FPWATCH: On the Muslim Brotherhood

FPWATCH: On the Muslim Brotherhood

A few weeks ago now, Jeb put up a post about recent political developments within Egypt“s Muslim Brotherhood that generated a long and vibrant discussion in the comments section. In the course of the discussion, Mr. Khaled Salam, the co-editor of IkhwanWeb, the English-language website for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), stopped in to respond to many commenters” negative views on the Brotherhood and its goals. In the course of what proved to be an intriguing dialogue, the subject of the organization”s most recent political platform came up.

This platform has concerned many observers of Egyptian politics because, on several important issues, it seems to indicate a conservative retrenchment in an organization that many pro-democracy advocates hope will be able to spearhead meaningful political reform. For Western observers, the appropriate stance to take towards the Muslim Brotherhood remains a contentious issue. Some argue that the organization is irretrievably radical and must be vigorously opposed. Others view it as a potentially progressive force that can channel popular frustration with
Egypt“s bankrupt autocracy into meaningful democratic reform. The latter group expressed considerable angst upon publication of the Brotherhood”s platform last year, as the document seems to enshrine some seriously illiberal principles as key party goals, and indicates to some that the MB would not like to lead a democracy with an Islamist tinge (like Turkey”s AKP) but rather a theocracy with some nominal democratic trappings (like a Sunni version of the Islamic regime in Iran).

Obviously, there is not a single, uniform “Muslim Brotherhood” any more than there is a single, uniform “Democratic Party.” Like any political group, the MB has conservative and progressive factions, along with everything in between (the Carnegie Endowment publised an informative report about these divisions and their relationship to the latest platform back in January). Among those who hope that the Muslim Brotherhood represents
Egypt“s best hope for progressive reform, though, the latest platform is cause for legitimate worry. The most vexing sections are those that call for the imposition of Sharia maintained by a board of elected senior religious scholars (“Ulama Council)** which would have veto power over laws passed by the legislature, as well as those that ban women and non-Muslims from running for president. Amr Hamzawy argues that these provisions “[depart] from the pragmatic spirit of various Brotherhood statements and initiatives since 2004 in which less emphasis was given to the Sharia issue,” and take “positions fundamentally at odds with the civil nature of the state and full citizenship rights regardless of religious affiliation.”

When these issues were raised here at Foreign Policy Watch, Mr. Salam gave the following response:

Dear Jeb,

The issue of women and Copts as heads of state in Muslim countries has been extensively debated by Muslim scholars and opinions have varied; some believe it is permissible if the majority vote for them and some scholars strictly prohibit it. In recent 2008 poll conducted in
Egypt by the Public Opinion Poll Center, part of the government run Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC), found that the majority of Egyptians will not vote for a woman to be president. The Muslim Brotherhood chose to adopt an Islamic opinion that conform to the desire of the majority of Egyptians, which is barring women and Copts from running for presidency, since the majority will not vote for them anyway. The MB presented its platform which it believes reflects the will of the people while adhering to Islamic laws. However, those who disagree on the platform are free not to vote for it in any given elections, and that’s the essence of democracy. I would like also to emphasize that the MB political party platform did not prevent other parties from nominating women or Copts for the presidency, or did it suggest that it will not allow the people from voting for them.

The situation is not different in the world’s most democratic systems, where there are laws that set criteria for those running for the presidency. Article Two of the
US constitution restricts the right to run for the Office of president to only native-born US citizen. Although the constitution does not discriminate among native-born US citizens running for president based on their religion or gender, but it is given that the chance a Muslim candidate will actually be elected president by the American people is very unlikely. Take Senator Obama for example and how he is adamant in his repeated denial of ever being a Muslim as if it’s curse or crime.

The latest survey by the Washington-based
Pew Research Center found that 45% of Americans surveyed said they would be reluctant to vote for a Muslim. Most Americans won’t even vote for a Mormon Christian, which was one of the factors that cost Mitt Romney (Mormon) the republican nomination, according to opinion polls. Well, Egyptians feel the same way; as an Islamic country where the majority is Muslims, the head of state should be also Muslim. So does opposition to a candidate based on his religion represent bigotry, or is it a fair factor in judging the character of someone who aspires to be president? I wrote an article in Ikhwanweb which addresses this issue in more detail, I think it will be helpful to review it as well, and it is also in my blog http://khaledsalam.blogspot.com/2007/10/muslim-brotherhood-political-platform.html

Salam raises several important points, and some are legitimate. Overall, though, I have a difficult time with the manner in which he attempts to justify the Party”s desire to exclude non-Muslims and women from high office. He notes that the majority of Egyptians would not elect a Christian or a woman to the Presidency, and paints the MB”s stance as simply a response to the will of the majority. The will of the majority, though, can change. Institutionalizing the prejudices of one generation of Egyptians subverts the notion of democracy by denying future citizens the ability to alter a course set by their forbears. To put it another way, if Egyptians would never elect a woman or a Copt to the presidency, why is it necessary to ban them from the office? If they would, why ought their will be blocked?

Mr. Salam”s comparisons to the
United States are germane, but only to a point. It is true that the U.S., for example, has age requirements for many elected offices, but such requirements do not discriminate against particular classes of individuals (and, frankly, as an American citizen I question their necessity). His point about the inability of foreign-born citizens to be president is valid, but citing a dated and discriminatory provision of the U.S. Constitution is hardly a justification for inserting even more onerous rules into that of Egypt.

As for the anti-Muslim prejudices of American voters, it is worth noting that a hundred years ago, similar levels of prejudice and ignorance were directed at Catholics, yet they changed enough for John Kennedy to be elected President, and for the Catholicism of later candidates to be unremarkable. Even more recently, the notion of an African-American sitting in the Oval Office would have seemed absurd, yet Barack Obama currently leads in the polls. I sincerely hope that Americans” anti-Muslim feelings will erode with time in a similar way. I certainly would not want their current prejudices codified into law. Finally, while I trust Mr. Salam”s understanding of his own party”s platform, it strikes me that the implementation of a legal restriction of women and non-Muslims from high office would prevent them from ascending to such offices regardless of their party. In other words, such restrictions would not only apply to MB candidates, but to all Egyptians. If I”m wrong, I invite Mr. Salam to let me know.

Finally, Salam did not address concerns about the nature and power of the proposed “Ulama Council. If such a body were to have veto power over laws passed by the legislature and endorsed by the President, then logically they would become the principal power center in
Egypt at the expense of bodies that are directly accountable to the people. That”s not a democracy, it”s a theocracy with some of democracy”s window-dressing.

Please understand, I”m not trying to paint the Muslim Brotherhood as irredeemably pernicious or hopelessly conservative. Indeed, I consider many of the reforms being championed by the MB to be important for
Egypt“s long term political and economic development. Their platform, though, does raise some important doubts about their commitment to democracy and to individual rights. I”d love to hear what others have to say on the topic.