Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Broader Context of the Rushdie Affair

In a terrific piece for The Weekly Standard, Paul Marshall addresses the broader issues raised by Rushdie Affair 2.0. In his view, the truly important issue is being overlooked:

Equally worrying is that the way the "insulting Islam" story has been framed--freedom of speech versus insulting a religion--misses the crucial political question: Can there be open debate about Islam, especially among Muslims? This is revealed starkly by recent events in Egypt.

Marshall's article documents the Egyptian government's recent campaign of repression against a group of Muslim reformers called the Quranists. People like the Quranists offer the best hope of a tolerant, pluralist Islam that offers an alternative to Islamist totalitarianism. Unfortunately, the Egyptian government, like many other Muslim regimes, actively seeks to suppress Muslim dissidents and reformers as a way of appeasing the Islamists and burnishing its own Islamic credentials:

These arrests are part of the Egyptian government's double game in which it imprisons members of the Muslim Brotherhood when the latter appear to become too powerful, while simultaneously trying to appear Islamic itself and blunt the Brotherhood's appeal by cracking down on religious reformers, who are very often also democracy activists. A similar strategy was followed in the February 22 arrest of blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil, who was sentenced to four years in prison--one year for insulting President Hosni Mubarak, and three for "insulting Islam."

As Egyptian democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim has noted, reformers in the Arab world are caught between autocratic regimes and theocratic Islamists. While regimes such as Egypt's repress both reformers and Islamists, Ibrahim points out that the latter have one advantage over the former:

Well, the Muslim Brotherhood has an advantage and that is that they have the mosques. One hundred thousand mosques in Egypt, whereas the [Hosni] Mubarak regime has screwed down tightly on civil society, on the secular opposition, and therefore we could not operate. We could not do anything in the public square or in the street.

We could not organize rallies, we could not organize marches or demonstrations because of emergency laws. Emergency laws have been in effect since 1981, since the assassination of President [Anwar] Sadat. So for the last 26 years, these emergency laws have prevented secularists from going out and organizing and mobilizing.

It is particularly ironic that authoritarian regimes like Egypt's justify their repression on the grounds that the Islamists are the only alternative to their rule, when it is those very policies of repression that have prevented a moderate alternative to the Islamists from developing.

Ibrahim is actually optimistic about the long-term prospects for democracy in the Muslim Middle East, and even believes that Islamists can play a constructive role in this process. The recent actions of Hamas, though, seem to have given him some pause.

Marshall, on the other hand, points out that the continued ability of both Muslim regimes and Islamists to deny free expression makes the rise of a reformist alternative highly unlikely:

The Quranists' plight, mirrored in countless other cases in the Muslim world, shows that in defending those accused of "insulting Islam," there is far more at stake than a right to offend. Islamists and authoritarian governments now routinely use such accusations to repress political dissidents, writers, journalists, and, perhaps politically most important, religious reformers.

Such laws and threats are not a marginal religious quirk afflicting only cartoonists, converts, and controversial authors. They are a fundamental barrier to open religious discussion and dissent, and so too to democracy and free societies, within the Muslim world. Hence, removing legal bans on "insulting Islam" is an indispensable first step in creating the necessary space for debate that could lead to other reforms.

If, in the name of false toleration and religious sensitivity, free nations fail to firmly condemn and resist these totalitarian strictures, we will not only silence ourselves, but also abet the isolation and destruction of our greatest need and resource in combating radical Islam--courageous moderate Muslims.

The lack of intellectual freedom in the Islamic world has been one of the major factors in facilitating the spread of radical Islamism. Until this freedom deficit is addressed, the latter movement will continue to grow.


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