Mother of Islamisms

Mother of Islamisms

Legislative elections, apparently crucial ones, were held yesterday in Iraq. In January there will be others in Palestine; and in March Israel will elect a new Parliament. But the electoral result which seems most likely to influence, reinforce or complicate all these other elections, happened last week in Egypt.

It was the result of elections held in three phases which lasted a month, under conditions of extreme pressure for the opposition. One party, which is really of a religious rather than directly political nature, took part in the elections without a name of its own, running for only 150 of the 444 seats at stake. And its victory in 88 of them, even compared to the 330-odd seats of the governing party, constitutes quite a revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood, the mother of all the (Sunni) Islamist movements, has shown what it can do at the polls, if given even half a chance.

The Muslim Brotherhood, or Brethren (Al Ikhwan al Muslimun) was founded in Egypt in 1928, by Hassan al Banna, who was eventually murdered in 1949. Since then the movement has cast a long shadow, sometimes in moral regeneration and social assistance, throughout the Arab and Muslim world. The Islamist movements of the Machrek – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine, and to a lesser extent the Gulf states – see themselves as part of it, and in particular Hamas, the Palestinian fundamentalist movement, founded after the first Intifada in 1988, sees itself as the local version of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The electoral results in Egypt thus animate the Palestinian elections, in which Hamas is running for the first time, and loom over the Israeli elections, where the great alchemist of fear, Ariel Sharon, may profit from the rumblings in Cairo.

Tariq Ramadan, the great theoretician of Islamism in the West, links the Ikhwan to reformist Salafism, born with the thinkers of the Nahda (awakening) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – men such as Jamal al Din al Afgani, Rachid Rida, Muhammad Abduh, and more recent ones, Sayid Qutb and Abdul Ala al Maududi. These were all social reformers who offered a new reading of the Koran for a new age, bypassing the extensive corpus of medieval commentary, their ideal being a return to the salaf (ancestors), or the presumably authentic Islam of the early Muslims.

The Brethren collaborated with the Free Official movement in the overthrow of the monarchy in Egypt in 1952, but were outlawed two years later, when general Naguib tried to use the organization to turn the figurehead presidency he held into the real center of power in Cairo.

Then there emerged the leader of the revolution, colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was not prepared to tolerate any competitors. And so the man who is considered the greatest thinker of the Brotherhood, Sayid Qutb, author of the radical bible of Sunni Islamism, Milestones on the Road, was hanged in 1966, amid intense repression of the integrist movement.

Nasser’s successor, Anwar el Sadat, tolerated the reappearance of the Ikhwan as a counterweight to the surviving Nasserism of the 70s. And, intermittently and according to convenience, this has also been more or less the policy of the present president, Hosni Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood exists, but lacks legal status.

Since its birth, the organization has declared itself opposed to violence. It promotes an Islamist nation-building process, and believes that leaders who sympathize with its views should come to power by democratic means. The apparent contradiction between this laudable approach and the terror attacks against civilians perpetrated by Hamas in Israel and the occupied territories, is, however, resolved by the ironclad conviction that the armed defense of the rights of a people can never be equated with terrorism.

Is it a good thing that the Egyptian elections have revealed the strength of Islamism in that country? The Lebanese intellectual Rami G. Khoury believes that it will never be an Islam accommodating to the West, much less a collection of lay-oriented splinter parties, that will be able to defeat Bin Laden. Only a peaceful, self-assured version of the Islamist movement, as democratic as can possibly be imagined in the circumstances, can constitute an alternative.

The Egyptian regime must be the party most apprehensive of the “success” of this forced aperture to effective democracy, which the United States (no doubt also worried), has pushed in order to justify its Iraq adventure in the eyes of the Islamic world. But there seems to be no other road to follow. When you force the ballot boxes to lie, they eventually blow up in your face.