James Madison on the Muslim Brotherhood

Democracy must tolerate extreme speech and advocacy

CAIRO—James Madison would probably welcome Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. One of the most extraordinary features of democracy is that it tolerates extreme speech and advocacy; indeed, it often welcomes their inclusion. Democracy grants “freedom for the thought that we hate,” to use the title of a powerful book by Anthony Lewis.

Madison embraced this view while authoring the Federalist Papers, a series of essays published in New York City newspapers in 1787 and 1788 seeking support for ratifying the U.S. Constitution. In the tenth of these eighty-five essays, Madison lays out a highly progressive philosophy on how to accommodate extreme voices in a democracy, arguments that remain highly relevant in assuaging misguided fears about political pluralism in modern Egypt.

“Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires,” Madison wrote. “But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

Madison goes on to specifically address the inclusion of religious voices in a democratic system: “In a free government, the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other the multiplicity of sects.”

Madison wouldn’t wish that a group like the Muslim Brotherhood rule a country of over 80 million people, of course; but he believed that this many people could govern themselves sufficiently in a truly democratic system. The broader a system’s limits of political inclusion, he insisted, the more likely the system will work.

“Extend the sphere” of political speech, Madison argued, “and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.”

Are the Muslim Brothers sexist? Yes. Are they fundamentalist? In many ways, yes. Would they rather Egyptians not have access to Heineken and Hollywood films? Yes. Are they violent? No. They renounced violence and put down arms years ago. I’ve met and sat in a press conference with the head of the Muslim Brotherhood. I was served juice and left the meeting with all my appendages intact. Outside the Brotherhood’s offices that day was an un-vandalized SUV with a plainly visible Playboy bunny sticker on the back window.

Nonetheless, some members of the U.S. Congress conflate the Brotherhood with terrorist groups. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) demanded during a congressional hearing that the Brotherhood “and other extremists must not be allowed to hijack the movement toward democracy and freedom in Egypt.” Sorry, Congresswoman, while democracy doesn’t tolerate terrorism or hijackings, it does tolerate narrow thinking—both yours and the Brotherhood’s.

Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 10 is not an obscure document that has been infrequently applied to discussions of modern political speech. Rather, the document is “[o]ne of the most famous pieces of writing in American history,” according to University of Pennsylvania constitutional historian Richard Beeman. “Whereas most 18th Century commentators believed that the key to good government was to elect virtuous political leaders capable of transcending their own selfish interests, Madison accepted the existence of conflicting interests as an inherent part of any pluralist society,” Beeman maintains.

Commenting on the press later in his life, Madison said that “[s]ome degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything…It has accordingly been decided by the practice of the States, that it is better to leave a few noxious branches to their luxuriant growth, than, by pruning them away, to injure the vigour of those yielding the proper fruits.”

While the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence on Egyptian politics outweighs its actual membership figures, the size of this organization needs to be put into perspective. Let’s say that there are 400,000 active members of the Muslim Brotherhood (a generous estimate) in a country of eighty million (a conservative estimate). This would mean that of approximately every 200 Egyptians, 199 do not belong to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Even if there were fifteen million Muslim Brothers in Egypt, though, James Madison would still support including their voices in Egypt’s noisy political system. The most spectacular thing about democracy is not that it heeds to the will of the majority—something that is true of any bar fight—but that it tolerates the peaceful participation of the minority, no matter how unattractive their speech.

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Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin Tags: , , , , ,