Free and democratic societies take chances. They guarantee freedom of speech and of the press, despite the risk that harmful, foolish, or depraved ideas may be promoted. They require due process of law before an offender can be punished, even though some who are guilty may go free as a result. They give citizens the power to elect their rulers, notwithstanding the strife election campaigns generate -- and the possibility that voters will choose officials who are corrupt or incompetent.
But there are limits. "Liberty and justice for all" does not require empowering even those who seek to do away with liberty and justice. In his famous dissent in the 1949 Supreme Court case of Terminiello v. Chicago, Justice Robert Jackson warned against interpreting the First Amendment so categorically as to fortify "right and left totalitarian groups, who want nothing so much as to paralyze and discredit . . . democratic authority." A commitment to liberal democracy is not an obligation to open the democratic process to parties that reject liberal democracy itself. Jackson cautioned the court's majority to "temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom," lest it "convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact."
If even in America, where democratic institutions are old and firmly rooted, it is important to guard against antidemocratic cancers that latch on to political freedoms in order to destroy them, how much more important must it be in Egypt, where a democratic republic is still struggling to be born?
This is why the question of the Muslim Brotherhood -- officially banned in Egypt, but nevertheless the country's largest opposition group -- is so crucial.
The Brotherhood is the world's most influential Islamist organization, and Islamism -- the radical ideology that seeks the submission of all people to Islamic law -- is perhaps the most virulent antidemocratic force in the world today. In Daniel Pipes's phrase, "it is an Islamic-flavored version of totalitarianism." Like other totalitarian cadres, Islamists despise democratic pluralism and liberty in principle. But they are quite ready to make use of elections and campaigns as tactical stepping-stones to power.
Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for Townhall.com. href="http://www.townhall.com/Secure/Signup.aspx">Sign up today
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