Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East

Relatives of freed Lebanese prisoner Samir Qantar carry him aloft during a welcome ceremony upon his arrival in his hometown of Abay, Mount Lebanon July 17, 2008. Mohamed Azakir / Reuters


For Muslims as for others, history is important, but they approach it with a special concern and awareness. The career of the Prophet Muhammad, the creation and expansion of the Islamic community and state, and the formulation and elaboration of the holy law of Islam are events in history, known from historical memory or record and narrated and debated by historians since early times. In the Islamic Middle East, one may still find passionate arguments, even bitter feuds, about events that occurred centuries or sometimes millennia ago -- about what happened, its significance, and its current relevance. This historical awareness has acquired new dimensions in the modern period, as Muslims -- particularly those in the Middle East -- have suffered new experiences that have transformed their vision of themselves and the world and reshaped the language in which they discuss it.

In 1798, the French Revolution arrived in Egypt in the form of a small expeditionary force commanded by a young general called Napoleon Bonaparte. The force invaded, conquered, and ruled Egypt without difficulty for several years. General Bonaparte proudly announced that he had come "in the name of the French Republic, founded on the principles of liberty and equality." This was, of course, published in French and also in Arabic translation. Bonaparte brought his Arabic translators with him, a precaution that some later visitors to the region seem to have overlooked.

The reference to equality was no problem: Egyptians, like other Muslims, understood it very well. Equality among believers was a basic principle of Islam from its foundation in the seventh century, in marked contrast to both the caste system of India to the east and the privileged aristocracies of the Christian world to the west. Islam really did insist on equality and achieved a high measure of success in enforcing it. Obviously, the facts of life created inequalities -- primarily social and economic, sometimes also ethnic and racial -- but these were in defiance of Islamic principles and

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