The Egyptian Exception and the Other Islamic State

syncretic_imageFaheem AM Hussain’s overarching position in “Egypt’s Liberal Coup?,” that the liberal’s first loyalty is to liberalism or the liberal possibility rather than to particular democratist or any other regime forms, though it conflicts with familiar assumptions and usages, should be non-controversial. Liberalism as a political philosophy opposes tyranny, whether of a majority faction, of a powerful group, or of an individual autocrat. Liberalism is not the same as democratism, and, as we have discussed here many times before, an understanding of the liberal-democratic or mixed regime requires an understanding of its central political ideas as inherently if not necessarily entirely contradictory, and perhaps never perfectly assimilable to each other. In this sense the problem with the phrase “illiberal democracy” is that it is a redundancy. Otherwise, a full response to Hussain’s discussion, which calls extensively on major philosophical prophets of the modern liberal dispensation, would have to take the form of a treatise or two. I’ll instead focus in these notes on his specific hypothesis, as tentatively pronounced in the title of his post, half-concealed by its interrogative form: that a consistent liberalism may reasonably have identified in the Egyptian circumstances of July 2013 a moment when authoritarian measures could be justified.

I see this inquiry as a political philosophical but also a necessarily theological inquiry, requiring a treatment of religions according to their concepts, even though doing so will inevitably impinge upon intimately held, even identity-defining beliefs. Since the main objective of the coup was the dislodgment of a democratically elected Islamist executive, the question of an “Egyptian exception” is the question of the mutual inassimilability of Islamism and liberalism, with Islamism taking the place, and not coincidentally, of democratism in the already articulated opposition. For precedents on exceptions to liberal tolerance, Hussain describes John Locke’s exclusions of atheists and Catholics from roles in a just order, a position that Hussain attributes in major part to historical circumstances and allied contingencies, especially in the latter instance. Both exceptions or types of exception can be understood as theo-philosophically, not simply or mainly pragmatically, conditioned, however, and the same can be said regarding the hypothetical Islamist or perhaps theocratic exception. In other words, it would be prejudicial to identify “no atheists or Catholics allowed” as simply an expression of Locke’s personal or “parochial” distaste for atheists and Catholics, or of his English Protestant partisanship or dependency, or even of, as Hussain ventures, a vision of a “proper” England. It would likewise be inadequate to note that John Rawls’ further modernized liberalism is simply “dissolved” Protestantism, so as to ascribe an inassimilability of Islamism and  liberalism to similarly random cultural-historical contingencies rather than to essential conceptual differences. Hussain very interestingly notes Rawls’ specific discussion of relations between liberal-democracy and “decent” Islamic regimes, but “decency” stands here for a willingness and ability to co-exist separately, not an option for forces both laying claim to the same terrain: Rawls’ imaginary nation of “Kazanistan” stands for an exception to the exception.

In short, though I would not claim that an essential Islam could not ever be integrated with liberal democracy, there are conceptual as well as manifest socio-political or historical hurdles that would need to be overcome. This problem is a theological problem in the broadest sense, even though in the West today “theological” usually stands for “esoteric” and “irrelevant.” In this instance that the problem is theological means that it is a problem in concepts of the human, of the good, of the meaning of life, or of relevancy itself, in other words a matter of life and death in all senses of the term, as it is in many places quite urgently at any given moment.

Locke seems to have held that essential theo-philosophical truth, as conveyed in Protestant doctrine but also semi-independently demonstrable by philosophy, rendered Catholicism understood as a theocratic doctrine, like atheism properly understood, incapable of generating a just and tolerable (because tolerant) regime. Locke’s philosophy like every other theory of the separation of church and state, including modern atheisms or anti-theisms, must originate in a unitary theo-philosophical or onto-theological understanding: Philosophy on its own would contribute only semi-independently because, if truth is to be understood as only ever theo-philosophical truth, then philosophical demonstration is never complete until it is a unitarily theo-philosophical demonstration. To be more specific in regard to the Lockean insight, though following Hegel’s further explication, a crypto-Protestant Christian comprehension of the soul as a moral infinitude or access of the infinite, initiated and first realized historically in the incarnation of God as Jesus Christ, requires a political order allowing for a salvation (as theo-morphosis or infinitization of the individual) authentic because freely (individually and non-coercively) chosen. For Locke, if only implicitly, because dangerously, not only Catholic but High Church Anglicans and representatives of numerous sects would disqualify themselves from government offices to whatever extent their concepts of a religious state necessarily produce impairment or active suppression of a sanctified freedom: the freedom to be “saved,” so a matter of infinite and eternal importance, the “one thing needful” above all conceivable others.

Modern liberalism drops the soteriological language, offering freedom as the good in itself, preferring not to note that the “in itself” is a placeholder for a norm with status of revealed truth. Over time, Lockean and other modern philosophies (always also philosophies of the modern) may shed their superficially Christian character, even where they were not originally articulated as explicitly anti-Christian or anti-theistic (or post-Christian or post-theistic). Yet in this idealized or dissolved Christianity, or what the professed atheist interpreter of Hegel Kojève described as “Christian anthropology,” the Christian theo-morphosis of the human being remains operative. ((The religion that depicts God as capable of a kind of suicide (shirk or blasphemy for most or all Muslims) has already announced and prefigured a “death of God” well before theologians and philosophers took up the notion explicitly, and the so-called post-moderns assumed it.)) For the same reason, the nature of the conflict between liberalism (or secularism) and Islamism as a creedal conflict, between dissolved Christianity and a reactionary Muslim tendency, though obscured, remains intact.

That the Islamists will tend to be the ones who isolate this problem as a problem of precisely this type may be their true primary distinguishing characteristic in relation to other political groups in Islamicate countries. ((Throughout this post I am using the word “Islamicate” to refer to cultures in which Islamic religion and culture predominate, without prejudice as to their representativeness of a given nation-state or policy in relation to Islamic religion. We can likewise refer to nations of the West as Christianate so as to resist any implication that their policies are or have ever been truly Christian.)) As for their political-cultural competitors, for all of the reasons adduced in Hussain’s essay and especially by the two contemporary writers he discusses – Shadi Hamid and Michael W Hanna – self-identified liberals in Egypt and elsewhere cannot be expected to adopt this analysis or any version of it. They may very reasonably prefer not even to be known to have been exposed to it. According to a politician quoted by Hamid, as mentioned by Hussain, they are already busy denying they are atheists. They may even be members of the apparently small minority in leading Islamicate countries who do not view apostasy as justly a capital offense, but if the offensiveness of apostasy is a fundamental tenet of Islamic belief, then any other claim about it tends toward the selfsame capitally punishable apostasy, suggesting a formula for ever-expanding intolerance.

It may not be too much to say that, as long as Islamism can in any way be understood as actualization of such beliefs, it must also be understood as profoundly illiberal, or intolerably intolerant, and therefore subject to the Egyptian exception. In this sense the extremisms that Muslims overwhelmingly reject, and yet find their cultures continually re-producing under pressure – the genomisia of Hamas, Al Qaeda, Khomeini and successors, Hezbollah, the so-called “Islamic State” or Daesh, and even of more moderate and relatively compliant, democratist or “Neo-Islamist” movements like Tunisian Ennahda or, last but not least, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood – are simply typical and wholly predictable. ((If the problem needs to be viewed from the side of religion, we could say it is with a culturally defensive politico-religious tradition that, as the work of flawed human beings, could never represent the whole of a divine work.)) To say so may be taken to be Islamophobic, and so we might hasten to concede that the majority of, if you will, real-existing Muslims may be happy to live with a contradiction that those seeking or demanding consistency, as pre-conditional for successful foundation or integration of a “state,” find untenable. Daesh is one self-consistent actualized resolution of this contradiction, expressed as lethal because the contradiction it contradicts is life itself in Islamicate culture or what we call the “Islamic world.” The seemingly intractable problems of much of that “world,” though externally conditioned in multiple and very longstanding ways, from the rampages of the Mongols to the rampages of colonialism, capitalism, and forced modernization, including the expropriation of the Holy Land for the West via the Israelis – so not a separate world at all – appear therefore not merely predictable but inevitable, according to the psychological law of the return of the repressed: If Islamicate states forbid meaningful dissent, they would necessarily produce a kind of destructive hyper-dissent in the form of an equally both inexorable and increasingly unsustainable destructive maximalization of repressive orthodoxy. The painfully familiar equation had not yet been solved in Egypt at the time of the el-Sisi coup. If I understand Hussain correctly, then I agree that the Egyptian liberal may reasonably, whether or not forgivably, have expected the dreaded solution to take place if no other force intervened.

Though Mohammed Fadel has rejected Hussain’s approach, his January essay on “What Killed Egyptian Democracy?” supports Hussain’s key argument on lack of a liberal recourse in formally democratic processes: “[T]here was no democratic path for liberals to establish a constitution that secured the personal rights and freedoms they sought.” His reply specifically to Hussain, via “Twitlonger,” ((

Does Liberalism, Properly Understood, Justify Egypt`s Coup?

This is the best-argued liberal case for the Egyptian coup that I have seen ( I think, however, it can be criticized both for the numerous unverifiable assumptions that have to be made about the future behavior of Egyptians, both Islamist and non-Islamist, as well as a misreading of Locke’s reasons for the exclusion of Catholics. As far as I understand Locke’s reasons for the exclusion of Catholics, it was that they owed exclusive loyalty to the Pope, and thus they could not be loyal subjects of the British Crown. The Muslim Brotherhood cannot be reasonably accused of acting on behalf of a foreign power or owing some kind of extra-territorial loyalty to a foreign power (although I realize that much of the anti-MB rhetoric makes precisely that claim). It might be more realistic to analogize them to Locke’s atheists whom Locke says cannot be trusted to uphold public trusts because they lack sufficient belief in Christianity to be trusted with these offices. For the Egyptian nationalist (or hyper-nationalist), the Muslim Brotherhood are untrustworthy in a similar way insofar as they do not have sufficient “belief” in the nation to be trusted with any of its offices. But such a conception of Egypt hardly seems liberal or worthy of liberal support. A more persuasive argument might be that the MB (and other Islamists) are not sufficiently committed to liberty (“the priority of liberty”) to be trusted with rule, but that criticism (aside from its essentially contestable empirical basis) hardly seems to distinguish them from other groups in Egypt. More problematically, however, if we take these arguments as the true reasons motivating Egyptian liberals, we are left with no reasonable pathway for democracy in Egypt in the absence of Egyptian Muslims themselves becoming less religious, something that does not seem very plausible in the short to medium term. It also requires the heroic assumption that the current leadership in the Arab world can be compared to Enlightenment era European monarchs such as Fredrick the Great or Louis XIV. I anticipated, and responded to, many of these arguments in my earlier piece for The Boston Review, What Killed Egyptian Democracy (

)) also seems to strengthen Hussain’s point, since, while disagreeing on some analytical details, it mainly observes the same foreclosure of “democratic” or simultaneously democratic and tolerably liberal alternatives. In the January essay Fadel also directs us to Ibn Khaldun’s political thought, which pre-dates and anticipates Locke on coercion, with the ideal of virtue in the place of Christian salvation: According to Khaldun, writes Fadel, “coerced adherence to Islamic law fails to produce virtuous subjects.” In the even earlier writings of Ibn Rushd (Averroes), a similar insight can be found, if not as a democratic insight, while being put forward under an in fact justified expectation of its rejection by religious conservatives of his own time. The writers of deeper antiquity, like any thoughtful observers of human nature at any time, also understood this special despair of the tyrant as finally no different from the despair of the lover or parent incapable of compelling authentic affection from the object of love.

The alternative resolution or the other Islamic state, the one that avoids the tyrant’s despair – or, put more politically-philosophically, allows for a liberal-Islamic assimilation that would also be integrative or unitary rather than irrecuperably conflictual – would appear to rely on modes of idealization of religion that would evolve simultaneously and bi-conditionally, or, as Fadel or Fadel’s Khaldun puts it, “organically.” Their current impermissibility is a reflection of the same problem: Under the new, impossible and necessary ijtihad of the non-existent or not yet realizable other Islamic state, Kazanistan or Khaldunistan, the law on apostasy, for example, would be annulled conceptually as well as pragmatically, not as a contradiction of Islam, but as a long-repressed higher realization of Qur’anic prophecy, the underlying Spinozan “natural divine” comprehended also uniquely in Islam, that the Surat al-Baqarah 2:256 – on “no coercion in religion” – seems to express, but that human history seems to have inverted. In the other Islamic state, apostasy would also equal death, not because any governmental or other civil power imposed or threatened punishment, but because no claim of conversion or apostasy could be taken as final and credible in this life, or as other than subject to each individual’s conscientious re-interpretation, pursued freely, uniquely, and authentically, by the limitless mercy and irresistible will of Allah.

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