For many Muslim onlookers, there was a dull familiarity to the hideous scenes in Cairo this week. This is what they have come to expect – and not only from the Egyptian army. The massacres fitted into a bleak and enduring historical pattern.
What do these events have in common: Russia’s genocidal war against the Chechens, the butchery of Bosniaks by Serbs and the West’s wars against Iraq and Afghanistan? In each case, the overwhelming majority of those killed were Muslims, and in particular Muslims who had discovered the desperate courage to imagine and then try to bring into being a future free of non-Muslim domination. That, in each case, was enough to invite mass murder.
And those are only the most recent bloody suppressions. What we think of as the growth of the British empire can equally be seen as the shrinking of the lands Islam once ruled, and their subjection to the “infidels”, whether in Persia or India or the Ottoman lands. Back in 1896, the Persian radical Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani wrote: “The Islamic states today are pillaged and their property stolen. [The foreigners] chain up the Muslims, put around their necks a yoke of servitude, debase them, humiliate their lineage … sometimes they call them savages and sometimes regard them as hard-hearted and cruel and finally consider them insane animals.”
How to end this humiliation? One common view was to look inward: the reason for the decline of Muslim power, these voices said, was not its failure to keep up with the West but its failure to keep faith with God. In this view, only by cleaving ever more rigidly and literally to the word of God could the ummah, the world community of Islam, be redeemed.
Others saw hope in emulating the one major country to elude the West’s clutches. What Islam needed, the Syrian reformer Rashid Rashida wrote in 1930, was “an independent renewal like that of Japan”. Rashida was a key inspiration behind the Muslim Brotherhood – but in the way that the Brotherhood fatally abused its unique moment of power in Egypt, it is clear it has forgotten what he was trying to impart.
To call the Mohammed Morsi government “immature” would be an understatement. It obtained, with all the legitimacy the ballot box can confer, the right to rule Egypt in the name of, and for the good of, all Egyptians. It proceeded, with the systematic method of the deranged, to snub, attack, marginalise and infuriate every constituency that did not correspond to its own: women, Christians, socialists, atheists, Shias.
Its failure – while exercising what it doubtless saw as its religious duty – was preordained. Morsi was the accidental beneficiary of a revolution waged by others, precisely those young and creative and non-doctrinaire forces which he began persecuting. And once the real revolutionaries had cut their Faustian deal with the army, this week’s bloodshed was merely a matter of timing.
Having lived for many decades, until the spring of 2011, in a state where even the tiniest demonstration was instantly and violently crushed, the holdouts in Nasr City knew the ruthlessness of which the army was capable. And in the sense they were prepared for the likely outcome, which was martyrdom, they were asking for it. The fatal vocation of the fundamentalists for martyrdom has, once again, led Islam into a ghastly cul-de-sac. And the feeble rebukes of David Cameron, John Kerry and Baroness Ashton confirm the cynical certainty of many Muslims that, yet again, we really don’t mind the spilling of that sort of blood.
But what happened in Cairo – in the Muslim world’s most influential city – was a plunge towards civil war, one in which the West is complicit. We cannot sit through more weeks like this, intoning along with the fatuous Kerry that such events are “a serious blow to reconciliation”. Ninety years after the fall of the Ottoman caliphate, the Muslim world desperately needs a sane exit. It is in the interests not merely of Egypt but the world that we do all we can to help them find it.
There’s still some independent spirit lingering in Hong Kong
I have just returned from Hong Kong where the old British flag of the colony has once again been flying. No, they are not seriously clamouring to be handed back to us: the flag was being waved by democratic protesters against what they see as the increasing influence of the mainland on the ex-colony’s affairs. Also hoisted were the flags of Taiwan and Tibet, which must have taken some nerve.
The democrats get plenty of attention, and they have plenty to moan about, too. Sixteen years into the half-century of special status agreed by Thatcher and Deng, it is clear they are running down an up escalator: by 2047, Hong Kong will again be just another Chinese province. The old flag they don’t need, but if they can hang on to the rule of law – the Supreme Court, a British lawyer insisted, is the admiration of the world – and their independent spirit, they may end up changing China more than China changes them.