Egypt, Islam and Democracy

The expert on this is Prof. Reuven Firestone, professor of medieval Judaism and Islam and the director of the Edgar F. Magnin School of Graduate Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.  Firestone has lived, worked and taught in Cairo.  He speaks and reads Arabic and Classical Arabic fluently.  Following 9/11 he wrote a series of columns for us on the future of Islam on the West.  And he nailed the central question that is now on all our minds:  If Mubarak falls, can Egypt be democratic?  Is Islam allergic to democracy?

Bottom line: no.  But read on:

Civilizations wax and wane but never stop evolving. Since this is so clearly the case, I can’t understand why so many self-appointed pundits of Islam are convinced that Islam and democracy don’t mix.

Who would have thought in 1945 that Japan would become one of the world’s most powerful, liberal democracies only two decades later? Centuries of militarism and despotic rule there were turned around in a generation. It is hard to conceive of a return to the collective mentality of imperial Japan in my children’s or their children’s generation.

It is true that Islam is not a “democratic” religion. But then, I know of no religion that is. Certainly not Christianity, with its divinely appointed hierarchy. And not Judaism, which derives its legal tradition from God—not from the Sanhedrin.

The bottom line of democracy is the freedom of every individual to vote one’s conscience, and that tenet is missing equally from Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It has been argued that democracy in the West required that people experience the repeated and violent failures of feudalism to prove its worth, and the subsequent catastrophes of fascism and communism to confirm its value.

I don’t believe it’s a stretch to point out that the Muslims of the Middle East know very well how feudalism, fascism, communism and theocracies have failed them miserably. So what is to prevent Arab Muslims from diving enthusiastically into democracy?

The answer is their taste of the bitter fruits of democracy itself. Democracy has worked best in tandem with capitalism, and capitalism has always required expanding markets, greater supplies of resources and cheap and dependable labor.

These requirements have convinced many in the business world to exploit less-developed areas for their resources, their labor and their purchase power. There is nothing wrong with exploitation—but there are two meanings to the term. One meaning is utilization, development and management. The other is abuse, mistreatment and manipulation.

In the search for a fast and easy buck, our capitalists have too often read exploitation the wrong way. The amazing thing about this is that we have managed to remain largely immune from the effects of our grand schemes.

Sept. 11 was our wake-up call. It hit us hard and it hit us where it really hurts. So as any nation would, we responded. With our superior technology and firepower, we managed to destroy two threats to our immediate security. First, it was the theocracy of Afghanistan, and now, the secular tyranny of Iraq.

We must now follow our display of military prowess with a responsible demonstration of our conviction that democracy works. We need to teach the Iraqis, as we did the Japanese, that we will accept nothing less than full capitulation and reversal from tyranny and violence.

But as any teacher knows, effective teaching fails when students can see the disconnect between teaching and personal example (and students can always see when there is a disconnect between teaching and example). This is the root failure of European colonialists. They educated indigenous elites on the principles of democracy and social justice, but set personal examples of racism, negative exploitation and autocracy.

Which message was the one that was learned?

We can teach effectively only by example. That means that America must demonstrate to the Iraqis and the entire Muslim world that our war was not a clash of civilizations or just another excuse for exploitation, but rather a demonstration of what American values are all about.

We need to prove that democracy can work for everybody; that it is not only a Christian or a Western experience. It may mean a slightly poorer bottom line for our businesses in the short term, but the long-term results will more than make up for it.

President Obama gave a speech in Cairo over a year ago which essentially promised American support for democracy in the Arab world.  Now that it’ happening, he needs to embrace it.  What he says in the next few hours will be his real Cairo speech.

Read all of Firestone’s essay here.