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Political Islam on Trial: The Muslim Brotherhood

This week the democratically elected President of Egypt goes on trial for incitement to violence. Some 2,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood are in jail - but nothing new in that. So whither "political Islam" now?

This week the democratically elected President of Egypt goes on trial for incitement to violence. Some 2,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood are in jail - but nothing new in that. So whither "political Islam" now?

There are two main ways to discuss the political dimension of Islam, or of any other religion come to that: an abstract debate about religion's place in the public square, or an account of how a religion manifests itself in the public square in a particular historical context. A common position in the liberal "West" is the secular view that religion should be treated like an old lag out on parole: troublesome, don't know what they might get up to, strict control required.

The supposition is that public space just is secular, like Old Trafford just is Manchester United's home ground. The team plays there with a lot of local support and other teams better know it. But the difference is that when secular thinkers play at home in public space they manage to pose as the game's - neutral - referee and linesmen. Nobody seems to notice the difference between a neutral and a non-religious secular space.

Excuse the extended metaphor, but a secular "away match" refers to playing in the large percentage of the world where being secular is just another worldview, and recognised as such, where the religious voice is an imposing one in all senses. And there is no referee other than the army.

Of course public space is not homogeneous, and different terrains evoke different sensibilities. There is the state and there is civil society, the latter hoisted virtuously back onto the conceptual stage in the early 1990s, once it was noticed this was what the ex-Soviet Union lacked and that a capitalist economy needed civil society to function properly. Religious people being political in civil society is different from religious people forming a government based on religious principles. Moreover, Christian Democracy is different from Hizb al-hurriyya wal-'adala, the Freedom and Justice Party, formed in Egypt on 21 February 2011, out of the Muslim Brotherhood, with Muhammad Mursi as its President. Though both were trying to bring a religious heritage and values into governance by democratic means.

Context and religious content in each case were very different. Christian Democracy was in many respects a reaction to totalitarianism in Europe, and religion-lite. The Muslim Brotherhood brought closed ranks and authoritarianism, products of repression, and din wa dawla, a comprehensive system of values into governance. It was literally led by old lags, people who had spent periods in prison, social conservatives adopting a cautious stance to survive, with all the anxieties of being on parole. Then there were those who had done their politics in student and professional associations, doctors, engineers, lawyers, interacting with those outside the Brotherhood, pragmatic, moving with the times. Finally there were the reformists who had a new vision of political Islam, inclusive of women and Copts, pluralist beyond the confines of different approaches to Sharia within Islam.

By the time the TV cameras focussed on the uprising centred on Tahrir Square on 25 January 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood still retained its commitment to politics within the framework of Islamic principles, mabadi wa qiyam al-Islam. Likewise, internally, it was authoritarian and had lost most of its reformist leaders as a result. This was entirely consistent with electoral democracy, or at least majoritarian rule; the urban poor and rural Egyptians were, in the main, comfortable with a patriarchal, socially conservative agenda in the name of Islam. 85% of the population (according to recent Pew Foundation research) saw Islam as a positive force in politics. Khayrat al-Shatir, an outstanding, popular and flexible deputy to the Supreme Guide, and multi-millionaire, was barred from standing for the Presidency by the military. Abu al-Futouh, another outstanding figure, was ready to stand for the Presidency and willing to defy the Brotherhood. Mursi, conservative at heart and strongly constrained by the Brotherhood's conservative leadership, was unkindly described as the Party's "spare tyre".

That within one and half years of Mursi's election, with 51.7% at least of the popular vote, 13.2 million, he was shown a red card by the military, with widespread popular support, was the product of authoritarianism, ineptitude and a failure to deliver on high socio-economic expectations in a country on the verge of bankruptcy. He had been for the Egyptian public the lesser of two evils and for the Brotherhood second, if not third, best. He had got rid of the army chief, Tantawi, and for the military he had become a clear and present danger to their considerable commercial interests.

So what does this teach about political Islam. It has been a myth-buster. The Muslim Brotherhood proved neither a monolith set on forcing Islam on Egyptian society nor a democratic butterfly emerging from the chrysalis of conservative Islam, squashed by military power. It did not evolve linearly to modern party politics from the radical exclusivism of Sayeed Qutb, standing against a world of jahiliyya (ignorance) and confusing lakimmiya Allah (the absolute sovereignty of God) with his own version of Islam. It retained characteristics of the past while undergoing change.

It wobbled from withdrawal and caution to assertion and hasty misjudgement. It had broadly definable strands of thinking, some merely strategic, some substantive, and was far from monolithic. Above all it was almost impossible at an individual level, to know whether the Brotherhood's commitment to democracy was merely tactical and instrumental or represented a serious evolution in Islamic political thought. Most likely the former provided the seeds of the latter.

What is most to be feared is that the global message from the Cairo courtroom is the jihadist one: "I told you so. It doesn't work".


For a brilliant analysis see Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement, Princeton 2013 - from which some of the conclusions of this blog are derived.

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