Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Few Thoughts on the Muslim Brothers

            The Muslim Brothers have been getting remarkably good press in the United States.  This is understandable in one way but it is also peculiar in another.  It is understandable because most people who study and write about the Middle East today don’t want to be (or even to seem to be) prejudiced against Muslims or Islam.  Equally, nothing is more desirable in academic discourse than showing that something is not what it has seemed to be in the mainstream media. It is also understandable because the Muslim Brothers have dramatically changed much of their rhetoric over the past decade and because they have made determined efforts to cultivate support in American academia and the press.  And, lastly, Americans of all persuasions share a naively touching belief that only good people accomplish good things.  So if Egyptian democracy, for example, requires that the Brothers participate then they must be democrats.

            What is peculiar, though, is how infrequently American academics and reporters pay any attention to the complaints and criticisms of people who have known (or been members of) the Muslim Brothers for years, worked alongside them, or simply interacted with them in the same communities.   The most vocal of these critics are Egyptian Christians, liberal Muslims, and the small group of Egyptian leftists, but there are also deeply religious (and even devout) Muslims who mistrust and dislike the Muslim Brothers as a political tendency and as an organization. 

            On February 13, 2011 the New York Times magazine published an article by Nicholas Kulish describing an interview he had with the noted constitutional attorney, former parliamentarian, and Muslim Brothers leader Subhi Saleh.   Kulish, who speaks German and was once head of the Times’s Berlin bureau, must have been thrown for a loop by Saleh who he wonderingly describes as being clean-shaven, wearing an orange sweater and black flip-flops, and keeping his Kleenex in a leopard-shape stuffed animal toy.  Kulish, it appears, has had relatively little experience interacting with Egyptian professionals.  He knew Saleh’s apartment wouldn’t be “Bin Laden’s cave” but for some reason he doesn’t seem to have expected a person who argues before the country’s highest court to live in a “tasteful apartment with landscape paintings and three chandeliers….”

            Having established that Saleh’s decorating preferences accord well with those of readers on the Upper East Side and Georgetown (although I do wonder if Saleh favors Empire style furniture with heavy gilt or something a bit more contemporary), Kulish proceeds to the substance of his article.  He informs us that “the Muslim Brotherhood sounds like a fictional name a scriptwriter would give to a terrorist group.  Its actual members don’t really fit that cartoonish characterization.  They come across as civic-minded people of faith.  There is none of the proselytizing or the menacing tones of hard-core Salafists—the Al Qaeda types.”

            I have to admit to being a little stunned by this comment which is the core of the article.  Perhaps Kulish is conflating stereotypes of the Aryan Brotherhood, a criminal organization based in American prisons, with a religious association.  But if you translated “Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoon” as the “Fraternity of Muslims” would an innocent reporter imagine them to be refugees from a John Belushi movie?  Of course members of the Brotherhood don’t fit that cartoonish characterization either.

            Let’s accept that the people Kulish met were indeed civic-minded and that leaders such as Saleh certainly did not address a reporter for the New York Times with menacing tones.   Let’s assume, for the moment at any rate, that Sobhi Saleh (advocate before the Supreme Constitutional Court and former parliamentarian) is at least as smart as Nicholas Kulish and in fact knows much more about Kulish’s view of the world than Kulish knows about the Muslim Brothers.

            Suggesting that Saleh knows more about Kulish than the reverse, by the way, does not imply that Saleh is a cartoonish terrorist.  It just means that Kulish was out of his depth in dealing with a political leader sufficiently astute and intelligent to manipulate him.   This doesn’t require Saleh to be any more sinister than most American politicians, businessmen, or university presidents.  They all appear to engage in regular interviews with reporters while doing a variety of things (from embezzlement to infidelity) that they want to keep hidden.   

            In the months since that interview Saleh has emerged as a much more voluble spokesman of the Muslim Brothers in the Egyptian press.  Two of Saleh’s recent statements are of interest.  In regard to the imposition of the so-called hudud penalties, Saleh has said that it is the desire of the Muslim Brothers to introduce them into Egyptian legislation.   These are the criminal penalties, such as amputation for theft, whipping for drunkenness or crucifixion for highway robbery, that evoke such alarm in the United States and Europe.  As Saleh knows, of course, these penalties have rarely been employed in Islamic history and attempts to introduce them in contemporary societies from Pakistan to Sudan have met with unmitigated failure.   Relatively few Egyptians are likely to be worried that theirs will shortly become a society of one-armed former bandits.  What they may see as more menacing is his claim that all real Muslims want to introduce these penalties and that anyone who refuses to introduce them is not really a Muslim at all.  What Saleh is setting up is the argument that Muslims (of whom there are many) who resolutely don’t want these penalties introduced despite their canonical status are not really Muslims at all.  A thoughtful scriptwriter here might ponder a scenario in which civic-minded people in Columbus, Ohio favor the death penalty partly because of its Scriptural provenance but equally because they will accuse abolitionists of being un-American. 

            If Saleh became an object of conflict for this statement he an object of ridicule and outrage among liberals and not a few devout Muslims for his later assertion that men in the Muslim Brothers should only marry female members.  Even seemingly devout and demure veiled women who were not in the organization, he said, were really unsuitable for creating proper Muslim families he said.   No one, I think, objects if members of the Muslim Brothers turn to each other for love, affection and as partners in family formation.  The serious problems that are raised, of course, are that Saleh’s assertion indicates that he seems to think that only members of his organization are really good Muslims and, moreover, that the Muslim Brotherhood is something of an alternate and closed society.   There is no reason that the Brotherhood cannot have such a vocation but it is easier to understand the unease with which many Egyptians—Muslim and Christian—might view it if that is indeed what it wants to be.

Although Kulish could not have known in February 2011 what Saleh would say several months later, Saleh’s general attitudes have undergone no significant change.  Saleh didn’t volunteer these ideas then but neither did Kulish make any attempt to elicit Saleh’s thinking.   

It could be said that Saleh was simply speaking for himself.   The Muslim Brothers and their supporters often make exactly that case.  Off-message statements by leaders of the Muslim Brothers are often said not to reflect the official position of the organization. So, too, the Brotherhood frequently disavows the actions of members when they attract negative attention.   These disavowals are the cause of some popular distrust of the Brothers as an organization.  On the one hand they have a well-deserved and well-burnished reputation for the discipline and commitment of their members.  On the other, the leadership immediately invokes the claim that they lack control over members when the words or deeds of members provoke unwanted attention.  The earliest, and still cited, examples are the instances in which members of the organization assassinated Judge Ahmed Khazindar and Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Nuqrashi in the 1940s.  The Brothers have denounced such violence and members have not engaged in it in decades.  What remains a problem, however, is that the Brothers continue to trumpet their discipline except when it becomes uncomfortable to do so.  What people legitimately wonder about is whether the Brotherhood is playing a double game.  When members of the Muslim Brothers took part in demonstrations cutting the main north-south transport arteries in the southern province of Qena in April 2011, the leadership denounced their efforts after a couple of weeks as it became clear the Supreme Military Council and the government were weary of the ongoing dispute.

The issue of member discipline matters a great deal because it goes to the heart of what kind of an organization the Muslim Brotherhood is in a political environment in which no Egyptians think of it as a “cartoonish” terrorist organization (leaving aside the issue of whether Al-Qaeda is another such).   In April 2011, the Muslim Brothers created the Justice and Freedom party to participate in parliamentary elections.  This party, they claimed, will be completely independent of the Brotherhood although it will take positions generally consonant with its politics and those of Islamism more generally.  Unlike the MB itself this party accepts Christians as members and one of the vice presidents is a Coptic intellectual, Rafiq Habib.   Habib has served as an advisor to leaders of the MB and he was also an officer in the Wasat party, itself a splinter from the MB.  Sometimes derided as a “professional Christian” he has shown, in interviews, a fairly clear political line which is quite similar to the one Al-Bishri has urged on the Brothers.  Habib has said he has no desire to see Egyptian Christians lose their own cultural heritage and civilization and enter into the kind of secularist compromise that characterizes European Christianity.  For him, it seems, the best guarantee of the stability and security of the Copts as a community is the implementation of the Brotherhood’s vision of an Islamic Egypt: where people’s primary loyalty is to their community.  Thus he sees the Justice and Freedom party as the guarantor not only of Muslim society but of his own best hopes for an admittedly subordinate but nevertheless intact Christian society.

            How independent is the electoral party from the parent organization and, equally pertinently, what kind of organization is the parent?  Hassan al-Banna founded the MB to serve various functions.  It was to be, depending on social circumstance and the needs of members, a mystical Sufi order, a political party, an instrument for social reform, and an Islamic confraternity.  In the last decade the MB has claimed to be a primarily a social movement and in the last few months it has explored the possibility of registering with the Ministry of Social Affairs as a non-governmental organization.  Under existing law this would allow the Ministry to dissolve the organization if it were deemed to exercise political functions.  The MB leadership would, of course, claim that the Freedom and Justice party is a political organization but since the Brotherhood has provided most of the members of the new party, chosen its top leadership (almost entirely from within its leadership), and provides the guidelines for its activity this will be a difficult argument to get most Egyptians to accept.  Many are quite skeptical.

            Some top members and a few of the youth have left the MB.  They frequently pay their respects to the organization in which they spent a more or less lengthy period of their life but generally have indicated that to remain in the MB is to forego further personal growth.  The numbers are small but they do suggest a disturbing trend in which many of those who seem to form bridges between the Brotherhood and other sectors of society (including relatively conservative but non-Salafi religious sectors) leave.   They also suggest the strong possibility that within a couple of years the Brotherhood might have some real competition—not from the liberal or secular forces—from other centrist or conservative parties such as the Justice party in which Mustafa al-Naggar plays a leading role or the Rennaissance party founded by Ibrahim Zaafarani, a doctor and former leader of the Brothers in Alexandria, the city Subhi Saleh also calls home. 

            As the MB has expanded the number of seats it plans to contest in a parliamentary election, it has also said it will not run a candidate for president.  In part this move is designed to reassure the Egyptian public that they do not hope to gain control over both the legislative and the executive branches.  In part, however, it may reflect the Brotherhood’s hope and preference for a president under a still-to-be-written constitution who will have very limited powers.  The Brothers may fully understand that they are not likely to win a presidential race but that they can realistically hope to be a powerful party in a powerful parliament. 

            When one of the top leaders of the Brotherhood, Abd al-Munim Abu Al-Futuh decided to run for president as an independent he was warned not to and then expelled.  It has been widely argued that the Brotherhood leadership worried that if Abu al-Futuh ran he would be seen as the stalking horse of the organization.  They may also have worried about the fate of their organization if they cannot get their members to abide by its decisions.  In other words, Abu al-Futuh presented a profound challenge.  Having expelled him, however, a different dynamic begins to appear.  For if the Brotherhood are indeed an organization in civil society like other non-governmental organizations then why exactly is it expelling members for their choices about political participation?  The Brothers and their friends and supporters would no doubt say this shows that they can never win, especially with skeptics like me:  if they allowed Abu al-Futuh to run they aree seen as sneakily trying to control both branches; if they expel him for running anyway they are still seen negatively.

            The problem for the Brotherhood is that outside its own ranks and those who are already its friends and supporters it garners quite a bit of distrust.  This is obviously not because it espouses Islam.  It is because of the lack of transparency in the organization itself, its high level of control over the political and social lives of its members, and its assertion that the Brotherhood leadership itself knows better than anyone else in Egypt what Islamic principles might mean in the present.  Its on-again off-again relationship with the youth movement in Midan al-Tahrir and what many see as an increasingly close relationship with the Military Council has confirmed many in their antagonism to it.

            Nevertheless it can probably safely be said that almost all Egyptians believe that the Brotherhood represents a very large slice of the Egyptian public and that no real democracy is possible without it.  What is apparent is that, in opposition, the Brothers clearly prefer parliamentary democracy to autocracy in hands other than their own.   There is, however, one possible way out of the impasse they find themselves in:  agreeing to a constitutional document or at least something like Muhammad al-Baradei’s constitutional principles before the next election rather than waiting for elected parliamentarians to choose a constituent assembly.  What remains to be seen, however, as the demonstrations in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt once again pick up force is whether the parliamentary elections still scheduled for September and the constitution are really the primary topics on the agenda.  Even as the international media has turned its attention away from Egypt, it looks as if what Lenin once called “dual power” is re-emerging: the masses in the streets and the still powerful remnants of the old institutional order gear up for yet another confrontation.  In this situation there is every reason for US officials to talk to the Brothers but there is equally no reason to be naïve about them.  And lastly there is no reason whatsoever to believe that, in a very fluid situation, they will continue to represent the center of conservative Islamic politics in Egypt today.

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