Egypt: “mind” or “mouth’?

It’s impossible to tell whether it is infection from the hysterical Mideast Arabic and English commentaries on radio and TV. Or is it twaddle the result of misunderstanding of the complexity of the issues? Whatever, our talking heads are more than usually befuddled about events in Egypt. And they are lending further confusion to an already impossibly muddled situation with Obama Administration attempts to straddle the unstraddable.

No, “democracy” was not overthrown in Egypt, nor can it be restored with the ouster of the present puppet government established by the military. “Democracy” is not simply elections, however fairly they may be managed – and we in the U.S. know something about the difficulties of that. It requires a whole set of values, not the least, the concept of the individual and his right to his own thoughts and, in so far as he does not harm others, actions. That has rarely if ever existed anywhere in the Arab-Muslim world – except perhaps for a brief glimpse of it, ironically, under what is now Pakistan in late British colonial days. [Now, for example, in Pakistan proselytizing for a religion other than Islam, and that is often interpreted in exaggerated ways, brings the death sentence. A leading political figure was not only assassinated for advocating its amendment two years ago but his confessed murderer was cheered in courtroom scenes — by lawyers!]

Nor is it likely democracy will come any time soon to any Arab country. Even in Malaysia and Indonesia, far distant from Islam’s Arab origins, whatever exists by way of progress toward it hangs by a thread. Nor notwithstanding Pres. Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, never did widespread tolerance exist in Islamic history — certainly not in the supposed halcyon years of al Andalus, the Berber kingdoms of southern Spain There pogroms against Jews and Christians [despite extensive intermarriage and the use of minority members as court ministers] dot its relatively short history. That’s why Moses Maimonedes, one of the world’s most renowned philosophers and physicians, a Jewish scholar writing in Arabic, in the 12th century fled his native Cordoba – eventually landing in Egypt, no less – to save his life.

But Mohammed Morsi, the ousted Egyptian president, would not have welcomed Maimonedes, given his expressed hatred for non-Muslims. Despite his followers’ claims, he was not “democratically elected” [as wikipedia would have it]. He won a minority victory as the best organized political force in hastily arranged elections after a half century of Hosni Mubarak’s military dictatorship.. Nor is he a democrat despite the claims of his followers – many of whom have been attending “peaceful demonstrations” with Kalashnikovs for attacks on their opponents and police stations. He is a leader of a longtime secret society – kept underground by successive Egyptian regimes for three  generations. It is dedicated to establishing a monolithic Islamic state in a country with more claim to “multiculturalism” than any in history.

The trail of Morsi’s Brotherhood is a long history of assasinations and attacks, for example, on Egypt’s 15 to 18 million Coptic Christians and destruction of their churches. [Ask former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a Christian married to a Jew, whose grandfather, Boutros Ghali, as prime minister of Egypt under the British “protectorate”, was assassinated in 1910 by a member of a pan-Islamic party, ancestor of the Brotherhood.]

Must one excuse the excesses of the military regime in its effort to return Cairo, Alexandria and Suez [on the Canal, critically sensitive to world trade, by the way] to some sort of stability? Anyone who knows Cairo knows that is a relative term in the best of times. No, but there are “mitigating circumstances” by Mideast standards: the whole country was headed for immediate economic collapse, even famine with 70% of its food imported. The military’s effort to disassemble Brotherhood encampments in strategic areas and neuter opposition to the succeeding [called an interim] regime was absolutely necessary to avoid total chaos.

Never mind Morsi’s vile, vituperative public pronouncements [only in Arabic] cursing Jews and other “infidels”. [As Anwar Sadat, the martyred Egyptian leader, assassinated by an offshoot of the Brotherhood in 1981, once said in reply to a question about some outrageous statement by another Arab leader, “Oh! You know how we Arabs talk!”] But Morsi thorough manipulation of a “constitution” almost instantly arrived at was steering the country toward “sharia”, rule under Islamic religious law.

Now with sharia as with so many Islamic concepts, you can have your pick. It has been defined and runs the gamut from the “tolerant” ways of the late Ottoman Empire which generally only imposed fines and other legal restrictions on its vast non-Muslim population. The name for those non-Muslims to whom this whole set of Islamic “values” is applied is dhimmis. But just like everything else in Islam, it has been differently interpreted from Dakar to Zamboanga. But whatever else it means, it is second class citizenship – a concept that simply does not square with democracy. In more “effective” enforcement, Yemeni Jews were required to observe special obeisant movements whenever encountering Muslims despite their industriousness which was essential to the impoverished south Arabian region functioning.

Sharia often includes treating women as chattel, permitting divorce without the wife’s consent by simply uttering the words, “I divorce thee”, three times. Sharia often includes punishments long outlawed in more civilized societies – more than 200 years ago by the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as “cruel and unusual punishment”. Where Muslims rule with sharia, as in Saudi Arabia, chopping off a hand, or fingers instead, for theft is a subject worthy of intense religious speculation. Christians in their worst arguments talked of how many angels danced on the head of a pin or who was a witch to be burned at the stake, but that is now centuries past. Israeli Orthodox Jews still do argue against drafting yeshiva students of “the law” for military service.. That is not to say that there has not been Islamic jurisprudence as studied and as sage as any in the world, particularly in the old Persia and in India, but it is not what Morsi was about.

Or take “jihad”. Central Intelligence Director John O. Brennan publicly has defined it as the search in Islam for salvation. Yes, in the Arabist scholarly circles he navigates, Brennan – known in some circles as Brennan of Arabia – is correct. But it also has been the battle cry for more than 15 centuries in the Islamicists’ efforts to conquer the world, and subject it to a “caliphate” – again a word with a dozen meanings but generally a unified Islamic political state under an absolute Muslim ruler. The fact is that neither the historical Zoroaster, Abraham, Mosses, Jesus, Gautama nor Confucius, founders of the great mass religions, were soldiers. Mohammed according to the holy book of Islam, the Koran, apparently was and a very bloody and successful one..

All of this was in the quiver of Morsi as “the duly elected” chief executive of Egypt. It turned out that most Egyptians, perhaps, for we will never know, but seemingly the bulk of those politically active, did not endorse this program. And then the head of the military, originally chosen by Morsi, apparently because he once wrote a thesis with Islamicist overtones when he was studying under the auspices of  the American military at Leavenworth, overthrew the Morsi Administration. His action appeared to have, even by the most critical observers, the assent of the majority of Cairenes, if not that of the American State Department again left out in the cold.

Morsi and his followers refused to bow out for hadn’t they, they said, supported by the anti-anti-anti-Islamic spokesmen in the U.S. and Europe, acting as an echo chamber, stood for “democracy” The answer is obviously “no”.

So we have come full circle: are the talking heads and a couple of Senators confusing the issues? Are the analyses on the hour by National Public Radio, The New York Times, along with the White House statements, just contaminated with the incredibly paranoid and hysterical rhetoric of the Middle East? Or have they, like so many increasingly ill-educated young Americans, lost touch with the English language and its definitions?




One response to “Egypt: “mind” or “mouth’?

  1. Sol… re Islamic jurisprudence “as studied and sage as any in the world…”

    No — this is not in fact the case…

    [By the way, as I recall, Maimonides left Cordoba with his family at about the age of 12, following a pogrom there — but in his adult wanderings in search of a place to settle, he did not return to Cordoba. (Have you been there? They have a bust there honoring him and the synagogue is now a historic site… but it still is filled with crucifixes and other Christian symbols. )]

    Anyhow, don’t give Islamic jurisprudence unwarranted credit. It has not been “studied and sage” for at least 500 years or more.

    At least not according to what I was told by the last free prime minister f Afghanistan, Mohd. Moussa Shafiq (then foreign minister) when he was here for the UN in1972 and we had dinner and a long discussion of his plans for his prime ministry (which he was about to assume). Shafiq was a lawyer, who had a degree in Islamic law from al Azar, plus one in international law from Columbia, plus studies with Kissinger at Harvard — and he was the primary author of the 1964 pro-democratic Afghan constitution, which included a bill of rights and other sections adapted from the Swiss, American, and Egyptian constitutions. So I think he was qualified to comment.

    Shafiq told me that Islamic law lacked the systems and structures necessary to adapt to changing situations — he said that in about the 14th/15th centuries it had run into a stone wall structurally, in terms of systems, techniques, methodology, and had frozen. He said that Muslim law lacked the necessary techniques to adapt and grow. That therefore “we are stuck in the 15th century, 500 years out of date — in the pre-modern world — and don’t have a way to get out.”

    He said that it was necessary to find a way to shake Islamic law loose — he was particularly interested in the structural systems — i.e., case law — of Anglo-American common law — and of the Talmud, which had managed to remain flexible over a period of 2,000 years. He had a good bit of knowledge of common law, and wanted to learn about the systems of Talmudic law. (He regretted that his official position prevented him from visiting Israel, but he hoped to open diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. Since I was Jewish, he thought that perhaps I could help him find the necessary sources of information.)

    Perhaps medieval Islamic jurisprudence was “as studied and sage” as other medieval systems, which were pretty brutal too — but it was never as sophisticated as Roman law. In any case, in the past 500 years it has remained stuck in that medieval world and fallen centuries behind. (English law stopped drawing and quartering some time ago, and the block in the Tower hasn’t been used for ages. In fact, thanks to recent developments, Oscar Wilde wouldn’t have even been sent to jail today, let alone decapitated as in Saudi Arabia.)

    Re Islamic jurisprudence in India… what makes you think it was so advanc3ed? the Brits landed in the Moghul empire at its height — first arriving at the court of either Akbar or Jahangir (I forget which) in 1601 or 1603 — when lndian Islamic law included having miscrents executed by being crushed under the feet of the imperial elephants, while — in the absence of any rule of primogeniture — it was not particularly surprising, let alone shocking, for the emperor’s 3rd son to seize the imperial throne by having his brothers blinded, thereby disqualifying them for rule. (Blinding of competitors for power was pretty common throughout the Muslim world. )

    On its own, it wasn’t much better later — though the influence of Victorian English law may have improved it. And of course Jinnah was not the only Indian Muslim London barrister. (But see Kipling’s poem of the (Emir Abdur Rahman’s) King’s jest. Or Fitzroy MacLean’s fascinating book about adventurous Brits in the 19th century Central Asian emirates, who died assorted grisly deaths that later inspired Hollywood.

    Anyhow, I advise caution in praising Islamic jurisprudence.


    Sent from Windows Mail

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