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The Great Collision

Egypt’s descent into chaos

Aug 5, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 44 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Once, when European power was unchallengeable, and new, state-run secular universities were being built on European and American models, Muslim intellectuals could openly praise Western imports—though they always did so at a cost. That disposition is rarer today, and usually considered demeaning if not dangerous. Left-wing Middle Eastern Muslims, who ought to be the bridge between the West and their homelands, are usually so overloaded with anti-imperialist cant that they haven’t figured out how to sell the “good” Western ideas. 

Egypt was the first Arab Muslim land to confront and then embrace the Occident. Algeria and Tunisia, under the spell or domination of France, soon joined the Nile Valley as incubators of Westernization. It’s not an accident that the three most Westernized Arab lands were the first to rebel against secular dictators—or that these countries produced powerful Islamist movements. Westernization creates modern Islamic militancy. Contemporary religious radicalism isn’t just a reaction to Westernization; Westernization is integral to the way Islamists think and the way they view and interpret their own history. 

In the best-case scenario for Westernization in the Middle East—in Turkey, where the enlightened secular dictator Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was explicit and dogged in his attempt to transform his country into a European state—80 years of secularizing autocracy did not free people from their Ottoman past. As Turkey’s politics have become more democratic, the Islamist percentage of the vote has risen. When I was serving with the Central Intelligence Agency in Istanbul in the 1980s, Langley and the State Department were convinced that the ceiling for the “Islamic vote” was 10 percent; Turkish generals and admirals were not so sure. 

Twenty years later the Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP) decisively won national elections. The army’s and the judiciary’s anti-Islamist efforts, including hard and soft coups against ruling Islam-friendly politicians and parties, may have postponed judgment day and moderated the Turkish Islamist temperament. They did not stop the rebirth of a more vigorous Turkish Muslim identity and Islamic political aspirations. 

Dictatorship forever?

Some observers in Washington—the New York Times’s David Brooks, the Washington Post’s George Will, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Rob Satloff, for example—appear to believe that Egyptian military rule has at least the potential to evolve in a more positive direction than government by elected Islamists, who’ve shown their “anti-modern,” “anti-pluralist,” “anti-secular,” and “revolutionary” teeth. But how? What exactly can the Egyptian military do now that it hasn’t done in the past to fertilize “real democracy”? How in the world could the Egyptian army—assuming it had even a smidgeon of the historical mission that drove the Turkish army to nurture the development of a European democracy within the Turkish Republic’s top-down secular society—do a better job than Kemalist officers and judges, whose eight decades of secular repression and stage-managed balloting produced an electorate that freely voted for a Turkish offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood? 

Approving of the coup, Will uses Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous 1979 article in Commentary magazine against the Islamists. In “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” Kirkpatrick described the slow evolution of Western democracy. Islamists, Will suggests, would, like the Communist revolutionaries she wrote about, halt the beneficial political and cultural evolution that is possible under traditional authoritarian rule. “In Britain,” Kirkpatrick wrote, “the road from the Magna Carta to the Act of Settlement, to the great Reform Bills of 1832, 1867, and 1885, took seven centuries to traverse.” To which one can only answer: Do Muslims ever get the chance to start? Or must they patiently wait, living under military rule that has ruthlessly extirpated the democracy-building “little platoons” of Edmund Burke that Will and Brooks rightly extol, until they are acceptable liberals, springing fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus? It is odd that Will and others now cite Kirkpatrick’s essay given how thoroughly events have rebuked it since 1979. As Robert Kagan pointed out in Commentary 18 years later in a critique of Kirkpatrick’s thesis, the expansion of representative government exploded after 1979, into lands that had not been maturating for centuries. And Ronald Reagan didn’t in the end follow Kirkpatrick’s advice: He successfully pushed hard for the expansion of representative government in Latin America and Asia, even in countries then under threat from communism.

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