I am thinking about the confrontation between “liberalism” – in the form of “liberal democracy” – and Islamism, but with a focus, in response to current events but perhaps also to larger necessity, on Egypt.
My Lack of Qualifications
I do not pretend to possess any particular expertise on Egypt, the Middle East, or Islam, nor do I presume to have anything consequential to offer those directly engaged in current political struggles. I have no family in Egypt, have never been to Egypt, have no Egyptian friends or acquaintances other than virtual ones, and I have no professional, academic, or other economic or institutional connection to Egyptian affairs. I have minimal Arabic: I chose the image for these posts – one result of a Google image search under “Incoherence of the Philosophers” – somewhat as an act of faith.
In sum, anyone seeking firsthand reportage, academically qualified analysis, or engaged opinion on Egypt will need to look elsewhere. Furthermore, as an American, and as material beneficiary of the American system, I cannot expect to be considered a truly unbiased and un-invested observer. Yet if I strive to correct for the implicit bias that I share with most other observers who work chiefly through the internet – among whom even the self-consciously pro-Islamist writers, bloggers, and tweeps might be presumed suspiciously universalist – my attention might itself be taken as evidence of reverse bias, even as a condescending form of anti-orientalism that re-produces its object. In short, I would expect to be assumed on “the other side” where not completely irrelevant by any engaged Egyptian, or any engaged participant or observer of any nationality, made aware of my views.
It will have to be enough for my purposes that decisions are occurring in Egypt on the level of the state, and are therefore articulated within the world state of states in which I have my single personal share, just as it has its own peculiar share in whatever I am. Egypt has engaged the American interest as much as or more than any other nation of the Arab Spring, just as the Middle East engages us economically, politically, culturally, and historically. In America, if we are sensitive to the underlying questions, if as individuals we are in this sense abstract enough, we feel the basis of our moral and spiritual self-conception, our history in the fullest sense, at issue, even if it is not or not yet palpably taken as a matter of communal destiny.
Our true subject can also be stated as the connection between someone like me and Egyptians despite the primary facts of our distance from and seeming lack of any practical uses for each other. What we really mean to each other even when we seem to mean nothing real to each other would be the relationship of essential citizenship to essential humanity – at least according to the self-justifications of political philosophy when called to account for itself.
For now I will continue writing on this subject under the rubric “Philadelphia and Cairo,” a construction meant to evoke but not duplicate the older “Athens and Jerusalem.”
The latter might seem to emphasize a European and Judeo-Christian heritage, as originally in the writings of the Victorian Matthew Arnold, or even as taken up more expansively in the 20th Century by Leo Strauss most notably. As a possible alternative, “Athens and Mecca” might seem to imply an untenably strict dichotomy or misleadingly simple dialectic of “reason” and (Islamic) “revelation,” and it might at the same time complicate and in other ways over-code and pre-determine the discussion, evoking polytheism on the one hand, and on the other hand seeming to deny the rich and indispensable history of the Islamic encounter with Greek philosophy. “Athens and Mecca” would be a subject for someone fluent in ancient Greek and Arabic: I would read the work that resulted with great interest, but I am far from competent to perform it. Since, however, the reach of Islam as well as of Western liberal democracy is global, the subject is eventually a global, world-historical, and also fully contemporary subject – a matter sooner or later for everyone and all, to which we “come as we are.” Each of us contributes her or his unique inadequacies to this absolutely common task.
Liberalism as we know it – as the application of a political philosophy that circumscribes globalized Western civilization, and not merely America’s lefthand side – must express an unconsciously theological or political-theological concept rather than the pure rule of secular public reason.
This theme has been extensively discussed in recent years, but we will have to take up again, not least because the theoretical discourse has not yet fully undermined mainstream political discussion in the lands of the supposed “Great Separation” between church and state [bibliography to follow]. I will simply assert for now that “real, existing” liberalism, liberalism in concrete political form, has always required a hybrid or mixed regime.
The mixed system that we know today under the general heading “liberal democracy” was defined in Philadelphia, though pre-figured in ancient Rome as well as in the ancient seat of Western philosophy and democracy named by “Athens.” It recognizes a prophetic comprehension of the individual associated with the figure of Jesus Christ – “Christian anthropology” in Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel, for the American Founders received especially via Locke and his immediate successors. “Philadelphia,” “brotherly love,” stands for the political theology of liberal democracy prior to resistances; for an unlimited commitment to limited government; popular sovereignty as an essential and unfalsifiable power capable of summoning the the “pledge of lives and sacred honor” (i.e., to risk death and to kill) on behalf of a theory – that theory of the infinitely self-interested individual, liberalism’s unconscious Christianity – that on its own simply can never do so. For Hobbes, the individual suitable for citizenship must be envisioned as a coward. Yet the citizens of the modern states have shown themselves ready to fulfill the “pledge” to the end, individually and en masse, while fulfilling brotherly love as predicate for every kind of murder: of other, of self, of God, of Earth, of all.
The Contendings of Seth and Horus
As an American citizen living in Southern California, I can claim residency in one of Philadelphia’s vast and numerous political-historical suburbs. Yet we also all live in a suburb of Cairo, which replaces Mecca or Jerusalem in the rubric mainly because it is where, today if not necessarily tomorrow, a new political-theological articulation is being sought and formed. Today, almost literally on the day of this writing, it represents an ongoing and incomplete experiment in Islamist democracy and specifically in Islamist constitutionalism – in the nation that has known itself as a nation for as long as there have been nations. That nation’s Arabic (or Semitic proto-Arabic) name Miṣr (from Mizraim, son of Ham in the Bible) carries “civilization” or “country” among its principle connotations, but also names the city of Cairo in contemporary Egyptian usage. The usage “Cairo” refers to a later Arabic word – al-Qahira, the strong, built and named by the Fatimids and made their capital, in 969-73 C.E., at the site of ancient Memphis, but it is also said to invoke the ancient word for a place of combat, khere-ohe, between the gods Seth and Horus, in one of the earliest known mythological texts, concerning the divine struggle for succession and kingship.
The home today as in pre-history of “contendings” of the gods, Cairo is where every ruler sooner or later is called Pharoah, and where every ruler has been ruled by the Nile and its residents, for 5,000 years at least, or since the Sahara became a desert. Its other main geographical characteristic has been Mediterranean-African-Asian crossroads – first of East and West – thus Alexandria. The geographical predicament helps to explain why Egypt is at least next door where not primary scene in the ancient political and religious traditions of the West, and was inscribed in the imaginations of the Masonic architects of modern democracy – thus the graphic cameo on the U.S. dollar. “Egypt” – from ancient Greek Aígyptos, referring to the Nile and by extension the temple of the soul of Ptah – in addition to being (partial lists) Semitic, Pharoanic, Arabic, Islamic, Ottoman, and Pan-Arabic, has also been Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine, and British. To complete this Wikipedian brief, Egypt is also a hinge of global North and South, and Greater Cairo a prime example of the contemporary globalized megalopolis.
We can say without fear of exaggeration that the entire longitudinal history and latitudinal state of the world is this year on exhibit in Cairo. That the Egyptian political decision and its effects will resonate throughout the region and beyond is one of those rare notions that is not merely widely held but almost certainly correct, to the point of self-evidence.