Friday, February 11, 2011

Islamic democracy: inexorable fact or oxymoron?

Amid today's cataclysmic events in Cairo, I felt the thrill of the new medias as the NY Times and other papers brought me minute-by-minute updates in the form of blog posts and tweets, video feeds and live streaming, along with regularly updated commentaries by a team of seasoned correspondents. When the dust had cleared I was left with a sense of drama, lots of subjective accounts of individual heroics, and a shared feeling for the collective wave of emotion that stretched from hope to outrage to jubilation as the day unfolded. Only in turning to Le Monde, though, did I find analysis that measured up to the seriousness of the events, in the form of a pair of articles: one by neo-conservative Islamophobe Hirsi Ali, the other by Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan. Together their remarks placed the events in an intellectual framework that made clearer the world-historical stakes of today's revolutionary events.

Hirsi Ali, a Somalian refugee whose extraordinary life's journey has brought her to the American Enterprise Institute by way of a term in the Dutch parliament, is by her own account a recovering Muslim. She won sanctuary in the Netherlands after suffering genital mutilation and forced marriage (she later lost her resident permit when certain details of her story proved false), and during her brief, controversial public career in Holland she proved equally tenacious in support of Muslim immigrant women and in opposition to the patriarchal strictures of Islam. She has suffered much at the hands of the Islamic authority, and her piece in Le Monde draws on her tribulations. "When I see images of the masses in Cairo," she writes, she is inescapably reminded of the "collective prayer" of her early years. The "mosque" is for her the "key to understanding" the Egyptian uprising; in the Islamic world all political roads lead to Islamism. "Conspiracy, manipulation, intrigue, and corruption": these are the stock in trade of any Muslim politics--and have been for 1400 years! Only by building intermediate structures of civil society can the Egyptians, or any other Muslim people, hope to escape the endless cycle by which today's liberators become tomorrow's despots.

It is perhaps clear from this grim assessment why Hirsi Ali is conservative Washington's favorite ex-Muslim. She articulates with some authenticity the old thesis that Arab societies are incapable of democracy by virtue of their cultural traditions. It is only a short step--though she doesn't take it--from her analysis to the view widely expressed in Israel and Washington that it would have been prudent for the Obamists to hold onto Mubarak for as long as they could. These Arab masses need guidance--"leadership," she calls it--from cooler heads not mesmerized by the call to prayer. Her logic leads back to de facto restoration of the old colonial protectorates, while a modern civil society takes the time to grow out of its old habits of Muslim subordination.

While Hirsi Ali has thus internalized the subaltern position of cultural inferiority, Tariq Ramadan reverses the argument, and lays Egypt's problems squarely at the feet of the old imperial powers. Ramadan, of Egyptian origin, was born in Geneva, also to refugees: his grandfather was in fact a founder of the much reviled Muslim Brotherhood. Long a proponent
of a modernized Islam compatible--but not identical--with Western values, Ramadan teaches at Oxford, after the Bush administration refused to allow him to enter the US to take up a professorship at Notre Dame. Seen as an apologist for certain objectionable traits of Islam--in a debate with candidate Sarkozy Ramadan argued that Sharia law might best be discussed, not summarily rejected--Ramadan is cast, in the US at least, as the bad Muslim opposite Hirsi Ali's good one. No accident, then, that his opinion piece appeared in Le Monde rather than the NY Times.

From his position as insider/outsider to the Western intellectual tradition, Ramadan is able to speak refreshingly past the ideological truisms that mystify so much commentary about the Egyptian situation. In the face of pious claims of support for 'democracy' emanating from North America and Europe Ramadan cites their long, sad history of sustaining the most obdurate forms of authoritarianism throughout the Muslim world. Even the most extreme forms of Islamism, he notes, placed in the proper geo-strategic light have won the endorsement of these self-proclaimed advocates for 'democracy.' Be wary, he counsels us citizens of the Western democracies, and avoid the naiveté that would accept our governments' professions of concern for those democratic values we have sold down the river in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, in Mubarak's Egypt and countless other situations of expediency and national interest.

So while Hirsi Ali offers a sober reminder of how much needs to be done--for she is surely right that civil society must be shored up if not invented in Egypt and throughout the Islamic world--Ramadan offers some useful caveats to the received and somewhat paternalistic truisms circulating in Western punditry just now. Democracy, if it comes to Egypt, will be won by the Egyptian people despite our national interests and diplomatic initiatives, and we would be foolishly naive to think otherwise. Obama may to his credit play a less heavy-handed, more supportive role than some of his predecessors--or then again he may not. But already the Egyptians in the street have disproved the most damning of Hirsi Ali's parroted disclaimers, and the visionary optimism of Ramadan, inconceivable only months ago, has shed its wishful character. On to the new era!


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