Escape from Freedom?

By Martin Berman-Gorvine

As Passover approaches, I have been reading the psychologist Erich Fromm’s 1941 work, Escape from Freedom. Writing when Nazi Germany was at its height, Fromm sought the reasons why so many people felt their freedom to be “an intolerable burden” that they wished to escape. The questions he raised are still vital.

We often think of people who live under tyrannical regimes as helpless victims. This neatly avoids the problem that even the most monstrous regimes enjoy some level of popular support, without which they could not continue to function; and even worse, that a people granted the vote may freely elect a dictatorship, as happened in Germany in 1932 and as appears to be happening in Egypt today.

Why does this happen? In the case of Egypt, we can begin with the failure of the old regime’s ideology of “pan-Arab nationalism” as championed by the wildly popular dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, who died in 1970. Nasser’s enmity to Israel was later abandoned by his successor Anwar Sadat, who signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1979, although not before launching a devastating war of his own, the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

After Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by Islamists bitterly opposed to the treaty, the dictator Hosni Mubarak came to power and ruled for almost three decades, preserving the letter of the treaty with Israel while discouraging “normalization” and encouraging anti-Semitism in the government-controlled media, most notoriously in a 2002 TV series, “Horseman Without a Horse,” which was based on the anti-Semitic fantasy “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a text originally composed by the secret police of Czarist Russia but now ubiquitous in the Muslim world. While he was far from being the Arab world’s most vicious dictator, Mubarak mismanaged the Egyptian economy while allowing corruption to flourish, leaving an impoverished and deeply religious people vulnerable to the slogan “Islam is the answer” (which begs the questions, which Islam? whose Islam? Questions the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more extreme “Salafists” have already answered, and woe betide anyone who draws different conclusions.)

Hatred of America and Israel, already encouraged by Mubarak despite the billions in U.S. aid he received, is at the heart of today’s political Islam, whatever the Muslim Brotherhood’s extremely canny spokesmen may pretend to gullible Western reporters. The Middle East Media Research Institute reports that, “In addition to antisemitic content, articles on the [Brotherhood’s] site also include praise for jihad and martyrdom, and condemnation of negotiation as a means of regaining Islamic lands. Among these are articles calling to kill Zionists and praising the September 9, 2011 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo – which one article called a landmark of the Egyptian revolution.” So how surprising is it that we are now witnessing the slow death of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty? In case any Egyptian harbors doubts about the wisdom of a new anti-Jewish jihad, recalling perhaps the disastrous wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, 1969-70 and 1973, MEMRI reports that state-owned TV is again showing “Horseman Without a Horse.”

The Torah teaches us that while the yearning for freedom is innate, so is the yearning for a Pharaoh who tells us what to do while “benevolently” providing for our needs. This is what our ancestors demanded in the wilderness to which they had escaped from Egyptian slavery, driving Moses and even God Himself to the verge of despair. What terrified the Israelites was the prospect of freedom as a barren wilderness; that is, a negative freedom consisting of the removal of all restraints. It is what today’s Egyptians, beset by poverty and violent crime, think they are glimpsing as well; and so two-thirds of them have turned for answers to Islamists who claim to have a direct line to God Himself. What these dangerous people have to offer is not a return to the medieval Islamic caliphate, but a religion-infused version of the twentieth-century totalitarian political movements that claimed tens of millions of lives. We have to start telling the truth to ourselves as well as the people of Egypt: that what they are building is not freedom, but a bridge into the abyss.

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