In Egypt, there’s a lot of conflict right now about what is going to take the place of the previous dictatorship. There’s a new constitution, but the real question is whether the Muslim majority will find a way to impose conservative religious rule. And for those who believe so passionately in democracy, shouldn’t that be good enough if it’s what the majority want?
It would be entirely too easy to just write about the (completely expected) irony of westerners believing that the people of Egypt wanted a secular free state — the way we understand it — when they were in the streets opposing Hosni Mubarak, only to see them impose another form of repressive rule. But that’s sort of like shooting fish in a barrel, so I’m going in another direction.
I’m going to suggest that those demanding a strict Islamic nation should be able to have their way. That might surprise you until I add that they should be able to set up their city/state/enclave and the people who want different systems should be able to set up somewhere else.
People be able to set up their own independent enclaves, whether those enclaves are based on the ideas of Islam, Christianity, anarchy, Jeffersonian democracy, drug culture or Walt Disney. To prevent them from going on their own — as long as they own the land — is to enslave them.
The problem is that people wanting different systems are all spread amongst each other — and everybody believes he should be able to impose his version of utopia on everyone else. It’s a no-win situation unless you happen to be in the majority — in which case you can simply impose your will on everyone else. And how exactly is a dictatorship of the majority any better than a dictatorship of some minority or other, at least if you happen to be one of those who’s not in the dictatorship in either case?
The idea that huge territories are unified under one system and must be ruled in the same way is a remnant of the day when it was considered acceptable for nations to intentionally build empires. Today, we pretend that we don’t believe in empires — that we believe in freedom — but if you insist that one system has to rule everyone in Egypt (or all of North America or just California or Alabama), you’re defining an arbitrary empire and imposing your will on others.
Nation-states are nothing but coercive forces that rule territory defined by imaginary lines on maps. There’s no logical reason for the boundaries. There’s no moral reason why this spot of ground should be Georgia and that spot a few feet away should be Florida. And there’s no reason that all of what we know as Egypt today should be ruled by one system, either religious or secular.
I don’t want to live in a theocracy, either an Islamic one or a Christian one. But some people do want that, and they should be able to do it without my permission (or your permission) and without them trying to force their system on me.
We could start by letting groups buy up entire areas and designate them — under some charter or other agreement — as something existing apart from the laws of the broader country around it. The only requirement would have to be that people are allowed to leave if they want to.
Somehow, we have to get past the notion that there’s One True Way that should (and has any moral right to) rule over all people. Until people have legitimate choices about which system to live under, the alleged freedom of a democratic state is pretty meaningless in the long run, whether it’s Egypt or America.