A Weimar moment for the Arab world
Last February, Bernard Lewis, the famous historian of the Middle East, warned that if elections were held early after the Arab spring, “It can only lead to one direction, as it did in [Weimar] Germany, for example,” an allusion to Hitler’s 1933 takeover after gaining a plurality in elections. In this case, Lewis meant not the Nazis, but the Muslim Brotherhood (enthusiastic supporters of Hitler during and after World War II) and other Islamist forces, which would simply use the democratic opportunity to gain power before the forces against them could get organized.
This seemed a rather shocking, if not alarmist, prediction in the heady days of the Arab spring, when so many Westerners thought they were witnessing something akin to the rise of the peoples of Eastern Europe against the Soviets in 1989, so it was largely ignored.
Soon after Lewis’s warning, however, in the March constitutional referendum, Egyptians overwhelmingly voted in favor (77 percent) of early elections, which would obviously favor the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood. And lo and behold, what do we see now? The lslamists and their allies have won a combined total of nearly 77 percent in the first round of the recent vote. What a surprise!
According to the Associated Press, the High Election Commission announced that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party garnered 36.6 percent of the 9.7 million valid ballots cast last week for party lists. The Nour Party, representing the more hard-line Salafi Islamists, captured 24.4 percent. Bringing up the rear was the secular-leaning Egyptian Bloc, which gained only 13.4 percent. This is roughly equivalent to the March results.
“Freedom and Justice,” the Brotherhood’s party name, sounds very appealing. What is the worry? The concern is over the meaning of the words. “Freedom” simply means freedom to submit to Islam. Contrary to what Westerners expect, “justice” in this lexicon does not mean the rule of law or equality before the law. It means the divine positivism of Sharia, Islamic jurisprudence derived from the Qur’an and the Hadith, which actually codifies inequality, as between Muslim and non-Muslim, and between men and women. A spokesman for the Nour party, Yousseri Hamad, said his organization considers God’s law the only law, a curious attitude for a potential legislator.
What is left to legislate? “In the land of Islam, I can’t let people decide what is permissible or what is prohibited,” Hamad told AP. “It is God who gives the answers as to what is right and what is wrong.”
In any political party anywhere in the Muslim world, the word “justice” in its title, you may rest assured, means Sharia, and the program of the party means its ultimate imposition. I once formulated the Islamist theory of democracy as follows: one God; one vote; one time.
The more moderate-sounding deputy head of the Freedom and Justice Party, Essam el-Erian, said, according to AP, “We want to apply the basics of sharia law in a fair way that respects human rights and personal rights.” This sounds comforting. But how compatible are human rights with sharia? According to the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights, signed by 45 foreign ministers of the Organization of the Islamic Conference on August 5, 1990, “rights” reside solely in the Sharia, which excludes anything contrary to it, which is why the Cairo Declaration was made to modify the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to exclude things like freedom of conscience.
Under the dispensation of Sharia, then, what does respect for “human rights” look like? In June 2000, the then grand sheikh of al-Azhar, the highest jurisprudential authority of the Sunni world, the late Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, offered Saudi Arabia as the model. He said:
“Saudi Arabia leads the world in the protection of human rights because it protects them according to the Sharia of God... Everyone knows that Saudi Arabia is the leading country for the application of human rights in Islam in a just and objective fashion, with no aggression and no prejudice.”
The latest news from the Saudi Arabian land of human rights reports that a study has been submitted to the Shura Council, which advises King Abdullah, warning that allowing women to drive cars can lead to pre-marital sex. This same concern is now being expressed by some Salafis in Egypt, to an extent that concerns Mohammed ElBaradei, the erstwhile presidential candidate. He said, “I worry of course... when you hear [the extreme stuff coming out from some of the Salafis] that we are still debating whether women are going to drive their cars, if we are still discussing whether democracy is against Sharia.”
In case there is any confusion over what these developments, if successful, might mean for Egypt, consider the recent statement by Sheik Shahat, a leader of the Salafis, whose coalition of parties came in second behind the Brotherhood: “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.” At a campaign rally in Giza, across the Nile from Cairo, Islamic scholar Sayed Abdel Karim, exclaimed for “the rule of God, not the rule of the people.”
Now that Egyptians are so much closer to it, what might the rule of God look like? It should be no surprise that, in its political manifestations, the Islamist project duplicates the features of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century’s secular ideologies and of Socrates’ proto-totalitarian city in Plato’s Republic. “In such a state,” said the Islamist Pakistani ideologue Maulana Mawdudi, “no one can regard any field of his affairs as personal and private. Considered from this aspect the Islamic state bears a kind of resemblance to the Fascist and Communist states.” It is, he remarked, “the very antithesis of secular Western democracy.”
Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, regarded the Soviet Union under Stalin as the model of a successful one-party system, which the Islamists were seeking. In a line worthy of Robespierre, Sayyid Qutb, the chief ideologue of the Brotherhood, said that this “just dictatorship” would “grant political liberties to the virtuous alone.”
For all the hopes invested in the Muslim Brotherhood, including by the US State Department, it is best to remember that these people take ideas seriously – and have since the Ikhwan’s1928 founding, when the long march to restore the caliphate and impose Sharia began. The Brotherhood, its offshoots, and imitators are the chief beneficiaries of the Arab spring. That is why we hear open calls for Sharia in Libya (“Each law that contradicts Sharia law is void,” Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of Libya’s Transitional National Council, declared on October 23, 2011), or more covert aversions in Tunisia (Rachid Al-Ghannouchi, leader of the winning Nahda Party, stated that “Gaza... is the model of freedom today.")
Was Bernard Lewis’s warning of a Weimar moment too extreme? Is Nazi Germany really the appropriate analogy for the present dangers facing the Arab world?
One Muslim intellectual reformer from the Middle East sent me this bitter message a few days ago: “As I see, this new Islamic wave is necessary. It is similar to the necessity of Nazi party control of Germany. The Nazis caused many historical disasters, but these disasters were quite strong and hard lessons for Germans and the world. Middle Eastern societies are in need of learning such a hard lesson from these retarded parties.”
Let us hope and pray that the price of the Arab spring is not this high, but there is the logic of it. Robert Reilly has worked in foreign policy, the military, and the arts. His most recent book is The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis.
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