Past and present of political Islam

The rise of “political Islam” is intrinsically associated with the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is why it is so crucial to study the history of this organisation. Founded in 1928 by Hassan El-Banna, its first supreme guide, the Muslim Brotherhood’s calling spread so rapidly that within a matter of years it evolved from a locally based group of proselytisers to a tightly structured socio-political movement whose influence in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East would grow exponentially over the next 75 years. However, if, as some have put it, the “brain” of political Islam is Egyptian, its “muscle” is Asian, in view of the profound impact Wahabi thought and practice had upon its development.

It is of no small significance that political Islam, as first embodied in the Muslim Brotherhood, was born in Ismailia, on the banks of the Suez Canal, which was then still under direct British military control. In this city, where a populous “Arab quarter” rubbed against a wealthy and exclusive foreign one, the friction between the local populace and the occupation forces was at its most immediate and intense. The effect of this face-to-face confrontation imparted the first charge of radicalism to the nascent movement’s rejection of Westernisation. It was also in these early years of action that the movement’s religious mission, and specifically its call to return to fundamental values and principles, became intrinsically bound to the drive for independence.

It is also important to note that the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood occurred only a few years after the end of the Islamic caliphate following the rise of the secularist Ataturk to power in Turkey. El-Banna, thus, initiated his calling against the backdrop of the vacuum ensuing from the collapse of the political and religious hierarchies of the Ottoman Empire. His sense of timing could not have been more astute. At a time when King Fouad and other political leaders were jockeying to fill the vacant caliphate, the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder entered the fray at the head of a religious movement that derived its strength at the mosque and Muslim grassroots levels rather than by association with the seats of political power.

While the Muslim Brotherhood may have derived its initial impetus from the circumstances surrounding the confrontation against the British in Ismailia and the collapse of the Islamic caliphate, its call for Muslim unity and Islamic revival had much earlier roots. These are to be found in the works of Gamaleddin Al-Afghani, the Imam Mohamed Abdu and Mohamed Rashid Rida, whose conceptualisations for an Islamic awakening that would end the state of apathy and stagnation in the Arab and Islamic worlds bore a clear political stamp. In a strong sense, therefore, these three late 19th and early 20th century reformers can be regarded as the spiritual forefathers of the Muslim Brotherhood as a pan-Islamic phenomenon, to which the writings of Abdel-Rahman Al-Kawakbi and Shokeib Arslan contributed, laying the structural foundations.

I would also suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood, in turn, is the immediate ancestor of all the trends of political Islam in recent decades. The works of the Egyptian Islamic philosopher Sayed Qotb and the Pakistani Islamic thinker Abul-Alaa Al-Mawdoudi, which gave unprecedented impetus to contemporary movements in political Islam, drew heavily on the thinking and experiences of the Muslim Brotherhood in its formative decades. I am not alone in this impression. Several years ago, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Interior Prince Taif Bin Abdul-Aziz observed that all the contemporary developments in the Islamist field began with the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

I should add, however, that there has occurred a coupling between the Brotherhood’s thinking and certain Wahabist trends that have emerged from Saudi Arabia over the past two centuries. The resultant Islamist fusion cannot, therefore, be regarded as specific to Egypt. Moreover, several factors have contributed to its consolidation and dissemination both abroad and at home. Prime among them was the flight of many Muslim Brotherhood leaders from the prisons and nooses of Gamal Abdel-Nasser to the Gulf (where regimes welcomed them with open arms for various political reasons) and the migration of thousands of Egyptian workers and professionals to the countries of the Gulf, where they picked up the heavily Wahabist-flavoured Islamist outlook and exhibited it in their modes of behaviour and dress.

If the Saudi Arabian connection was instrumental in spreading the Brotherhood’s appeal, the clash between it and the Nasserist regime ultimately worked to its advantage as well. The popularity and sympathy that the Brotherhood won in the course of this confrontation can still be felt today. It was perhaps only to be suspected that the Free Officers and the Muslim Brotherhood would have a falling-out within months of the July 1952 Revolution. Most had expected that the July revolutionaries and the Brotherhood leaders would cooperate fully, but the two sides knew each other only too well. Certainly, the Brotherhood’s cache of arms weighed heavily on Nasser’s mind and played no small part in his decision to eliminate the organisation in November 1954. The mistrust had been mutual and the curses that Abdel-Qader Awda rained down upon the regime when only steps away from the execution scaffold have echoed through subsequent decades.

Although a religious society at its inception, the Muslim Brotherhood has never made a secret of its political ambitions and lust for power. Perhaps the earliest, clearest testimony to this is the talks that took place in the 1940s between Wafd Party leader Mustafa El-Nahhas and El-Banna when the latter decided to run for parliament. El-Nahhas informed the Brotherhood’s first supreme guide in no uncertain terms that the Muslim Brotherhood was a religious society and perhaps even a cultural and social one, but that it had no business meddling in politics. It is noteworthy that it was at about this juncture that the Brotherhood, still the largest organisational embodiment of political Islam, developed its paramilitary wing and began to resort to violence, as was epitomised in several political assassinations, which are still the subject of considerable controversy in the study of the history and aims of the organisation.

Without doubt, the concept of the Egyptian civil state, whether as enshrined in the liberalist 1923 Constitution and imbued with the Egyptian nationalist spirit of Saad Zaghloul and El-Nahhas or as embodied in the revolutionary nationalist-socialist order of Nasser, with its distinct pan-Arab orientation, sharply clashed with the Muslim Brotherhood’s religious-political thinking. Indeed, so at odds was the Brotherhood with the secularist outlook — regardless of how radically Nasser’s may have differed from that of his pre-revolutionary predecessors — there could be no space for mutual accommodation. The discord stirred sharp divisions in society, which erupted into violence on numerous occasions.

Early on, El-Banna attempted to allay the fears and suspicions of non-Muslims in Egypt. Unfortunately, the bridges of understanding that he did succeed in establishing collapsed in the face of the escalation in the Brotherhood’s recourse to violence both before and after the revolution. By the 1960s, the situation had become increasingly dire. When a radical Islamist splinter group began to exhort its members to flee a society it had branded as heretic, Christians in Egypt began to sound the alarm. Nevertheless, I must stress here that this Takfir wal-Higra group, which stirred this panic, was not organisationally related to the Muslim Brotherhood, even if it had been inspired by certain facets of the Brotherhood’s thinking and political experiences.

I was inspired to make the foregoing observations by my belief that the Muslim Brotherhood should be given its due credit as the spiritual father of all contemporary Islamist political movements. Certainly the universalism of Islam was conducive to the spread of the Brotherhood’s own universalist calling across national boundaries throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds. However, it is also clear that a range of political and social conditions in Egypt and abroad prepared the fertile ground for this calling and that the leaders of the organisation had the dynamism and acumen to capitalise on these conditions, with the result that the Brotherhood quickly developed branches throughout the Islamic world and that political Islam in general became a permanent major feature of the political and cultural scene.

But, I was additionally prompted to write this article by the surprising results of the recent legislative elections in Egypt, in which the Muslim Brotherhood won a significant bloc of parliamentary seats. Having also taken part in these elections, as a candidate in a district in the north-western part of the Delta, I have emerged even more confirmed in my conviction that we must find a solution to that complex question posed by those who fielded themselves under the banner “Islam is the solution”. I believe that the political storms we are experiencing will not subside until the Muslim Brotherhood is absorbed into political life in the Arab world in accordance with a vision for a more rational and moderate mode of governance and a spirit of tolerance in which the Brotherhood, too, would practically demonstrate itself open to other political groupings in contemporary Arab societies.

* The writer is chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the People’s Assembly.