The Fine Line Between Critique and Bigotry When Evaluating Islam and Egypt

As the coup in Egypt unfolds, the debate over Islam and democracy continues apace. Can respectful critique push a community's beliefs toward the universal values of justice, peace and freedom?

As the coup in Egypt unfolds, the debate over Islam and democracy continues apace.

New York Times columnist David Brooks opened a can of worms with his latest piece, a short moral evaluation of the nature of Islamists and their electorate. Observers such as David Sirota in Salon swiftly took him to task for bigotry over two sentences:

“...there are large populations across the Middle East who feel intense rage and comprehensive dissatisfaction with the status quo but who have no practical idea how to make things better…”


"It’s not that Egypt doesn’t have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients."

As both a university professor and a blogger, I am keenly aware of the delicate moral ground on which social and political analyses rest, particularly when the subject involves populations that have long suffered from colonialism, prejudice and racism. It is challenging to advance one’s reasoned opinion in the classroom or in an opinion article, as it is to grade, critique and evaluate a student's arguments when the topic naturally inhabits the line between legitimate analysis and irrational prejudice.

But, amidst all this there is a question that still needs to be asked: When it comes to politics and religion, how should we decide which types of ideas may be fairly critiqued?

Let’s start with the David Brooks piece. Is his latest column an example of bigotry or fair critique?

In his piece, Brooks makes two central claims. One is that the “absolutist, apocalyptic mind-sets” of “radical Islamists” are antithetical to democracy. The second claim, which is the one to which Sirota reacted so negatively, is that Egypt "seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients” for democracy.

To their credit, democratic societies seem to have decided that any political ideology is fair game for criticism. In "Nineteen Eighty-Four," George Orwell showed us what happens when mass political dissent is silenced. Fortunately, communism, fascism, socialism and capitalism have all had their tenets held up to the light of criticism at various points within democracy’s history.

But for other reasons, we have also decided that religions should be mostly off-limits to critique, at least from those outside of the given religion. You simply cannot write “Judaism is regressive” or “Islam is intolerant” without being accused of flat-out bigotry.

But when religion is pressed into the service of politics, which set of discursive rules should govern? It seems to me that once a religion has been politicized, it too, should be fair game. This is because religion is generally ascriptive, and politics are generally chosen. Leaving aside the issue of religious conversion for the moment, individuals are generally born into religious groups, as they are into racial and ethnic categories. History has shown the terrible effects of targeting groups whose membership is fixed and inescapable.

But politicized religion, like any ideology - which by its nature rests on ideas rather than lineage - is chosen, discussed, and transmitted discursively rather than genetically. You can choose to wear your gold "chai" necklace in the service of Meir Kahane’s hateful and radical Jewish ideology, or else for the love of life that the Hebrew numeric symbol suggests.

According to this logic, Brooks’s critique of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s governing ideology is fair. But he should have pressed “send” earlier in his piece. Lapsing into reductive statements about an entire people (in this case, the citizens of Egypt) falls squarely on the side of bigotry.

That said, we still desperately need a deep and focused discussion on whether religions - which frequently have ethnic associations and which are generally passed down at birth - can also ever be harshly scrutinized without the scrutinizer being accused of prejudice. For those who have witnessed inter-religious wars, religions can feel brittle and fixed. But like ideologies, religions ultimately trade on the currency of ideas. You may be born into a particular tradition, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t test, challenge and ultimately reform whatever teachings and practices of one’s religion that don’t advance the universal values of justice, peace and freedom.

The question remains, though, whether the world is ready for such challengers to reach inside another set of traditions to do the same. It would no doubt have to be done carefully - with honesty, thoughtfulness, and compassion. I think I’d like to see this happen. But I don’t know if I’d be willing to stick around if it did.

Follow Mira Sucharov on Twitter @sucharov