Lesson from Egypt

There’s an old saying to the effect that what you see depends upon where you stand, so the lessons we can learn from the chaos in Egypt will depend on the perspectives we bring to our analysis.

In my view, Egypt is a cautionary tale about zealotry and fanaticism, about rigid self-righteousness untempered by doubt or moderated by open-mindedness.

As Roger Cohen wrote in yesterday’s New York Times,  the Arab Spring “demanded of political Islam that it reject religious authoritarianism, respect differences and uphold citizenship based on equal rights for all.” But zealots cannot, by definition, respect the equal rights of others. They cannot concede the reasonableness of differing beliefs or judgments, nor the right of others to hold those beliefs.

 Morsi misread the Arab Spring. The uprising that ended decades of dictatorship and led to Egypt’s first free and fair presidential election last year was about the right to that vote. But at a deeper level it was about personal empowerment, a demand to join the modern world, and live in an open society under the rule of law rather than the rule of despotic whim.

In a Muslim nation, where close to 25 percent of Arabs live, it also demanded of political Islam that it reject religious authoritarianism, respect differences and uphold citizenship based on equal rights for all.

Authoritarianism, however, is indistinguishable from zealotry and fundamentalism of all kinds.

As a friend of mine noted in an email a couple of days ago, the despotic and deeply anti-libertarian impulses that are so easy to condemn when expressed by Islamic extremists are not so different from those displayed by some on the Christian Right, or in the Tea Party. If you need examples, think about Ted Cruz, Louie Gohmert, Michele Bachmann…think about the antics currently underway in statehouses across the country, as self-righteous men pass laws to control women’s bodies. Think about Indiana, where Mike Pence and Brian Bosma reacted to the DOMA and Proposition 8 decisions by doubling down on their insistence to make “sinful” gays second-class citizens in Indiana.

The lesson I take from Egypt is simple: zealotry is dangerous, no matter what its content.

As the late, famed jurist Learned Hand memorably put it, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”


  1. While I have not kept up with all information out of Egypt, If I remember correctly, after winning their freedom to vote two years ago, many chose not to vote being dissatisfied with their options. Their refusal to make a choice, was a choice, and resulted in leadership the majority of Egyptians did not want. This resulted in a second uprising and ousting of unpopular leadership. I must compare the situation in Egypt with the many in this country representing both parties who are dissatisfied with our government in general so do not vote. They believe they are speaking out by taking no action but who knows who they are, their lack of action is harmful to the country and they continue to complain. This was a lesson we should have learned when Republicans took over the House and have brought the country to a virtual standstill. Egypt has learned the hard way with much bloodshed and loss of life; a lesson this country should pay close attention to. With all our differences, we are one world and those of us in countries allowing individual voices to speak out, should speak out – whichever way they vote. The Christian right can indeed be compared to Morsi and the religious leadership in Egypt.

  2. When one is raised with religious belief it is hard to persuade them to look at other opinions and beliefs. Even harder for them to admit that they are wrong and their life wasted on ancient stories and propaganda. Explain to a Christian that the story of a messiah, born of a virgin birth, was around 2000 years before their religion adopted it as their own…and they will ignore you. Come to think of it…I think the first of these stories came out of Egypt.
    Though I attended CCD classes I went to public school and there I learned things that caused me to doubt the magical deity stories that were taught to me every Friday afternoon. Even though, some of my CCD classmates still hold these beliefs.

    As for the politics of religion, not sure all believe as they say but are interested in dividing the people with other issues. While avoiding the real problems.

    Are these people the ones we want deciding what is taught in our schools or running this country?

  3. What a horrible thing for you to say. These people in Egypt have raped dozens of women, committed enough murders to where it’s not enough newsworthy (including BEHEADING one of those zealot Catholic priests to which you refer), yet you have the GALL to compare these monsters to anything in America. The only reason you say things like this is because our government backed the Muslim Brotherhood but yet they iterate talking points such as these to make you think we are our own enemy.

    Again waiting for a little more depth to such a mean-spirited and prejudicial comparison…

  4. Marco: I don’t see anywhere in the Post a defense of rape or other horrendous crimes done in the service of religious extremism. But it is hardly a rousing defense that religious extremism here is OK as long as we can find worse examples of misconduct in the name of religion elsewhere. I do not know your politics or views and so don’t suggest (or know) if you support Sen. Cruz, Michelle Bachmann, or others who routinely cite their religious views as God-given “justification” for their efforts to institutionalize their biases and discriminate, but the fact that religious extremists in other countries “do worse” is not much of a defense. Extremism and hate in the name of religion — wherever it occurs — is unacceptable and should be decried.

  5. D: Uh, no. There IS a difference between Jehova’s Witnesses knocking on my door at 2 in the afternoon to give me some brochures and hooded Jihadists kicking in a door at 2 in the morning to circumcise someone’s daughter.

    Comparing the two is no different than saying white and black are similar because they’re both colors. You’re missing the most basic facts and, again, I’m not aware of any religious extremism in this country that has condoned these types of actions. It’s a bigoted and prejudiced analogy, as evidenced by another lack of rebuttal.

  6. Marco; the Klan, neo-Nazis, white supremists, skinheads, all hate groups who kill, rape, beat, burn, every action you mention except beheading, do this while professing to be Christians doing their God-given duty to cleanse the earth. I would call that extremism and it is alive and rampant in this country today and it well accepted in the state of Indiana. The law just passed by the Legislature making it a felony with a prison term for same sex couples to APPLY for a marriage license is extremism…again in the name of Christianity. This state and too meny others are governed by extremists and bigots all spouting they are Christians but are taking extreme action against and denying civil right to any and everyone who does not believe as they do. Are you aware there is a problem with female circumcism in this country? It is one of few extreme actions not claimed by Christians. By the way; I am a white female, Christian, primarily a born-again believer who married black men, have three biracial great-grandchildren, have Hispanic and gay friends, support Jewish Sheila Kennedy’s views and I voted for President Obama who is a biracial Christian and Rep. Andre Carson who is Muslim..this is Christianity.

  7. Shame on me for this oversight; I forgot to mention my best friend for 58 years is an Atheist.

  8. JoAnn: uh, no. What you’re doing is taking a tiny fraction and projecting that belief system onto everybody else. Hate groups don’t run our country, and they never will. Hate groups run OTHER countries, it’s kind of a decided issue.

    While we really don’t know what would happen if the far-right ran the country, we know exactly what happens when militant Islamists run countries. Just like we can’t compare, for example, the NOI to the Nazis. There’s a difference between written goals and completed goals (I can say NOI because it came up in a conversation with a friend who’s black.)

    My dad’s a liberal. That doesn’t make him an eco-terrorist or an occupier who poops on police cars. Again, if you don’t understand the demographic differences, I understand. Nevertheless it’s a decided issue with the vast majority of the American people.

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