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Egypt and Culture

by on February 3, 2011

In my article from last week on the populist uprisings spreading throughout the Middle-East I wrote that

Too often people confuse “democracy” with our Western version of democracy. In the West, democracy means a secular government, protections for minorities, and restraints on government action (at least in theory). But this is not due to democracyper se but, rather, because of our culture. Democracy, at its most basic, is simply the ability to have a say in the choosing of one’s government. Culture has important ramifications for how democracy develops and it goes without say that different cultures will give rise to different kinds of governments.

I would think that this is all obvious and commonsense, but after reading article after article on the Egyptian revolution I am convinced that Western journalists and commentators have either forgotten the differences in culture between the West and the Middle-East or they are purposely ignoring them. In either case, I think it is important to emphasize the differences so as not to be disappointed in the outcome of these uprisings.

Most of the articles I have read have made the mistake of describing the uprisings as motivated by a desire for “freedom” and “democracy” without attempting to define those words within the context of culture. They seem to implicitly assume that our Western definition of freedom is exactly the same as the Egyptian (or Tunisian, or Jordanian, etc) definition. But why assume this? The differences in our cultures are vast and our histories are not the same. Egypt, let us remember, is 90% Islamic. That is a huge percentage.

Many commentators ignore this number and seem to think that Islam really only plays a small role in the lives of the Egyptian people. It is as though Islam is simply a cultural formality most ascribe to but don’t actually follow.  Oh, sure, they’ll pay homage to their historical religion by praying towards Mecca a few times a day, but it surely won’t play any part in influencing important things like laws or leaders. Just give them the right to vote and we’ll have ourselves a progressive island in a sea of aging and autocratic governments.

The reality, though, is far from this naive view of the Middle-East. Razib Kahn, an author with Discover magazine, points us to a recent Pew Global Attitudes report taken just this past December that reveals a very different and, I might add, scary picture of some of the cultural beliefs of those in the Middle-East and specifically in Egypt. For example, it turns out that 54% of Egyptians favor some form of legally mandated gender segregation in the workplace. That hardly squares with what most in the West would consider freedom.

More alarming, though, is the belief by 84% of Egyptians that apostates should be given the death penalty. Or that nearly the same number believe adulterers should be stoned (and I assume they don’t mean with the plant). How does one square that with freedom? If over 80% of Egyptians believe those things, what happens when they are given the right to vote?

Those are, in my mind, some rather discomforting statistics. Contrary to how left-wing media organizations like Democracy Now want to paint these uprisings, this is not Spain in 1936. This is not, as best I can tell, about removing patriarchy, hierarchy, religion, and capitalism. This is not even about basic human rights like those described in the 1st Amendment. This should not be surprising. It would be far more surprising to think that everyone shares our views on human rights, freedom and so forth. Clearly not everyone does and that’s just the way it is. It isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

All the same, what the Egyptian protesters are doing is inspiring and they should be supported. Regardless as to what they believe, I dare anyone to watch the videos of the people in Tahrir Square or listen to the protesters describe what has happened and not be overcome by a feeling of solidarity with the Egyptians. It is beyond moving to hear the people in Cairo voice their frustrations with the government and tell Mubarak that they will not leave until he has stepped down from power. I am 100% in support of what they are doing, come what may. Every decent human should be. Everyone should support a peoples’ right to determine their government, even if we don’t like the results. Why should we tell them how they should live? Why should our voices count more than theirs?

Nobody knows what the outcome of these uprisings will be. Certainly, we know change is coming to Egypt. But let’s be realistic about the range of possibilities that could result from change. If the Egyptians get their freedom we shouldn’t be surprised that it looks quite different from how we view freedom. It is, however, a step forward for the Egyptians, and that’s what matters here.

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