Walk Like An Egyptian

No Simo to be seen in Cairo, and God’s Son has no place in Madison

By Sarah Braasch

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

I am sure that most of you are aware of the massive grassroots demonstrations that have been taking place at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison in response to Governor Scott Walker’s emergency budget repair bill. I have been demonstrating all week on behalf of workers’ rights and public employees and unions, alongside public school teachers and firefighters and nurses and many, many more hardworking, middle class workers and their families.

I have been amazed by how peaceful and civil the protests have been, even when a small Tea Party contingent showed up on Saturday, February 19th. The Capitol Square has been teeming with tens of thousands of teachers, students, kids, and families. There is an overwhelming spirit of camaraderie and purpose. Despite the gravity of the historical and political moment, the protests have been fun and festive, with musical acts and drum circles and insanely clever protest signs. Each and every time the firefighters procession shows up, with firefighters in uniform and led by bagpipes, the crowd goes wild. The firefighters were exempted from Walker’s attacks on the other public employee unions, but they have been coming out in force to support their brother and sister unions.

Many of the protest signs reference the recent demonstrations in Egypt, which toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, and many political pundits in the media have commented on similarities between the two movements. Both movements are fights for democracy (and the movement in Madison does have far reaching implications for the future of the Democratic Party and democracy in the United States, because the downfall of the unions would be the downfall, after Citizens United, of the last remaining institutions that give the people any kind of a real voice in our elections, which are now overwhelmed by the political campaign contributions of corporations). But, it does seem a bit extreme to compare those risking their lives to overthrow a brutal dictatorial regime with Governor Scott Walker’s implicit threat to call out the National Guard to quell the peaceful protests of public school teachers and his explicit threat to lay off thousands of public employees if his demands are not met.

But, there is one aspect of the demonstrations in Egypt, which I would like to see duplicated in Madison. As was reported by most mainstream media outlets in the English-speaking world, almost all of the demonstrations in Egypt were secular, and purposefully and purposely so. While the Muslim Brotherhood played a role in the protests, as part of a larger coalition of democracy advocates, including secular democracy and civil society advocates, the Brotherhood agreed to refrain from using any religious slogans and from taking an obvious leadership position. Additionally, displays of religiosity were discouraged at the protests.

The Egyptians knew that the whole world was watching them, waiting to dismiss and discredit their movement as theocratic, not democratic. (It remains to be seen how steadfast will be the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to secularism. I, for one, am not expecting any miracles, but, for now, they have at least demonstrated an ability to abstain from explicit Islamism when politically expedient.) The Egyptians knew they had everything to gain, i.e., worldwide support for their grassroots movement to overthrow Mubarak, by remaining secular. They also understood how easily they could lose global public approbation, by casting their movement as overtly religious, with the implied goals of establishing an Islamic theocracy and implementing Sharia (Muslim law). They also understood the power of a visible female presence at the demonstrations, as an ostensible manifestation of secularism, and granted the women participating in the protests a reprieve from their gender punishment of unrelenting verbal and physical sexual harassment and assault, which is the norm on the streets of Cairo. (The vicious sexual assault on reporter Lara Logan, while she was covering the victory celebrations, certainly does not bode well for the status of women in the Egyptian public sphere.)

Religiosity is the determining criterion by which the West judges Egypt’s resolve for both democracy and women’s rights. And, rightfully so. Religiosity and democracy are at odds with one another; they are mutually incompatible, as are religiosity and women’s rights. They are overlapping magisteria, which destroy one another, like matter and anti-matter, releasing devastating gamma radiation in the process. That is why Thomas Jefferson built up a wall of separation between state and church, to avoid just such a destructive conflagration.

As quick as the protesters are to make comparisons between Wisconsin and Egypt, I wish Wisconsin would mimic the Egyptians’ insistence on maintaining the secular nature of their demonstrations. I wish the organizers and protesters in Madison were worried about keeping the protests democratic, not theocratic, for fear of being discredited.

Now, to be fair, the protests in Madison have been largely secular. But, to my dismay, each day of the protest has had to suffer one or another speaker’s ill-conceived attempts to inject Jesus Christ into the proceedings. Someone feels the need to pray to Jesus or refer to Jesus or try to motivate us by preaching and praising the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When this occurs, most of the crowd seems palpably uncomfortable, and everyone sort of looks around at each other quizzically and incredulously. A few persons feel obligated to humor the speaker and embark on half-hearted and bungled renditions of whichever hymn or prayer.

But, I resent the concerted crescendo of Christianity being perpetrated upon the masses at the Capitol. Ours is a secular government. I think it represents a complete miscalculation on the part of the perpetrators. This began as and remains a secular, democratic movement with secular, democratic aims. I do not want to see it usurped or adulterated or obscured by religionist interlopers. Additionally, those who are waging a war on workers’ rights and public and private sector unions and the lower and middle classes are those same persons who are waging a war on women and children and social safety nets, and they typically invoke religious ideology as justification for their malfeasance. They would love nothing more than to see the U.S. turned into a White American Christian Theocracy. The evangelical Scott Walker (who stated at his inauguration prayer breakfast that there is no “freedom from religion”) ran on a platform that cow-towed to the religious right and was anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-stem cell research. At his inauguration prayer breakfast, he also made clear that “our freedoms are derived” from the “Great Creator” and “not the government.” The religionists’ insistence upon insinuating themselves into the protests in Madison comes across as unctuous and opportunistic and mercenary.

And, of course, because the Christianists are attempting to impose Christian religious law upon the American citizenry and not Sharia, they are incapable of appreciating the double standard of judging the Egyptian protesters’ commitment to democracy according to their displays of religiosity, but not the Wisconsin protesters. In their minds, Christianity is compatible with democracy, but Islam is not. This is a fallacy. When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops drafts U.S. federal legislation, which relegates American women to sub-human status, something has gone very, very wrong. This is Sharia. It is Christian Sharia. And, there is nothing democratic, and everything theocratic, about that. I would love to see how the Christianists would respond if someone stepped up to the podium in front of the Capitol and declared the fight for workers’ rights an Islamic jihad, in the proud tradition of Mohammed’s example.

Go sell crazy somewhere else. We don’t want any in Cairo. And, we don’t want any in Madison.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.