Islam and the Lasting, Even Permanent Ethos of Authoritarianism in Egypt, and the Middle East

P.J. Vatikiotis wrote candidly in 1981 (p. 62) about how authoritarian Islam doomed inchoate efforts at creating political systems which upheld individual freedom in the Middle East notably, within Egypt, but throughout the region. Sadly, his wise observations remain as true today as they were over thirty years ago:

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 rule. . . . One 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.

Andrew G. Bostom is the author of The Legacy of Jihad (Prometheus, 2005) and The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism ” (Prometheus, November, 2008)

You can contact Dr. Bostom at

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