From Tunis to Cairo, Damascus to Tehran, the people of the Middle East have voiced their demand for freedom. In both Cairo and Damascus, the physical fight for freedom continues to this day. While lives are risked for liberty and democracy, many in the West, and Washington in particular, are hesitant to support these movements due to the perceived implications of an Islamist government. The obvious irony is that an uprising for the sake of freedom is not foreign to America.
A poignant moment in American history: On the evening of March 5, 1770, word spread through Boston that British soldiers were beating a young boy in Dock Square, then the center of the city. Enraged, a group of men led by Crispus Attucks marched to Dock Square to confront the soldiers. The crowd grew. One soldier fired his musket, and in the ensuing chaos, Attucks and four other Bostonians were killed. This small event in Dock Square became known as the Boston Massacre, the first step in America’s fight for independence and freedom.
So while many in Washington view the popular uprisings in the Middle East as anti-American, the truth is that, at their core, these uprisings are quintessentially American in their ideals and spirit. True, many of the frustrations of the people on the street have been directed at the United States, but this is rooted in decades of U.S. support for the despots that ruled them. Look no further than Egypt, where the U.S. supported Hosni Mubarak’s brutality to the tune of billions of dollars a year. While this support was strategically key during the Cold War, following the fall of the USSR the U.S. should have used its influence over Mubarak to curtail human rights abuses and promote democratic reform – but it did not. American officials feared that in the absence of Mubarak’s rule, Islamists would take power. For U.S. policymakers, Mubarak was the devil they knew, and preferable to the unknown “devil” of political Islam. After all, they argued, who’s to say that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are not calling for elections just so that they can gain power? Who’s to say that after calling for democracy, Egypt’s first fair election won’t also be its last?
These assumptions have always been theoretical, their premise never proven. What has been proven is that the values of democracy are not in conflict with the tenets of most faiths, Islam included (see: Indonesia and Turkey). Further, many of the criticisms levied against Islamists and Islamic political parties are applicable to the majority of America’s founding fathers. For example, a common criticism employed against Islamic parties is that they will place the laws of Islam ahead of any constitution. In that respect, one would think the following quote would be attributable to an Islamist: “the laws of nature are the laws of God, whose authority can be superseded by no power on earth.” And yet, it was George Mason, the Founding Father who championed the Bill of Rights and helped enshrine individual liberties in the U.S. Constitution, who famously spoke these words. Patrick Henry, another of the founding fathers, argued that “the great pillars of all government … [are] virtue, morality, and religion.”
The underlying truth is that we know very little about the motivations and opinions of the people currently shaping Egypt’s future – and that isn’t a bad thing. We can only judge by their actions, which to date seem to indicate a desire for liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness, all within the framework of a democratic society. As the elections approach and violence breaks out in Tahrir Square yet again, it is imperative that the U.S. demonstrates its support for these ideals and the people of Egypt who express them – regardless of religious or political persuasions. It is the Egyptian future that weighs in the balance, and in the spirit of true democracy, it should be the Egyptian people who determine the outcome.
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