The electoral victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has caused consternation and fear across the Middle East and the world. There are concerns that this and other emerging political groups might usher in a new era of oppression, this time inspired by and based on Islam. For all of Mubarak’s vices, he at least opposed religious extremism; free and fair elections are a cheap price to pay to avoid Sharia law. The Muslim Brotherhood, banned under Mubarak, has reasserted itself since the so-called Arab spring. But how could a Muslim brotherhood be good? Muslim-terrorist-misogynist-oppressor seems redundant. Egypt’s newly elected president, Mohammed Morsi, is a loyal son of the Brotherhood. How could millions of Egyptians have celebrated in the streets over this admittedly historic election?
Morsi, flying in the face of these western prejudices and misconceptions, seems determined to allay these fears. He has pledged to end corruption, to improve education, and to revisit the Camp David peace accords with Israel. He has stated his determination to rule by consensus and to create, in his own words, a “civil and democratic state.” And while the Brotherhood supports Islamic law, it is not clear what that might look like. The Muslim Brotherhood, for its part, has stated that it will not restrict personal freedoms and will protect the interests of minorities. Egypt’s first democratically elected president has declared that he will be “a president for all Egyptians.”
If he keeps these lofty pledges and promises, Egypt should finally become safe for Egypt’s Coptic Christians who have long worshipped in fear. As recently as New Years Day, 2011, twenty-one Coptic Christians were killed in a church bombing by extremists. Clashes between Muslims and Christians ensued. Perhaps, at last, Coptic Christians can sleep in peace.
But should we be so hopeful? Should we take Morsi and the Brotherhood at their word? How can Morsi embrace democracy and Islamic law? How can he maintain fidelity to a religiously-based political party with all its aims and ambitions, on the one hand, and a commitment to unity and plurality, on the other? Despite his claims to justice and peace, won’t his Islamic fundamentalism finally seep out, spreading throughout the land, and to the detriment of religious minorities and secular Arabs (who constitute about half of the population)? Won’t liberty, finally, lose out, once again, to religion? Won’t Islamic tribalism repressively rule the day, with women and minorities its first casualties?
In short, aren’t our fears of Islamic rule fully justified?
While many have seen graphic images of religion’s violent impulses, they should not form their view of religion entirely on such highly selective and inflammatory images. Religion is more a source of reconciliation, liberty and solidarity than it is a source of violence. Humans, as such, seem not terribly inclined toward respect and compassion for those who are different from them. And disrespect, fear and hatred can take a religious shape. But religion, at its best and deepest, can and should motivate peace, liberty and compassion. And it looks as though Morsi’s religious beliefs may do just that.
On Wednesday, taking the first step toward improved Muslim-Christian understanding, Morsi met with leaders of many of Egypt’s Christian denominations.
Even the most cynical should be moved to hope by Morsi’s promise to appoint a woman and a Christian as vice-presidents. Should his promise become reality, and there’s no reason to think it won’t, an Egyptian woman and a Coptic Christian as VPs will be historic. The weakest among them will be honored and elevated, and called upon to rule with justice.
Morsi is following in the footsteps of Indonesia’s first democratically elected president, Abdurrahman Wahid. Indonesia, the largest so-called Muslim country in the world, struggles, as do all so-called Muslims countries with freedom of expression and religion. However, Wahid argued that the Omnipotent God did not need defenders. He wrote: “Those who presume to fully grasp God’s will and dare to impose their own limited understanding of this upon others are essentially equating themselves with God and are unwittingly engaging in blasphemy.” In fact, such violence is not and cannot be for God; it is only in the service of the petty and prideful ambitions of humans. Quoting the Quran, Wahid concludes that servants of Allah walk in humility declaring, “Peace.”
It’s not my job to speak for Islam. But it is our job to listen and to support this frail reed of liberty. Christians, Muslims and Jews can do no better than to pray that Islam provides fertile ground for that reed. At Wednesday’s meeting, Father Joseph Hannouche, Bishop of the Syriac Catholic community, has pledged just that: “We will pray together for success of the new president.”