Egypt’s elections and the risky rule of God

ODD ANDERSEN AFP/GETTY IMAGES An Egyptian flag is placed next to the flag of the Freedom and Justice Party, founded … Continued



An Egyptian flag is placed next to the flag of the Freedom and Justice Party, founded by the Muslim Brotherhood, at the party headquarters in Cairo on November 30, 2011.

Among the more disturbing news developments in recent weeks is the surprising (to some western pundits, at least) strength shown by the hardest line Islamic party in the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections. This story is being buried inside newspapers and at the bottom of newcasts, as the American media concentrate on truly important subjects such as the size of Professor Newt Gingrich’s head and former candidate Herman Cain’s strange exit from the presidential primary stage.

In Egypt, the ultra-conservative Salafis, who believe that Sharia should be imposed on every aspect of Egyptian life, won about 25 percent of the vote in the initial parliamentary election last month. The Muslim Brotherhood, which only believes that Sharia should govern some aspects of everyday life and influence some aspects of government policy, won 40 percent of the vote with its Freedom and Justice Party. Add up the numbers: Nearly two-thirds of Egyptian voters at this time want Islam to play a bigger role in government and one-fourth voted for a party that stands for the most retrograde form of their religion. The more secular political parties lagged far behind and are expected to do even more poorly in the next round of elections, to be held later this month in less-educated rural areas.

The Muslim Brotherhood will have to strike deals with either the more extreme Salafis or with the minority secular parties if the prevailing de facto military rule is to be replaced with a working alternative. It seems highly unlikely that the Brotherhood would ever ally itself with secular parties, since it has already campaigned with the Salafis in some conservative areas and has refused to contest seats in districts where the Islamic vote might be split and allow a secular candidate to win.

This is bad news for the United States, with our vital interest in maintaining peace between Egypt and Israel. It is bad news for Israel. It is bad news for Egyptian women. It is, above all, bad news for the significant minority of Egyptians who hoped that the peaceful uprising symbolized by Tahrir Square would lead to the establishment of a democracy in which secular, not religious, law prevailed and human rights were respected.

It should not, however, be surprising news for anyone but the most starry-eyed western multiculturalists, who seem incapable of admitting that religion-based nationalism, which has never been an ally of human rights for anyone but adherents to its own religion, was one important element the in the Arab spring. One of the ironies of American political discourse on this subject is that it encompasses both the willful refusal of many politically liberal multiculturalists to condemn even the most fanatical forms of religion in other cultures and the view of many on the political right that the United States ought to have a Christian government (because that’s what the right thinks the founders wanted) and that only Islamic entanglement with government is bad.

The Salafis in Egypt want all of the Antediluvian, freedom-quenching measures that their counterparts in Islamic theocracies do: the exclusion of women from political life, severe religious penalties for fornication, stoning for adultery. Sheik Abdel Moneim el-Shahat, leader of the Salafis, has repeatedly criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for talking about citizenship and freedom that are not based on Islamic law.

“I want to say: citizenship restricted by Islamic Sharia, freedom restricted by Islamic Sharia, equality restricted by Islamic Sharia. Sharia is obligatory, not just the principles — freedom and justice and all that.”

Now there’s the problem, and not only in the Muslim world. Freedom and justice and “all that” are vitiated by government-enforced religious values.

Yet the Muslim Brotherhood, as a recent article in The New York Times pointed out, is in the habit of “sounding like the Salafis themselves one minute but avowing moderation the next.” The Times reported the diametrically opposing statements of two Brotherhood speakers at a campaign rally in Giza. The first speaker called for “the rule of God, not the rule of the people,” adding, that the “enemy media” were already saying that “those who love Jews, the United States and Europe should make every effort to keep the Islamic spirit dormant. Look at the conspiracy!”

Minutes later, the top candidate on his party’s list, Essam el-Erian, vowed that the Brotherhood would stand for nonsectarian citizenship for all and that Christians and Muslims should enjoy equal rights as “sons of the nation.” Will the real Muslim Brotherhood please stand up?

The second Brotherhood speaker, of course, is the kind of person multiculturalists like to quote in their sermons about the need to respect all cultures equally and the so-called moderateness of those who only flirt with theocracy. But the first speaker, the Islamic scholar Sayed Abdel Karim, may speak for just as many or more Brotherhood voters in his appeal for the rule of God rather than of the people. The American who sounds most like him is Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whose God is, of course, Christian and who cites the Bible in support of his pro-death penalty judicial views.

As I wrote in this column last year, many western observers were much too optimistic about the future of civil liberties in the Middle East after the largely peaceful uprisings of the “Arab Spring.” Americans, in particular, are loathe to consider the possibility that one political dictatorship may be exchanged, through a democratic vote, for a stifling new set of rules based on religion.

Part of our naivete about this matter is rooted in the religion-is-good propaganda that permeates our own society and has made political candidates careless at best, and contemptuous at worst, about our own separation of church and state.

I predict that the word “moderate” is going to be applied more frequently in the mainstream American media to the Muslim Brotherhood as the Salafis gain strength. One of the many pernicious effects of religious fanaticism is its capacity to force a redefinition of religious moderation to the right. After the Arab spring, advocates of human rights (Muslims and non-Muslims) were worrying about the influence of the Brotherhood. Now the forces that support secular democracy have to worry about far more radical people who subscribe openly to medieval religious laws that defy reason.

One of the lessons of history — not distant but recent history — is that so-called moderates, when their own power is on the line, tend to give in to the hardliners. Consider our so-called ally, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, who recently pardoned a woman sentenced to prison for 12 years for fornication after being raped by a relative. Sounds good, right? Except that Karzai’s announcement also made it clear that the woman was expected to marry the man who raped her, as prescribed by tribal custom and Islamic law.

Will the moderation of the Muslim Brotherhood turn out to be as fickle as Karzai’s? I don’t know, but I do know that it is naïve to expect any real social, economic or human rights progress in areas where the majority of inhabitants do not believe either in freedom of religion from government or freedom of government from religion but only in the deadly and deadening union of the state and the majority’s religion.


Susan Jacoby Susan Jacoby is the author of "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism"­ and is completing a secular history of religious conversion.
  • ccnl1

    O Islam, Islam, violent Islam,
    Moha, illiterate and hallucinating,
    O Islam, Islam, violent Islam,
    Moha greed and lustful, womanizing,
    Was he too,

    O Islam, O Islam, violent Islam,
    Moha, warmongering and hateful,
    Was he too,

    O Islam, O Islam, violent Islam,
    Sunnis of hate, Shiites of late,
    Even Pretty Wingie Thingies cannot
    Save us from O Islam’s hate.

    Save us from these Islamic FEMs,
    Flaws, Errors, Muck and Stench,
    They ooze from the rocks of earth,
    Like worms of death and wrench.

    Bred, Born, and Brainwashed too,
    Whatever, whatever to do?

    Truth, Truth, History and Truth,
    Let it Ring True, Freedom, Freedom
    Freedom at Last and much left to do!!!

  • Secular1

    Well thought and well put Susan. I myself was not too enamored by the Arab Spring. That said, i thought it was imperative that the entrenched dictatorships had to go in all those places. Whether the people will have the sense to choose correctly the next set of rulers is again up to them. As you I am afraid that their choices will be wrong. That is the bane of religion and especially Islam. What the 47 dar-ul-islams need are at least 141 Kemal AtaTurks, three for each of them. Each of those countries need two more Kemals to take over after teh first and second so that they can finally escape the cudgels of Islam.

  • Susan_Jacoby

    Uh, I think maybe you should return to Poetry 101.

  • ccnl1

    And I agree but the words do ring with reality.

  • Rustylizard

    It makes for a dicey government when leaders rule according to God’s will; then, anything goes. It’s happening here too. All of the Republican candidates for President consult God for advice on a regular basis, and he has already given marching orders to some of them – telling them to run for public office. Who are they or their pious electorate to thwart his desires?

  • WmarkW

    I don’t judge people on whether they say God helped them make a personal decision, like running for office. That’s an OK use of religion; asking for personal strength or courage or to be a more effective steward of the public trust.

    It’s when supernatural dogmas become a motivation for public policies that lack secular merit, that I check out.

  • WmarkW

    Reminds me of the book The Closing if the American Mind, which was very popular with conservatives in the 1980s, even though the author, Allan Boom, was a liberal humanities professor at the U of Chicago. It was probably the first really important criticism of the trend in academia toward (what we now call) political correctness and dogmatic multiculturalism.

    Bloom’s opening anecdote is about asking his students what the British colonialists in India should have done when they encountered Hindu bride burning, which was part of the indigenous culture, but obviously wrong from any objective perspective. Bloom says his students couldn’t come up with any answer besides the British shouldn’t have been colonizing in the first place.

    This ties into Charles Murray’s critique that the problem with educated liberals is that they don’t preach what they practice. Educated liberals don’t make impoverishing decisions like dropping out of school, marrying too young and having children out of wedlock. But they’re extremely permissive to those who do make such obviously bad choices.

    I think a distinction needs to be made between “tradition” and “experience” as teaching events. Tradition is not a reason to continue a cultural practice that limits people’s lives in a significant way. (Traditions like eating turkey on Thanksgiving don’t fall in this category.) While experience with disasters like intergenerational poverty exacerbated by single parenthood, are a good reason for societal intervention.

  • Rustylizard


    People have the right, of course, to use religion for any legal purpose they choose, just as we have the right to judge their motives. Like you, I am concerned when “supernatural dogmas become a motivation for public policies that lack secular merit.” However, my ire is also aroused when I hear politicians imply that only the faithful can govern effectively or are fit to do so. And I am not impressed when an individual states that his god has told him to run for office or advises me that he and his god are okay with one another in respect to his bad behavior (think Herman Cain).

    Call me cynical, and you would be right, but I am also disgusted when politicians crow about asking “for personal strength or courage or to be a more effective steward of the public trust.” What they really want is pious votes, or they wouldn’t be so willing to ignore their own Lord and Savior’s words (in Matthew 6:5-6, summarizing Christ’s views on publicly praying hypocrites).

    So, yes, I do judge them. I want a candidate who already possesses the strength, courage, intelligence and leadership abilities necessary to run the country. Not one like Rick Perry, who prays to a divinity for rain and probably for enough talent not to embarrass himself in a political debate. Either way, it ain’t going to happen. And I shudder to think what other shortcomings this year’s parade of clowns will need to pray for to run this country. Improved skills in logic, a better sense of empathy, and a more comprehensive education should be high on their list.

  • ccnl1

    Ringing of Reality

    O Islam, Islam, violent Islam,
    Moha, illiterate and hallucinating,
    O Islam, Islam, violent Islam,
    Moha greed & lustful & womanizing,

    O Islam, O Islam, violent Islam,
    Sunnis of hate, Shiites of late,
    Even Pretty Wingie Thingies cannot
    Save us from O Islam’s hate.

    Save us from these Islamic FEMs,
    Flaws, Errors, Muck and Stench,
    They ooze from the rocks of earth,
    Like worms of death and wrench.

    Bred, Born, and Brainwashed too,
    Whatever, whatever to do?

    Truth, Truth, History and Truth,
    Let it Ring True, Freedom, Freedom
    Freedom at Last and much left to do!!!

  • WmarkW

    This isn’t the Poetry 101 homework submission site.

  • ccnl1

    The poems currently being reviewed in Poetry 101:

    “Religion and Superstition

    25 Creation Reveals A Lack of Sense

    You said, “A wise one created us “;

    That may be true, we would agree.

    “Outside of time and space,” you postulated.

    Then why not say at once that you

    Propound a mystery immense

    Which tells us of our lack of sense?


    26 The Two Universal Sects

    They all err—Moslems, Jews,

    Christians, and Zoroastrians:

    Humanity follows two world-wide sects:

    One, man intelligent without religion,

    The second, religious without intellect.


    27 The Cheat of Sacred Rites

    O fools, awake! The rites you sacred hold

    Are but a cheat contrived by men of old,

    Who lusted after wealth and gained their lust

    And died in baseness—and their law is dust.


  • mrbradwii

    As the ignorant runt, I’ll just through this out: is the Israeli state any better? For better or for worse, it is perceived as a government completely ruled by religion and — racial purity to boot. Now I know they’re more “democratic” than that and the people who meet the criteria of citizenship enjoy rights that we are familiar with and some that we’re not (compulsory service, etc). Is it so far-fetched that there could be a muslim versions of Israel that function as well, at least for a while, in that kind of isolation?

    The problem, yet again, for the US is the two-faced nature of the “great game” of strategic alliances. Mubarek was a tyrant we could live with, Saddam, one we could not. We say we believe in democracy, yet when the will of the people is itself tyrannical and freely chosen by the majority, it makes common sense to us to say , “but that’s not the kind of democracy we mean”, yet utterly baffles those who put their lives on the line oust someone like, say K-daffy.

    We have no good answers and our cultural disparity always digs us a deeper hole. It’s fine for Obama to go to Egypt and say we have no quarrel with muslims, but then when the Arab spring asserts a muslim identity, we can’t be surprised that women aren’t part of the solution or that Israel is threatened.

    We have to promote pure individual freedom and anti-authoritarianism with whatever government the people choose and let time work it’s magic while peaceful freedom fighters, as exemplified in Myanmar, change the course of their country’s destiny internally.

    And we have to realize as individuals how trade and commerce affect human rights. Every dollar we pump is a stone thrown or the neck of a woman cut in complicity. While we don’t want to deprive anyone of economic freedom and the food and medicine that it can secure, but such freedom cannot be fully realized while necks are being trodden upon.

    There has to be a way to achieve consistency of purpose in our foreign relations in ord

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