In a March 8 lecture at Cambridge University, Schama said that if the West has “moral dignity and integrity,” it must open debate about the future of democracy as enshrined in the 18th century Enlightenment, which advanced the ideas of universal human rights and tolerance, or supporting the right to hold differing ideas and beliefs.
“As politics becomes more organized in Egypt, we need to know what kind of Muslim Brotherhood we’re dealing with,” referring to the world’s oldest, largest and most influential Islamic political group.
“Is it the Muslim Brotherhood that is sort of committed to sharia [severe religious law], or is it the kind that is kinder and gentler, which indeed it might be?”
Schama, who is a well-known figure in Britain due to his books and TV appearances, said the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had been in effect “excommunicated” by al-Qaida and the Taliban for being “insufficiently jihadist.”
Schama, 66, who is university professor of art and history at Columbia University in New York, told his audience that whatever happens in the Middle East, he would continue supporting the rise and spread of democracy.
“If, in fact, theocracy does turn out to be one of the outcomes of democratic liberation, I would still support it,” he said. “Speaking as a two-state Zionist, as it were, and as someone who supports a Jewish and a Palestinian state … I would still support democratic liberation, even if we have a theocratic crescent (which I hope we don’t) extending from Somalia through Yemen and Oman up to Iran through that neo-Talibanised Afghanistan … But I would want there to be debate in our hearts and minds about whether secularism has a place in Middle Eastern democracies.”
Schama said such discussion would be particularly important in Egypt, where Coptic Christians represent 10 to 12 percent of the population. “The Christian minorities in the Middle East are tiny but incredibly important,” he said.
Schama said that he has come to realize that the role played by religion in history is indispensable.
“Kids grow up now with a sense that this is the most secular country in the world. But it’s relatively recent in history since you could talk sensibly about politics or culture, literature or poetry – indeed, anything at all … without religion being absolutely the firm spine of history.”
He said that recent events in the Middle East and the murder of Pakistan’s religious minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, raised once again the need to debate blasphemy laws and the nature of tolerance.
An audience of about 200 heard Schama’s lecture, titled “The Difficulties of Toleration: Jews amidst the Christians and Muslims.” It was sponsored by the Woolf Institute, which is dedicated to studying relations among Jews, Christians and Muslims.