Americans Get Hysterical: Oh No, a New Radical Muslim Egypt!

There are countless reasons that the makers of U.S. policy have been caught flatfooted by the uprising in Egypt. As is often the case in human affairs, the most compelling reason is also the basest: We spend $1.2 billion in Egypt to provide “security” and support for U.S. interests in the Middle East — and all that money buys both parties the privilege of looking the other way as the sclerotic Mubarak regime grew more unresponsive to a restive democratic oppostion.

In broader terms, however, American leaders are puzzled by the uprising because so far it has failed utterly to conform to the “Clash of Civilizations” playbook. That is to say, popular revolts in Islamic countries are supposed to be rearguard Islamic protests against Western modernity, unto its innermost parts. That’s why the confrontational rhetoric favored by the Samuel Huntingtons, Dinesh D’Souzas and Daniel Pipeses of the world typically resolves into dark and foreboding talk of the “existential threat” that the antimodern masses in the Arab world represent to the West. That’s also why U.S. political leaders keen to play on such fears harp on their own gift for descrying “moral clarity” amid all that dangerously muddled tolerance preached by the liberal appeasers who shun the brute fact of evil unloosed among a ghastly group of medieval-minded imam-brainwashed zombies, who hate us because of our freedom.

So the wise men seeking to delimit U.S. diplomatic options in the region are rushing to depict a resurgent Muslim Brotherhood as the gravest threat in the uprising — even though there’s no evidence that the Islamist faction is involved in any real leadership capacity at all, or would come into power. The 1979 Iranian revolution is the most prominent instance of a theocratic seizure of power in the Middle East — and the country’s Shia majority, together with the overall assholic comportment of the Islamic Republic’s leaders, have made the Iranian regime widely reviled among its regional rivals, as the WikiLeaks cables have made abundantly plain.

What’s more, at the level of civil society, Egypt supplies few conditions for a militant Islamic movement — for the simple reason that mass Islamic observance is noncontroversial and already key to much of Egyptian identity. As Haroon Moghul argues at Religion Dispatches, “Egyptians know their religious identity is not under threat.” Despite the secular outlook of Mohamed ElBaradei, who may become an opposition leader, Moghul observes he took part in the “Angry Friday” protest by joining in Friday prayers “before going out into the streets. Whether Egyptians identify with political Islam or secular democracy, their Arabness and Islam tend to be mutually supportive, and certainly not incompatible.” That’s yet another strong point of contrast with the Iranian revolution, Moghul notes:

Muslim societies often have flourishing religious institutions and practices, organic and varied. But in the case of Iran, the regime paradoxically undermined that popular and organic religiosity when they sought to enforce faith through the state. This is an argument for keeping religion and politics separate in the Muslim world: in the interest of defending both from the negative effects of the other.

The other argument for popular sovereignty in the Muslim world is far more straightforward: It’s what the vast majority of Muslims actually want. The 2005–2007 Gallup World Survey of more than 30 Muslim majority countries found that, far from hating Western freedoms, most respondents coveted them — especially the freedom of speech and worship. It’s true that they also overwhelmingly endorsed the idea of Sharia law — but that is not a prescription for jihadist theocracy, as witless American commentators and state legislatures are prone to conclude. Sharia, rather, is a cultural tradition seeking to imbue broad ideals of personal conduct under the rule of law — and far from a monolithic regime of hand-amputating, honor-killing and adulterer-stoning one encounters in dispatches from the American right. Here, yet again, the Iranian theocracy has been made the poster regime for a wide panoply of Muslim believers it does not, in fact, actually represent. You’d think a conservative movement so besotted with lip service to the idea of democracy in the Islamic world would pay closer attention to such pesky details.

As Georgetown’s John L. Esposito argues, the ultimate basis for Western antipathy among Muslims is not religion or culture, but rather diplomacy: The vast majority of the world’s Muslims dispute that the United States is sincere in its agenda of promoting democracy in the Middle East.

The same Gallup World Survey shows that:

only 24 percent in Egypt and Jordan and only 16 percent in Turkey agreed that the United States was serious about establishing democratic systems…. Failure to respond to the subversion of the electoral process in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Musharraf’s Pakistan, the attempt ‘to manage’ and determine the process of democratization in post-Saddam Iraq, and the refusal to recognize the democratically elected Hamas government in Gaza must be avoided if the West, and America in particular, is to avoid the charge that it operates on a clear double standard.

These perceptions of great-power hypocrisy stand out in still higher relief when contrasted with the benign Muslim views of other Western powers, as Esposito notes elsewhere:

while 74 percent of Egyptians had unfavorable views of the United States and 69 percent said the same about Britain, only 21 percent felt unfavorably toward France. These policy disagreements become especially sharp when we compare Muslims’ perceptions of the United States with their views of its neighbor to the north, Canada — i.e., America without the foreign policy. Sixty-six percent of Kuwaitis… reported unfavorable views of the United States, while just 3 percent assented to unfavorable descriptions of Canada.

Perhaps, in other words, it’s long past time for our exuberant exporters of the American ideal abroad to revise some of the most stubborn articles of their own delusionial faith.

Chris Lehmann is our religion columnist.