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U.S. State Department “Realism” Is Not Realistic

ICC Note:

Secular media is missing the point when labeling Islamists in Egypt, like the Muslim Brotherhood, as moderate. In this article, Hudson New York distinguishes the difference between moderate and radical Muslims.

By Amr Bargisi

8/2/2011 Egypt (Hudson New York) – Although in the early days of Egypt’s revolution, the predominant narrative in American media and decision-making circles insisted that the revolution had been brought about by essentially secular people — that Egypt was on the verge of becoming a true liberal democracy — later, the involvement of Islamist groups in the revolution became too obvious to overlook.

At first, everyone was hearing about schisms among the Islamists, how their “new generation,” particularly those seceding from the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), were completely different from their predecessors. The “new generation,” it was said, was worldly, open-minded and embraced the Western values of tolerance and diversity. With these new leaders in charge, it was further said, Egypt was on the verge of becoming a true liberal democracy.

Today, as acknowledging the ascent of Islamism seems unavoidable, the newest trend is to “engage” the more “moderate” Islamist groups, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood, who, according to the NY Times webpage on the Muslim Brotherhood, are “not necessarily intent on establishing an Islamic state.” This policy can probably be seen most piercingly just a few weeks ago in the official invitation to dialogue extended by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, the rhetoric in Washington DC has changed. No one is talking about liberal democracy any more; the conversation now is all about being “realistic.” This approach will be even more relevant after the Islamist-only million-man march for “defending identity and popular will,” which most likely will deal the final blow to any claim to power by the secular parties.

Although it is probably already too late for US foreign policy to influence the course of events in Egypt, the United States’ level of official engagement with the MB would do well to be minimal, otherwise, to borrow from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the administration will be simply “defining deviancy down”: increasing American tolerance for legitimizing Islamism. Discussing whether the MB is truly “moderate” is irrelevant, as the very concept of “moderate Islamism is oxymoronic. The term “moderate” has been used, fallaciously, only to clarify the distinction between Muslims (referred to as moderates) and Islamists (referred to as radicals). To flesh out this distinction a bit, Islam is a religion: a set of metaphysical and ethical beliefs, equivalent in the West to Christianity or Judaism. Islamism is a political Ideology: prescribing how governments, societies and individuals should act, and equivalent in the West to, say, Marxism. A devout Muslim, for example, will not drink alcohol and he may indeed believe that no one should; an Islamist, by contrast, seeks to establish a government that bans alcohol entirely.

An Islamist cannot be “moderate” about these tenets, particularly the Sovereignty of Shari’a Law (Hakimiya) and Superiority of the (early) Islamic Civilization. While definitions of Shari’a Law and the Islamic civilization may vary, the historical predominance of orthodoxy, particularly in Sunni Islam, has kept variations at a minimum. Nonetheless these two maxims — imposing Shari’a Law and the superiority of Islam — are in direct opposition to Western Liberalism as we know it. Shari’a Law is opposed to the notion of universal and individual Human Rights; and the Islamic Civilization is solely based on the concept of “Justice”: whatever is inside Shari’a Law is just, whatever is outside Shari’a Law is unjust, with no interest at all in the concept of “freedom of choice.”

Islamist “moderation” is, in fact, nothing but pragmatism misconstrued. Islamists may, for example, embrace democracy as means of imposing Shari’a Law, or they may renounce violence as a means to prove the Superiority of Islam, but the ends – imposing Shari’a Law and the Superiority of Islam — remain the same. In this light, it is undeniable that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is among the most pragmatic — but not always benign. Consider this fatwa from the official MB website, responding to a query on whether working for a bank is forbidden because of the practice of usury: “Usury is no longer related to a bank employee or a company clerk, it is part of our entire economic and financial system (…), a situation will not be changed or mitigated by one employee’s refraining from working for a bank or a company, and if we forbade every Muslim from working in banks, the result would be that non-Muslims, Jews and others, would control the affairs of banks”.

This dynamic — well understood and anticipated by every Islamist — undermines all optimistic analyses about secessions and differences within the Islamist spectrum. Ahmed El-Naqib, for instance, one of the most respected Salafi authorities, responded to the question if Salafis would support the MB in the elections by saying: “If the MB could, through our help, come to power, what is the problem? We help them. They are not infidels (kafirs). The shoe of one member of the MB is closer to us than a nation of those infidels.” When one of the listeners raised the objection that “[the MB’s] statements are scary [meaning too soft],” Al-Naqib reassured him: “It is because they are being watched. Nazarenes [the Salafist term for Christians] are watching them. America is watching them. The secular parties are watching them. They try to come with arguments that do not scare people off. But we should remain barefaced. We should remain the scarecrows. These have to be scared as well. Thus a hand taps the shoulder, and a hand slaps the neck.”

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