I’ve been keeping track of events in the Arab world only from a distance. There’s been a lot of excitement on twitter and Facebook. Since I’m not an unalloyed enthusiast for democracy I’ve not joined in in the exultation. But I’m very concerned at what I perceive are unrealistic assumptions and false correspondences. This is a big issue because the public is very ignorant of world history and geography. For example, I was listening to a radio show where Roger Cohen was a guest. Cohen covers the Middle East, so he is familiar with many of the issues to a much greater depth than is feasible for the “Average Joe.” In response to a caller who was an ethnic Egyptian American and a Coptic Christian who was concerned about possible persecution of religious minorities Cohen pointed to Turkey, which is ruled by Islamists, and has “many” Christians. His tone was of dismissal and frustration. And that was that.
Let’s look more closely. About 5-10% of Egyptians are Christian, with most estimates being closer to 10 than 5. In contrast, the non-Muslim minority in Turkey numbers at most a few percent, with ~1% often given as a “round number.” This low fraction of non-Muslims in modern Turkey is a product of 20th century events. First, the genocide against Armenians cleared out eastern Anatolia. Second, the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s resulted in each nation removing most of its religious minorities. Of the religious minorities which remain in Turkey, they have been subject to sporadic attacks from radicals (often Turkish nationalists, not Islamists). But from a cultural-historical perspective one of the most revealing issues has been the long-running strangulation of the institution of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church by the Turkish republic.
But that’s not the big issue. Rather, it may be that Turkey is a particularly tolerant society in the Muslim Middle East when it comes to religious freedom, and so not a good model for what might play out in Egypt (and has played out in Iraq). This matters because people regularly speak of “secular Egyptians,” “secular Turks,” “Turkish Islamists,” and “Egyptian Islamists,” as if there’s a common currency in the modifiers. That is, a secular Egyptian is equivalent to a secular Turk, and Islamists in Egypt are equivalent to Islamists in Turkey (who have been in power via democratic means for much of the past 10 years). Let’s look at the Pew Global Attitudes report, which I’ve referenced before. In particular, three questions which are clear and specific. Should adulterers be stoned? Should robbers be whipped, or their hands amputated? Should apostates from Islam be subject to the death penalty?
On the x-axis you see the proportion who accept that adulterers should be stoned. On the y-axis you see the responses to amputation and apostasy. The red points are the proportion who agree with the death penalty for apostates, and the navy points those who believe in whipping or amputation for robbers.
As you can see, there’s a strong correlation between attitudes on these questions. The correlation is 0.97, 0.97, and 0.92, on the national level. So these three questions seem to be tapping on a “are you willing to get medieval!” sentiment in these societies. Compare Turkey to Egypt. They’re in totally different regions of the scatter plot. There is simply no comparison between these societies on these issues, despite both being Muslim and Middle Eastern.
5% of Turks agree with the death plenty for leaving Islam (converting to another religion from Islam, or leaving it, is legal in Turkey, though there is still some social pressure against it). 84% of Egyptians accept the death penalty for apostates. About 30-40% of Turks has been voting for the Islamist party in Turkey over the past 10 years. If you allocate all 5% who agree with the death penalty for Muslim apostates to the Islamists, and take the low bound figure of 30% who are voting for Islamists, at most 1/6th of Turkish Islamists agree with the death penalty for leaving Islam.
Now let’s compare that to Egypt. What proportion of Egyptians consider themselves “secular”? Because of the lack of real elections we can only infer. 38% of Turks agree with the contention that Islam’s role in politics is positive according to Pew Global Attitudes. That’s pretty much in line with how much of the vote the AKP, the Turkish Islamists, win. In contrast, 85% of Egyptians view Islam’s role in politics as positive. Because the Muslim Brotherhood is the primary opposition channel in Egyptian society, de jure proscribed, but de facto tolerated, much of the 85% may not be Islamists as such. While the split in terms of favorable views of Hamas is straight down the middle in Egypt, in Turkey 10% favor Hamas, 70% oppose, and the balance have no opinion. Again, allocating all the pro-Hamas sentiment to Turkish Islamists, and taking the low bound 30% value (which I think is reasonable, as not everyone voting for the Islamist party is an Islamist in Turkey), a far lower proportion of Turkish Islamists have favorable views of Hamas than Egyptians as a whole.
The overall point I’m trying to make here is that it is very misleading for commentators to make an analogy between Turkish Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. The two may both be Islamists, but that is just a term, whose utility and connotations are strongly locally contingent. Barack Obama and Pat Robertson are both Christians, but that means very different things. Additionally, I would suggest that to be secular in Egypt may correlate with greater illiberalism toward deviance from the putative religious orthodoxy than to be an Islamist in Turkey! This article in The New York Times points to the complexity, In One Slice of a New Egypt, Few Are Focusing on Religion:
Egypt is deeply devout, and imposing labels often does more to confuse than illuminate. Amal Salih, who joined the protests against her parents’ wishes, dons an orange scarf over her head but calls herself secular. “Egypt is religious, regrettably,” she said. Mr. Mitwalli wears a beard but calls himself liberal, “within the confines of religion.” A driver, Osama Ramadan, despises the Muslim Brotherhood but has jury-rigged his car to blare a prayer when he turns on the ignition.
We can dig deeper to ascertain exactly how religious Egyptians say they are.
The figure to the left is from the World Values Survey. It was asked in the mid-to-late 2000s. I have shown you both percentages and counts. No one in the Egyptian sample admitted to being an atheist (this is not uncommon in Muslim countries). If you’re curious, over 10% of the Egyptian sample had a university degree, and they had the same proportion who identified as a “religious person” as those without any formal education. In contrast, the 10% of Turks who had a university degree in the sample were far less religious than those without a formal education, 60% vs. 96%.
What is the point of these comparisons? There’s a lot of stress and worry about the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States. Some of this is because of their specific historical associations with Hamas, as well as the history of Islamist radicalism in Egypt (Al-Qaeda is in large part an institutional outgrowth of Egyptian radical movements). But the fixation on the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood misses the bigger picture that secular and Islamist mean very different things in different Muslim nations. The narrative seems to be that political religious movements are problematic because they introduce the cancer of illiberalism into a pristine social environment. But that is just not so. Rather, the nature of religious political movements is to a large extent reflective of trends in the broader society, and is subject to restraints imposed by ostensibly secular citizens. The Turkish Islamists have marketed themselves as Muslim versions of European Christian Democrats. Though this is somewhat of a stretch (the Islamists have introduced illiberal laws here and there), that is because of the greater illiberalism and conservatism of Turkish society vis-a-vis European nations. Consider Turkish attitudes toward evolution:
- 7% agree that evolution is certainly true
- 15% agree that it is probably true
- 7% agree that it is probably false
- 54% agree that it could not be possibly true
- 25% have never though of the issue before
There’s no necessary connection between liberal social attitudes and acceptance of evolution, but the correlation seems rather robust within and across societies. Turks are much more accepting of evolution than any Muslim nation without a history of Communism, but, they are more Creationist than any Western nation (including the USA).
Where does this leave us? Democratic nations have different characteristics. For much of Japan’s modern history it has been dominated by one political party. It has been a de facto one party state. In contrast, Italy has been subject to fractious shifts between multitudinous coalitions. After the fall of Communism the Czech Republic has transformed itself into a conventional liberal democracy, as it was before World War II, while Russia has morphed into a hybrid authoritarian-democratic state (similar to Iran or Venezuela). We can expect a democratic Egypt to be different from a democratic Tunisia, at least over the short term, because of broad socio-cultural differences. And the gap between Turkey, a non-Arab Muslim nation with a foot in Europe, and Egypt, is even greater. Because of the general ignorance of the American public commentators have been leaning on analogies to communicate the potential arc of possibilities. I believe that many of the analogies are misleading, and entail a deeper understanding of the terms and relations embedded within those analogies than actually exists. Additionally, I also believe that some commentators have been caught up in the democratic fever, and consciously have skewed their analogies in a particular direction. I can not believe that Roger Cohen is not aware of the difficult situation of religious minorities in Turkey. But the American audience caught between a bipolar perception of secular liberal democrats and the totalitarian Taliban may not be able to comprehend the nuance within the Turkish case, and so Cohen elided essential features.