A compact example of liberal illogic re Egypt cc @arabist @ibishblog

Liberalism (in the broad sense) is the ideology that turns what non-liberals prefer into its opposite, then insists that they acknowledge no difference.

Here’s Issandr el Amrani writing on “What Islamists want vs. what liberals want” – bracketed letters and emphasis added:

This is turning to be a pretty obvious basic difference: [a] Islamists want to impose their way of life on everybody else. [b] Liberals want to give everyone an individual choice about their lives, and will not restrict [c] the Islamists from doing what they want to do.

The above is an especially compact re-statement of the Ibish formulation, expressing a self-contradictory position that is effectively universal and definitional for ideological liberalism.


Assuming 1) that all of the terms are meaningful, and 2) that their relationship to each other is governed by consistency (non-contradiction), the statement breaks down as follows:

[a] = what Islamists want to do.

[b] = not what Islamists want to do.

In short:  [b] = ¬ [a]

Therefore, if [a] and [b] are both meaningful (i.e., assuming they represent anything at all, in mathematical terms do not both equal zero, as per primary assumption #1 above):

[b] ≠ [a]

[c] = what Islamists want to do.

what Islamists want to do = what Islamists want to do


[a] = [c]

According to Amrani, however, [b] also = [c]: Under liberalism, Islamists still get to be Islamists: liberals will not “restrict” Islamists; the liberal way of life and the Islamist way of life can co-exist; they do not necessarily contradict each other.

But, if [b] ≠ [a], and [a] = [c], then [b] ≠ [c].


Something has been lost in the movement from the first proposition to the last one. This loss of content should be, but somehow is not, obvious in the difference between the two bold-faced terms. Or perhaps the liberal prefers simply not to recognize or admit this loss of content. Yet this unacknowledged content is the entire basis of the conflict under discussion. The liberal logic or pseudo-logic simply presumes the adequacy to all others of the liberal’s self-preference.

Somehow, this loss of content or difference by which an [a] non-equivalent to [b] becomes a [c] that is equivalent to [b] is not obvious to Amrani, or Ibish, or, in effect definitionally, to all liberal ideologues commenting on the conflict between Western liberalism and Islamism or Islamist democracy, or between Philadelphia and Cairo. To everyone else (at least prior to the ultimate reconciliation of liberalism and Islamism, under which both “a” and “b” could be expressed as equivalent and non-zero), it is double-think.

The larger argument is not that less-liberal Egypt would therefore be better than more-liberal Egypt. The argument is that this blind spot may help to explain why the liberals achieve real results that liberals themselves find unsatisfactory.


The argument is not that there would be no meaningful difference between a more-liberal Egypt and a more-illiberal Egypt, but the differences will always be mixed and complex, never some simple victory of uniquely exclusive Islamism over uniquely inclusive liberalism, as Amrani’s simplistic and self-contradictory formulation seems to imply.

We’ll set aside embedded presumptions for now: Liberalism is the ideology that turns what non-liberals prefer into its opposite, then insists that they acknowledge no difference. Very typically, systematically, the real existing liberal-democratic state will further insist that its own insistence be understood as the non-liberal’s own freely assumed preference. This self-contradictory insistence is experienced as restrictive, oppressive, and irrational.

The sleight-of-hand relies critically on the substitution of an individual for a collective subject – which substitution happens to be another way of describing the liberal project. Without explanation, the “individual choice” in [b] becomes plural or collective in [c] as “the Islamists.” What Amrani means is actually “Muslims as individuals,” “Muslims as liberalized Islamists,” “Muslims under a non-Islamist conception of Islam.”

The Islamists seek a collectively Islamic society. The liberals seek a society of individuals. Taken as absolutes, both of these are impossibilities: There is no society except as a society of individuals, but neither is there a society that actually constitutes a society that is  merely a collection of individuals. (A population is not a society. It is “people” apart from a social concept.)

There is no liberal society that does not impose restrictions on its citizens comprehensively: That is the point of the examples given by Gehad Haddad regarding bikinis on public or private beaches that Amrani ridicules. Some acceptably liberal democratic societies impose restrictions on speech, dress, conduct, etc., that others do not. One liberal democratic society accepts nudity in public places; another does not. One liberal democratic society gives special consideration to ethnic or religious groups and traditions; another does not. In one liberal democratic society the right to bear arms shall not be infringed; in another an armed populace is considered a danger to liberty; no liberal democratic society is indifferent to the question; all impose restrictions in some way.

There is no liberal democratic society that exists or can exist without restrictions or special considerations of these and other types. All liberal societies restrict some speech, some conduct, some property rights.

Similarly, no society, whether or not it calls itself liberal, exists as a society without a collective principle of some type. The collective principle of no collective principle is all that liberalism generates on its own: In addition to being a paradox, it is an empty abstraction. The particular liberal society therefore must revert to antithetical premises for its positive content (its positive freedom, what its freedom is going to be “for”); not to its pure liberalism, but to its interconnected and not always perfectly clearly defined ethnic, geographical, religious and moral, etc., qualities: its “way of life.”

In our era of nation-states recognized under a loosely liberal-democratic international legal regime, this way of life is taken to be primarily, on the level of first conceptual and juridical priority, a national way of life. What distinguishes one nation from another is the relative priority given to each pre- or non-liberal element of its national character: In this sense how the nation defines its idea of the national is what defines it as a nation. How Americans understand American-ness is what defines them as Americans. How the Japanese define themselves as Japanese defines what it means to be Japanese, and so on.

Given the dependence on non-liberal content in all real existing liberal democratic states, it is more accurate to say that the liberal seeks to impose or advance an open-ended liberalizing process on a given conceptually pre-existent, pre- or non-liberal community, polity, society, or nation. This process always meets resistance, and in fact depends on the sources of that same resistance, in a sense on the resistance itself, for whatever actual positive content, the actual life-world, in or of the society that emerges.

As for Egypt as for any nation, the final result of this process, in relationship to which all nations today must define themselves, will never actually be final. Non-finality is another foundational liberal precept. The liberal democratic nation must always be constituted as a  self-altering, self-realizing ineradicably mixed regime, with each element of the mix itself an ongoing negotiation between loosely speaking “liberal” or “progressive” and “traditional” or “conservative” sub-elements – all the way down to the level of the human particle, the particular individual resolving alternatives concretely in his or her own life.

15 comments on “A compact example of liberal illogic re Egypt cc @arabist @ibishblog

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  1. So basically if the liberals in this case admitted that since the Islamists want Islamism as a collective condition & not one individually chosen that liberalism in fact doesn’t reconcile itself with Islamism or similar politically religious ideologies, their stance would be “what Islamists want is not individual liberty, therefore f*ck ’em”.

    Which would 1) be true*! but 2) result in the liberals losing.

    Though it’s not like they’re actually winning now, TBH. I don’t see a way for them to either, as marginalized as they’ve been. When the Islamists are the only ones organized then them ending up in charge is inevitable. Maybe they have to try majority absolutism on first before they get to liberalism.

    (* – That said, I’m aware that Egypt’s “liberals” are unlikely to be anywhere near as liberal as I picture liberalism meaning. But hey, I’m not Egyptian, that’s on them)

    • Put that way – which is also the way that most of the international liberal intelligentsia think, but mostly do not want to admit they think – that liberalism is best so get with it and yes that means the end of anyone taking your fairy tales seriously – then, yeah, they’d lose. They lose here, too, whenever their innate and final hostility toward traditional beliefs is exposed, although the evolution has followed a different course, to say the least, wrapped within complicated contradictions within contradictions.

      But I think that the eventual Egyptian solution will be mixed, never a complete victory for one side or the other, no matter who holds power.

      • From my understanding, insistence on everyone following the same beliefs, traditional or otherwise, is the root of such political fights to begin with. There being, in the form of the state, a weapon to wrestle over to bend society to ones will regardless of what the people within it may think, encourages conflict while somehow being claimed as its resolution.

        Well…yeah, the fighting stops when one side is all dead. Counting that as peace is horrible though.

        • We have to distinguish – because everyone involved does – between enforced belief and enforced conduct. Muslims do not believe in forcing people to be Muslims. Liberals do not believe in forcing people to be liberals. Non-coercion in belief is a fundamental tenet for both. Yet each believes that the other does exactly that through the system of limitations and incentives that its praxis imposes on all others. Muslims claim that the Islamic state is in fact the best and only system that allows people of different faiths and philosophies actually to live harmoniously, but this latter goal therefore both pre-supposes and justifies Islamic primacy. Liberals have a mirror image version of virtually the identical belief – as do libertarians, communists, anarchists, and everyone else. To support a political ideology means to believe in one’s own right to insist on a fundamental conformity defined by that ideology. This is inescapably true even for people like yourself: You can’t get to your no-state except by the negation of everyone else’s goal of the liberal or Islamic etc. state.

          Part of the difference between you and me is also how we define “the state.” To me, it’s a neutral term. Every person, group, society, nation, universe of living sentient beings exists in a “state.” For a nation, the whole state or nation-state, or culture-state, will produce governance of some type, and the historical form of the latter includes the familiar elected and appointed institutions of government and public administration. But the actual state combines so-called private and civil institutions and associations of all sizes with whatever constituted government. You remain focused on the government and its formal organs of security – police, armed forces – but if someone developed and used a super-bomb that vaporized public officials of all types – senators, soldiers, DMV clerks – and left everyone else unaffected, we would not enter into a realm of utopian freedom. With the whole state, the state other than nominally public institutions, largely intact, society would re-constitute a new government in the process of working out the conflicts over resources, production, safety, etc., and you’d sooner or later have to drop another bomb.

          • And which examples do you proffer for that argument, Tunisia, under Bourguiba and then Bin Ali, was quite moderate, Ghannouchi’s Ennadha is not, Mrchouki (sic) who heads the government comes from a secular party. Same for Morocco, under Prince Mohammed, but you don’t think they are legitimate,

              • Give me an example, of where an intrinsically Moslem country, is laissez affair, I gave you two, under authoritarian regimes, Libya under Quaddafi with his own original blend of ‘herbs and spices’ was likewise not Sharia dominant, Benazir Bhutto,

                • There’s no such thing as absolute “laissez faire,” and Saudi Arabia isn’t Turkey, neither is Iran, none of those three is Taliban Afghanistan, none of those four is the Moghul Empire, none of those five is Cordoba, none of those six is Persia, and none of those seven is present-day Iraq, and Iraq-today isn’t Iraq-tomorrow. There are to my understanding multiple traditions of Sharia still alive, and a range of theories about how each might be interpreted and applied under varying circumstances, and then there is the suppressed original version or set of pre-Mongol approaches still evolving under the influences of Greek philosophy and history (i.e., slowed expansion, intra-Islamic division), that most but not all Sunnis do not believe is open to re-interpretation in its major precepts, and that most Shia seem to believe is open to constant re-interpretation relative to the learned-ness and credibility of the interpreter, a matter in turn thought more open to dispute in some traditions, times, and places, than in others. Osama Bin Laden, Khamenei, Sistani, Qaradawi, Badie, El Tayeb, and so on all have different measures of credibility for different followerships, and I don’t pretend for a moment to be in a position to sort out their disagreements or to declare any one of them definitively more “liberal” than another.. It would be like a fundamentalist in Waziristan looking at the West and trying to balance out the relative importance and representativeness of the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Roberts, and Jon Stewart.

  2. They came from 60 years under a secular nationalist, modified Nasserist perspective, Islamism has expanded it’s grip in the public square, since the time that Al Aswani chronicled in his Yacoubian institution, in the early 90s One might think a variation of O’Sullivan’s maxim, any institution that is not explicitly anti Islamist, (Salafi/Wahhabi/Tafkiri) will become so,

  3. It is likely the last opportunity that Egypt had for a liberal regime, was probablyin 1925, when Zaghoul the leader of the Wafd, finally came to power, and resigned in the aftermath of the assasination of Brigadier Lee Stack, Mahfouz spends a fair amount of time, on that in his second book, Souief in her era spanning tome, describes a brief period in the 1900s, which ended with the assasination of Prime Miinster Boutros, that offered an opportunity for ‘enlightened leadership,

    • There’s never a “last opportunity.” You mean, I think, the last opportunity for now. If you go back to the time of the Fatimids – when Cairo became Cairo – the first extension of Islam across the entire Near East and moving into Spain – the Dar al Islam was already splitting. In historically short order, its movement in the direction of its other – the crypto-liberal other of Greek philosophy – was well under way, then interrupted and frozen in place at approximately the same place that the extremists want to restore, the narrow al-Ghazalian, anti-philosophical Islam that eventually ossified, weakened, and fragmented, while the West, gradually came to embody the opposite principle on the way to achieving its present extent and own self-endangerment.

      • No, those were never democratic movements, like the examples I stated. Arabia was not always Wahhabi, although the ouster of the Hashemites, made that prospect very nearly impossible, The ruling class, determines the regime, to large measure, hence Jordan is generally sensible, although one can look at examples, when they have not been,

  4. miguel cervantes: in the early 90s One might think a variation of O’Sullivan’s maxim, any institution that is not explicitly anti Islamist, (Salafi/Wahhabi/Tafkiri) will become so

    I think you’re saying that any institution in Egypt not explicitly anti-Islamist (or anti-collectivist/anti-communitarian/liberal more broadly), will tend to become Islamist. I think that suggests a general law of development that eventually reduces to “if you’re not liberalizing, you’re conservatizing” or “if you’re not progressing, you’re regressing.”

    Combined with the complexity premise, however, it’s quite possible to have an individual, group, institution, and any process or sub-process, that is progressing or contributing to progress in some respects, resisting or regressing in others.

    Under a progressivist philosophy of history (not necessarily the same as a “political progressive” or Progressive philosophy), there would nonetheless be some ultimate position toward which all political processes are always tending. It’s also the apocalyptic or messianic moment, when “all nations” are joined to “the eternal.” For the Hebrew prophets, that meant the time when the Law was no longer necessary because human beings would already be with God or godly or spontaneously lawful or good. In terms of Islam vs. liberalism, that means that there would no longer be anything for Sharia to adjudicate, just as there would no longer be any felt conflict between my freedom and society’s needs, thus no need for liberalism. I would always be willing the universal already. My neighbor and I would always be ready to yield to each other completely, so there would be no possible conflict.

    It would be a planetary society of “After you, Alphonse.”

  5. I put a period, between both ideas, the former illustrated how pervasive, Islamism is in the frequently corrupt, morally lax Mubarak regime, that was then, the liberals, have historically been outnumbered, except in places like Cairo with the referendum, everywhere else the Islamist/Salafi swept the ballot, among the Fellahin,

  6. Yes, just like Charles Colson;

    No scholar of Islam or even average Muslim would ever say such words. If you believe that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, then you must obey him—for he does not command except that which is good. So, even if he tells you to kill, you must— … The story about our prophet Musa [Moses], when al-Khidr killed the boy and Musa said “you killed and you did!” But then he [Khidr] revealed why he killed the boy, and why he punctured the boat. So we cannot distort the facts in order to please the people. Let the people be satisfied with the Truth [Sharia teachings], not the false.

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  1. […] “explicitly exclude some people from the process”.  I had previously remarked on this elsewhere last December, in the context of what the political result would be of Egyptian liberals […]

  2. […] not be “explicitly exclude some people from the process”.  I had previously remarked on this elsewhere last December, in the context of what the political result would be of Egyptian liberals […]

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