Egypt, “Hurriyya” Vs. Freedom, and “Muslim Moderates”: A Cautionary Tale

What Bat Ye’or left for Elliot Abrams (in vain) and others (hopefully) to learn


Ominous polling data from the contemporary Egyptian population reflect their deep, longstanding favorable inclination toward the Sharia, in all its totalitarian, brutally anti-freedom “glory.” The electorally successful Algerian Sharia supremacists of two decades ago came up with an apt expression of where such sentiments lead, given a one man, one vote (and likely, one time) opportunity: Islamic State by the Will of the People!

Despite ebullient appraisals of events in Egypt—which optimistic observers insist epitomize American hopes and values at their quintessential best—there is a profound, deeply troubling flaw in such hagiographic analyses which simply ignore the vast gulf between Western and Islamic conceptions of freedom itself. The current polling data indicating that three-fourths of the Egyptian population are still enamored of the totalitarian Sharia confirms that this yawning gap still exists—strikingly so—in our era.

Hurriyya (Arabic  for “freedom”) and the uniquely Western concept of freedom are completely at odds. Hurriyya ‘freedom’ is — as Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) the  lionized “Greatest Sufi Master”, expressed it — “being perfect slavery.” And this conception is not merely confined to the Sufis’ perhaps metaphorical understanding of the relationship between Allah the “master” and his human “slaves.”

The late American scholar of Islam, Franz Rosenthal (d. 2003) analyzed the larger context of hurriyya in Muslim society. He notes the historical absence of hurriyya as  “…a fundamental political concept that could have served as a rallying cry for great causes.”

An individual Muslim, “…was expected to consider subordination of his own freedom to the beliefs, morality and customs of the group as the only proper course of behavior…”.

Thus politically, Rosenthal concludes,

…the individual was not expected to exercise any free choice as to how he wished to be governed…In general, …governmental authority admitted of no participation of the individual as such, who therefore did not possess any real freedom vis-a-vis it.

Bernard Lewis, in his analysis of hurriyya for the venerable Encyclopedia of Islam, discusses this concept in the latter phases of the Ottoman Empire, through the contemporary era. After highlighting a few “cautious” or “conservative” (Lewis’ characterization) reformers and their writings, Lewis maintains,

…there is still no idea that the subjects have any right to share in the formation or conduct of government—to political freedom, or citizenship, in the sense which underlies the development of political thought in the West. While conservative reformers talked of freedom under law, and some Muslim rulers even experimented with councils and assemblies government was in fact becoming more and not less arbitrary….

Lewis also makes the important point that Western colonialism ameliorated this chronic situation:

During the period of British and French domination, individual freedom was never much of an issue. Though often limited and sometimes suspended, it was on the whole more extensive and better protected than either before or after.’ [emphasis added]

And Lewis concludes with a stunning observation, when viewed in light of the present travails in Egypt and throughout the Muslim world, optimistic assessments notwithstanding:

In the final revulsion against the West, Western democracy too was rejected as a fraud and a delusion, of no value to Muslims.

I would like to add these three germane observations. Two are from scholars quite sympathetic to Islamic culture whose opinions are based upon very different scholarly backgrounds—S.D. Goitein (d. 1985), a specialist in classical Islam, and Muslim-Jewish relations in particular; and P.J. Vatikiotis (d. 1997), a political scientist who focused on the modern era in the Middle East, especially Egypt. Both men also lived for extended periods in the region. The third is from a lecture Bat Ye’or—who lived her youth in Egypt—gave in 1998, with Elliot Abrams present.

All three observations serve (or should serve) to remind us of the profound limitations of relying upon what Ibn Warraq has aptly termed “protecting Islam from Enlightenment values,” while supporting “dishonest tinkering” with Islamic doctrine (not to mention complete denial of the historical consequences of such doctrine), in lieu of the honest, mea culpa-based, wrenching reforms that are necessary to transform Islamic societies.

Goitein, circa 1964, from p. 185 (Review: [untitled] Author(s): S. D. Goitein Reviewed work(s): Modern Islam: The Search for Cultural Identity by G. E. von Grunebaum Source: Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 84, No. 2, (Apr. – Jun., 1964), pp. 185- 186.)

The military or police dictatorships controlling today almost all Islamic countries now appear not merely as successors or revivals of medieval despotism. They are (credited with) fulfilling a function similar to that of the belief in the God of Islam in the past—namely that of relieving man from the responsibility for his own destiny.”

Vatikiotis circa 1981 (from Le Debat, [Paris], no. 14, July-August, 1981), wrote:

What is significant is that after a tolerably less autocratic/authoritarian political experience during their apprenticeship for independent statehood under foreign power tutelage, during the inter-war period, most of these states once completely free or independent of foreign control, very quickly moved towards highly autocratic-authoritarian patterns of ruleOne could suggest a hiatus of roughly three years between the departure or removal of European influence and power and overthrow of the rickety plural political systems they left behind in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and the Sudan by military coups d’etat.

Authoritarianism and autocracy in the Middle East may be unstable in the sense that autocracies follow one another in frequent succession. Yet the ethos of authoritarianism may be lasting, even permanent…One could venture into a more ambitious philosophical etiology by pointing out the absence of a concept of ‘natural law’ or ‘law of reason’ in the intellectual-cultural heritage of Middle Eastern societies. After all, everything before Islam, before God revealed his message to Muhammad, constitutes jahiliyya, or the dark age of ignorance. Similarly, anything that deviates from the eternal truth or verities of Islamic teaching is equally degenerative, and therefore unacceptable. That is why, by definition, any Islamic movement which seeks to make Islam the basic principle of the polity does not aim at innovation but at the restoration of the ideal that has been abandoned or lost. The missing of an experience similar, or parallel, to the Renaissance, freeing the Muslim individual from external constraints of, say, religious authority in order to engage in a creative course measured and judged by rational and existential human standards, may also be a relevant consideration. The individual in the Middle East has yet to attain his independence from the wider collectivity, or to accept the proposition that he can create a political order.

Finally, I urge the reader to consider very carefully Bat Ye’or’s  analysis of “Muslim moderates” and their terrible failings—completely squandered opportunities during the end of the colonial era (as noted above from a different perspective by Vatikiotis)–from the perspective of a great scholar who grew up among them, as a non-Muslim, indeed a Jew. Written 10 years ago, the attitude she describes of complete denial by Muslims, even “progressives,” and “moderates,” still applies with the rarest of isolated exceptions. And the consequences of this ongoing denial are equally apparent:

It is this lack of testimony that has brought back the evils and the prejudices of the past – the jihad mentality, and the laws of dhimmitude that were only abolished by the colonial European powers. And now, more and more, because of this lack of testimony, we see moderate Muslims themselves being persecuted. Because they were indifferent to the humiliation of Jews and Christians, because they remained silent and aloof, they now find themselves – in Algeria, Egypt, and elsewhere – suffering from cruel injustices and barbarism. Testifying together, giving testimony against dhimmitude, would have allowed Muslim intellectuals to rethink their whole relationship with the People of the Bible – and with all non-Muslims, and this without renouncing their faith. Such an attitude would have brought all of us together in the fight against tyrannical oppression, against the process of dehumanization. This is what could have been done and what was not done.

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