Joining a Dinner in a Muslim Brotherhood Home

Joining a Dinner in a Muslim Brotherhood Home

If you want to understand the Islamic forces that are gaining strength in Egypt and scaring people here and abroad, let me tell you about my dinner in the home of Muslim Brotherhood activists.


First, meet my hostess: Sondos Asem, a 24-year-old woman who is pretty much the opposite of the stereotypical bearded Brotherhood activist. Sondos is a middle-class graduate of the American University in Cairo, where I studied in the early 1980s (“that’s before I was born,” she said wonderingly, making me feel particularly decrepit).


She speaks perfect English, is writing a master’s thesis on social media, and helps run the Brotherhood’s English-language Twitter feed, @Ikhwanweb.


The Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as the dominant political party in parliamentary voting because of people like Sondos and her family. My interviews with supporters suggest that the Brotherhood is far more complex than the caricature that scares many Americans.


Sondos rails at the Western presumption that the Muslim Brotherhood would oppress women. She notes that her own mother, Manal Abul Hassan, is one of many female Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated candidates running for Parliament.


“It’s a big misconception that the Muslim Brotherhood marginalizes women,” Sondos said. “Fifty percent of the Brotherhood are women.”


I told Sondos that Westerners are fearful partly because they have watched the authorities oppress women in the name of Islam in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan.


“I don’t think Egypt can ever be compared to Saudi Arabia or Iran or Afghanistan,” she replied. “We, as Egyptians, are religiously very moderate.” A much better model for Egypt, she said, is Turkey, where an Islamic party is presiding over an economic boom.


I asked about female circumcision, also called female genital mutilation, which is inflicted on the overwhelming majority of girls in Egypt. It is particularly common in conservative religious households and, to its credit, the Mubarak government made some effort to stop the practice. Many worry that a more democratic government won’t challenge a practice that has broad support.


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