PJ Media

El-Sisi’s Jihad Against Freedom of Conscience

A recent PJ Media blog chastises mainstream (essentially Left) media for largely ignoring Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s 1/1/15 speech, an address much ballyhooed by conservatives (see for example, here, here, and here). This criticism of the Left-dominated media is warranted.

But conservative champions of Sisi’s address, and his subsequent unique, if brief appearance at Coptic Christmas mass held in the St. Mark’s (Abbasiya) Cathedral last Tuesday (1/6/15), are also guilty of what Ogden Nash referred to as “equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people,/ from Billy Sunday to Buddha, /And it consists of not having done something you shudda”—i.e., their own “sin of omission.” The shared conservative journalistic sin of omission is best illustrated by their collective failure to discuss the ongoing, Sharia-compliant campaign of el-Sisi’s youth and religious endowments ministries, begun after his landslide election, and assumption of power, to extirpate the alleged “scourge” of atheism afflicting Egypt. Moreover, this lacuna in conservative analysis, I argue, is rooted in their continued failure to acknowledge—let alone discuss—Sisi’s Weltanschauung as articulated in his 2006 U.S. Army War College mini-thesis (which can be read in full here).

While Sisi was “ambiguous”/“apologetic” in his romanticized 2006 view of the (Sharia totalitarian, jihad promoting) Caliphate system as an idealized form of Islamic governance, he was unequivocal in his denunciation of precisely the kind of secular consensus, tolerant form of rule Egypt requires if it is ever going to make its Coptic Christian minority, and truly secular leaning Muslims, equal members of the society. Sisi rejected that pursuit in 2006, and his government’s actions under his aegis—a continuing campaign against freedom of conscience, coupled to ongoing “blasphemy” prosecutions—pace soothing “rhetoric”—indicate he meant what he articulated then.

As I wrote last August 8, 2014, after studying Sisi’s 2006 mini-thesis, which required a FOIA request to obtain, Sisi never retrenches on his anti-secularism, frontally attacking even governments that “tend toward secular rule,” and their media mouthpieces, for allegedly “fomenting” Islamic religious extremism.

Thus Sisi’s critique of secularism goes well beyond merely acknowledging, “Democracy, as a secular entity, is unlikely to be favorably received by the vast majority of Middle Easterners, who are devout followers of the Islamic faith.”

He condemns secularism itself, and its alleged “media accomplices,” while fully idealizing his chimerical vision of “moderate” Islam, and Muslims:

The control of the media by government further presents problems to moderate Muslims. The media is managed via a secular philosophy. The secular media secures control for the government and further disenfranchises the religious moderates. It spreads a philosophy of liberal living that many moderate Muslims do not support and it also provides a vehicle for extremists to exploit because it enables them to relate to the religious moderates on a shared theme. This has the effect of strengthening the extremist philosophy

Sisi’s anti-secular, Sharia-based vision is now manifest in the prosecutions of Coptic “blasphemers,” and Muslim freethinkers, alike. Both “campaigns,” while consistent with the Sharia, and its mores, are an egregious affront to basic freedom. Observations such as these capture how the “anti-atheism,” freedom of conscience-crushing jihad, is an exercise in rather depraved paranoia, given Egypt’s estimated (2012) 82.5 million citizens:

On December 10 the Dar al-Ifta, a Justice Ministry wing that issues religious edicts, released a survey claiming that Egypt was home to 866 atheists, the highest number of any country in the Middle East. Two aides to the Grand Mufti – the head of the Dar al-Ifta – described the supposed increase in atheism as “a dangerous development” that “should ring alarm bells,” Mada Masr reported.

The late, brilliant political scientist, P.J. Vatikiotis (d. 1997),  educated at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and author of many important analyses of Egyptian socio-political history, opened his seminal  1981 study, “Religion and State,” with these words:

“Religion and State” is not a new preoccupation in the study of Egyptian or any other society where the faith of Islam predominates.

Vatikiotis adds that this “difficult and largely unresolved problem”—which dated from the 7th century advent of Islam—derived from, and continued to manifest, in Egypt, the

…curious “marriage” between a universal religious truth or message and an otherwise very parochial community that held it and fought for it or in its name

Vatikiotis lucidly chronicled Egypt’s 150-year experience (through 1981) of failed experiments with secularization imposed by forceful despots, beginning in the 1820s with Muhammad Ali. He identified how a fundamental defect in the process emerged, which, unresolved ever since, continues to plague Egyptian society, engendering sectarian violence against the non-Muslim minority Christian (primarily Coptic) population, and bloody internecine conflicts between members of Egypt’s dominant Muslim majority.

Neither authority nor the source of law, despite all the state-promulgated and decreed legislation, was clearly divorced from its ultimate divine source and sanction. The constitution itself proclaimed Islam as the official religion of the state, inevitably undermining its other provisions relating to the rights of citizens such as freedom of worship or belief, speech, and so forth. Thus, such a provision was fundamentally contrary to the conception of a secular state because under the constitution the latter still sought and recognized a legitimacy based on divine sanction. The transcendent reference for authority and political power remained partly divine and not purely secular. The uniformity of individual citizen rights therefore remained unattainable.…[T]he more fundamental problem of the relation between religion and state remained unresolved. It was put in abeyance only to return to plague the Egyptian body politic. A concept of citizenship based on a clearly secular idea of identity for the individual and the society did not materialize, and the alienation of both from the state persisted.

Over three decades later, despite widespread euphoria regarding the mass movement which prompted a military putsch deposing Egypt’s first popularly-elected President, Muhammad Morsi, and his coterie of Muslim Brotherhood ideologues, the ancient-cum-modern conundrum elucidated by Vatikiotis, remains tragically unresolved within this Muslim-dominant society. Clearly, despite his overwhelming popularity, President Sisi shows no signs of being willing, let alone able, to help establish the kind of society Egypt so desperately needs, upholding what remains a despised, alien concept in Egypt, and throughout Islamdom: uniform individual rights, based upon a secular identity for the society, with Islam as a personal faith, shorn of its liberty-crushing divine mandates.

Ziad Bahaa El Din, an economist, and former chairman of the Egyptian Investment Authority, reflecting upon Sisi’s  St. Mark’s Cathedral appearance, opined wistfullythe noble sentiments voiced by the president during his brief visit must be translated into actions that realize equality for all Egyptians.

The aggressive campaign by Sisi’s government—consistent with Sharia mandates—to abrogate freedom of conscience and expression, represents “actions” antithetical to that goal.

All conservative champions of Sisi—from euphoric, to more guardedly optimistic—must take pause, given the Egyptian President’s state sanctioned attack on these basic freedoms.

Absent the right to freedom of thought, or conscience, other fundamental rights each human being deserves, such as the right to freedom of speech, are rendered meaningless. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo reasoned elegantly in Palko v. Connecticut (1937):

Freedom of thought … is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom. With rare aberrations a pervasive recognition of this truth can be traced in our history, political and legal.