Liberals Viewing the Illiberals

Liberals Viewing the Illiberals December 27, 2011

By Razib Khan:

Over the past few days the American media as reacted with some consternation at the fact that it seems likely that Islamist political forces will probably control around two-thirds of the Egyptian legislature. This bloc is divided between a broad moderate element which emerges out of the Muslim Brotherhood, at around ~40 percent, and a crazy and savage Salafist component, at around ~25 percent. Terms like “moderate” need to be standardized though in their cultural context. The Muslim Brotherhood is moderate in an Egyptian framework. But it is not moderate in, for example, a Tunisian context, let along a Turkish one. Egyptian American journalist Mona Eltahaway has pointed out that while the Tunisian Islamist party, Ennahda, has women in substantive positions (e.g., 42 or 46 women in the Tunisian legislature are members of Ennahda) the Muslim Brotherhood gives women only token representation, with no leadership role. And, as I have observed before the Islamist prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was greeted with great anger by North African Islamists when he proposed the shocking idea (to them) that all religions be treated equally. My point is that what is moderate in Egypt is going to be very reactionary in North Africa, and what is moderate in North Africa is going to be very reactionary in Turkey. In fact, what is moderate in Turkey is going to be very reactionary in the West. To a great extent, this common sense, but for some reason this sense is lacking from our broader discussion on these issues.

This is one reason why I think that the Western media is reacting with stupefaction at the fact that reactionary elements are so much more powerful in Egypt than liberals. They presume to judge all societies by a common metric, when the reality is that that’s not feasible. You can’t compare a tribal society like Libya with one like Egypt, which as a more coherent national self-conception. But you can’t compare a trivially Westernized society like Egypt to Tunisia, where a substantial minority of the population has a Western Francophone orientation. When I originally expressed skepticism as to the liberal fruits of the Arab Spring (as opposed to the populist ones) I received some very angry reactions (some of which I deleted or did not send through moderation). The point that my critics made was that there was very little salience of religious nationalism at Tahrir Square. In other words, that this was not an Islamic revolution, etc. Many of the individuals offering this critique were Arab or Egyptian themselves, along with liberal and neoconservative Western fellow travelers. My contention was that Tahrir Square was not demographically representative of Egypt, and, even “liberal” Egyptians held rather regressive and backward views. In the context of these realities the success of the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood should be less surprising. Even in nations like Pakistan where explicitly Islamist parties are minor powers, the reality is that Islamist presuppositions suffuse the public space.


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