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February 4, 2011
Egypt, 'Hurriyya' Vs. Freedom, and 'Muslim Moderates'
Ominous polling data 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,
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,
Lewis also makes the important point that Western colonialism ameliorated this chronic situation:
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:
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 Abrams present.
All three observations serve (or should serve) to remind us of the profound limitations of relying upon what Ibn Warraq 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 Society, Vol. 84, No. 2, (Apr. - Jun., 1964), pp. 185- 186.)
Vatikiotis circa 1981 (from Le Debat, [Paris], no. 14, July-August, 1981), wrote:
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 apparent: