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Egypt's result reminds us why we need Edmund Burke no less than Margaret Thatcher

By Paul Goodman
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Jesus said: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's".  Christians have been arguing about which things should be rendered to whom ever since, but one thing is certain: the distinction between the two has been recognised within Christianity from the start, although it was compromised long before the middle ages.  Some sixteen hundred years later, it was written into the Peace of Westphalia Treaties, which finally acknowledged the separation of church and state - recognised long ago in this country in practice though not, of course, in theory, even now.

Europe was thus set for the peace and prosperity which gradually followed, and the emergence of the continent as the world's dominant power, a position which it held for roughly the next 250 years.  The nation abroad which eventually overhauled the European states in terms of power and projection was the United States of America, which not only kept church and state apart, but wrote the arrangement into its constitution.  Every country bar one in the G20 practices separation.  The presence of Indonesia among them is a reminder that there is no instrinsic reason why Islam can't recognise the principle.

The lens of history is thus the best one through which to peer at the emerging election results in Egypt.  When Egyptian liberals first flocked into Tahrir Square, the western media proclaimed an "Arab spring": globalisation, modernisation, and liberalisation, we were assured, were coming to Egypt as they have to much of the rest of the world.  A western-type human rights model would allow women and gays to flourish.  The press almost entirely missed the huge turn-out for the hate preacher Yusuf Qaradawi, banned from Britain during the last Parliament after the intervention of David Cameron, in the same place only a few weeks later.

Today, some of the same media outlets that contained articles cheering an Arab spring are now crammed with others complaining about an Arab winter.  Islamist parties have gained almost two-thirds of the vote in Egypt's initial elections: the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party has roughly 37 per cent of it, and the Salafist al-eNour Party some 24 per cent, almost a quarter.  Al-eNour, the Daily Telegraph reports, calls for "women to be segregated and veiled, the ban of alcohol, the stoning of adulterers and the amputation of the hands of thieves".  In short, technology doesn't equal progress: an extremist with an IPad is still an extremist.

In short, a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood is now set to hold office in Egypt. It already does so in Tunisia.  The Islamic Justice and Development Party is set to lead government in Morocco for the first time.  A party of the same name already holds office in Turkey.  If this is what voters in the Arab world want, then so it must be - provided, of course, that the Islamist parties don't implement the ideal sometimes attributed to them: one man, one vote, once only; in other words, the end of democratic elections and the start of a clerical tyranny, of a kind of Sunni Iran.  And even then, any action we could take would be extremely limited.

There is no inevitability about such an outcome.  Turkey's status quo is a reminder that Islamism doesn't necessarily mean extremism.  But politicians should work on the basis of what it is likely to happen.  The Brotherhood will respond to electoral pressure from the Salafists and to the influence of its own Islamist roots.  And experience suggests that Islamism is wedded to welding mosque and state together.  Moving them closer together has been as disastrous for Pakistan as keeping temple and state apart has been beneficial for India.  Saudi Arabia and Iran have elided religion and state completely.  Neither are examples that most Muslims want to follow.

Indeed, Islam has kept mosque and state separate - in practice, at least - for the greater part of its history.  But the contemporary urge to fuse government and religion is strong in states with a Muslim majority.  Perhaps Islamism, like adolescence, is just a stage that they are going through, as merging Church and state was in Europe for hundreds of years; perhaps not.  But either way, Egypt's results return me to where I began: to a lesson to be learned from history, namely that separating religion and state tends to bring freedom and justice - the same freedom and justice that the Brotherhood declare - while merging them brings tyranny and oppression.

As I was preparing to write about the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia, a memory drew me back to Conor Cruise O'Brien's life of Edmund Burke - "a book by the greatest living Irishman about the greatest Irishman who ever lived".  At the start of its section on the French revolution, O'Brien quotes a letter from Burke to Lord Charlemont, which shows the former's apprehension about the revolution from its very start. "To form a solid constitution requires wisdom as well as spirit," he wrote, "and whether the French have wise heads among them, or if they possess such whether they have authority equal to their wisdom, is to be seen".

Or to put it more plainly, he didn't praise a "French spring", since he recognised that the theories deployed to justify radical change are less instructive than its practice.  I wonder what the sage of Beaconsfield, the greatest Tory who ever lived as well as the greatest Irishman who ever lived, would have made of today's parallel events in the Middle East and Europe - of the fall of the Eurozone and the rise of the Brotherhood, of leaders who seem paralysed in the face of the former and perhaps the latter, too.  With the onset of The Iron Lady, there is a vogue for saying: how we need the courage of Margaret Thatcher.  I can't helping that we need the wisdom of Burke no less.


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