What Arab Awakening?

May 1, 2011


“Revolution is a transfer of power; reform is the correction of abuses.”  Lytton

First it was the “Jasmine Revolution” and then it was the “Arab Spring.” The “Arab Awakening” is latest euphemism for internecine mayhem in Muslim world. These fragrant purisms are invariably accompanied by the adjectives “peaceful’ and “democratic.” As the body bags accumulate, such circumlocutions are harder to digest. The principal purveyor of such pretense is al Jazerra, global network propagandist for the Arab Emirates. American and European reporters, indolent or inept,  are quick to take their cues from al Jazerra, but the latest attempt to mask the mayhem of Muslim civil wars offers a special insult to American history.

The “awakenings’ of American history were religious reforms. The carnage in the Arab world is a lot of things, but religious reform isn’t one of them. Indeed, the images from Arab television (chanting mobs of burkas, green banners of jihad, and contorted faces of clerics like al Yusuf al Qaradawi); reveal an Arabia that is not so much awakening as sleep walking back through history.

It is religious reform and tolerance, not political revolution that makes democracy and republicanism possible. Islam does not, nor has it ever, recognized a distinction between church and state. Indeed, contemporary Islamic clerics and scholars hold that religious/secular distinctions create a “hideous schizophrenia” in the West – the source of all European and Americadegeneracy. Such dogma offers few prospects for renewal, internal or external to dar al Islam.

With the European Reformation, the ink had hardly dried on Luther and Calvin’s absolutism, notions of predestination and fatalism, when a thousand apostates bloomed. Early the next century, many Christian free thinkers fled from the intolerance and religious wars ofEuropeto the relative freedom of the British and French colonies inAmerica. Once there, the Protestant varieties of Christianity continued to multiply, many of them restoring Catholic values that Luther had rejected. Prominent among these were free will, redemption, clergy, and good works.

It was left to Americans to fire the forge of democratic ecumenicism; a furnace where freedom, republicanism, and the best common law traditions of Judaism and Christianity would be alloyed.

The story of how the American “awakenings” changed Puritan thinking was best told by Nathanial Hawthorne (1850) in the fictional Scarlet Letter.

Hester Prynne is not simply the story of a fallen angel redeemed. The back story is even more fascinating. Hawthornewas writing in midst of the Yankee critique of Luther and Calvin. In the process of trying to reform Catholicism, Puritan zealots had rejected beliefs in free will, penance, and good works. Hawthorne, a writer with Puritan roots, and his fictional adulterers, helped to restore these core values to American variants of Christianity. In the end, Hester’s scarlet letter becomes: a red badge of courage, an affront to clerical hypocrisy, a symbol of personal responsibility for moral choices, and ultimately, an icon of good works; the path to redemption – in this world, if not the next:

“…the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness                   which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril.”

The early American colonies were unique in two respects. The choice of government, if not governors, was a bottom-up phenomenon. And religious tolerance was not so much a choice, as a necessity. The young American democracy developed in tandem with two religious “awakenings,” in fact a serial American religious reformation which produced a diversity of Christian sects inAmerica that Luther and Calvin could never have imagined. The spires of Christianity and Mogen Davids of Judaism, the American religious mosaic, are still visible today in every town from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Europe took its “democratic” cues fromAmericafrom that point forward.  Historians seldom note that the US Constitution never mentions democracy. American founding fathers had little faith in the wisdom of crowds. Subsequent, political and commercial success inEuropeandAmericawas made possible, not by the decline of religion, but by the rise of reform; republican reforms that released the constructive energies of true political and spiritual diversity.

Europe might well take credit for social “democrats” as these were linear descendents of Luther, Calvin, Hegel, Marx, and Lenin. Ecumenical Judeo/Christian republicanism, however, was a product of the American experiment, and the wellspring of Yankee exceptionalism. The Civil War wasAmerica’s great secular transformation; it was made possible by religious reforms movements that insisted on social justice. The abolitionist movement, Lincoln’s Republican Party, and the Underground Railroad  all began and were sustained by the conscience of congregants.

Short of radical reform, utopian Islamism is doomed to ruinous failure. Monocultures, religious or secular, are impossible in this world – and possibly the next. Islam has never allowed itself to evolve or repair the depredations of orthodoxy.

The sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity were written by many hands; insuring degrees of observance and a rich diversity of interpretations. The holy texts of Islam come from a solitary source – or at least that’s the claim.  The genius of Talmudic and New Testament commentary is the daily effort to make religion relevant to a developed world. Republican democracy is impossible without such religious pluralism and complementary political diversity.

The world is both enriched and bedeviled by spirituality. Religion is a basis for ethics in classical education and an ancient curb-level contributor to common law. Too frequently, Western scholars and politicians are uncomfortable with religion; unable to harness its power and unwilling to condemn its excess.

The European and American Enlightenment is a telling example. Academics wax eloquently about the political and scientific contributions of John Locke, Charles Darwin, Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson, but few are inclined to value the spiritual reforms of Desiderius Erasmus, Jonathan Edwards, Roger Williams, John Carroll, or Abraham Geiger.

Frontline recently ran a candid retrospective of the Muslim Brotherhood’s manipulations in Tahrir Square during the recent Egyptian revolt. The Frontline documentary reveals that al Ikwan was involved in the Egyptian insurrection from the beginning, and more importantly, with the assistance of al Jazerra, was instrumental in creating the “secular” facade reported by almost every foreign network. Then came the first Friday prayers after the Mubarak resignation, and the presiding cleric in Tahrir was none other than the Brotherhood’s most outspoken hate monger, Yusuf al Qaradawi. No small coincidence that al Ikwan spokesmen, such as Qaradawi,  and al Jazerra news anchors both find refuge and financing under the autocratic Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani in Qatar.

The alliance between clan chieftains, orthodox clerics, and kept journalists is not difficult to rationalize. Irredentist religious clerics probably see al Jazerra journalists as “useful idiots.”  The preferred model of governance in Arabia is theocratic tribalism, not democracy – Saudi Arabia being the baseline exemplar. The regimes under siege in the Arab League today are secular apostates; Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Libya.

Bahrain is a simple case of Sunni sectarian repression. The Saudis would like to insure that the parochial religious poles, Shia for Sunni, are not reversed in Manama as they were in Baghdad and Beirut.

If European and American commercial imperialism was a crime against Muslim history, surely Islamic religious imperialism is a crime against the future. Freedom and democracy has always been impossible without religious reform.


 This essay appeared in the 1 May 11 edition of American Thinker.

The Egyptian Revolt and Imperial Islam

February 12, 2011

“Things are far worse than we have been told.” – T.E. Lawrence (22 Aug 1920)

The Arab revolt underway in Egypt may be unique. Previous popular uprisings were underwritten by anti-colonial sentiments. Contemporary revolts, (including unrest in Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen, and Jordan) target nationalist or secular governments. The wealthiest Arab states, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, have been financing the ideological struggle against Arab secularism through surrogates like the Egypt based Muslim Brotherhood (al Ikwan) for decades. Now the most populous state in the Arab League, Egypt, may fall to the Brotherhood like a ripe pomegranate.

A brief history of previous Arab revolts offers some perspective.

The corrupt Ottoman caliphate in Istanbul was the target for the first Arab revolt (1916-19).  The goal of Sherif Hussien bin Ali was a unified Arab nation stretching from the Levant through the Arabian Peninsula. Bin Ali’s revolt against the Turks was successful with the help of the British – and then undermined by colonials with a different agenda. London had little sympathy for Arab nationalism; the English enemy in WWI was the German/Turkish axis.

Thus, the first conflict set the stage for an inevitable second revolt (1936-39) during WWII, against the British and a nascent Zionist Movement.  This uprising was limited to Palestine and was less successful than the first. Both revolts were, for the most part, footnotes to larger world wars where Arab interests were subordinated to big power politics.

Nonetheless, the two 20th Century Arab insurrections were part of a historical vector which eventually saw the creation of 22 separate nation states. The vision of Arab unity, however, was savaged by centrifugal tribal and national sentiments. Still, those early revolutions laid the political and military foundation for the so-called Arab/Israeli struggle which has defined war and politics in the Middle-East for the last 60 years. For many Arabs, including Arab Americans like Edward Said and Helen Thomas, the creation of Israel was merely another vestige of colonial injustice.

Today, the ongoing revolt in Egypt is nothing like previous struggles. Sunni angst has turned inward after six decades of terror and thrashing against Israel and real or imagined enemies in Europe and America. The apostate is slowly replacing the infidel as a primary target. In the process, radical Sunnis may have adopted the Shia mould of irredentist renewal.

Compare the many futile and impotent Arab wars of the 20th Century to the Persian revolution since 1979, a model of theocratic efficiency. Indeed, Iran is now on the cusp of first world nuclear status, defying an impotent West and positioning itself to challenge Arab/Sunni hegemony within dar al Islam.  Lebanon and Iraq are poised to join the Shiite Crescent too. Persian revanchism could well be the new model for radical Sunni imperialism in the Arab world.

Al Jazeera has been covering the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts with breathless abandon; celebrating the disturbances as the legitimate and “peaceful” aspirations of an oppressed fellaheen.  Somehow the looting, arson, and body bags in Cairo belie such arguments. Emirate propaganda organs like al Jazeera always speak with two voices; English language broadcasts offer dulcet tones of peace and moderation, putting the best spin on the insurrection. In contrast, Arabic language programs howl with hate and invective using expatriate Egyptian Brotherhood spokesmen.

Apologists defend the Muslim Brotherhood as a political reform movement and ignore the Qur’anic imperialism which underwrites the movement and its objectives. Indeed, the incendiary writings of Sayiid Qutb and, more recently, Yusuf al-Qaradawi (below), a Qatar based firebrand, are almost exclusively predicated on Islamic religious literature.

Al-Qaradawi is an archetypical mouthpiece for the worst Brotherhood vitriol. He is the author of numerous books and tracts, but more significantly, he hosts the most popular broadcast on the al-Jazeera network. His show, Sharia and Life, reaches over 50 million Arab speaking viewers with a message that reeks of paranoia, misogyny, homophobia, racism, violent jihad, and all manner of anti-democratic venom. Recently one of his fatwas alleged that Hitler was “Allah’s” messenger punishing the Jews. In another pronouncement, al-Qaradawi justified female circumcision and wife beating. He actually claimed that some Arab women enjoyed physical abuse. Al-Qaradawi also maintains a significant online presence.

It is no coincidence that al Jazeera and al-Qaradawi find refuge and financial support in Doha. The Emirates and Saudi Arabia, to paraphrase Churchill, seek to appease the Sunni crocodile, hoping that Arab autocrats will be eaten last. The many grievances of the Arab street are real enough; but Al Jazeera, a Brotherhood flack, has been shut down in Egypt for prudent reasons.

The Muslim Brotherhood, officially illegal, is the largest and most well organized political alternative to the Mubarak regime. Al Ikwan, like Hezb’allah in Lebanon, is in fact a government within a government, sedition leavened with health and humanitarian services.

Throughout the current revolt, al Ikwan in Egypt has maintained a low profile for good reasons. If Mubarak is deposed by a “people’s revolt,” surely to be followed by some kind of “moderate” interim government, then the Muslim brotherhood is in the catbird seat to make Egypt’s first legitimate election the last. Indeed, Egypt could be a replay of Algeria in 1991. Only this time, there is little chance that a theocratic electoral victory in Arabia’s most populous nation will be nullified.

Al Jazerra and its American network “partners” seemed to be channeling Jimmy Carter on the Sunday morning chat shows. Christiane Amanpour on ABC spoke of a “popular uprising” and freedom. Martha Raddatz spoke of “human rights and democracy.” Tom Friedman on NBC courted the “moderate Muslim center”. Possibly worst of all was BBC’s Katty Kay suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood be accommodated in any post-Mubarak government.

The hagiographic network coverage of the Egyptian revolt ignores every recent political precedent in the near East; the Iran revolt gave birth to the first Shia theocracy; a recent election elevated terrorist Hezb’allah in Lebanon. The electoral victory of fundamentalism in Algeria in 1991 had to be undone by the Army. An election also brought terrorist Hamas to power in Palestine. And now Tunisia and Egypt are tottering towards the abyss. Electoral alternatives to the status quo in the Arab League are not likely to be enlightened or democratic.

The Irish, who know more than a little about the debits and credits of revolution, like to say that the “devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” Mubarak may be a flawed ally, but other options are monstrous. Egypt is not only a linchpin for Middle East stability, but it, like Turkey until recently, has been a bulwark against the worst excesses of Islamism. If Egypt falls to Islam’s worst, the outlook for Israel and the rest of the Muslim world is bleak indeed.

The loss of Egypt to Islamic theocrats will more consequential than the loss of Iran. Elections are just another arrow in the fundamentalist quiver. Unfortunately, too many naïve observers in the West confuse voting with democracy.

The stakes in this most recent Arab revolt have little or nothing to do with Egyptian or any other variety of Arab nationalism. Democracy, economics, and social justice are minor players too. Another victory for Sunni radicals is the prize if the Egyptian revolt is successful. Egypt represents a tipping point – a validation of Imperial Sunni Islam and another stimulus for religious extremism.


The author is a former Intelligence analyst with tours at HQ USAF, DIA, CIA, and NSA. He writes also at Agnotology in Journalism . This essay appeared previously in American Thinker and elsewhere.