Fire in the Streets

Hundreds Dead After Street Clashes in Cairo.” Headlines such as that are attention-grabbers. Not only is it shocking to hear of so many lives lost amid a maelstrom of violence, but this, after all, was supposed to be the Arab Spring!

Rewind a moment and think about what has happened in Egypt in just one year. Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi became the first democratically elected president of Egypt on June 30, 2012. He was removed July 3 of this year after defying a military ultimatum. His rule was characterized by overreach. With his ouster the Muslim Brotherhood is back on the margins of legality as in the days of President Hosni Mubarak. The difference is that this time the Muslim Brotherhood seems determined to resist the change in blood.

A few days ago, in Hot Springs, Arkansas, for meetings, I stopped in at a restaurant for a late lunch and ended up even later after a long discussion with the waiter, who turned out to be Egyptian. We discussed the latest turn of events. He shook his head in dismay at the meltdown in his homeland. Yes, he agreed, it was bad and a sign that political Islam is on the move there. He saw little hope for the near future at least. “They are all pharaohs,” he summarized rather cryptically. The point being that Western-style democracy is not the norm and the autocratic style preferred by the president, general, and religious leader. Here in the West we were guilty of a little wishful thinking. We hoped that the Muslim Brotherhood, the party repressed for so many years by President Hosni Mubarak, might somehow turn out to be able to govern by consensus and with a moderate touch. It was a dream, of course. Ideologies do not change that easily, and the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by teacher and scholar Hassan al-Banna in 1928 as a force for Islamic political change, has not changed. It is the party that supported the assassination of Sadat for his betrayal of Islam; it is the party that spawned Ayman al-Zawahiri and led to Al-Qaeda; and it is a movement that remains dedicated to changing and uniting Islam in a grand political “caliphate.”

Looked at from the Muslim Brotherhood point of view, the toppling of Morsi is probably a good thing, because it provides justification for a more revolutionary application of their premise that Islam should guide all affairs of state. It must have frustrated Morsi and his brethren no end that he was expected to govern a disparate and sometimes secular people and not impose a rigorous Islamic state.

I have read the Koran carefully, and I can see how taken literally, it might stand as a great barrier to what we know in the West as a separation of church and state. It is not so much that the Koran is against it, as that it comprehends no other form of government than one directed by the Koran and the men who follow its dictates.

Rather an impasse, I fear.

However, it is worth remembering that Christian Europe was in much the same pickle 500 or 600 years ago.

I have just finished watching a documentary on English Bible translator William Tyndale. At the intersection of Roman church power and the emerging Protestant identity in England, he faced the ire of king and prelate for testing the absolute control of dogma over the individual. The princes of the church functioned as secular princes with power rivaling the king and were able to cow him into doing the church’s bidding. Tyndale saw that knowledge of the Scriptures would democratize religion and take away its political power. Back then political power made it possible for the church to terrify individuals into compliance.

Tyndale was ultimately condemned and burned at the stake as a heretic. However, the ready availability of the Scriptures he helped facilitate was itself a freeing dynamic. Churchmen had the ability to assert themselves over the individual with the power of God and knowledge of Him. They had less ability to threaten the state into compliance. The Reformation naturally led to the separation of church and state—not because the Reformers demanded it (Luther if anything remained in thrall to the appeal of state control of religion, so long as it was the correct one, and Calvin got it all muddled up in Geneva), but because a demystified Bible freed the individual from coercion in general. Jesus did say, “My kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36),” but not loudly enough for even Protestant kings to hear. They continued to wage wars of religion for some time. But the shift of religion from the state and the depletion of statist church power that flowed from the easy accessibility of holy writ virtually guaranteed the liberal Western norms we enjoy today. A time, by the way, as wicked as the Middle Ages but one in which religion has energy and enthusiasm those times could only muster under pain of the rack or the superstition encouraged by ignorance.

It’s been said before, and I’ll say it again: Islam needs its Reformation. It needs it not just so that it is less dangerous to international peace and harmony, but so that it can enjoy its faith and test its tenets. Like Christianity before the Reformation, the Koran is not well known or understood by most Muslims. Before the Reformation most Christians knew their Bible by hearsay, saw it only in forged relics, and heard its truths garbled in mystery plays and fantastical pamphlets that imagined a heaven and hell not found in Scripture.

In the West we think the Koran is the direct analog to the Bible, but that is only partly true. The Hadith, numbering about 6,000, are the source of most Islamic mores—they and tradition are the primary source of the problematic Sharia law that pits secular governance against the word of the imam. Yes, the Koran says many things that are challenging to a Western mind-set that is tempered by Christian norms, but it would be less so freed of the “traditions of men” that so encumber Islam and set it at odds with democracy or at least a secular society that respects all faiths.

The Arab Spring is likely to cover all the seasons, and its winter may yet be coming. However, I pray that it liberates the Islamic world from often rote talk about the Koran to a place where its best principles are known by its adherents and respected by all others.

We in the West know that the Crusades were not much about Christianity and a lot about power—popes sent Crusaders to the Holy Land to enlarge their ecclesiastical domains and sent them closer at hand to places such as Constantinople to settle rivalries. In this century we are intuiting that stirrings in Islam may have less to do with theology than with theologians and their efforts to keep back a people ready to embrace the modern world. The world is not flat. I think it time for the Islamic world to embrace the openness of human potential that birthed not only the Reformation but the era of human progress that has elevated billions beyond subsistence living. We must cease to cavil about which civilization is better—about who riffled the Library of Alexandria for ancient lore first. The best civilization, I am certain, is the one that grants to its masses the right to be individuals. The best civilization is the one that frees the self to seek the Divine—not the one that mandates obedience under pain of death. The best civilization surely understands the difference between keeping the streets swept and leaving ideas in people’s minds.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."