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.”