Freedom, in our culture, is often mistaken for an unqualified good. Conservative politicians and drug-crazed rock stars alike celebrate it, and most of us demand it in our relation to the state and, increasingly, in life, in our relations with each other. Part of the theme of this blog is that freedom is a qualified good: free persons are required to exercise self-rule, and lead morally disciplined lives.
In Islamic culture, I learn in this brilliant article by Bernard Lewis, the concept of personal and political freedom was pretty much incomprehensible.
By common consent among historians, the modern history of the Middle East begins in the year 1798, when the French Revolution arrived in Egypt in the form of a small expeditionary force led by a young general called Napoleon Bonaparte–who conquered and then ruled it for a while with appalling ease. General Bonaparte–he wasn’t yet Emperor–proclaimed to the Egyptians that he had come to them on behalf of a French Republic built on the principles of liberty and equality. We know something about the reactions to this proclamation from the extensive literature of the Middle Eastern Arab world. The idea of equality posed no great problem. Equality is very basic in Islamic belief: All true believers are equal. Of course, that still leaves three “inferior” categories of people–slaves, unbelievers and women. But in general, the concept of equality was understood. Islam never developed anything like the caste system of India to the east or the privileged aristocracies of Christian Europe to the west. Equality was something they knew, respected, and in large measure practiced. But liberty was something else.
As used in Arabic at that time, liberty was not a political but a legal term: You were free if you were not a slave. The word liberty was not used as we use it in the Western world, as a metaphor for good government. So the idea of a republic founded on principles of freedom caused some puzzlement. Some years later an Egyptian sheikh–Sheikh Rifa’a Rafi’ al-Tahtawi, who went to Paris as chaplain to the first group of Egyptian students sent to Europe–wrote a book about his adventures and explained his discovery of the meaning of freedom. He wrote that when the French talk about freedom they mean what Muslims mean when they talk about justice. By equating freedom with justice, he opened a whole new phase in the political and public discourse of the Arab world, and then, more broadly, the Islamic world.
Democracy of a different sort, Lewis maintains, is not an impossibility in Arab and Muslim lands. But it will not come unassisted, and its failure, he believes, will be ours as well.
There are, as I’ve tried to point out, elements in Islamic society which could well be conducive to democracy. And there are encouraging signs at the present moment–what happened in Iraq, for example, with millions of Iraqis willing to stand in line to vote, knowing that they were risking their lives, is a quite extraordinary achievement. It shows great courage, great resolution. Don’t be misled by what you read in the media about Iraq. The situation is certainly not good, but there are redeeming features in it. The battle isn’t over. It’s still very difficult. There are still many major problems to overcome. There is a bitter anti-Western feeling which derives partly and increasingly from our support for what they see as tyrannies ruling over them. It’s interesting that pro-American feeling is strongest in countries with anti-American governments. I’ve been told repeatedly by Iranians that there is no country in the world where pro-American feeling is stronger, deeper and more widespread than Iran. I’ve heard this from so many different Iranians–including some still living in Iran–that I believe it. When the American planes were flying over Afghanistan, the story was that many Iranians put signs on their roofs in English reading, “This way, please.”
So there is a good deal of pro-Western and even specifically pro-American feeling. But the anti-American feeling is strongest in those countries that are ruled by what we are pleased to call “friendly governments.” And it is those, of course, that are the most tyrannical and the most resented by their own people. The outlook at the moment is, I would say, very mixed. I think that the cause of developing free institutions–along their lines, not ours–is possible. One can see signs of its beginning in some countries. At the same time, the forces working against it are very powerful and well entrenched. And one of the greatest dangers is that on their side, they are firm and convinced and resolute. Whereas on our side, we are weak and undecided and irresolute. And in such a combat, it is not difficult to see which side will prevail.
I think that the effort is difficult and the outcome uncertain, but I think the effort must be made. Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us.