February 2nd, 2011
09:38 AM ET
Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
Americans are understandably both manic and depressed about recent developments in Egypt. The mania comes from 1776 and our own history of casting off a Pharaoh in the name of freedom. The depression comes compliments of 1979 and Iran, which saw populist street protests against a pro-American dictator co-opted into an Islamic Republic deeply hostile to the West.
And there are parallels between Iran back then and Egypt today. Both are large countries with sizeable, largely Islamic populations. And the leading opposition party in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood.
But Arab Egypt is not Persian Iran, for the following four reasons:
One: Sunnis are not Shiites.
Two: ElBaradei is not Khomeini.
Three: The Audio Cassette is not the Web
Four: Obama is not Carter
Analogies doubtless help us to think. But they can also channel our thought in directions that confuse and cripple us. In this case, analogical thinking is forcing far too many among us to imagine that the only choices in Egypt today are the specter of the Iranian Revolution or the friendly ghost of the American Revolution.
But these are not the only choices. Far more likely than a Western-style democracy or an Islamic republic is something in between, a secular government in which both the military and Islamic parties play a role.
Admittedly, there are reasons for Americans and other westerners to worry about what is coming next. A December 2010 Pew Forum poll showed Egyptians to be more moderate politically than their counterparts in Jordan and Lebanon, and about as moderate as those in Indonesia. Yet 19% expressed at least some confidence in Osama Bin Laden–a worryingly high figure.
So the Muslim Brotherhood could become something like Khomeini’s Revolutionary Council, and Egypt’s army could become a Revolutionary Guard. But each of these prospects seems unlikely, fueled more by fear (and analogy) than logic.
Democracy is always messy; elections did put Hamas Islamists in power in Gaza. Nonetheless, as Egyptians lurch from monarchy toward something new, we should remember what the Egyptian people are trying to get across to Mubarak: Egypt is its own country and Egyptians will determine its destiny.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.