Though pundits have pointed to the abject poverty (the income of many Egyptians is little more than two dollars a day) as that which is driving the current uprising in Egypt, its source is much deeper. Properly understood, that which is driving the uprising is a clash of civilizations—and this clash is anchored in a clash of fundamental ideals, the building blocks of culture. The people are tired of living under a military dictatorship that operates behind a thin façade of a democracy. People want to be part of Western civilization in its fullness, not just in its form. Cast in religious terms, we can also describe this uprising as a clash of spiritual realities.
With the astounding increase of technology in recent years, the Egyptian people have had ample opportunity to see Western culture up close and personal. Visits to Western nations (which is only a hop, skip and a jump from Egypt), television, movies, radio, magazine articles, books, novels, and the Internet,
have all made the case that Western ideals and the civilization that they have spawned are superior to that which is commonly found in Egypt.
Some pundits see this as a replay of the uprising that took place in Iran in June of 2009. Others reach further back, to January of 1979, when the Shah of Iran was ousted and replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini. If President Mubarak is ousted, the pundits wonder, will the new regime be characterized by a similar Islamic fundamentalism? And, if this happens, how will that affect the passage of ships through the Suez Canal? Also, how will that affect the stability of the Middle East—specifically, the stability of Israel? Perhaps, other pundits wonder, a new regime will be similar to that of Turkey—a secular Islamic state that embraces religious pluralism and abhors religious fanaticism. Almost universally in the West, the last option is the most desired. But how likely is it? As the world sits on pins and needles, the questions continue.
Most all the questions, of course, are cast in political and economic terms. They are also self-absorbed. In so many words, the West seems transfixed on the implications of this uprising on the West. Will gas prices go up? Will Western economies weaken all the more? Will new wars break out? Will Islamic terrorism acquire a new base from which to menace the West? Is this one additional step towards Armageddon—a worldwide calamity that drags us all in?
A Different Line of Questions
Still, another line of questions exists that is worthy of our examination and exploration. Questions that are not self-absorbed—but truly others-centered. What are the personal and spiritual implications of this uprising for the Egyptian people?
This current uprising in Egypt is a replay of a clash that took place in the Islamic world one thousand years ago. In that medieval world, Islam had been in existence for about three hundred years and had entered into a deep spiritual malaise, a manifest paralysis of faith. Or, so said Muhammad al-Ghazali, Islam’s most esteemed theologian. It was at this time that Islamic scholars discovered and began to read the Greek philosophers—particularly Plato and Aristotle. They translated these writings into Arabic and made the case that Hellenistic philosophy was the way out of the malaise. Some called for an abandonment of the Islamic tradition, others sought a synthesis between philosophy and the Qur’an, and still others believed that Islam could carry on with two separate truths—one centered in Hellenistic philosophy and the other centered in the Qur’an. Yet, by the end of the twelfth century, the Islamic emirs clamped down on these philosophers and crushed their movement, a movement which had been pressing for a westernization of Islamic thought.
Hence, when the dust settled, al-Ghazali’s book, Refutation of the Philosophers, had won the day. Islam turned inward. It embraced a curious blend of qur’anic truth with Sufi mysticism. This had become Islam’s new norm. Though the great European city of Constantinople would fall to Islam a few decades later and the Islamic armies would then march onward into Europe, the dye had been cast. The intellectual achievements of the Arabic philosophers had left Islam and migrated to Christian Europe. The West became the new heirs of Hellenistic philosophy. Moreover, prompted by philosophy, Christians began to
think through the implications of the Christian faith afresh. In time, this spawned a Renaissance, a Reformation, and an Enlightenment. Predictably, the West leaped forward in the arts and sciences. And Islam remained trapped in its medieval past.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century. Many in the Islamic world are now playing catch-up. Currently, on our television screens and computer monitors we are seeing this played out in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez. The stakes are high and the number of deaths are mounting. Tanks are on the streets, jets are in the skies, museums are vandalized, stores are looted, foreigners are crowded in airports, and people are defying curfews—hundreds of thousands on the streets. In addition, world stock markets are dropping. Behind closed doors world leaders are on conference calls—determined to find answers. The end game is unmistakable. These demonstrators want what the West has: they are crying for democracy and freedom.
And that which is complicating everything is the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood: fundamentalists committed to a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and Shari’a Law. Moreover, according to news reports, Islamic terrorists from Palestine are crossing the border at Gaza to support the Brotherhood. Other
terrorists, incarcerated in Egypt, are being set free. Where this will lead, nobody yet knows. But clearly, these Islamic fundamentalists see this as their big opportunity.
If they can gain control of Egypt and the Suez Canal, their power on the world stage will multiply dramatically. And, if they remain true to their stated goals and previous behaviors, they will fight to the death—they will be martyrs, if necessary—to achieve this goal.
Still, all this notwithstanding, the majority of the Egyptian people have made their choice. They want the West, along with its ideals. Whether or not they are successful in ousting President Mubarak and bringing into existence a new Egyptian government and culture—a government and culture that is decisively Western—in their hearts they are now Westerners. This is true, no matter the outcome of this uprising.