Americans must learn two concepts to better understand the political earthquake the United States is now pushing as President Obama gives his nod to "the Arab street," predominantly organized, it seems, by the Muslim Brotherhood, to force out an ally, Hosni Mubarak.
Many on the right have seen in the anti-Mubarak movement vindication of George W. Bush's Big Idea -- that ballot-box democracy would transform the umma into Jeffersonian, or, at least, pro-Western and anti-jihad republics. That this hasn't happened anywhere (and in spades) doesn't dampen their enthusiasm. In fact, citing Bush to bolster pro-"opposition" commentary is in vogue. Writing in the Washington Post, Elliott Abrams quotes Bush, circa 2003, as saying: "Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? ... Are they alone never to know freedom ...?" Jay Nordlinger at National Review quotes Bush, circa 2008, as saying: "The truth is that freedom is a universal right -- the Almighty's gift to every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth."
Such is "universalist" gospel. Universalists believe all peoples prefer freedom to its absence, which is probably true. But they also believe all peoples define "freedom" in the same way. Is that true?
The answer -- and first concept -- is no. The entry on freedom, or hurriyya, in the "Encyclopedia of Islam" describes a state of divine enthrallment that bears no resemblance to any Western understanding of freedom as predicated on the workings of the individual conscience. According to the encyclopedia, Islamic freedom is "the recognition of the essential relationship between God the master and His human slaves who are completely dependent on Him." Ibn Arabi, a Sufi scholar of note, is cited for having defined freedom as "being perfect slavery" to Allah. To put it another way, Islamic-style "freedom" is freedom from unbelief.
Suddenly, something seems very lost in Bush-speak translation. It has been from the start, which helps explain what's gone wrong in U.S. wars in the umma. Bringing Western-style "freedom" to the Islamic world may have resembled an idealistic extension of the civil rights crusade in the eyes of President Bush and his followers, but it was actually one big cultural misunderstanding.
At this point, I can imagine being quizzed on whether the Islamic definition of freedom applies outside of a strictly Islamic religious milieu. But judging by the most solid indicators we have -- polling data on Egyptian attitudes from Pew (2010) and University of Maryland/WorldOpinion.Org (2007) -- I would have to say that Egypt is a strictly Islamic religious milieu. These findings reveal a population steeped in the teachings and attitudes of Shariah (Islamic law). For example, Pew tells us 84 percent of Egyptians favor the death penalty for leaving Islam; 95 percent say it's good for Islam to play a big role in politics. The Maryland/WorldOpinon poll shows that 74 percent of Egyptians favor "strict Shariah," and that 67 percent favor a "caliphate" uniting all of Islam. In free elections, such potential pluralities might well rate as "democratic" in terms of majority rule. But would the West consider them to be "democratic" in terms of individual rights?
Writing in the Washington Examiner, Byron York considered some of these same Egyptian data and found an apparent contradiction between the huge popularity of the death penalty for leaving Islam ("apostasy") on the one hand, and "freedom of religion" (90 percent) on the other. This would be a contradiction in the Western context. But we are not looking at a Western context. Which brings me to Concept Two.
Islam does not recognize as valid any religion but Islam. That means that what we in the West hear as "freedom of religion" becomes, in the Islamic context, freedom of Islam. Indeed, as Stephen Coughlin, the brilliant analyst of Shariah, has pointed out to me, citing both the Koran and quoting the classic Sunni law book "Reliance of the Traveler," Judaism and Christianity "were abrogated by the universal message of Islam." That means overruled. Further, it is "unbelief (kufr)" -- grounds for the capital crime of apostasy -- "to hold that the remnant cults now bearing the names of formerly valid religions, such as "Christianity" or "Judaism," are acceptable to Allah Most High."
Suddenly, a post-Mubarak Egypt run by the Muslim Brothers is not so difficult to imagine.