Democracy in Egypt Means Engaging Muslim Brotherhood

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A general view shows Egyptian anti government protesters praying at sunset on Cairo's Tahrir Square, on February 7, 2011, on the 14th days of protests calling for an end to Hosni Mubarak's regime. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images/Getty)

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, University of California’s Reza Aslan discusses the latest from Egypt, and the role religion plays in the Arab world and the United States.

Reza Aslan is trying to tamp down American fears that Hosni Mubarak's fall will result in the rise of a radical Islamic state spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, Christian politicians Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are fanning those very flames. For his part, Aslan's pointed that the Christian right and Muslim Brotherhood could be considered ideological cousins.

Mike Huckabee and indeed many of the Christian conservatives in the US. have far more in common with the Muslim Brotherhood than they'd like to admit, in that all of them very much want to see a role of religion in society. They want to see society founded upon a very specific moral framework, in the case of the Christian right, Christianity, and in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islam.

Egyptians are significantly more open to having religion play a part in politics than Americans are. There's no getting around the fact that 90 percent of Egyptians are Muslim, and over 90 percent of the population thinks religion should play a role in their leaders' political decisions. (In the U.S. about 60 percent say so.) Democracies are based upon the choices of the majority, so if we're going to see democracy in Egypt, we're going to have to deal with some religion, Aslan said.

We can't start a democratic process in a place like Egypt by simply cutting out some group that represents some 20 to 25 percent of the Egyptian populace. They need to have a voice, some role in government, and we need to allow Egyptians to decide for themselves whether that ideology is good for Egypt or bad for Egypt. If they think it's good for Egypt they'll vote for it, if it turns out to be bad for Egypt in a democratic process they get to vote these bums out!

It's also a logical occurance that religious groups are the only viable opposition in Egypt, since Mubarak systematically destroyed any secular opposition and played on Western fears of Islamic extremism to keep himself in power.

Because they have destroyed any kind of true liberal secular Democratic opposition the only thing they can't control is the mosques, so it's perfectly normal that the primary opposition in Egypt to Mubarak happens to be religious opposition, because it's the religious groups that are the only groups that have a modicum of freedom to assemble and make themselves heard.

In the end, Aslan thinks giving religiously inclined people a political outlet would actually moderate the Islamist movement, and take some of the justification away from radical groups who say there's a war against Islam. Besides, there's nothing anyone can do about it, Aslan said—the Muslim Brotherhood has 20-25 percent of support in the population, so they'll get that percentage of representation in any future government, assuming it is democratic.

As for fears that Egypt's future will look like Iran's present, Aslan said the best way to prevent that is for the Obama administration to make a clear statement of support for the Egyptian people—to engage, not isolate them.

We have to make sure that we know that the game is over for Mubarak and that like it or not, the days of the American backed dictator in Egypt are over, so we need to recognize that the sooner that we land on the side of the people, the sooner we can develop a more positive, a more constructive relationship, with post-revolutionary Egypt. That's the lesson we need to learn with regard to our mistake with regard to Iran.

Though radical groups have spun out of the Muslim Brotherhood, that's not a reason to reject the Brotherhood, Aslan said. Fundamentalists left the Brotherhood because of its profession of non-violence and desire to transform society from within the political structure—exactly what we'd like to hear from a democratic movement.


Reza Aslan


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Comments [23]

harry from Upstate

We are the most efficient and productive economy in the world and commodity usage reflects the efficiencies.
Can you help me with some climate change- it's freezing over here!
More fluffy headed thought from the unconstrained vision...

Feb. 09 2011 10:59 AM
harry from Upstate

We are the most efficient and productive economy in the world and commodity usage reflects the efficiencies.
Can you help me with some climate change- it's freezing over here!

Feb. 09 2011 10:57 AM
Empathisee from New York, NY

I listen to Egyptians and I am so sad, yet happy that finally, ALL of Egypt can take back your honour.
I listen to Mona Elzawi, she is Sooo passionate. She believes in her country of origin.
Pres. Obama and Sec. Clinton have made it obvious. They are working for the benefit of their country.
Dear Egyptians, Believe in yourselves. Do not sell yourselves short. You are able to stand up by your heritage, your Oil and your current fervour. Insha Allah

Feb. 08 2011 07:42 PM
Abdul from brooklyn

I'm sure we can agree that while Biblical slavery was one of the outwardly mentioned justifications (in addition to the inferiority of the Black race, etc..), the economic ramifications of the South losing slavery were the very real reasons why ending the institution was opposed. It would be revisionist history to suggest that the civil war was actually fought over religious reasons or some Biblical interpretation of the rightness/wrongness of slavery. In that sense I don't think it was misplaced at all.

With regards to your first point, I can only repeat my point that religon has very little to do with the situation in Egypt as it applies to the Mubarak dictatorship. What we are seeing on the ground is a lack of fear by the people. When people fear the consequences of not taking action less than they fear consequences of taking action, than you will have what you see in Egypt. Religion has played little to no role, as again you have Christians, Jews, and Muslims all marching/demonstrating against a common evil, dictatorship. I again agree that zealots have no place in society, however in a democracy, even zealots will have a place in society unfortunately, because they serve a constituency as well, albeit a small (but in our case very vocal) one.

I have not seen or heard anything out of the Egyptian protestors that suggests they do not want Islam or religion to still be central to their way of life (based obviously on the majority of the population being muslim, but also obviously as Christianity and Judaism apply to those groups as well). Again this movement has not been about religion, and has only become a part of the dicussion in western media where it has become our fixation.

That said I do think we should always be cautious, as these movements can be usurped, but again, it seems the Egyptians have lost their sense of fear, which hopefully means they no longer fear what has come before this movement, and they will not fear what comes after it if it does not serve the interest of the people

Feb. 08 2011 02:07 PM
Brian in Red Bank


For clarity, Nick didn't say "religious people who lack a moral compass" he said, "people who lack a moral compass". The distinction being that many people who read religious texts take them literally and they say conflicting, mutually exclusive and at times despicable things. Nonetheless, the majority of readers can separate the good from the bad and this is evidence that morality doesn't come from the books themselves, it comes from something inherent in the reader very much apart from the religion. Belief in the divine origins of certain books entails for some people a literalism that is terrifying when coupled with the power of the state because hatred does in fact reside in some passages of all of these tomes. That is scary enough for many otherwise tolerant people to cringe and object at a government codified through religious sensibility.
Separately, your point about slavery is, I feel, misplaced when you consider that the "old institutions" you mention were religious. Biblical support for slavery was in fact the single biggest justification for the practice. It seems to me that this undermines your argument.

Feb. 08 2011 01:46 PM
D.Torres from Nathan Straus

" Take the nation back for Christ" are
not what I want to hear from a
presidential candidate.

There are far too many Muslim/Islam/
Sharia Law dominated countries,
where women get the short end
of the stick and have no place
to go for help.

Women being murdered -
Honor Killings - by their family
members, women burning themselves
to death, because they lives are
so miserable that they prefer to
set themselves on fire.

I rather have a country, that is
not dominated by any religion.

I'm very wary of religious zealots,
like Mike Huckabee and would not
vote for anyone like that.

I am an atheist.

Feb. 08 2011 01:28 PM
abdul from Brooklyn

Nick I think you just proved my point. Your statement about 'religous people who lack a moral compass' is no different an argument than mine that it is not religion in and of itself but the lack of a moral compass, which is a human deficiency.

Furthermore, some would argue about the origin of such a moral compass, but that's an argument for another day.

As it relates to this discussion and Brian's guest, I think religion has less to do with the outcome than many suppose, and it is more about the people's movement. If Egyptian youth (and those who have followed to join this movement) will no longer tolerate dictators, than this movement will not be allowed to be usurped. Comparisons to Iran in 79 vs. Turkey are great fodder for discussion, but ultimately what happens in Egypt lies in the hands of the people in the same way that the fate of the US regarding slavery and civil rights was determined by a lack of tolerance for old institutions. All things do not happen in our time or on our watch, but when people are truly fed up, then ultimately change will occur. I dont think religion plays as much a part in this as pundits and talking heads will lead you to believe. Instead it becomes another divisive topic. Nor is it necessary to completely remove religion (or lack thereof) from the identities of the people of the region (including Jews, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, etc..) for real progress to be made.

Feb. 08 2011 12:51 PM
Nick from UWS

Abdul, the drive to take care of the less fortunate or give a smile to a neighbor is something inherent in YOU. You didn't need religion to teach you to do it. There are millions of non-religious people who do those kinds of things every day. I do not think that religion is required to give mankind a "moral compass".

People have "moral compasses" to varying degrees inherent in their personalities. Religious people who lack a moral compass will use religion to harm others or for power gain. It makes no difference in the lives of those people whatsoever.

Feb. 08 2011 12:18 PM
Steve from manhattan

Reza is absolutely correct. Take as an example, Hamas in Gaza. Hamas began as a revolutionary Islamist organization that split from the Muslim Brotherhood and formed in the mid 1980s. Early on, Israel gave them economic support and weapons (really) hoping Hamas would destabilize the PLO, and never thinking they'd rise in power in secular Gaza (Israel soon stopped). Hamas used terror as a tactic to reach it's goals, and was responsible for horrible atrocities. But at some point, that tactic was no longer their best tactic and they sought to evolve. Menachem Begin began as a terrorist who was responsible for horrible atrocities -- Yasir Afafat also. Yet they both evolved into Statesmen, finding more power and influence using legitimate democratic methods. Hamas was evolving in the same way -- they did not dismantle any kind of democratic institution, as the existing Palestinian Authority was hardly democratic. No, rather, Hamas won the first fair and democratic election ever in the occupied territories. Had Israel and US accepted and acknowledged their win (didn't have to like it, but it was true democracy in action) and allowed them to try to rule, the world would now have one less terrorist organization, and probably far fewer problems in Gaza. Instead, we have a fundamentalist group forced back into using terror, yet in full power -- the worst of all combinations. Will we ever learn?

Feb. 08 2011 12:08 PM
Brian in Red Bank from Red Bank, NJ

Although there is no question that Reza longs for democratic, balanced and pluralistic islamic states in the middle east I think we're just fooling ourselves if we say that any state constructed around a "religious nationalism" will be a healthy participant in a universal doctrine of human rights. Yes it is true that the wide majority of Islam (and other religions) embraces peace. The problem is that intolerance and hatred are equally well represented by a plain text reading of the Quran (just as they are in the Bible). Sadly, in the course of time any government so constructed runs into serious conflict with both a minority of its people who hold reasonable but contrary views and with the majority of the world beyond it's borders. For decades this has meant that Vatican City has exported the sin of condom use to a continent (Africa) dying of Aids and the Islamic world has exported Jyhad. This is the underlying fear that has gripped Huckabee and others, not that it is Islam itself that is a problem, but that whatever the outcome it seems unlikely that a new state will emerge in Egypt (or anywhere in the region) with secular values as a foundation.

Feb. 08 2011 12:03 PM
gary from queens

Reza is incorrect. There HAVE been examples of jihadist parties dismanting democratic institutions once in power.

Lebanon, Iran, Hamas in gaza (an org spawned by the muslim brotherhood), to name 3.

Feb. 08 2011 11:38 AM
abdul from Brooklyn

Nick I wont attempt to change your views on religion, however I can only say the same source that makes some people lust for power and kill others in the name of it is also responsible for making me want to take care of the less fortunate, give a smile to a neighbor, and set an example through my actions rather than through words or compulsion. Perhaps its not your preference, but surely these things cannot be put into the same basket to be thrown away?

I think we have to accept that Islam will be in the fabric of whatever comes out of the events in Egypt, just as Christianity will be in the fabric of what Americans choose, because at their core, they (religions) all call for the same values, and they are part of a rich history and tradition of the people in those regions (whether Egypt or here).

I can agree that people who use religion as an excuse/justification to maim, harm, indoctrinate, or otherwise create societal disharmony have no place in any society. However I am able to separate them from the teaching they have hijacked and used for their own selfish reasons.

Feb. 08 2011 11:37 AM
amorris from nyc

Thank you Reza, an informed commentator to allay the fears of the 'what does this mean for me' crowd.

Feb. 08 2011 11:31 AM

Mike Huckabee is not a powerful US politician. He's not. This is false equivalence.

Feb. 08 2011 11:30 AM
Nick from UWS

Abdul, to me religion is akin to one group arguing for the existence of Ronald McDonald, and another group arguing for the existence of the Burger King, and then finally killing each other over it.

Matter of fact, there is more evidence for the existence of both of those characters than there is for anything in the Bible.

Feb. 08 2011 11:27 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Did the Muslim Brotherhood take a position or an active role on the Jan. 1 church bombing in Alexandria & on the participation of Muslims in protecting the church afterwards?

Feb. 08 2011 11:27 AM
Louis from Bayside

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson warned against the divine justification for the exercise of power for obvious reasons. Mike Huckabee's political/religious philosophy is as dangerous as the political/religious philosophies of the Middle East as they can both be used to overcome the structures of reason. Religion and spiritual matters have no place in politics other than guiding the conscience of those who lead.

Feb. 08 2011 11:26 AM
dboy from nyc

I think Nick from UWS may be on to something...

Feb. 08 2011 11:24 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

This tendency of constantly blaming the West, and America's past imperialist or Cold War policies for all that goes wrong, is no different than teenagers and even adults who forever blame their parents for all of their failures in life. At some point it has to end. At some point, individuals and nations have to grow up and take responsibility for their own decisions. We are in the 21st century now and should act like it.

Feb. 08 2011 11:24 AM
abdul from Brooklyn

Nick I think you give too much credit to religion for the deficiencies of humans.

Feb. 08 2011 11:21 AM
Nick from UWS

I am so sick of religion being spoken about as if it's a real issue that must be taken into account in the management of reality. As if it is anything other than human-written fairy tales. I am so sick of it.

Mankind will make no progress whatsoever until it moves beyond this infantile delusional nonsense.

Feb. 08 2011 11:16 AM
dboy from nyc

No religious nuts of ANY flavor!!!

Feb. 08 2011 11:15 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

The bulk of the Iranian people in 1979 were not interested in having an Islamic state, but here we are! The majority of Germans in 1932 were not interested in having a racist dictatorship either when they voted for the Nazi party. The majority of Russians were not interested in having a Communist state in 1917 when they revolted against the Czarist regime. What always happens is that the most organized, most lying and ruthless party usually manages somehow to grab control of the wheels of power anyway.

Feb. 08 2011 11:14 AM

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