Egypt's Hard Lesson: Old Time Religion Cannot Lead a Modern Democracy

"Democracy is not for Muslims."

That's the epitaph for Egypt's only free election, according to deposed President Mohammed Morsi's foreign policy adviser.

The lesson appears to have gone home. Amid cries of "No more elections!" the Muslim Brotherhood has angrily rejected a plan for political transition and called for an uprising. Deadly violence abounds.

As someone who spent much of his childhood and a portion of his college years in Egypt, it makes me want to weep. More than any other Arabs, the Egyptians were blessed with a wry sense of humor and a live-and-let-live tolerance that made their lives bearable under corrupt, oppressive and massively incompetent government. More than any others, those young Egyptians who led the Arab Spring uprising understood the virtues of liberal democracy, including a tolerance for those whose worldview differs.

But, there has long been a canker in the Egyptian rose. Islamism, the Muslim's non plus ultra of Old Time Religion, was born in Egypt in 1928. It has since spread widely but has never left home. General Gamal 'Abd al-Nasser and his successors used torture and mass imprisonment in their attempts to extinguish the movement, but all failed. Such is the power of religious faith.

While we may admire their endurance and deplore the oppression they have suffered, there is no gainsaying that people who disbelieve in the legitimacy of liberal democracy are unfit to lead one.

No one who values democracy can applaud this military takeover, much less the jailing and silencing of nearly all the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership. They were, after all, the duly elected government of Egypt. As Khalid Abou el Fadl angrily points out in al Jazeera, the secularists who protested the harassment of television host Bassem Youssef have had little to say about the wholesale shuttering of Muslim Brotherhood media.

Yet, no one can overlook the fact that, much like the Religious Right in America, the Muslim Brotherhood aspires to a majoritarian dictatorship. From the start, the Brotherhood's goal has been to restore the Caliphate. "I have been saying all along, 'If you want to build Shariah law, come to elections.'" a dismayed Libyan Islamist sheikh is quoted as saying in the New York Times. This neatly sums up why Old Time Religion cannot lead a modern liberal democracy. To OTR, elections are merely a portal to a way-back machine.

Power-sharing, pluralism, minority rights -- these are alien concepts to those who seek to rule in God's name. Yet, these concepts form the heartbeat of liberal democracy. Mere majoritarian rule is no less arbitrary and cruel than dictatorship. In Egypt, it unleashed vicious assaults on the Coptic Christian minority. In Iran, the 1979 overthrow of the Shah led to an Islamic Republic that brutally suppressed its native Baha'i minority. But there's nothing special about Islam in this: free elections in Burma have led to the savage persecution of Muslims by the Buddhist majority there.

Here in America, wherever the religious right gains ascendancy in politics, contempt for liberal democracy quickly emerges. Compromise, respect for opponents, and minority rights all go out the window. Brute majority rule takes command. Union-busting, vaginal probes, and health-clinic shutdowns follow. We have seen it in Wisconsin, we have seen it in Virginia, and we are seeing it now in Texas. When politics go against them, extremists acting in the name of God do not hesitate to resort to violence, here or elsewhere.

What's the way forward? Militant atheists may say the abolition of religion is the answer, but I disagree. There are plenty of tolerant, rational Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists in the world, and they are all capable of leading liberal democracies. It is just Old Time Religion, with its reliance on magic words and practices, its premodern fear of female sexuality, and its utter lack of faith in human institutions, that has to go. Only then can religion and the modern state comfortably coexist.