The Muslim Brotherhood's trial of pluralism

Ibrahim El-Houdaiby , Saturday 23 Apr 2011

The opening out of democracy will prove a greater challenge to the Muslim Brotherhood than repression

The post-revolutionary Muslim Brotherhood is facing unprecedented challenges. The movement has been excluded from the legal polity for decades, and has been subject to cycles of partial toleration and periodic repression, causing both organisational and intellectual distortions.

It responded to repression through constructing a broad and vague intellectual formula that guaranteed wide social support, reflecting a decision to compromise ideological clarity for the sake of organizational existence.

Over the course of history, four different schools of thought came to coexist within the Muslim Brotherhood. First is the founder’s school; a relatively modernist school of thought that existed on the margins of Al-Azhar in the early 20th century and was championed by Muhammad Abduh. It rejects the authority of turath (accumulated heritage of Islamic sciences), and calls for the return to Quran and Sunnah and practicing ijtihad (innovation in Islamic jurisprudence) whilst being only guided by ideas in turath.

Second is the traditionalist school, championed by Al-Azhar’s long history of scholarship. It is characterised by heavy reliance on turath and acceptance of the full authenticity of the four main Sunni schools of jurisprudence. The school also promotes the notion of “balanced identity”, arguing that each individual belongs to different circles of affiliation, including mazhab (school of jurisprudence), tariqa (Sufi order), theological school, hometown, profession, guild, family and others. Sophisticated and interlinked affiliations created societal harmony and diversity, and led Islamists to seek gradual customisable reform that responds to societal diversity and does not provide a blueprint, one-size-fits-all manifesto for (re)Islamisation.

Named after the infamous Sayyid Qutb, Qutbism, the third school, is characterised by its highly politicised and revolutionary interpretation of Quran that divides peoples into those who belong to/support Islam/Islamism, and those who oppose it. It relies on historical incidents from the prophet’s biography (mainly conflicts between Muslims and pagans) to construct a framework for managing the relation between Islamists and their societal counterparts, and between the Muslim world and other civilisations. The school emphasises the necessity of developing a detached vanguard that focuses on recruitment and empowering the organisation while postponing all intellectual questions. While hardcore Qutbism opens doors for political violence, Muslim Brotherhood Qutbis follow a demilitarised version of the ideology, clearly distancing themselves from notions of takfir (disbelief) and violence.

The Salafi/Wahabi school made its way to the Muslim Brotherhood (and to the broader Egyptian society) in the 1970s. It is a modernist Islamist ideology that has minimal respect for turath, and is characterised by a conservative, rigid, and rather materialist understanding of Sharia law, low levels of tolerance and the focus on superficial/external components of religion.

Salafi and Qutbi acceptance of notions like democracy and diversity are minimal, and they believe in a strong, broad central state that plays a major role in public morality.

With a wide ideological formula, only four principles keep the Muslim Brotherhood united as an organisation; namely, a belief that Islam is an all-encompassing system; rejecting violence as a means for political change; accepting democracy; and accepting political pluralism. It is noteworthy that while accepted in principle, these notions mean different things for different members.

Organisationally, the Muslim Brotherhood responded to repression primarily through centralising decision-making and decentralising decision execution both designed to sustain unity. The former component was intended to keep disputes contained in limited domains, and capitalise on leadership’s historical legacy to dictate compromises whenever necessary, while the latter was intended to overcome possible consequences of security crackdowns, to create a sense of belonging and empowerment amongst members, and to develop members’ executive capabilities.

As the revolution opened wide doors for the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood into the polity, the group will move from identity to reform politics. The construction of a political programme requires moving beyond areas of organisational consensus to others of diversity and dispute. With Islam being understood as a value system and a limited set of legislation pertaining to the public sphere, different political programmes could be drafted from the group’s ideology, with different tendencies and political orientations. Some Muslim Brotherhood members are starting to realise the inevitability of political disputes as a real polity emerges and serious political challenges arise.

The Brotherhood has already announced it will establish the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), a declaration met with scepticism from intellectuals and Brotherhood reformers alike. They argue that limiting the broad school of thought to a single political manifestation will inevitably fail, and is harmful for the religious cause the group was founded to serve. Instead, they call for the group’s retreat from the political to civic domain, and allowing the emergence of various political manifestations instead.

So far, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership is rejecting these calls. The group’s chief declared a ban on joining political parties other the FJP. Rather short sighted, the decision will fail to silence emerging diversities from within the group, as diversity is an essential product of freedom. Different organisational measures currently employed to discourage members from leaving the group are failing, as numerous dissidents are already challenging the leadership’s decision and joining other existing parties or establishing their own. As new political questions emerge, the numbers will inevitably increase, and it will be the leadership’s decision to either dismiss dissidents or accept political diversity. Either way, the FJP will cease to act as the sole manifestation of the Muslim Brotherhood, even if it retains monopoly over organisational representation.

With a legacy of diverse ideological orientations and strategic inconsistencies, the Muslim Brotherhood is currently faced by questions more threatening to its very existence than was oppression. The context of freedom will undermine dominant organisational rhetoric calling for unity at the cost of diversity. As the emergence of various political manifestations seems inevitable, the Brotherhood’s leadership will decide to either allow diversity through a flexible organisation, or disallow it though a rigid one, leading to numerous splits. Either way, continued political inclusion and freedom will lead to transcending the phenomenon of political Islamism as it currently exists, and its re-emergence in more sophisticated and more diverse forms.

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