Rationalising Islamists

Ammar Ali Hassan , Sunday 7 Aug 2011

While many fear the reverse, the reality is that Islamist movements are taking their cues from reformist and civil movements

Religion has never been far from politics in Egypt. This applies from the times of the pharaohs up to and through the 25 January Revolution. However, the ways in which various manifestations of religiosity and religious discourse have interacted with political practice have varied from one era to another. Consider, alone, the diminishing religious status of the ruler over time: from his deification in ancient Egypt to his veneration in Coptic Egypt, and then from his command of respect and obedience in the Islamic era to the curses of heresy hailed upon him by Islamist groups and organisations in modern times.

Neo-traditionalist groups are the children of politics, let there be no doubt about that. Hassan Al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood project was a response to the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate and the Islamic associations that proliferated at the turn of the 20th century were an attempt to contain and offset Western religious and cultural missions in Egypt. From that point forward the way these groups handled politics varied considerably. What did not vary was the belief that the largest and most important step towards the realisation of their objectives was to reach power, whereupon they could apply the famous maxim, “What the Quran can not prevent, the exercise of power can.”

The conservative Islamist movement paid dearly under the former regime, whose attitude to it verged on a psychological complex. Although the Muslim Brotherhood returned time and again to try to participate in the political process, Mubarak cracked open the door only once and then briefly. That was in 2005, in the form of a political pact that was meant to deliver a message to Washington, which was pressuring Egypt to institute political reforms, that the alternative to his regime was the Muslim Brotherhood. It worked wonders and the regime continued to conjure up the Brotherhood boogieman in order keep the US off its back and perpetuate its hold on power.

In contrast, there was a kind of “normalisation” in the relationship between the regime and Gamaa Al-Islamiya following its ideological revisions and renunciation of violence. In tandem, the regime had been relieved of the burdens of the Egyptian Jihad after this militant organisation signed up with Al-Qaeda in 1997. Meanwhile, Mubarak drew on a segment of the Salafist movement as a base of popular support and a source of religious legitimacy to counter the anti-Mubarak religious rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood. Nevertheless, a portion of the Salafists refused to be co-opted in this manner and resisted the attempts of the national security agency to recruit them into the service of the regime.

Before the 25 January Revolution began, the Muslim Brotherhood announced that it would not be taking part in the demonstrations that were timed to coincide with Police Day. It subsequently softened its stance to permit its members to take part in a purely personal capacity, rather than as a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood. Even so, some younger Brotherhood members refused to abide by the prohibition and joined other political forces on day one. To the various Salafist movements there was no question of taking part in the protests, which would be to commit the sin of defying the ruler. The Coptic Church, as was to be expected, took a position in favour of the regime and against the demonstrators.

By the time the demonstrations were in their third day and security forces began to unleash their full brutality against the protestors, the conservative forces quickly began to jump aboard. From 28 January onward, the Muslim Brotherhood played a prominent role in organising Tahrir Square and contributed greatly to the defence of the square during the “Battle of the Camel,” as the organised mass assault of national security thugs has come to be called. But hardly had the first wave of the revolution ended, successfully toppling the former regime, than the Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of the opportunity to enhance its own political position and prospects. Thus, rather than continuing to work towards the fulfilment of the broader aims of the revolution, it engaged the “reform movement” —the movement that had originally organised and set the revolution in motion —in a vicious rivalry that culminated in the 19 March referendum on the constitutional amendments.

In the hours that preceded the revolution, the standing of religion in Egypt was at one of its lowest ebbs ever. Horizons had narrowed, minds had closed, tensions seethed and anxieties peaked. People were incensed at the New Year’s Eve bombing of the All Saints Church in Alexandria, which had claimed the lives of 26 Egyptians and which the official media had attributed to the Gaza-based “Army of Islam,” citing as proof that Egypt had now entered into the “Al-Qaeda belt”. The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, were smouldering with rage in the wake of the November parliamentary elections, barely able to restrain themselves from slipping back to the violence it had renounced decades ago. The Salafists were further enraging public opinion with talk of how the Coptic Church was being pampered by the regime, while Muslims of all convictions were trying to forget a certain bishop’s offensive remarks against Islam, and Christians were offended by allegations that their churches had turned into arms depots. More rationally minded Egyptians wistfully recalled that epoch of the 1919 Revolution when the Muslim crescent and Christian cross embraced, a notion that, at this point in sectarian tensions, seemed like a figment of a long lost dream.

Then, to everyone’s surprise, the dream came alive again. In the briefest span of time, the crescent and the cross were united again and Friday prayers were being held in the same place as the Sunday sermon. The Muslim Brothers, Salafists, ordinary Muslims, and Christians of various political outlooks and temperaments all fused into the great Egyptian experience that was launched on 25 January beneath the national flag and the call that all chanted in unison, “We want the regime to fall!”

I believe that this experience taught the various religious movements, whether of the proselytising or activist stripe, a rare and powerful lesson. Before the revolution, the Muslim Brothers lacked no small degree of smugness when they compared themselves as a group with an extensive grassroots base and vast organisational, ideological, and material capacities vis-à-vis the weak and fragile political parties that were struggling for some political clout but were content with the scraps the regime fed them. Suddenly, however, the Muslim Brothers discovered, in the midst of the revolution, that they were like drops in a sea, and that the power that is truly capable of gaining the momentum to produce change is the power of the broad masses of the people when they unite and work as one. At the same time, the Egyptian people learned that the Muslim Brotherhood could integrate with others beneath the banner of a national project. The Muslim Brothers were there, with the people, in all the main squares of Egypt, participating with the same fervour and commitment as everyone else. They were instrumental in moving the revolution from the virtual world of Facebook to the real world of “People-book” faster than the Mubarak regime could ever have imagined. As mentioned above, they were indefatigable defenders of Tahrir Square against thugs and undercover security agents, and they participated in organising the access points into the square. The participation of Christians in the demonstrations helped impart an unquestionably national character to our great revolution, putting paid to government propaganda that the Muslim Brothers were behind the revolution and using it as a springboard to power.

Although various Salafist groups also took part in the Egyptian revolution, there was no religious sloganeering. Indeed, they too joined in the purely patriotic spirit and the chants. One saw fully bearded youths in short galabiyas belting out the national anthem in chorus with other Egyptian youths, and unveiled women joining hands with women in burqas. If, by any chance, a zealous Salafist started chanting religious political slogans, someone would reproach him gently or everyone else would simple ignore him and belt out a chant that voiced one of the protestors’ general demands.

Christians also woke up to the fact that their rights would best be obtained not by blind obedience to clerical leaders allied with the regime or by demonstrating within the confines of the church, but by joining forces with the vaster tide of Egyptians demanding change. Most Christians had not realised this before and had long shrugged off appeals to them to resolve their problems on the basis of a common national platform. The revolution changed that, all the more so now that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups realise that the participation of Christians is needed to refute the types of allegations that the former regime had often used to alarm the West. Christians further realised that Muslim fundamentalists had not been responsible for the previous attacks against their churches. After police and security withdrew from Egyptian streets three days after the outbreak of the revolution, no one so much as picked up a stone to throw at a church and Christians and Muslims stood as one in their neighbourhood defence teams, guarding their homes and families throughout the night against thieves, thugs and troublemakers.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s entry into politics via the legal gateway led to a remarkable rejuvenation of its thinking. When one compares the ideas the Muslim Brotherhood produced before it allied with the liberal Wafd Party for the 1984 People’s Assembly elections and what it produced from that date forward up to the revolution one can only be impressed by the extent of positive change in the Brotherhood’s political discourse. Moreover, the forward strides continued to lengthen since Mamoun Al-Hodeibi presented his campaign platform in 1995 to the creation of the Freedom and Justice Party, whose platform is the most sophisticated political document the Muslim Brotherhood has produced in its history.

Politics speaks the “language of interests”. It is about haggling, reaching accommodations and compromise solutions, and the arts of negotiation. It inevitably marginalises the rhetoric of rigidity and inflexibility, and the absolute mind set that believes it holds a monopoly on the irrefutable truth. When one engages in politics (consensual politics in particular), its complexities combined with the intricate nature of cumulative and interrelated problems on the ground compels for much more subtle thinking. Realities on the ground are relative and this relativity inevitably affects the words and deeds of those who interact with it, whether positively or negatively.

This phenomenon will apply to the Salafist groups that recently moved to create the Nur and Fadila parties. While they might be recent newcomers to politics as practiced through established legal channels, the more they become involved in the intricacies of politics the more they will find themselves forced to modify or abandon some of their categorical truths and absolutist attitudes. Real life imposes demands that one is unlikely to encounter in books or podiums directed exclusively at like-minded audiences. These groups are likely to prove a burden at the outset of democratic life, especially since what they want from democracy is its purely procedural arrangements, which they hope to use to attain power without committing themselves to the moral aspects of democracy, namely individual and political freedoms. In other words, they are essentially interested in a “Kleenex democracy” —use it once then throw it away. However, with time they are likely to acquire democratic values and ethics, all the mores so since they currently have no modern political project to offer or fully-fledged political theory. Rather, they are merely responding to current needs in an ad hoc manner, as a result of which they are constantly contradicting themselves, confusing their audiences and weakening their own position with respect to others with more coherent political discourses and visions.

On the whole, when one follows the political rhetoric of Islamist groups and organisations one discovers that they are taking their cues from the reformist and civil movements, rather than the reverse. Therefore, the belief that the Islamists will remain an eternal obstacle to democracy is mistaken and proof of their ability to develop modern political ideas is to be found in the Turkish experience and, to a lesser extent, in the Moroccan experience.

This said; it should be borne in mind that Islamist groups in Egypt are not equidistant from democratic culture. The Muslim Brotherhood is probably the closest to absorbing democratic ethics and behaviour in view of its earlier involvement in political life and continual interaction with secularist discourse. Next would come Al-Gamaa Islamiya, which has modified its thinking considerably in the context of its ideological revisions that followed its official renunciation of violence. This formerly militant Islamist group once held that there are only two parties, the “party of God” and the “party of the devil,” damned democracy as the “work of Satan,” and regarded the People’s Assembly as a “heretic institution because it legislates contrary to the revelation of God”. After the revolution, it hastened to form its own political party, it is eager to enter parliament, and the word “democracy” trips freely and frequently off its leaders’ tongues.

The Salafists built their social profile via philanthropic societies or theological schools, notably the Society of Abiders by the Book and the Sunna, and the Ansar Al-Sunna Group, both originally founded in the 1920s. Half a century later, there appeared the Alexandria Salafists and a decade after that the Tabligh wal-Dawa Group. Philanthropic and proselytising activities remained the core of the Salafists’ work until the revolution after which they, too, began to engage in politics. However, they lacked both the ideological and practical foundations to qualify them for the political dynamism that arose as the consequence of a revolution that fought for “freedom, justice and dignity,” and they have yet to formulate a cohesive political outlook capable of convincing the rest of society that they subscribe to democracy in word and deed. Still, this is not to imply that they should be banned from political life. On the contrary, they should be encouraged to accept the rules of the political game, as established by the constitution and law. Ultimately, this will ultimately work to rationalise their political and social thinking, which has been one of the great effects of the 25 January Revolution on all the people.

The writer is a political analyst and an expert on Islamist movements

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