Trying to Define Equality, Freedom, and Justice in the Modern Islamic World

By Lewis, Bernard | USA TODAY, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Trying to Define Equality, Freedom, and Justice in the Modern Islamic World


Lewis, Bernard, USA TODAY


BY COMMON CONSENT among historians, the modem history of the Middle East begins in 1798 when the French Revolution arrived in Egypt in the form of a small expeditionary force led by a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte--who conquered and then ruled it for a while with appalling ease. Gen. Bonaparte--he was not 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 tree believers are equal. Of course, that still leaves three "inferior" categories of people--slaves, unbelievers, and women. In general, though, 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 a bit of puzzlement. Some years later, an Egyptian 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 an entirely new phase in the political and public discourse of the Arab world, and then, more broadly, the Islamic world.

What is the possibility of freedom in the Islamic world in the Western sense of the word? If you look at the current literature, you will find two views common in the U.S. and Europe. One of them holds that Islamic peoples are incapable of decent, civilized government. Whatever the West does, Muslims will be ruled by corrupt tyrants. Therefore, the aim of our foreign policy should be to ensure that they are our tyrants rather than someone else' s--friendly rather than hostile tyrants. This point of view is very much favored in departments of state and foreign offices and generally is known, rather surprisingly, as the "pro-Arab" view. It is, of course, in no sense pro-Arab. It shows ignorance of the Arab past, contempt for the Arab present, and unconcern for the Arab future.

The second common view is that Arab ways are different from our ways. They must be allowed to develop in accordance with their cultural principles, but it is possible for them--as for anyone else, anywhere in the world, with discreet help from outside and, most specifically, from the U.S.--to develop democratic institutions of a kind. This view is known as the "imperialist" view and has been vigorously denounced and condemned as such.

In thinking about these two views, it is helpful to step back and consider what Arab and Islamic society once was like and how it has been transformed in the modem age. The idea that how that society is now is how it always has been is totally false. The former dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq or the Assad family in Syria (tentative though it may be at present) or the recently expired (via the Arab Spring) dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt--all of these have (or had) no roots whatsoever in the Arab or Islamic past.

Let me quote to you from a letter written in 1786--three years before the French Revolution--by Mssr. Count de Choiseul-Gouffier, the French ambassador in Istanbul, in which he is trying to explain why he is making rather slow progress with the tasks entrusted to him by his government in dealing with the Ottoman government.

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