The American Interest
The Middle East & Beyond
Published on July 9, 2013
Whistle Down the Wind

Walter Russell Mead has brought to my attention that a Turkish colleague we know, Mustafa Akyol, indirectly and, as it turns out, unfairly, implicated me as a coup-lover and disparager of Islam in a Hurriyet column he wrote recently called “How one can defend Egypt’s Coup.” Actually, Akyol was not attacking me but rather taking aim at David Brooks’s New York Times column of July 4 in which he quoted from my blog post of July 1. But Akyol associates me with Brooks’s argument, and this is where things get a little convoluted.  So let me try to unpack what was said and meant, and what has been said that is not exactly accurate about it.
Aykol has me saying, in effect, that mainstream Muslim theology denies causality as we ordinarily understand it, and when attached to the rest of Brooks’s argument this is made to mean, sarcastically of course, that Muslim minds have thus been “crippled.”  That is Akyol’s word, not mine or Brooks’s.
I said no such thing, and anyone can look it up. What I said was that radical unitarian Muslims (tawhidis) like to make this point, not that it is necessarily part of mainstream Islamic theology. But so what if it is? The argument that a notion of causality which puts logical blue sky between first and consequent causes diminishes God’s omnipotence is not unique to Islam. Jewish liturgy contains the same kind of statement; the traditional prayer book says (I wish it were easier to plunk down different alphabets here, so I’ll just offer a naked translation), in the morning prayer for every day of the year, that God “in his goodness every day forever renews the work of Creation.” This is an esoteric concept familiar to educated Muslims and Jews alike now for many, many centuries that doesn’t necessarily cripple anyone’s mind.
What I argued, and which gets a little de-nuanced or even lost in the Brooks column, is that Egypt has suffered over the past year a massive administrative/bureaucratic meltdown because a lot of rank-and-file Muslim Brotherhood Islamists are not facile with abstractions, or with a range of modern attitudes having to do with agency, time and coordinated organizational behavior. Such people cannot be expected to efficiently run a highly centralized modern state. I said that “not all MB members, and certainly not all Egyptians” fit this description, but that enough in Egypt’s state administration do fit it to have made for some real problems. I stand by that assessment.
Just by the way, not being able to run a modern, centralized state and not being able to govern democratically are, of course, two different things. Here I agree with two judgments rendered by my friend Dov Zakheim in a recent short essay. First, as I also argued in my July 1 post, the democratic credentials of the June 2012 Morsi election are questionable. If that election were a baseball statistic there would have to be an asterisk next to it. Second, while there is nothing oxymoronic about Islamic democracy, there is something oxymoronic about Islamist democracy. The Turkish ruling party, which Mr. Akyol supports, is an example (still) of the former; the Morsi government of the latter. (Obviously, dear reader, to understand the two prior sentences you must be able to distinguish the meaning of the adjective “Islamic” from the adjective “Islamist”, and I know from experience that many non-expert readers very understandably cannot so distinguish. If that includes you, you’ll need to look this up, please.)

So, as Akyol indirectly implies, did I thereby justify the coup—either before it had happened when I wrote for July 1, or when I wrote after it on July 4? No.
True, I’m not sorry to see Mohammed Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood lock on Egypt’s government go, but I believe that, like the Obama Administration (as best as I can make out), it would have been better had they been dispatched by Egypt’s voters next time around. The coup—and I have not hesitated to call it that, but much appreciate the reasons for the President’s decision not to—does indeed cause all sorts of problems, to be sure.
Now, perhaps, as some have argued, three more years of MB maneuvering would have ensured that no opposition force in Egypt could have won an election, or even that a free and fair election would ever have taken place. That’s possible. But it’s not my business to tell other people how to run their country. When I make a judgment about whether a foreign actor behaved shrewdly or foolishly—as I think Morsi did in rejecting the military’s initial proposal that he construct a new cabinet—I do it in the context of an analysis of U.S. interests and options.
So I was not happy about the coup. But Egypt did not, and still does not, have a lot of great options. A continuation of the Morsi presidency would have been bad; the coup is bad; and a forced government reconstruction just short of a coup, while better that either of these alternatives, would not have been so pretty either. That was the burden of the analysis in my July 1 post, as those who read and remember it will know.
* * *
I will have lots more to say in my next post about U.S. policy and U.S. attitudes toward this coup in Egypt and similar dilemmas. The basic position I will take, just so you can prepare yourself for it, is one that is radically pro-Egyptian. I will argue that the Manichean pro- and anti-democracy polarity with which most Americans (including the Obama Administration) think about the situation in Egypt is deeply and dangerously misguided. I will argue that this view is an expression of a secularized evangelism anchored in the Western/Christian mythical, salvationist idea of progress, and that its use says a great deal more about what’s wrong with us than about what’s wrong with Egyptians. You won’t want to miss that one, folks.

  • Peter

    “….that Muslim minds have thus been “crippled.” That is Akyol’s word, not mine or Brooks’s.

    “I said no such thing, and anyone can look it up.”

    Well, you should have said it as it objectively seems to be the case.

  • Peter

    As usual, Dr Garfinkle provides a fair and clearheaded analysis.

    The discussion of the extent to which the Islamic understanding of cause and effect impacts the Muslim person’s ability to think logically, practice disciplines such as engineering or study physics has been running for many years. The Regensburg Address hints at the apparent tension, and Dr Garfinkle points out traditional Jewish views on the subject of the need for constant divine participation as a kind of maintenance of the laws of physics.

    As a longtime Middle East resident, who has worked with Muslim engineers and technicians, may I note here that I have never met one who did not assume that if he dropped a hammer on his foot it would hurt.

    In the country where I have been living for the past 22 years, there is a campaign to reduce speeding on the roads, on the grounds that it causes traffic accidents. Clearly a case of applied cause-and-effect theory.

    However, there is a sense in which acknowledgement of cause and effect runs parallel in the culture with a certain sense of fatalism, a keen sense of depending on divine providence, and a belief that cause and effect cannot be assumed — or should I say that repeated events should not be presumed to represent a dependable pattern. Thus, it is often said that although the

    • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

      Well put. Many Arabs don’t doubt causality until they have to think about it. Then almost anything might happen.

  • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

    May I ask how many years you have spent studying Middle Eastern languages, or traveling to Muslim-majority countries, in order for you to make such a broadbrush, and highly nasty, statement? It’s hard for me to believe that you actually know any Muslims well.