to stop him before) is related to recent events in Lebanon. In the last few weeks, Hezbollah has succeeded in forming a government—though, I stress, so far through parliamentary means—which means it’s now dominating the state in which its power has been rising year after year.
This is a setback for the United States, but is far more damaging to our traditional allies in the region; especially Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia—something Mubarak is well aware of. Because Iran and the resistance it claims to lead has for now stymied our aspirations for Lebanon, we might be tempted to do whatever we can to preserve the “moderate” Arab regimes (here, “moderate” implies a secular dictatorship and nothing more) and make sure our interests suffer no further reversals.
It’s all too easy for us to re-double our support for Egypt’s government so that the region doesn’t become even more destabilized, or to gingerly urge the government (as Secretary of State Clinton did today) to allow freedom of expression and assembly. But in supporting the government or remaining equivocal, we point the way away from Turkey—which, in the long run, is the best possible example for a religiously Muslim society to turn to—and we may even potentially empower Iran. Really.
If the people of the Arab world feel that America is not behind them—or worse, is actively trying to hinder their democratization—it’s all too easy to imagine them falling for more radical narratives: a larger narrative of resistance which will divide the world into a “with us or against us” mode, creating dichotomies that negative forces in the region will most certainly monopolize on.
Where is Aragorn ibn Arathorn?
If one thing has become clear in the last few weeks, it’s the absence of leadership in the Arab world. I don’t just mean the unelected leaders of the Arab world, I also mean many of the institutions of Arab society. The most perceptive terrorism analysts have correctly pointed out that the more religious knowledge a Muslim has, the less likely it is that that person will fall for extremism. While this is useful knowledge insofar as it forces us to challenge easy stereotypes—such as the one that goes, “every terrorist comes out of a mosque”—we can also look through it and see something more profound.
Many Muslims no longer find traditional (often institutional) expressions of Muslim religiosity meaningful or compelling. The overwhelming majority of these Muslims are decent human beings and their morality and religious consciousness points them away from nihilistic extremism. But a minority are tempted by extremism; perhaps not only because they don’t really understand Islam, but also because the institutional and social expressions of Islam that are considered normative don’t speak to them.
Extremism becomes a means to express and redress many real, and some perceived, grievances. What other outlets exist when the religious elites and institutions are co-opted? What will come of the discontent so obviously boiling beneath the surface? It is precisely because existing forms of religious expression seem to offer so little in the way of answers that some Muslims find themselves captured by politicized Islam of the harshest variety.
A few months ago, we were worried about a minority of Muslims killing themselves and taking innocents with them; now we must worry additionally of Muslim men so despondent over their circumstances that they see in self-immolation a political option. We should not underestimate the gravity of this crisis.
On a Wrong Road? Turn Back!
Given where things stand, we must do three things.
First, we must realize the danger of uncritically maintaining the status quo in the Middle East and North Africa. These protests may not go anywhere, but the discontent that feeds them will in that case only increase, meaning the eventual social explosion will be all the more terrifying—not to mention damaging to our interests, to the security of minorities in the region, and for global politics more generally.
Second, for Arabs and Muslims, it is time to think out of the box; to think of ways in which spirituality and morality can inform and inspire politics without constraining it, realizing forms of faith that go beyond the traditional institutions so many find wanting (perhaps pushing a minority to extremism, while leaving the majority despondent and bitter).
There are ways to liberate the human soul, to bring meaningfulness and dignity to lives too often disregarded, without becoming so obsessed by injustice that religion itself becomes a mask for the continuation of injustice. Too many Islamist responses to worldly despotism are either hopelessly naive, unrealistically grand, or so crude as to create in the place of secular despotism a religious despotism (which is all the worse, for it closes off this world and the next.)
Third, we must ask our government, and especially our president, to state very clearly that we are on the side of the people and to let that gesture manifest itself in concrete policy. Didn’t President Obama go to Cairo in 2009 for just this reason? The line that received the loudest applause wasn’t about Islam or Palestine or Iraq. It was about democracy. When President Obama struggled to determine from which city he should deliver his address to the world’s many Muslims, he chose Cairo. Here’s another chance for a new beginning: A real message of hope and change to Egypt would ripple far across her borders.