Many Muslim Societies Are Prisoners Of Intolerant Orthodoxy – It Will Take A Long Time For Them To Embrace Tolerance And Secular Government

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By Paolo von Schirach

November 24, 2012

WASHINGTON – The stealthy coup just engineered by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is further evidence of a Muslim ruler incapable to understand, let alone embrace, what liberal democracy is about.

From Mubarak to the Muslim Brotherhood

Just a year ago Egypt had its remarkably successful revolution against Hosni Mubarak, a mostly secular old military dictator. But, when given a chance to express themselves, a majority of the Egyptian people chose to be ruled by the once persecuted Muslim Brotherhood, a truly conservative, (if not radical and anti-Western), Islam-inspired faction whose values and principles are at the very least inimical to most modern concepts of secular government and democratic capitalism.

Islamic revival

And Egypt is not alone. Think of Tunisia and to a lesser degree Turkey. The sad reality is that the Muslim world, with the exception of Indonesia and a few other places, is going through an ill timed phase of Islamic revival. The notion of theocratic, or at least faith-inspired, rule is back in fashion. Large segments of Muslim societies are now devoted to the implementation of abstract and totally unworkable models of government based on strict religious orthodoxy.

A corollary of the pious aspiring to impose their righteous principles on all the others is the inevitable re-emergence of clashing versions of what the true religion is. And so you have the virulent flaring up of sectarian, destructive struggles: Sunni versus Shia, and so on. Just look at Pakistan and Iraq. Look at the Taliban in Afghanistan fighting against other Muslims.

The inability to embrace true liberal democracy, (whose key foundation is accountable civilian rule, religious tolerance and a strict separation between religion and state), will condemn Muslim societies to waste a few more decades in useless faith-inspired fights that will absorb scarce resources, while further delaying modernization and economic progress.

Christianity had its religious wars

Of course, Christianity centuries ago went through a very similar course of long and bloody religious wars that included the violent persecution of heretics by the self-appointed defenders of the “True Christian Faith”. These bloody and awfully destructive struggles went on and on. They included Martin Luther and the Reformation, the Catholic Counter Reformation, Calvinism, the “30 Years War”, Cromwell in England, and a lot more. America’s early beginnings are linked to European religious minorities seeking freedom of worship in a new land where there would be no persecution. But then it all ended. May be it was just because of exhaustion. But it finally ended.

Secular religions

Sure enough, there was still anti-semitism which tragically culminated in the Nazi-led Holocaust. More broadly, there was the relatively brief period, which caused however horrendous damage, of ideological struggles. (The ideologies were in fact secular religions). Europe had to suffer enormous losses because of Marxism, Leninism, Fascism and Nazism. But today the general principle, if not the strict practice, of secular government equally protecting all citizens is almost universally accepted, at least in the West.

Muslim societies are far behind

Unfortunately, the Muslim World is still far behind. Religion is still the main reference for millions. And religion inspires struggles and religious wars. There are still attempts to create secular governments ruled by religious orthodoxy. In these societies intolerance is virtue, the violent persecution of the infidels is duty.

Of course, we know that not all citizens in Muslim societies are religious fanatics. But it is a fact that at least at present political movements inspired by faith are better organized, and so they prevail, as in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The West can lead by example

In all this the West can only lead by example. In the long run it should be able to prove its superiority by showing that tolerant liberal democracies in which all religions are respected and protected (with the proviso that religious worship remains a private matter) in the end work out much better.

But it is impossible to predict how long it will take for Muslim societies to go beyond this phase of unproductive fanaticism and intolerance as they seek their own path to modernity after decades of dictatorship. They will have to see for themselves that religion based government and forced orthodoxy is a really bad idea.

The price of orthodoxy

In the meantime, dealing with these societies is going to be very hard. In principle they do not like our Western civilization and its values. Therefore forget about American and Western influence in the Middle East. Forget about rapid economic modernization fostered by Western investments, technology transfer and enhanced commerce. Unfortunately, the orthodox would rather be pure and poor than tolerant and prosperous.

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