Ignatius for a fantastical and self-destructive Egypt policy

David Ignatius summarizes the Obama administration response to criticism of its Egypt policy:

The administration’s rejoinder is that this isn’t about America. Egyptians and other Arabs are writing their history now, and they will have to live with the consequences. Moreover, the last thing secular protesters need is an American embrace. That’s surely true, but it’s crazy for Washington to appear to take sides against those who want a liberal, tolerant Egypt and for those who favor sharia. Somehow, that’s where the administration has ended up.

Ignatius is writing sloppily on the key issue – either that or he is simply setting aside the inconvenient fact that in Egypt, a ca. 90% Muslim country, even the opposition claims to “favor sharia.” Because “favoring sharia,” “being a Muslim,” and “following the Qur’an” amount to different expressions for the same thing, it is not surprising that the same number turns up in polling data: Around 90% (actually 92%) of Egyptians are said to favor either strict or basic adherence to Islamic values and principles in law, with the large majority of Egyptian Muslims (and of all Egyptians) in the “strict” camp.

In other words the question cannot be “secular” vs. “sharia” – a simplistic definition that appeals to the liberal West, but is rejected within Egypt by those whom those same Westerners would support. The distinction in such a polity will not be between sharia and anti-sharia, but between different and varyingly inclusive interpretations of sharia – as expressed in the distinctions between sharia as “source” or “reference,” “primary” or “sole” source,  “source of rulings” or “source of principles,” and so on. For the same reason those who see or portray sharia as inherently illiberal will have already given up on a liberal politics in Egypt for the foreseeable future, while, as so often, expressing their liberal commitment to the inclusive and tolerant society through pre-emptive exclusion and intolerance.

As for the Obami and the American self-interest, a policy that took sides “against sharia” in Egypt would be a policy that took sides on behalf of almost no one against almost everyone. The alternative perspective, and actual policy, seems for now to square with the best hope from the perspective of loss of life and destruction of social and economic capital: The actual weakness, or effective irrelevance, of uncompromisingly “anti-sharia,” congenitally anti-Islamist Egyptian forces other than in the secular liberal imagination.


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8 comments on “Ignatius for a fantastical and self-destructive Egypt policy

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  1. So, we come to the point that you agree Sharia, not self determination, was the real issue, that was also at stake in the GZ Mosque, so what is the limiting principle, execution ala Chop Chop square, the total exclusion except for shaheed purposes of women from public life, furthermore how does that square with the fact that Christianity broadly understood is the predominant
    sectarian trend in this country, yet any attempt to assert that point, gets called ‘theocracy’

    • Somehow you’ve managed to read through to the symmetrical opposite, perhaps because all of the definitions we depend on are in some sense provisional and self-dissolving where not fictional – we are all always on the impossible mission.

      In Egypt sharia/anti-sharia is not the issue. Self-determination and sharia are in a certain sense the same, though the decision comes in the infinitely developing interpretations and articulations under changing circumstances.

      Have no idea what this has to do with the GZM, and “limiting principle” is another one of those fictions in all cases. As for what some people say about Christianity in the U.S., I’m not one of those people. Americanism in my view already is ecumenical Christian theocracy. The dogmas of particular sects are highly problematic.

      • Yeah, and this comes out in full relief once you delve deeper into what Egyptians mean when they say they want “Sharia-based law”. Some mean the literal legal application of their sect’s internal rules (just like many American Christian fundamentalists), while most hem a bit and say they mean that broad Muslim principles like “charity” and “justice” be the basis of the Egyptian constitution. I think when people say that their country should be a “Christian/Muslim/Hindu/whatever nation,” what they’re really saying is that issues of morality should figure in the nation’s primary rules, which is impossible to prevent in the first place. So “secular” Westerners who are concerned about Egyptian fundamentalism shouldn’t be hung up by popular clamors for Sharia law, but should instead be reading up on traditions within Islam and Arab culture that emphasize pluralism, and creating conditions where those coalitions can flourish.

  2. Great post CK. Miguel, I don’t think anyone denies that Christianity is the predominant sectarian trend in America, or even really that this Christian flavor affects the laws in some inchoate way. It’s more that the unique pluralistic history of America has diminished the connection between this sectarian flavor and the governance of the country in a way that doesn’t obtain for a place like Egypt, where people have been overwhelmingly the same religion for over a millennium. So I think CK could (and probably would) take your claim and run with it, by arguing that secularists should be more accepting of the idea that “America is a Christian nation” in at least some sense, and inviting Egypt’s critics to see more benign commonalities between the American system and the “Sharia Law” to which most Egyptians would like to b subject.

    • I think you’re right, but I accept that the language is difficult for “secularists” and “atheists” and other non-Christians to accept, in part because of the tendency and possibly the need of each of us to reify and sacralize his own terminology.

  3. Correct Robert, and I don’t doubt since Uqba bin Nafi conquered Egypt, that Islam has been a part of Egyptian society, Al Aswani certainly noticed this in Yacoubian, which was his ‘Tales of the City’ however, I don’t know if he fully took into account
    what it means in practice, when Zakat ends up in Hamas’s arsenal budget,

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