Egypt, ‘Hurriyya’ Vs. Freedom, and ‘Muslim Moderates’

Egypt, ‘Hurriyya’ Vs. Freedom, and ‘Muslim Moderates’

Andrew G. Bostom


Ominous polling
from the contemporary Egyptian population reflect their deep,
longstanding favorable inclination toward the Sharia, in all its
totalitarian, brutally anti-freedom “glory.” The electorally successful Algerian
Sharia supremacists of two decades ago came up with an apt expression of where
such sentiments lead, given a one man, one vote (and likely, one time)
opportunity: Islamic
State by the Will of the People!
Despite ebullient
appraisals of events in Egypt — which optimistic observers insist epitomize
American hopes and values at their quintessential best — there is a profound,
deeply troubling flaw in such hagiographic analyses which simply ignore the vast
gulf between Western and Islamic conceptions of freedom itself. The current
polling data indicating that three-fourths of the Egyptian population are still
enamored of the totalitarian Sharia confirms that this yawning gap still exists
strikingly so
— in our era.
Hurriyya (Arabic  for “freedom”) and the uniquely Western concept of
freedom are completely at odds. Hurriyya ‘freedom’ is  —  as Ibn Arabi (d.
1240) the  lionized “Greatest Sufi Master”, expressed it  —  “being perfect
slavery.” And this conception is not merely confined to the Sufis’ perhaps
metaphorical understanding of the relationship between Allah the “master” and
his human “slaves.”
The late American scholar of Islam, Franz Rosenthal (d. 2003) analyzed the
larger context of hurriyya in Muslim society. He notes the historical absence of
hurriyya as  “…a fundamental political concept that could have served as a
rallying cry for great causes.”
An individual Muslim, “…was expected to consider subordination of his own
freedom to the beliefs, morality and customs of the group as the only proper
course of behavior…”.
Thus politically, Rosenthal concludes,
…the individual was not expected to exercise any free choice as to how he
wished to be governed…In general, …governmental authority admitted of no
participation of the individual as such, who therefore did not possess any real
freedom vis-a-vis it.
Bernard Lewis, in his analysis of hurriyya for the venerable
Encyclopedia of Islam, discusses this concept in the latter phases of the
Ottoman Empire, through the contemporary era. After highlighting a few
“cautious” or “conservative” (Lewis’ characterization) reformers and their
writings, Lewis maintains,
…there is still no idea that the subjects have any right to share in the
formation or conduct of government — to political freedom, or citizenship, in
the sense which underlies the development of political thought in the West.
While conservative reformers talked of freedom under law, and some Muslim rulers
even experimented with councils and assemblies government was in fact becoming
more and not less arbitrary….
Lewis also makes the important point that Western colonialism
ameliorated this chronic situation:
During the period of British and French domination, individual freedom was
never much of an issue. Though often limited and sometimes suspended, it was on
the whole more extensive and better protected than either before or
after.’ [emphasis added]
And Lewis concludes with a stunning observation, when viewed in light
of the present travails in Egypt and throughout the Muslim world, optimistic
assessments notwithstanding:
In the final revulsion against the West, Western democracy too was rejected
as a fraud and a delusion, of no value to Muslims.
I would like to add these three germane observations. Two are from
scholars quite sympathetic to Islamic culture whose opinions are based upon very
different scholarly backgrounds — S.D. Goitein (d. 1985), a specialist in
classical Islam, and Muslim-Jewish relations in particular; and P.J. Vatikiotis
(d. 1997), a political scientist who focused on the modern era in the Middle
East, especially Egypt. Both men also lived for extended periods in the region.
The third is from a lecture Bat Ye’or — who lived her youth in Egypt — gave in
1998, with Elliot
All three observations serve (or should serve) to remind us of the profound
limitations of relying upon what Ibn
has aptly termed “protecting Islam from Enlightenment
values,” while supporting “dishonest tinkering” with Islamic doctrine (not to
mention complete denial of the historical consequences of such doctrine), in
lieu of the honest, mea culpa-based, wrenching reforms that are necessary to
transform Islamic societies.
Goitein, circa 1964, from p. 185 (Review: [untitled] Author(s): S. D.
Goitein Reviewed work(s): Modern Islam: The Search for Cultural Identity
by G. E. von Grunebaum Source: Journal of the American Oriental
, Vol. 84, No. 2, (Apr. – Jun., 1964), pp. 185- 186.)
The military or police dictatorships controlling today almost all Islamic
countries now appear not merely as successors or revivals of medieval despotism.
They are (credited with) fulfilling a function similar to that of the belief in
the God of Islam in the past-namely that of relieving man from the
responsibility for his own destiny.”
Vatikiotis circa 1981 (from Le Debat, [Paris], no. 14,
July-August, 1981), wrote:
What is significant is that after a tolerably less autocratic/authoritarian
political experience during their apprenticeship for independent statehood under
foreign power tutelage, during the inter-war period, most of these states once
completely free or independent of foreign control, very quickly moved towards
highly autocratic-authoritarian patterns of rule…One could suggest a hiatus of
roughly three years between the departure or removal of European influence and
power and overthrow of the rickety plural political systems they left behind in
Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and the Sudan by military coups d’etat.
Authoritarianism and autocracy in the Middle East may be unstable in the
sense that autocracies follow one another in frequent succession. Yet the ethos
of authoritarianism may be lasting, even permanent…One could venture into a
more ambitious philosophical etiology by pointing out the absence of a concept
of ‘natural law’ or ‘law of reason’ in the intellectual-cultural heritage of
Middle Eastern societies. After all, everything before Islam, before God
revealed his message to Muhammad, constitutes jahiliyya, or the dark age of
ignorance. Similarly, anything that deviates from the eternal truth or verities
of Islamic teaching is equally degenerative, and therefore unacceptable. That is
why, by definition, any Islamic movement which seeks to make Islam the basic
principle of the polity does not aim at innovation but at the restoration of the
ideal that has been abandoned or lost. The missing of an experience similar, or
parallel, to the Renaissance, freeing the Muslim individual from external
constraints of, say, religious authority in order to engage in a creative course
measured and judged by rational and existential human standards, may also be a
relevant consideration. The individual in the Middle East has yet to attain his
independence from the wider collectivity, or to accept the proposition that he
can create a political order.
Finally, I urge the reader to consider very carefully Bat Ye’or’s
analysis of “Muslim moderates” and their terrible failings — completely
squandered opportunities during the end of the colonial era (as noted above from
a different perspective by Vatikiotis) — from the perspective of a great
scholar who grew up among them, as a non-Muslim, indeed a Jew. Written 10 years
ago, the attitude she describes of complete denial by
Muslims, even “progressives,” and “moderates,” still applies with the rarest of
isolated exceptions. And the consequences of this ongoing denial are equally
It is this lack of testimony that has brought back the evils and the
prejudices of the past — the jihad mentality, and the laws of dhimmitude that
were only abolished by the colonial European powers. And now, more and more,
because of this lack of testimony, we see moderate Muslims themselves being
persecuted. Because they were indifferent to the humiliation of Jews and
Christians, because they remained silent and aloof, they now find themselves –
in Algeria, Egypt, and elsewhere – suffering from cruel injustices and
barbarism. Testifying together, giving testimony against dhimmitude, would have
allowed Muslim intellectuals to rethink their whole relationship with the People
of the Bible – and with all non-Muslims, and this without renouncing their
faith. Such an attitude would have brought all of us together in the fight
against tyrannical oppression, against the process of dehumanization. This is
what could have been done and what was not



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