From Milton to Morsi: The Puritan’s Test for the Islamist

When the Egyptian President Morsi was ousted from office back in July, various commentators assumed that those who denounced him were simple-minded ignoramuses unable to distinguish between political Islam and jihad. Here was a man who had been elected by the popular will; it was undemocratic not to stand with him, it was said. Consistent equivalents were drawn with Western leaders – was Bush never so unpopular, and was the elderly accused Belusconi not in need of expulsion, of a Mussolini if you will?

Morsi overruled the democratic process. Individual freedoms were claimed for the government; it became policy to target those minorities whose unity threatened the Freedom and Justice Party, from Coptic Christians to liberals. He was, in short, the figurehead of a (at the risk of sounding tautological) deeply anti-democratic theocratic movement. His supporters have been sure to carry on his legacy on the streets, however stirred by the coup that has so stupidly and irresponsibly itself pitched against them.

This question of Islamist movements is a worrying one for a democrat. You see, I find anticipation of a coming “Enlightenment” for Islam a little embarrassing, almost – dare I saw – a little Orientalist in its armchair intellectualism. Islamist movements are a reality across the fresh painting on the Arab political world, be they sectarian, moderate or sponsors of terror. There’s Irshad Manji, sure – but it seems to me that it is in the schooling of some very basic, visceral instincts that will be the prerequisite for change in Islamic communities in Africa and the Middle-East, where they are invariably not ruled by a First Amendment or littered with secular schooling. The deeply religious in these places must first come to know a confidence sure enough to grant tolerance and patience: as searches for social movements go, it’s a patronising one – but it does identify something beyond progress’s very modest starting line.

Here, then, is my new test for the Islamist – raised from the voices of English Puritanism. Pass it and you scrape the modern test for what is palatable to a democrat; fail it and my sympathies go.

John Milton. Far from some whitewashed commodity of English Puritanism, to his name being the epic Paradise Lost, Milton nevertheless found himself alienated by the Presbyterian Parliament that rose against Charles I; he remained what we might term a “political Christian”, looking for moral guidance in the inspiration that so readily lay behind his poetry, but he stood firm against the desires of the later republic to forge oppressive laws from the contents of their halo-fashioned minds.

This is the poem with which he eviscerated these Presbyterians:

On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament (1646)

Because you have thrown off your Prelate Lord,
And with stiff vows renounced his Liturgy,
To seize the widowed whore Plurality,
From them whose sin ye envied, not abhorred,
Dare ye for this adjure the civil sword
To force our consciences that Christ set free,
And ride us with a Classic Hierarchy,
Taught ye by mere A. S. and Rutherford?
Men whose life, learning, faith, and pure intent,
Would have been held in high esteem with Paul
Must now be named and printed heretics
By shallow Edwards and Scotch What-d’ye-call!
But we do hope to find out all your tricks,
Your plots and packing, worse than those of Trent,
That so the Parliament
May with their wholesome and preventive shears
Clip your phylacteries, though baulk your ears,
And succour our just fears,
When they shall read this clearly in your charge:
New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.

At Cromwell’s funeral procession, Milton walked blind alongside his fellow Christian poets Dryden and Marvell. I don’t like to call anything inevitable in history; but one has to ask how such an awkward religious tolerance might have appeared in England without that first popular victory over divine rule, the dethroning of Charles I. It happened in France nearly a century and half later, and its failure in Russia after 1917 has allowed the Orthodox Church to fantasise in perspex once again.

Milton represented the germination of secular thought: a consideration of diversity, and uncertainty, pumping through a deeply religious mind. That’s a line that would upset many academics. But the same must surely be true of some of today’s political Islamists.

If they would sympathise with Milton’s poem for freedom of conscience, then they surely become that which is just about tolerable in the 21st century: the morally-charged religious who, though guided in their politics by Islam, will nevertheless prepare themselves to let go of others’ corporeal and spiritual fates. I do not think I will live to see same-sex marriage legalised in Saudi Arabia, but this is a trajectory in which a distant hope, if generations away, might find an ally.

It is the difference, in other words, between deep conservatism and reactionary theocracy. And Morsi was on the wrong side.

Always solidarity with socialists, liberals and those blunt-speaking people struggling for their democratic rights today and who rightly refuse to wait for the decades that I fear they may need; but the result of this has to be that those “Islamists” who respect them, and who hold their stomachs not to pass Medievalist laws, must be tolerated by democrats.

There’s my test. Take it.


Moses vs the Pharaoh? I don’t think so.

Two equally flippant extremes on the recent violence in Cairo and Alexandria:

Unsurprisingly, neither standpoint is unfounded. On the one hand, we have evidence of unarmed civilians shot by passing Egyptian security forces. Then again, we have pro-Morsi supporters pouring petrol over the entrance to Cairo International airport. Both sides are large, and come both peacefully and with their violent edges. General Sisi’s call for populist rallies to legitimise his coup would, a few days later, stoke further rallies in support of the deposed president.

In any deeply divided society, populism is its greasiest but most dangerous political lubricant. Why, after all, should you bother acting democratically – or even constitutionally – if you can deafen the streets with those chanting your name? The revolution continues; though, it might be said, in two ominously different directions, under two undemocratic banners – each trying desperately to show the least care for the other side.

When in power, the Muslim Brotherhood banned any future president from being either Coptic or female (that’s 60% of the population right there). In a recent interview with Mada Masr, Freedom and Justice advisor and MB spokesman Gehad el-Haddad expressed no regret for this: to the contrary, Morsi’s biggest failing was not to go far enough:

The big mistake that the president made was not to carry the revolutionary spirit into governmental reforms…We literally allowed this coup to happen because he wasn’t as forceful as he should have been…The president made a decision early on to [rule] by the book. Many objected to his decisions, even inside the Brotherhood. He decided to respect the corrupt heritage that was left for him, and that includes a corrupt constitutional court, a corrupt judiciary, and a corrupt set of regulations and laws that are literally designed to trap anyone in office.

For “corrupt”, replace with “secular”. It leads to the same conclusion: that the dreamy air of Muslim Brotherhood HQ would have raced for a Turkish-style army coup in order to prevent them from doing the same. The free election of 2012 had already been subverted beyond recall by 3rd July when Sisi took the reigns. But that does not justify legally questionable methods to remove Morsi’s supporters from the streets, nor his unofficial, unknown detention (nor the raids – none of it).

Last year’s narrow election would realise the undemocratic realities of a majority-ruled democracy for a polarised electorate; it might be hoped that the coming election will not result from the very same failures. Without a solid constitution – guaranteeing the place of the military, basic human rights and a secular framework in which a civil bureaucracy might operate – the realities of those Egyptians who demand a peaceful and economically stable nation will never be met.

Unfortunately, whether this will emerge from a bloody dialectic between Mubarak ghouls and the vainglory of would-be theocrats only time can tell.


Egypt: Condescending Drivel and Words of Caution

Egyptian Coup

From the Washington Post.

In some ways, I’m grateful to Stalinists. They’re experts at making bile concisely palatable to the middle-class; Seamus Milne serves the purpose very well in the recent commentary on Egypt:

But the reality is, however incompetent Morsi’s administration, many key levers of power – from the judiciary and police to the military and media – are effectively still in the hands of the old regime elites. They openly regard the Muslim Brotherhood as illegitimate interlopers, whose leaders should be returned to prison as soon as possible.

Yet these are the people now in alliance with opposition forces who genuinely want to see Egypt’s revolution brought at least to a democratic conclusion. If Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are forced from office, it’s hard to see such people breaking with neoliberal orthodoxy or asserting national independence, as most Egyptians want. Instead, the likelihood is that the Islamists, also with mass support, will resist being denied their democratic mandate, plunging Egypt into deeper conflict.

The people of Egypt are being mislead. The millions in Cairo can’t be demanding democracy because they aren’t demanding what Milne wants them to demand. They are being passed like a ball between progress and reaction, forces so abstract that no one would ever dare to question their existence.

Milne’s stress on the importance of leadership is hardly refutable; but his argument, funnily, is the very same employed by Tony Cliff when he justified the bureaucratisation of International Socialism to the closed clique of the Socialist Workers Party. As early as the 1960s Cliff had been panicking about the “danger that we’ll become mindless militants. It’s true that theory without action is sterile, but activity without theory is blind.” What they really want is the old Stalinist image of “democratic centralism” – elect whomever you please. Provided they’re far left prophets – or, for Milne, anti-American demagogues hungry for “national independence”.

Why, man, why?

The narrative in which Communist sympathisers flirted with the far right is well-rehearsed (see Cohen’s oft-quoted What’s Left?); Milne, shamelessly predictable as he courts it.

Since the fall of their mother country, Soviet apologists have only be able to defend their credibility by shedding their old rhetoric and instead donning the bland uniform of the guerrilla journalist. “Capitalism”, once the umbrella for all modern evils, has been secularised to “neoliberalism”. “Imperialism” has broken free of its Leninist principles and come to mean any action undertaken by any member of any American government. The West is out to get them. One imagines their self-worth: a Jesuit missionary traversing the winter of the Elizabethan Reformation to save whatever lost pilgrims he can – and so if it requires petty alliances with the far right, then so be it. The means justify the ends. And not even a trace of irony.

Plenty of contradictions though. (They love them.) Liberal democracy and imperialism are – to any sane observer –  irreconcilable; granting sovereignty to a people, in principle, guarantees their right to self-determination. No, no, not to the truther crowd; no because everything’s Orwellian and war is slavery or ignorance and peace or something (they don’t know what they mean so I’ll be damned if I’m going to try). Democracy is most certainly not democratic. You’re no doubt seeing some milder parallels with the lunatic Alex Jones here. Other signed-up members include GallowayGreenwald, the Stop the War Coalition, Respect and even some of the Greens.

Solidarity with the Sheeples!

It really won’t do.

The most obvious are the European revolutions of 1848, which were also led by middle-class reformers and offered the promise of a democratic spring, but had as good as collapsed within a year. The tumultuous Paris upheaval of May 1968 was followed by the electoral victory of the French right. Those who marched for democratic socialism in east Berlin in 1989 ended up with mass privatisation and unemployment. The western-sponsored colour revolutions of the last decade used protesters as a stage army for the transfer of power to favoured oligarchs and elites. The indignados movement against austerity in Spain was powerless to prevent the return of the right and a plunge into even deeper austerity.

Notice: not “Western-supported” or “with Western sympathies” but “Western-sponsored“. What a slimy euphemism. It apparently doesn’t matter that there aren’t any figures to paint them as Western-funded; for Milne and his crew, there’s no distinction between the media against whom he believes he’s fighting – despite being himself a part of it – and the “ruling classes” who keep stealing his proletariat revolutions.

Instead, the Egyptian people are informed of the “democratic mandate” behind Morsi. He might not have their full support – but, you know, at least he’s opposed to “neoliberalism”, right?

Morsi and the Democrats

It might not be true of me – or indeed many people on the left at all – but the Washington consensus of the 1980s made one principle very clear; the left’s support for regulated markets and for rampant trade unionism, across the world, led neoliberalism to be associated with liberty. I’d be interested to here whether this is still a view on the grounds in Egypt – but it is certainly true that one does not lightly grapple with the state’s economic machinery; and an Islamist attempting to promote his democratic credentials would not be inclined to be hostile to the free market.

There’s a reason for this, one might imagine: Morsi might have been hoping to consolidate his position before discontent could bring him down. His November declaration enhanced his personal power, effectively removing any and all legal constraints. It might indeed be true that this would have been necessary for any post-Mubarak president operating in a system filled with the ex-dictator’s bureaucrats; but a genuine democrat promotes citizens within the system. He does not simply pretend the system does not exist. Wael Eskandar at Notes from the Underground has some great analysis here.

Islamism is a necessarily authoritarian ideology because it is the assumption, backed by the state, that one religion should take precedence over all others; it was the First Amendment more than anything that separated the United States from the history of absolutism, from state certainty and moral directorship. No amount of fresh makeup can make pleasant the hideous grooves of clerical fascism.

The Opposition

With thanks to Shiraz Socialist – here are some of the 22 million “elites” celebrating:


But they celebrated in 2011

Indeed they did.

But another common factor, without which neither “coup” could have taken place, took it upon itself to promote the popular voice once again. As I said a few days ago:

A lingering fear does of course persist: the Egyptian army now holds more authority there than Turkey’s did under Atatürk. Protesters in Tahrir Square demand Morsi step-down; it’s not the constitution to which they are opposed. Rhetoric, though, screams revolution – worryingly fitting given a military presence forced to live up to the expectations it has set itself. (There is currently speculation that the presidential palace is being left unguarded.) 32% is a low approval rating, but one not a lot lower than David Cameron’s in the UK.

I can’t give my support to the Egyptian army – only its objectives, if they are as benign as they suggest. For the democratic socialist, and indeed perhaps all democrats, “paternalism” is as shifty as it is shallow: no matter how honest its leadership, the distinction between a government that is benevolent and one which is democratic and popular closes in the minds of those handful who believe they control a country’s fate. Did they allow a dictator to survive office for decades simply because hardly anyone had protested?

And that’s excluding a military leadership with ulterior motives. Any commentator should be concerned by the recent imprisonment of Brotherhood officials; it’s not freedom of speech if dependent on the merry laws of expedience and convenience. A citizen’s army is not inconceivable; but, for now, Egypt needs to hope that the military’s undemocratic activities are short-lived, as ephemeral as the the gulf between political rules – an interruption begun and made inevitable by popular revolution.

If it is true that Egypt has avoided the bloody martyrs now littering Syria, then – I don’t know? Is there room for a little optimism?


The War for Tahrir Square

A year ago, I suspect the blogosphere was in fits over Egypt. The army had allayed the fears of those suspecting an army takeover and two candidates were in the run for the presidency: Morsi, sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ahmed Shafik as the spectre of the Mubarak government.

Religion has a habit of screwing over the political spectrum. For many secular Egyptians, a vote for progress paradoxically became a vote for radical Islam; meanwhile Shafik bled nostalgia for the very system that the elections were intended to reject. What a caricature – a revolutionary is meant to be spoiled for choice!

There was a quiet wonder, though, which seemed to skip over foreign commentary like a pebble on the sea – waiting to drop. Morsi proved to be the first real triumph for Islamism, even by the eyes of the West; Sharia nestled into the ballot station, and it did so unarmed. It won a free election. But today the paradox proved to be unraveling.

The thousands marching in Tahrir Square and outside the presidential palace tells us that last year’s polar election was not as theatrical as we might be led to believe: it was not interpreted as a choice between theocracy and militarised oligarchy, but on principles which seem both secular and moderate. The army deflected Morsi’s Islamic dreams from the law and revealed his poverty of solutions to the economic crisis.

When people found poverty they did not turn to extremist Islam, but judged it by what it delivered and found it wanting. Islamism fought the election, and won; but then it realised it had chosen to answer questions on which it had little to say. Unsurprisingly, Morsi’s popularity has plummeted from 79% last autumn to a mere 32% today.

A lingering fear does of course persist: the Egyptian army now holds more authority there than Turkey’s did under Atatürk. Protesters in Tahrir Square demand Morsi step-down; it’s not the constitution to which they are opposed. Rhetoric, though, screams revolution – worryingly fitting given a military presence forced to live up to the expectations it has set itself. (There is currently speculation that the presidential palace is being left unguarded.) 32% is a low approval rating, but one not a lot lower than David Cameron’s in the UK.

So where does the revolution lie? In the pockets of benevolent army officials, the footsteps of Cairo, or the grim calm of the ballot office?

Everyone thinks they have power but only time will tell who is able to assert it.