For close to 1,300 years, Muslims cared little what infidels thought of them. The curious caliph, sultan, vizier, or cleric might engage the arguments of Christians questioning the one true faith, but such disputatious exchanges were made as much out of befuddlement as disdain: Any sensible, well-educated man would obviously see the superiority of Islam over earlier imperfections.
The great 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldun could understandably wonder whether civilization was again, finally, arising in the cold lands of Christendom. Dante Alighieri could assign the prophet Muhammad to the ninth circle of Hell in the Divine Comedy; there is no classical or medieval Islamic equivalent of such literary fear and distaste. Powerful, proud, and vastly more cosmopolitan than their Christian counterparts, Muslims just couldn’t be bothered. Even in decline, after European technological superiority became undeniably obvious on the battlefield, Muslims remained religiously self-confident until the West’s growing military power and intellectual allure made them the subjects of Christian rulers—a distasteful disposition, the reverse of the natural order.
We don’t know whether the surreal, bigoted film The Innocence of Muslims really had anything to do with attacks on our diplomatic compounds in Cairo and Benghazi. Given the premeditated and well-armed nature of the onslaught in Libya, it seems most unlikely. Angry jihadists or former members of the Qaddafi regime (and the two may not be mutually exclusive) would love to kill Americans for the frisson, let alone the enormous political advantage gained from belittling the elected, non-Islamist government and possibly provoking America to run. In Egypt the film might be more consequential, since the onslaught, though probably planned, seems more popular in inspiration.
Islamic fundamentalist leaders are always able, if so inclined, to inflame their followers against Westerners for roughing up Muhammad and their holy book, which for faithful Muslims is the word of God. Local grievances and political cunning are hard, if not impossible, to separate from modern fundamentalism’s penchant to see the “far enemy” (the West) as the near one, to see fifth columnists among insufficiently faithful Muslims. And Westernized, secular Muslims are everywhere in the Middle East. Osama bin Laden did not originate this idea. It’s a defining theme for Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949), the founder of the Egyptian Brotherhood, Sayyidd Qutb (1906-1966), the radical icon whose multivolume commentary on the Koran remains a must-read for intellectually curious faithful believers, and, on the Shiite side, Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor, Ali Khamenei.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists both see red when they think of America, the turbocharged engine of the West’s materialistic and libidinous culture. With Egyptian über-alles hubris spurring them on, they see themselves fighting a battle over virtue at home and for the hearts and minds of Muslims everywhere. When Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 alighted upon the brilliant idea of putting a bounty on the novelist Salman Rushdie’s head, fundamentalist outrage went global.
In part, this mimics the West, whose ethics are the “universal values” extolled so energetically by Europeans, Americans, and third-worlders who admire, even if they have a hard time saying so, Occidental culture. If Westerners can hurl their values via the United Nations, socially conservative or politically militant Muslims can try to do the same, or use the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a contemporary attempt to reify the idea of the Ummah, the politico-religious community of believers founded by the prophet Muhammad, as their global bully-pulpit.
Westerners have their “hate crimes”; Muslims want to ban offensive speech. “Human rights” have no borders, so the militant Muslim variation on this categorical imperative—the obligations that man owes to God—knows no borders.
The real political driver in Cairo may well have been a Salafist/Muslim Brotherhood clash and the fear, however preposterous it may seem to us, that the Muslim Brotherhood was too powerful and too close to the United States. A tug of war among Egypt’s fundamentalists is under way. Very basic questions about Westernization (the eminence of the individual in ethics and politics), women’s rights, the nature of sexuality in society, the rights of Christians, the presence of foreign tourists in the country, and, last but not least, relations with the United States are going to roil Egypt’s fundamentalists.
To the Western eye, the differences between Islamists may seem small. For Western intellectuals who watch the turbulence that has come to the Middle East with the Great Arab Revolt and see now only “madness” among the masses, dilating upon the differences among fundamentalists may seem pedantic, if not insane. But those differences are critical to Egypt’s future and America’s security.
We do not know, for example, whether elected Islamists will support, openly or covertly, jihadists targeting the United States. It’s entirely possible that the recent attacks were orchestrated by al Qaeda-affiliated groups. It’s a reasonable conjecture that the Salafist leaders who drove their followers over the embassy’s walls would be inclined to give jihadists more running room in Egyptian society than would the Brotherhood. Even though the Brotherhood intellectually spawned the Salafists in Egypt, the children appear considerably more violent than their parents.
Look at tourism. The Salafists want to kick the European tourists—carriers of rotten mores and skimpy beachwear—out of Egypt and replace their hard currency with the export of baskets. The Muslim Brotherhood is trying, or at least so it seems, to figure out how to keep the tourists but neutralize their potential for contamination. A Brotherhood-dominated Egyptian government will likely fall back on the traditional Muslim view of foreign tourists as dhimmis, that is, religiously protected minorities who will be allowed to do more or less what they want (drink alcohol, wear bikinis, and even engage in sexually provocative behavior) so long as they do it away from Muslims (resort staff excluded).
Getting to this dispensation will not be easy for many in the Brotherhood, especially the older leadership. If they get there, it will be an astonishing achievement for a group that has been absolutely frantic about the Western assault on Egyptian mores. Sayyid Qutb will be turning over in his grave.
Now take that attitude and apply it to foreign affairs. A democratically elected Brotherhood has already confronted Israel-targeting jihadists who killed Egyptian troops in the Sinai. That was a shock. Salafists, who’d been encroaching on the Brotherhood’s social terrain in the Nile Delta for over 20 years, have openly and aggressively challenged Brothers in elections, suggesting that they, not the Brotherhood, are the truer Muslims. Now Egyptians have seen Salafists go over the U.S. embassy walls.
Although it’s possible that the Brotherhood could try to reach a “grand bargain” with the more radical upstarts—peace on the home front in exchange for greater hostility toward the West—it seems more likely that the Brotherhood will be consistent: They will try to diminish the Salafists everywhere. The Salafists—not Egypt’s fractured, intellectually immature liberals and secular nationalists—are the Brotherhood’s real rivals. Al-Azhar, Egypt’s historic theological center, has always kept its distance from the Brothers, whose populist, nonclerical roots scare the traditional religious establishment. But compared with the Salafists, the Brotherhood is a pillar of orthodox rectitude. We should expect to see a Brotherhood–Al-Azhar alliance against the rise of the Salafists, who, like all who go in for ultra-strict observance, are highly suspicious of the status quo.
We want to see that happen. We want to see the Brotherhood move further down the path from an explicitly jihadist organization to a more politically pragmatic Islamist group that, while it hates the United States and Israel, is unwilling to countenance terror. (Think the post-Communist European left.) We want to see the Brothers invested in Egypt in ways that make them compromise—stretch—their Islamic virtues.
The United States shouldn’t want to stop giving money to Egypt because the Brotherhood has won. We should be inclined to give the country even more money provided the Brotherhood keeps the peace with Israel, keeps the European tourists coming, and allows opposing political parties and the press freedom to criticize and grow.
We absolutely should not give any more money to the Egyptian military, thinking that it is somehow a check on the religious. It isn’t. What has happened in Turkey under the semi-Islamist Justice and Development party over 10 years is probably happening in Egypt much more quickly: The military and security establishments are surrendering to the new, people-backed power, the Brotherhood. It’s just stupid to feed the organization’s military muscle, to tempt it (or the Salafists waiting in the wings) to use its U.S.-supplied weaponry against the Egyptian people or Israel. We want to keep the Brotherhood focused on its internal challenges, both economic and moral. The Brothers most certainly will not be America’s friends or allies, but it is through them—not Egypt’s Westernized nationalists and liberals—that we are likely to see emerge the most effective opponents of the jihadists who live to kill Americans.
The Obama administration appears to sense that more anti-Muslim video provocations might be coming down the path. That’s wise—not because anti-Muslim zealots are everywhere (though there are a lot of them) but because fundamentalism is the intellectual currency of the Arab world. Islamic militants are going to keep challenging us, as our ideas and culture keep challenging them. And we would be wise to hold our ground, which is not what happened at the embassy in Cairo, where tweets and Internet statements, still up at this writing, bent over backwards to deplore offensive characterizations of Islam. For fundamentalists, the definition of what is offensive covers much, if not most, of Western culture.
Monty Python’s brilliant Life of Brian, which was deeply offensive to some Christians, is, really, at the center of who we are as Westerners: Through deduction, induction, and merciless wit, we question everything. Don’t we really want to see Muslims, especially in the Middle East, have the religious self-confidence and tolerance to make the Life of Muhammad? After the publication of Khomeini’s death fatwa against Salman Rushdie, Rowan Atkinson, one of the great comedic geniuses of the West, put a Khomeini skit on Not the Nine O’Clock News, a TV series that mocked everything. The silent and stern ayatollah was suddenly confronted by a beautiful nude blonde who wrapped herself around him. His eyes wandered. The Iranians protested; British officialdom apologized.
Is that what America has come to? We have a sensitive secretary of state (who probably loved every moment of Life of Brian) apologizing for something that denigrates Islam? A little more than 30 years ago, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, who are now among the greatest scholars of Islam, wrote a book called Hagarism, which posited that Islam could well have been originally a Jewish messianic movement. The same year, another world-class scholar, at the University of London, John Wansbrough, wrote Quranic Studies, an extraordinarily erudite (and difficult) book arguing that the Muslim holy book could not have been written by one man, that it was the product of several men over a period of centuries.
Imagine if these books had been published after The Satanic Verses and some provocative fundamentalist had decided to take issue. It’s impossible to imagine anything more “denigrating to Islam” than authors who argue that the prophet Muhammad didn’t exist, the Koran wasn’t “revealed,” and Islam’s founding fathers were really Jews on the march. Would Hillary Clinton apologize for their outrageous writings? How in the world do Muslims develop freer, more liberal societies, where women can flourish, if we always allow the most dogmatic to win the debate? In a globalized world, they are in our business and we are in theirs.
We obviously should stand our ground, because we want to live in societies where comedians and scholars can address any subject they want. But most of all, we should hold firm so that Muslims can pass through the gauntlet of modernity faster and less bloodied than we did. It’s a very long road from where the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is now to a Muslim society sufficiently self-confident that it does not strike out with violence. But Muslims are unlikely to get there if the center of “global civilization” loses its nerve.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.