Debunking the myth of Islamist intransigence

Debunking the myth of Islamist intransigence

Recently the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood issued a draft of its first ever political party platform, making major strides toward a comprehensive public policy program espousing freedom of expression and pluralistic politics – ideals that were previously immaterial to Islamist discourse in Egypt. While the Brotherhood remains a movement without a political party – barred by the Egyptian government and a constitutional prohibition against parties based on religious preferences – the movement”s new party platform gives policymakers and experts plenty of reason to take notice. 

By and large, the platform advances a fairly progressive understanding of freedom of religion and expression, of property rights, and of women”s enfranchisement. More than that, it advances the notion that the people are the source of state sovereignty – a clear departure from orthodox Islamic teachings that God is the undisputed origin of virtually all sovereignty.

Other key provisions in the document, however, have proven fiercely controversial among Egyptian intellectual and policy circles. Namely, the program calls for the establishment of a board of elected senior religious scholars with whom the president and the legislature would have to consult before authorizing any laws or decrees. This would effectively place the government under the scrutiny of an extra-constitutional entity. Setting aside accusations by critics that the Brotherhood is calling for an Iran-style theocratic state, the provision reveals a degree of regression in the movement”s thinking from more moderate positions upheld by the movement”s leadership in recent years.

Regrettably, the draft also contemplates legally sanctioned discrimination against women and non-Muslim citizens, who are explicitly denied the right to run for the highest executive offices – namely president and prime minister. The Muslim Brotherhood argues that these positions of authority involve religious duties that only Muslim men are enjoined to perform. Certainly, such a position represents a clear violation of the principle of equality, a fundamental element of modern democracies.

Nonetheless, the controversy obscures the fact that the Brotherhood”s positions are not born out of animosity toward non-Muslims, women, or democracy, but stem from cultural and religious norms that are continuously debated and modified by the Brotherhood”s leading members. To be sure, internal disputes over comprehensive equality, like many other disagreements over Shariah law, have yet to be settled, and the Brotherhood”s leading members do not pretend otherwise in public.

An example that bears special emphasis is the new platform”s endorsement of the right of the people, irrespective of their race, gender, religious or ideological affiliations, to form political parties and associations. Given that the founders of the movement were firmly opposed to factionalism and the political party system, the move illustrates the growing capacity of progressives within the Islamists” ranks to shape the movement”s intellectual trajectory.

The story of today”s Muslim Brotherhood is one of struggle to advance liberal thought in a culturally conservative, religiously oriented movement. But the group”s religious inclinations are not entirely responsible for its somewhat sluggish march toward full-fledged commitment to liberal democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood”s reluctance to reverse some of its controversial positions is also partly rooted in Egypt”s hostile political environment. Since their strong showing in the 2005 election, the Muslim Brothers have been subjected to relentless government-sponsored waves of intimidation and repression. This has served to empower hard-liners and demoralize the forces of reconciliation and moderation among the Islamists.

Ultimately, when all is said and done, the movement that is today advocating freedom of expression and political participation has been once home to some of the darkest ideas ever to rock the precarious sphere of Arab politics, including those of Sayyed Qutb – who inspired the terrorist ideology of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawhri, and their Al-Qaeda followers. That the Brotherhood has renounced violence and relinquished the detrimental rhetoric of self-righteousness in the hopes of becoming legitimate political actors resembles the kind of raw and authentic progress that has been largely overlooked in the global war on terrorism; it should be welcomed, studied, and carefully cultivated.