“I don’t trust my people’s judgment […] I trust their aspirations.” (Toby Ziegler – The West Wing)
Muslims are proud people. When the French government started legislating on headscarf and veil bans in public spaces as early as the 1990s, the uproar in the Muslim world could not be louder. Muslim media, scholars and common folk condemned France for what they rightfully qualified as a clear violation of the individual liberties of Muslim women. Never mind the arithmetic behind the laws: the Muslim headscarf was banned as a religious symbol by 88% of the French Lower House in 2004, then the ban on face covering passed the French Senate by 70% in 2010 and polling of French public opinion showed that 69% of the French favored it. In other words, more than the absolute majority of French people and officeholders. Yet that did not give the ban any legitimacy at a world stage. Commenting on the ban, Barack Obama noted that Western countries should avoid “dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear.” And who better than an American to know of John Adams’ 1788 warning of the “Tyranny of the Majority”.
Subsequent to the Arab Spring, the striking majority of fair and transparent elections in the Middle East and North Africa brought political Islam to the scene (22.8% in Morocco, 37% in Tunisia, 65% in Egypt…). In the latter, as Mursi was sworn in, everybody wondered how he and his party would be governing such a large country. Yet all of a sudden, the Muslim Brotherhood seemed to only govern for their electoral base. Beyond the deeply religious rhetoric of the notoriously Islamist political movement, it was in the Constitutional Proposal of December 2012 that the Brotherhood’s vision for Egypt was thoroughly unveiled. A legally Islamic society, where the religious and stately are not only confused but also trumping one another regardless of the ideological, ethnic and religious diversity amongst Egypt’s 80 Million. The passages of Egypt’s new fundamental law had a hard time passing even the slightest test of reason:
Article Four of the Preamble
Freedom is a right: freedom of thought, expression and creativity; freedom in housing, property and travel; its principles laid down by the Creator in the motion of the universe and human nature.
Relieved at that thought, you would have to scroll down just a little to wipe out a second’s smile off your face:
Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic its official language. Principles of Islamic Sharia are the principal source of legislation.
The canon principles of Egyptian Christians and Jews are the main source of legislation for their personal status laws, religious affairs, and the selection of their spiritual leaders.
The State shall safeguard ethics, public morality and public order, and foster a high level of education and of religious and patriotic values, scientific thinking, Arab culture, and the historical and cultural heritage of the people; all as shall be regulated by law.
I do not know the people who drafted those separate articles. But if they were many, they were obviously not speaking to each other. As religion begins first and foremost with a thought and then with expression, it is challenging to conceive of how the exercise of these two would be performed freely if in Egypt you are only allowed to be Muslim, Christian or Jewish. Even more appalling was the suggestion that Jews and Christians only get to legally have a say on their personal and religious affairs, the rest of their fundamental matters being the prerogative of Islamic Sharia. In other words if you are caught holding a lover’s hand, drinking alcohol or playing in a casino, you’d better be Jewish or Christian. The police wouldn’t even need to ask you what religion you believe in, as it is literally mentioned in your national identity card. Three possible choices for thought and conscience, and none other. So much for citizenship.
As if that were not enough, scrolling a little further down Egypt’s Constitution reveals yet another contradiction of premises:
Freedom of the press, printing, publication and mass media shall be guaranteed.
[…] Insulting or showing contempt toward any human being shall be prohibited.
One would be curious as to what constitutes insult or contempt in the Muslim Brotherhood’s vocabulary, and how that clashes with the idea that freedom of the press “shall be guaranteed”. Should Egyptians – more critically Egyptian Media – have understood that jokes about officeholders for the sake of scrutiny or amusement are prohibited in Egypt? How would that have differed from the previous regime’s rule? Ask Egyptian TV host Bassem Youssef.
Support for the Constitution mentioned above was record-breaking to say the least. It passed the Constitutional Assembly and was approved by more than 64% of voters in a referendum. You know, just like France’s veil ban. “Tyranny of the Majority” suddenly seemed okay when Muslims practiced it at home.
It was in my first Comparative Politics class that a serious and thoughtful Dr. Nicola Migliorino defined Democracy for all of us newbies. Because he knew most students were aware of the first component of Democracy (i.e. majority rule), he insisted more than once on the second: fundamental rights and liberties. Back then, I was still unable to process why the rules of math should be questioned in the matter. After all, if I get more votes than you, it just means I win and you lose – so get over it. Now I know why.
The suggestion that majorities should have a free mandate to legislate or outlaw anything is deeply distressing and dangerous. The rights of the individual are as important as those of the group, for the very simple reason that without the individual, there is no group. The Muslim Brotherhood’s undue use of the word “Freedom” could be seen as either stemming from ignorance or bad faith, and this is why: freedoms are those aspects of a citizen’s life on which the government (representing the majority) is forbidden from legislating. Being free to comment on whatever matter except when it is about some matters does not mean you are free. Being free to believe in whatever you want as long as it adheres to the principles of three chosen religions really means that you are not free. Having your religion tagged on your ID card opens up a wide door for religious profiling and preferential treatment by the government. And that, of all things, means that you are anything but free.
When did Muslims get comfortable with the idea that the wishes of the many hold supreme legitimacy over the rights of the few? Have we forgotten that Ariel Sharon who butchered our sons and daughters during the second Intifada was after all acting with the mandate of a majority? What of the war in Iraq, declared in Congress by 68% of Representatives and 77% of Senators? Who is to blame when 20-year old Aziza walks into a university lecture in Paris and is refused entry unless she takes her veil off – although she is a French citizen? The majority.
As we are witnessing crimes against humanity being perpetrated daily against Egyptian citizens by a ruthless army, it is only evident that Egypt’s revolution has come full circle – from one dictatorship to another. But when the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership says that its unequal and bloody standoff with its country’s genocidal army is a fight for Democracy, I fail to believe that. The Brotherhood’s historical track record in and out of power unequivocally demonstrates that the one thing they have been consistently fighting for is their own reading of Islam, not Democracy. Thus their world view makes them as undemocratic as those they are fighting today. Democracy is not a tool to get to power, but an end in itself. Fighting for it means you first have to understand and acknowledge what it entails.