One should never confuse corporate American media’s coverage with the reality of the lives of many people beyond their pale: the lives of American poor, immigrants, undocumented people, and post-colonial people remain largely obscured.

One would think that Islam would be an exception to this, since after all there has been an almost constant obsession with Islam and Muslims since the 1978 Iranian Revolution.   But alas, there are some lingering assumptions that derail this analysis.

Every now and then, I am taken back by the sheer degree of transparent racism.    Case in point:  today’s New York Times op-ed on Egypt.

 David Brooks from Wikipedia courtesy Wikipedia

David Brooks from Wikipedia courtesy Wikipedia

The writer is David Brooks, who twice in a short column uses the “mental” deficiency of Egypt and Egyptians in their march towards democracy.  The first usage is attributed towards Islamists.  The second one is more absolute, less equivocal:

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

As for the United States who for decade after decade supported the tyrannical regime of Mubarak, here is Brooks’ gracious comments:  “The most important thing outsiders can do is promote those people and defend those people, decade after decade.”

What is perhaps most frustrating is the extent to which this language of “mental” deficiency is simply a continuation of a colonial apologia where Western countries colonizing and occupying, Muslim (and other) countries justified their lingering oppression by stating that these countries “were not ready to rule themselves”, “lacked the mental qualifications needed for self-governance”, etc.     The “lack of mental qualifications” is part and part of colonial—which is to say, unjust and oppressive—worldview, and it must be exposed and dismantled before we can embrace a more holistic and humanistic paradigm.

This mindset was not just applied to Muslim societies, where the British stayed in Egypt for 70-plus years, and the French stayed in Algeria for 130-plus years.   It was also in Vietnam, and Dr. King correctly diagnosed the arrogance of the American Empire in holding that the Vietnamese “were not ready to rule themselves.”

Not only is this worldview racist, it is also inaccurate.     The truth of the matter is that there is a profound transformation underway in Muslim majority societies:  It consists of  millions of people from broad cross-sections of society pouring out into the street, and articulating their own highest hopes and aspirations in the most universal language of freedom, dignity, rights, and equality.  It is not by any stretch of imagination a finished revolution, and as the Egyptians have been saying, The Revolution Continues…   How quickly we forget that the American Revolution itself was a process that took decades to reach a conclusion.

Similarly unhelpful is Tom Friedman’s recent plea about the failure of “Islamism” in the Middle East.

Thomas Friedman courtesy Wikipedia

Thomas Friedman courtesy Wikipedia

I find the label “Islamist” to lump together Iran, Muslim Brotherhood, and Turkish AKP to be so absurd as to obscure rather than illuminate.     These are distinct movements, with distinctions that are as profound as any similarities.

Time and again we hear New York Times (and other Western media pundits) lamenting that democracy is a Western monopoly, and that Muslims are incapable/unable of engaging it.

The best indication of what we have about some of these values being universal is simple: listen to what people on the streets of Cairo, Tehran, and Istanbul have been demonstrating about over the last few years: freedom, dignity, democracy, liberty. Yet Friedman and his ilk (and much of the American think tank culture) is fearful of what a genuine democratic movement in Muslim-majority contexts would look like, since it would almost certainly come along with a popular demand for having US military presence out of their region, to adopt a genuinely peace & justice based approach to the Palestine/Israel issue, and move away from an American hegemonic approach to the world.

Tahrir Square  courtesy

Tahrir Square courtesy wikipedia

To acknowldge that popular will would run against American-privileged views of many pundits.   Therefore, we hear this absurd language that democracy is somehow a “Western” value, that Muslims are not “prepared” for it, and the best that brown/Muslim/colonized people want/deserve is autocratic rule.

So where to turn?   Reading this blog, of course.  And also:  I suggest reading Juan Cole, Democracy Now, and many of the blogs on Aljazeera instead.   If you have access to a relatively high speed internet, you can also watch Aljazeera’s often superb analysis.

The line between news and analysis is now forever blurred.  The best we can hope for, and indeed demand, is that our analysts utilize perspective that convey—rather than obscure—the humanity of us all.





  2. ‘I find the label “Islamist” to lump together Iran, Muslim Brotherhood, and Turkish AKP to be so absurd as to obscure rather than illuminate. These are distinct movements, with distinctions that are as profound as any similarities.’

    Is that why AKP is hyperventilating? as for the usage of ‘mental’, I wonder what if not ‘mental’ could explain this desire to rule by the (holy) book, because surely it’s not anything ‘physical’?

    also, it appears that ‘the truth of the matter is that there is a profound polarisation (you can call it ‘transformation’ if that helps, but how?) underway in Muslim majority societies’

  3. Asiila Imani

    Actuallly Egypt’s democracy is workign a bit better than ours. We collectively fall for the lies and okie doke, and then sit back and shrug our collective shoulders and complain when the doo doo hits the fan…THE EGYPTIANS HELD THEIR GOV’t RESPONSIBLE…Thomas Jefferson said that power corrupts in time, and advised Americans to revolt every 20 years; to kick everyone out and start over. How many generations late are we? and consequently, how much corruption is behind most of our elected officials? I mean, how in the HELL did a national bank and other corporations take over? We actually LET THEM ABOLISH THE BILL OF RIGHTS with the frickin’ patriot ACT!!!!! So, tell me again who doesn’t understand democracy?

  4. ummer farooq

    “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” – John Adams

    • Daniel Berry, NYC

      I very much doubt that that quote is authentic: at the time that John Adams was alive, the world had known only one democracy before our own: that of ancient Greece.

      • That John Adam’s quote is on the John Adam’s official website.

        “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”
        John Adams, letter to John Taylor, 1814

  5. Daniel Berry, NYC

    Look, I hate the TIMES as much as anyone can hate shameless pandering to the orthodoxy-du-jour. But Tom Friedman is about as sharp as Play-Doh (and less interesting to read) and David Brooks is a Connecticut gated-community-dwelling, out-and-out bigot – as anyone who reads the TIMES for more than two weeks will quickly find out. These two nit-wits are a poor foundations for the argument that the TIMES is racist.

  6. It’s important to note that democracy and freedom are tools used by the west to push their values upon other nations. What they fail to tell everyone and what we as Muslims fail to realise is that Muslims have a golden, rich history of being a forward thinking people, tolerant and progressive without ever having the need for western systems of rules. Our caliphate system as ordained by God and documented as the only system iof rule for Muslims to progress under was a dominant power in the world for centuries until our own complacency caused it to slip away (with a little help from western coloniolists). THAT is the only system for us. And that is what the west fears will return.

    • Islam is extremely intolerant so called religion so much so it should be used as an example of such. Islam should and must be isolated from society by any and all means. Cancer cannot be fixed it must be cut out and thrown away.

      • Isn’t that cute, islam and it’s history is backwards… according to you. And we must join the new world order of the united nations shall we?

        I say no to Plato or Bertrand Russell or even Bernard Lewis.

        And our lord is not one eyed.

  7. Islam and hence the sunna of Muhammad is not a half-way house or a house that admits doubts and suspicions. There is no inconsistency in the sunna. It is accept all or reject all. It distinguishes knowledge from action. The Muslim Umma today believe but reject that in failing to practice their belief. That belief is the CALIPHATE. Please visit my website:

      • This is a very important question that no Arab Pakistani Turks will give a convincing answer according to the Qur’an. The worst of it is you will dismiss my explanation simply because the Arabs Pakistanis Turks do not care to give a contemporary examination of the Qur’an and gives it secular meaning. This is explained in Take it or leave it: Muhammad never addresses or called one a ‘Christian’. The verse in the Qur’an is a reporting verse witnessing and ascertain what one calls himself.
        Jizya was paid voluntarily to guard those living in Muslim territory and also like the case of Emesa the Muslims fighting on behalf of them. Is the USA not paying Jizya to Egypt for peace with Israel?
        Please give an ear to those with the knowledge and forget the Arabs. Drop your Western and European mentality on segregation and superiority for Muhammad says: An Arab is not superior to a non-Arab except by fear of Allah and doing good over and over again.

  8. this post is against radical islamists who use religion for political power and not to islam itself, the article has nothing racist about it, actually it is very true what David Brooks said. “Islamists might be determined enough to run effective opposition movements and committed enough to provide street-level social services. But they lack the mental equipment to govern. Once in office, they are always going to centralize power and undermine the democracy that elevated them.” Being egyptian myself, I TOTALLY AGREE WITH THAT

    • Omid Safi

      dear Tia Nirel, I am sorry to disappoint you, but Mr. Brooks was not directing his comments about Islamists, but actually about all Egyptians. Read the last two paragraphs of his op-ed once more.

      • Brother Safi. If Mr. Brooks is directing his comments about all Egyptians then that is more serious. You know very well that if a Muslim Umma fails to establish the caliphate, then all of them are guilty. I know that the followers of Muhammad never agree on simple and basic norms and definitions.

  9. I agree with you about the usefulness of Aljazeera, which is why it is disturbing that their office in Cairo has been closed by the military. I’d offer a more focused critique of NYT op-ed: David Brooks is just out of his league on international affairs. Tom Friedman’s stance here clearly shows that neo-liberal=neo-colonial. The US needs Egypt to be predictable.

  10. The author makes his entire appeal based on emotion without any evidence to back them up. Can you show me a single place in history where a government run by Islamists has been truly democratic? Turkey would be the closest, but as they move to more and more of a government based on Islam it is falling apart as we can see in front of our eyes. Islam and Democracy have never coexisted in harmony. The more Islamic a nation becomes, the less democratic it becomes – history has shown us this.

    BTW – street protests are not the same thing as democracy. Sure you will often see street protests with democracy, but they don’t in themselves make it happen.

    • Well said! The author of this article would find more agreement if he would provide examples of truly islamist governments that don’t trample on the rights of other religions in their midst. The calls for a caliphate sound great to a Muslim, but sound extremely oppressive to others who try to practice their conscience while being persecuted and forbidden to express their faith in any public forum.

    • In the manner Islam is presented and explained to the West and Europe your statement is correct. But agree with me that Islam began with Adam and ends with Muhammad. The period between Adam and Muhammad witnessed peace and wars, deception poverty and all that lethal to survival of mankind. Equally after the migration of Muhammad from Makka to Madina (hijra) to today, the same was experienced in those countries profession the faith taught and practiced by Muhammad. By every standard they did not follow his actions and practices. They are therefore not to be described as his true followers. Therefore there is no place in the world today to be called an Islamic state except as that defined and accepted by you (West and Europe). If you visit that website you will understand.

      • Mustapha – What a dodge. So you’re saying that democracy and Islam could coexist if only Islam were actually practiced somewhere in the world? What a pathetic argument! But despite how pathetic it is, it’s still an argument based purely on emotion because it lacks any proof. Nobody practices any faith perfectly. To raise the standard of who true believers are to those who do so takes the argument to someplace that never has and never will exist.

        But back in the real world, here’s what we know – anywhere Islam has been widely practiced, democracy has failed.

        • Let us be wise and respect to education and written history. I argue that West and Europe are ignorant of Islam and will never take to learning it. We followers of Muhammad believe in argument based on knowledge and not personal opinion. It is hard to translate Arabic into English and explanation takes time. If you will take the pain to read from and, that should be the base.
          The Turks, the Arabs the Pakistanis etc you refer to never practiced what Muhammad taught and practiced. Muhammad like in the commentary of Genesis chapter 6 by Matthew Henry never approves befriending immoral people and any administration that is unjust. But, what is Europe and the West doing?
          Ironically, I read that Pope Francis has refused to sleep in the grandiose apartment of the Vatican. If you were to read those caliphs who ruled according to the practice of Muhammad you will see similarity. Please note that justice compassion and lifting humanity is common to all. There is no special article in it in Muhammad. Please read carefully and stop making hate and false speech.

        • Yes. I am sure you have never read any book in Islam explaining what Islam is. You have never read any book showing the mistakes of the followers of Muhammad. You Westerners and Europeans read translated book that are biased written by ignorant scholars who divided the Islam into Christianity and religion. Let us drop Greek influence on Christianity and their belief in the distorted explanation of the teaching and practice of Muhammad. Every profession in the world has rules and regulations procedures. Not all of you know how this is applied in the teaching and practice of Muhammad. You are invited to visit www// Please stop assumptions. Read digest analyze and compare the distorted past with the present straightened path.

  11. Nonsense. The most obvious flaw in this screed is the fact that Muslims are a religion, not a race. How can someone be “racist” if it’s not a “race” they’re supposedly against? There are white Muslims, Arab Muslims, Indian Muslims, etc. etc. etc. You’re just trying to use a hot-button word to generate sympathy, but it falls flat.

  12. Omid Safi

    dear “Joseph”: Is this the same Joseph as the author of this post?
    “I am not a fan of Christianity. It is a destroyer of cultures, religions, science, philosophy, and anything else that stands in its way of complete domination of the mind-space of everyone it encounters. ”
    If so, Delighted to find someone who’s an equal opportunity bigot…Hating on Islam and hating on Christianity.
    Back to your point. Glad to see you are interested in precise language. Fine, let’s call it what it is: colonial mentality, prejudiced, xenophobic. If you were interested in a subtle conversation, I would talk with you about racialization of Muslims post-9/11, but somehow I doubt it would be fruitful. So blessings, and may life lead you to beautiful places.

  13. Joseph is somewhat on the right track. The problem, of course, is not the Arab people, but Islam.

    Clearly, by and large, Islam is an enforced religion with a violent founder, a violent founding, and a very violent past and present. Islam is generally repressive to women and to those of other faiths. Islam is typically financially devastating and technologically backwards. Jesus Christ said, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart (Luke 6:43-45a).” The fruit of Islam is bitter, indeed.

    Read more here:

  14. Faizal Kahan

    Are Americans democratic ? They spy on their people, they incarcerate innocent people without trials, they kill innocent people the world over in a most cowardly manner(drones)! They invade other people’s land for personal gain(oil),humiliating the overthrown leaders and its people! They soldiers rape, kill and plunder.
    They cause anarchy in those invaded country’s and leave. IF THS IS DEMOCRACY THEN SOORY WE MUSLIMS NOT ONLY ARE NOT READY FOR IT , WE DON’T NEED IT! New York Times please look in your back yard and then look else where! You’ll find that in your country democracy flagrantly violated!

  15. Interesting that Mr. Safi would take quotes out of context, mischaracterize said quotes (or just flat out lie), and then condemn the authors of the quotes based on his own mischaracterizations/lies.

    Just a note to the author: The next time you write such garbage, don’t provide links. You’ll fool more people.

  16. Youssef El Ashmawi

    The arrogance of many people of white European descent is nothing new. They always think that they know better, are “more civilized”, etc. That is how they rationalized their treatment of Africans and natives in the United States. That is how they rationalized their colonialism in Africa and Asia. That is how they rationalize their killing of thousands upon thousands around the world today. Unfortunately, a segment of Egyptian society seems to be under the spell of these “enlightened” people. May God guide them to return to Islam. But, as Dr. Safi pointed out, Egyptians must be given time to come to a consensus on how to move forward. They must be allowed to forge their own future. That would be the policy of the US if it truly supported democracy and the right of people to choose how to govern themselves. Unfortunately, American leaders are more concerned about Israel and “stability” in the region. May God guide them to see the error of their ways.

    • The question and issue of protecting Israel was achieved by Muhammad Rasulullah more than any ruler in the world. He gave them the freedom to preach and practice what they helped him reviving- the written and oral law of Moses. Helping Israel is a hate speech!
      As for the Egyptians, they have no other time other than to learn from their the children of Israel life in Egypt from Joseph to the Exodus. To survive and be free from bondage the Umma (community) must have one trusted by the G-d of Abraham.

    • Youssef El Ashmawi

      Yes, Fred Eaglesmith, Islam is not a race. But the fact that Mr. Brooks’ smug sense of superiority might more accurately be labeled as cultural elitism rather than racism does not make it any better. One is the brother of the other.

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