For most of those who were so hopeful when the Great Arab Revolt downed the dictator Hosni Mubarak two years ago, the travails of Egypt’s fledgling democracy have been depressing. Many in the West expected the country’s hodgepodge of secularists—the young men and women who were the cutting edge of the demonstrations, first against Mubarak, then against his freely elected Muslim Brotherhood successor, Mohamed Morsi—to do better than they did at the ballot box, where Islamists so far have triumphed. Real optimists even hoped that the Brethren in power would be more inclusive, allowing non-Islamists more influence in the cabinet and in drafting a constitution. Now that Morsi in turn has been toppled, the optimistic set—though they would have preferred the military coup with a bit of democratic camouflage—sees hope that secularists can build a more stable, liberal government.
These aspirations likely won’t be realized, for two big reasons: Devoutly religious Egyptian Muslims outnumber their secular counterparts; and there is little ideological common ground between those who want to see Islamic values backed by state power and those who want religion to play a much smaller role in government. As long as the religious are more numerous, political parties that explicitly claim the faith will have an advantage over the secular, intellectually undernourished, Westernized youth who drove both rebellions. Compromise—the liberal virtue that the Framers forced upon us through our checks-and-balances Constitution—depends on the contending parties’ essentially sharing the same mores. When compromise wasn’t possible in America on slavery, the system cracked.
A frightful collision has occurred in Egypt between Muslims who’ve imbibed a lot of the West and those who see themselves as faithful to “authentic” Islam. This battle between Westernization and authenticity has defined much of the Muslim Middle East’s cultural life for 150 years. Free elections in Egypt turned this competition into a wrestling match, the likes of which we’d not seen since the revolution in Iran in 1979. In the post-9/11 Middle East, the secular denizens of the region and most Westerners saw dictatorship as the principal engine of Islamic radicalism. But that phase may be over. Today, Westerners and many Egyptians sympathetic to the coup against Morsi don’t see elected fundamentalists as part of the solution to Islamic militancy. With echoes of Mubarak’s admonitions against free votes in Muslim societies, their analysis invokes a belief common in the early to mid-1990s: that elections Islamists can win only fuel the expansion of radicalism. For those liberally inclined, military repression of the religious has again become an indispensable tool of effective, stable, and progressive government.
Being a religious Muslim in Egypt isn’t the same thing as being a religious Muslim in Iran, where three decades of theocratic misrule have created real dissent and a growing acceptance of secularism among the faithful. The fears of the revolutionary cleric Mohammed Reza Mahdavi-Kani in 1989 have come true: If every state action carries a religious stamp, religion withers. Islam’s historic marriage of church and state has been badly battered in modern times by Westernization and the excessively political use of the faith by both religious and nominally secular regimes.
But even in the Islamic Republic, the religious bedrock of the mullahs’ popularity probably remains stronger than many in the West would like to believe. History matters. The Koran, the literal word of God, pulls the faithful back in time and towards a certain religious-political fusion. Muslim fundamentalists can easily align themselves with the great figures of Islamic civilization—an enormous number of whom gained fame for their wars of territorial and religious expansion or their successful defense of orthodoxy. Islam, unlike Christendom, beat back the Greek challenge. Plato and Aristotle, well known and well studied in the Muslim world, are not seen historically as the harbingers of a successful, seditious philosophy that puts man at the center of the universe. In Islam, as in Christianity for a time, they became part of the masonry of accepted belief. No matter how hard Muslim religious reformers try to find support for their positions in Islamic history, it’s still politically more effective for fundamentalists to highlight the Occidental roots of the reformers’ political and cultural aspirations than to affirm their own version of the Islamic tradition, often outrageously stripped of diversity and latitudinarianism.