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Egypt's Debacle: The Beginning of History?

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I have lost count of the number of essays, analyses and commentaries I have read on the tragically unfolding events in Egypt. In all of them, however, the modern political imagination -- in the East as well as in the West -- seems to be thoroughly, if not exclusively, informed by Western thought, experiences and sensibilities. Analysts and critics on both sides have invoked thinkers from Rousseau to Jefferson, experiences from Louis XVI's to Hitler's and Mussolini's, and sensibilities from the "will of the people" to "mob rule." Almost without exception, not a single pre-modern Arab or Muslim thinker, not a single episode from pre-modern Muslim history and not a single pre-modern, indigenous Arab or Muslim sensibility has been deemed worthy of contributing anything of substance. The impression left is clear: nothing Arabs or Muslims thought, felt or experienced before the rise of Western modernity is of any relevance to their political deliberations or aspirations today.

Of course, viewed from another perspective, this presumed irrelevance of the Arab/Muslim past might bring the region to another, more seminal insight: It is not we who are not suited to Western modernity but Western modernity that is not suited to us. For were this modernity really as elastic and universally enabling as its proponents claim, al-Kindi, Ibn Khaldun, al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiya, Mulla Sadr, even Yahya b. 'Adi (the Christian) should find their place alongside the ubiquitously cited Rawls, Jefferson or Aristotle. This is especially the case given such arguments as that of David Brooks in his shocking New York Times piece, "Egypt: Defending the Coup."

Beyond the silly question of Arab/Muslim mental capacity, if substance truly trumps process, as Brooks claims, then a dignified Arab/Muslim existence must constitute the core of the Muslim world's political aspirations, and this must include the right to define this for themselves, along with whatever process they deem fit through which to pursue it, be it democracy or some other arrangement. Of course, the immediate outcry against such a perspective will include its association with some sordid desire to return to the "dark ages." But this is partly the problem: it is mainly people who have no real knowledge of what the Muslim past entailed who sound such alarms, as they go about reading that history through the hardly unbiased prism of Western modernity. Through that same prism, they are able to edit out slavery, class division, the treatment of women and all that is horrible from pre-modern Western history, freeing us to draw at will from the genius of Greek democracy, Erasmus or Martin Luther. But the Muslim historical is invariably presented as what every Muslim today must take to be his or her unqualified contemporary ought.

There are, of course, those, who know better and are not lost on the crippling dislocations wrought by the homogenizing zeal of the modern state structure borrowed from the West. Even the former Coptic Pope, Shenoudah III, in his row with the Mubarak regime over the latter's attempt to force the Church to grant Coptic divorcees the right to remarry, invoked classical sharia as the solution. In his piece, Brooks insisted that the people of the region are simply not sufficiently ingratiated with the value of pluralism to arrive at workable arrangements of mutual co-existence. One wonders, given some of the anti-sharia rhetoric in America, who has the bigger problem with pluralism, i.e., true pluralism, not your equal right to be like me: David Brooks or Pope Shenoudah?

There is clearly a problem with power sharing in Egypt, especially between the Islamists and their liberal and secular-leaning adversaries (though not all of this is grounded in religion; class also plays a role). And among the most dreaded outcomes of this standoff relates not to the Muslim Brotherhood but to that younger generation of radical jihadis, the organizational identity of which we may not even know yet (like the groups that burst out of nowhere back in 1981 to assassinate Anwar Sadat and then go on to rack up a death-toll in the thousands). After all, if revolutions, elections and counter-revolutions can all leave Islamist aspirations out in the cold, it is difficult to imagine violence not presenting itself to this generation as a logical, effective, indeed, self-respecting option. As Hannah Arendt reminds us, political violence is far less aimed at injustice than it is at hypocrisy!

In the end, of course, this violence too will likely miss the mark (as the group that killed Sadat later admitted). Among the important lessons to be learned from the present situation is that while politics, violent or otherwise, certainly affect political outcomes, they alone do not change mindsets. Even assuming a moderate Islamist victory on the ground, the same prism through which Islamic thought, history and sensibilities are viewed today will remain in place, casting any Islamist rise to power as a hated, feared and retrograde fluke that any intelligent, self-respecting, modern society must work tirelessly to eradicate. Islamists of whatever stripe might be better advised to go to work on the prisms, which must include a very healthy dose of critical self-analysis. In that context, the libraries, salons, seminaries, university classrooms and all that bring them multiplier effect might ultimately prove equally if not more important than the street.

Francis Fukuyama became famous for his End of History thesis, the idea that liberal democracy was humanity's final solution in its quest for the optimal political arrangement. The events in Egypt seem to be calling much of this into question. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Egyptian debacle will mark the "beginning of a history" in which the Muslim world transcends the entrenched dominance of the Western prism and embarks upon a quest to see itself through its own eyes, history, thinkers, genius and sensibilities, developing a political arrangement and culture that are true to these. In the meantime, regardless of which side of the divide one pitches one's tent, the immediate future in Egypt might be best described in the words of MLK: "We got some difficult days ahead."