The current violence in Syria and Egypt is sickening, and the divisions that fuel it appear massive, worsening, and possibly intractable.
Egypt, the second country to contribute to the “Arab Spring,” installed its first democratically elected president in June 2012. He was Mohammed Morsi and he hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic party that had been harassed and outlawed during the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak.
Although Morsi and the Brotherhood had once openly defined themselves as militantly Islamist — calling for sharia law, violent jihad, and duty to Allah — they toned down their rhetoric and softened their rigid identity during the open and free elections for Egypt’s parliament and the presidency. They portrayed themselves as newly compromising and willing to accept the fluid and anti-authoritarian ways that are required of participants for democracy to work.
Unfortunately, President Morsi never lived up to the standards of practice obligatory on the leader of a country with a wide range of political and religious beliefs. Instead of inclusive efforts to create unity in the badly fractured nation, he worked to increase and consolidate the power of the Brotherhood. At the same time, he neglected to focus on the important issues of poverty, employment, industry, energy, infrastructure and the economy.
Egypt, with a population of about 84 million, is now struggling in every way, and routine problems like gasoline and electricity shortages are combining with the disappointments of a people who had expected an entirely new type of government — one that would promote liberty for all within a pluralistic context.
The military now has removed Morsi from power and dissolved the parliament and the constitution. It has appointed an interim president. What makes these developments so painful is that the military — ironically the most stable force in Egypt — had to negate the results of popular elections.
Now Egypt has to try again to begin a democracy. The country is fiercely divided into tribes, Islamists, moderates, secularists and others. The Brotherhood remains a well-organized group and it is unclear whether it can grasp or accept the concepts of cooperation and flexibility that undergird democracy.
In Syria, the situation is even worse. Two years of civil war have failed to remove President Assad or even produce consensus among his opposition. What started as an Arab Spring, pro-democracy movement — with Assad looking like a dictator whose time was up — has degenerated into a sectarian, Sunni versus Shiite religious war.
Although there are still insurgents fighting to overthrow a tyranny (Assad), increasingly it looks like the winners would install a tyranny of their own. It is troubling that Iran, and Hezbollah, from Lebanon, are now supporting Syria’s most fundamentalist Shiite groups, while the anti-Assad rebels — mostly Sunni — match the government and Hezbollah viciousness with extremist groups of their own, such as Jabhat al Nusra. Both sides contain true believers whose delusions of religious righteousness permit them to justify murdering small children and women.
And most dispiriting of all, the argument that separates Sunnis and Shiites — the disagreement that justifies killing the children of the other side — boils down to a disagreement over which side has the more legitimate Islamic prophets. Each sect — which chillingly contains literally tens of thousands of fervid, lunatic worshipers — is convinced that only its vision of a new Islamic caliphate is the acceptable one.
The most discouraging thing sweeping through Egypt and Syria — and dozens of other Muslim countries in Africa and central Asia — is the force of fundamentalist Islam and the willingness of its followers to use violence to promote it. It is discouraging for two reasons. First, it pits Islam against itself and divides populations who live with each other and who should be brothers. Second, it is increasingly appearing that many versions of “strict” Islam are unable to coexist with democracy.
In the United States, the institutions and practices of democracy seem like second nature to us. And mostly, we are successful at keeping religious faith from trumping the requirements of democracy. After 237 years (and counting) of the successful American experiment of fostering liberty, justice and freedom, we simply forget what skills we have in maintaining this achievement.
When we look at the intolerance and dead certainty exhibited by the most extreme of the Islamists, we can see that they have neither the structures nor the mindsets necessary to imagine or support democracy. To grasp and believe in the notions of pluralism probably requires some combination of experiences, education, modeling and resources that many young Muslims are not getting.
Whether or not Muslims across the world can resolve the difficulties currently afflicting the intersection of their religion, their politics and the status of their nations is probably one of the most important questions of the day. The problem is enormous, and although outsiders can assist, it is going to take Muslims themselves to solve it.
Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.