The Islamist movement and the future

Sameh Fawzy
Thursday 8 Jul 2021

Having only reactionary ideas and attitudes that conflict with democracy, freedom, and equal citizenship, the Islamist movement has no project relevant to modern Egypt, writes Sameh Fawzi

One of the most crucial questions related to the anniversary of Egypt’s 30 June Revolution and the radical transformation that took place on 3 July 2013 is whether the Islamist movement, as embodied in the Muslim Brotherhood, possessed a modern project for Egypt. 

The answer is that they certainly did not. This was not only evidenced by their shocking statements and opinions and their projects for self-empowerment and the exclusion of the other, all of which clashed with the outlooks and aspirations of the vast majority of society. It was also, and more importantly, shown in the fact that they lacked a modern vision for the future. That is the crux of the matter. The rest is mere detail. 

 We can start with a basic observation: the Islamist movement, in all its various forms and iterations, has never produced an original thinker or a genuine intellectual. Its main aim has always been to recruit, mobilise, consolidate and strengthen its organisational muscle in the streets. All that this has yielded has been propagandists who have invoked religion for political ends. 

Alongside these, there have been the types referred to in the Western literature on the movement as “independent” or “liberal” Islamists. These were intellectuals formed by other ideological and political traditions and trends, mostly from the left, who then migrated to the Islamist camp whether out of ideological convictions or in search of political patronage, useful connections and other benefits, as the Islamist movement has deep pockets. 

These individuals were instrumental in rebranding and marketing the movement to Western think tanks, and their ideas had an important impact on decision-making circles in European capitals and the US. Their works on shura (consultation), participation and ideas of civilisation made a great impression in the West, especially after the 11 September attacks. 

Western scholars and their counterparts in the Arab region then wrote volumes about the feasibility of coexistence between Islamism and democracy, and the possibility of “Islamist modernism”. They pointed to the Turkish and Malaysian models of the time, ignoring the more sobering models that exposed the ugly face of religious government.  

At the same time, these intellectual converts became preachers or apparatchiks engaged in the dialogues on the home front needed to lay to rest anxieties that the Islamist movement had triggered among many segments of society. The academic community welcomed their ideas as proof of ideological renovation. Regardless of the actual motives that led these individuals to join the Islamist movement, it is noteworthy that after the 25 January Revolution when the Islamist factions began to exercise their muscle and let their voices grow louder and bolder, the influence of these intellectuals was rarely heard. 

The Muslim Brotherhood organisation no longer needed them, except as occasional advocates or apologists when necessary. It ignored many of them, and they then began to criticise and speak out against Muslim Brotherhood rule, despite the many years in which they had defended the Islamist project and argued that it should be given a chance. As the influence and facade of such preacher intellectuals faded, other figures surfaced. Most of these had previously been unknown to the general public. They were now the decision-makers.

In short, the Islamist movement cannot boast of intellectuals of its own making. How could it when the movement is essentially anti-intellectual? Intellectuals tend to be critical, and they are inclined to be secularist and to avoid mixing religion with politics. The Islamists have always fought intellectuals whom they have regarded as obstacles to their political project. As for the intellectual converts to the movement, they have lacked the ability to engage culturally and politically with mainstream society because the general culture was remote from the Islamist mentality. 

One would be hard put to find a genuinely significant writer, artist or actor from the Islamist movement. Islamists, if involved in the cultural sectors at all, have been third rate in their fields at best. The Islamist project is intellectually and culturally bereft. It has only shown itself to be rich in reactionary ideas and attitudes that conflict with enlightenment, democracy, freedom and equal citizenship. It behaves as though society has no other concern than to preserve its identity.

Meanwhile, the concepts of comprehensive development, open-mindedness, plurality and modernity remain beyond it. This is the heart of the problem with the Islamist movement in all its shades. It has no modernist project, no developmental vision, no grasp of modern culture. The Islamist proselytisers are only able to defend their ideas when backed by the muscle of irrational hordes in the streets. 

When such avenues have been blocked, the apologists have only been able to apologise, to claim ignorance, and to admit the indefensibility of their project.

The writer is head of the Media and Communication Sector at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.



*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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