Modern Islam Egypt Islamists’ goal

“The revolution goes on,” said Mohammed Mursi, on being declared president of Egypt in its first-ever democratic election.  He ran for president as the head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.  The transnational Brotherhood has been the world’s oldest Islamist movement.

The president-elect has called for national unity. Mursi wouldn’t, of course, abandon his Islamist mission, but to signal his seriousness to become “president of all Egyptians,” he resigned his post as the head of the FJP.  He realizes that he needs the nation behind him for his upcoming battle with Egypt’s ruling military junta, called the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The SCAF has got a compliant high court to dissolve the parliament, assumed all legislative powers, and curbed the power of the presidency. The military council’s decree requires the president to work with it to frame a constitution.

Assuming Mursi’s victory in the election, some Egypt watchers have been debating whether he and the Brotherhood are going to be co-opted by the military junta or pursue their Islamist agenda seriously. They have a reason to wonder. During the last three decades, the Brotherhood has consistently shied away from confrontation with military dictatorships, not even to challenge the decades-long ban on its participation in politics.

This year the Muslim Brothers were among the last to join the Tahrir Square uprising, which toppled the dictator Hosni Mubarak. And when other groups were agitating to overthrow of the SCAF, which replaced Mubarak, the Brotherhood leadership engaged the generals in a dialogue over the crisis.

“Ideology does not determine [Muslim Brothers’] behavior whatsoever,” says Omar Ashour of Britain’s Exeter University, an expert on Muslim and Middle Eastern politics. “You can say it’s a very pragmatic, opportunistic group.”

Part of the Egyptian Brotherhood’s pragmatism comes from its realization that frontal confrontation with military dictatorships could prove suicidal, and that its decisive challenge to the political establishment should wait until it had a strong footing in society. Sayyid Muhammad Qutb, the Brotherhood’s original thinker, was executed by military dictator Jamal Abdel Nasser.  Nasser is believed also to have orchestrated the assassination of the organization’s founder, Hasan el-Banna.   Successive military dictators jailed, tortured and executed its members. Because of its strong support for the Palestinian cause, it had also been anathema to Israel and the United States.  The organization’s leadership realized that a clash with the dictatorial regimes would give them the excuse to crush it with U.S. blessings, leaving its main mission of Islamizing society unrealized.

I have been visiting Egypt since the 1970s, for research or pleasure.  From interviews with Egyptians and other research I understand that the “pragmatism” that Professor Ashour mentioned is part of the Brotherhood’s strategy to pursue its larger mission.

That mission was described succinctly to me during a 1995 visit to Cairo by a leading Brotherhood ideologue, Mustafa Mashhur.  “May Allah guide us in His path,” he said. “We are working humbly to carry on the da’wa (Islamization campaign) and strengthen (society’s) Islamic roots.” How the Brothers would go about its work would be decided in light of “our ijtihad, our situation and circumstances,” added the Islamic scholar, who would soon become the head of the Egyptian Brotherhood. Other Muslim Brothers and Egyptologists have given me the same description of the Brotherhood’s goals, in different words.

Ijtihad, which Mashhur mentioned, is an Islamic canon law tool to form new rules on matters on which scripture is silent. In such situations theologically competent Muslims are enjoined to use common sense to make new rules of conduct, which shouldn’t, however, conflict with Islam’s core principles.  Most Islamists, unlike many traditional fundamentalists, believe in ijtihad.

In practical life, everyday Muslims don’t go about looking for a theologian to issue a ruling on new situations, often presented by modernity and cross-cultural communication. Muslims familiar with Islam’s basic tenets and principles, use their own common sense to devise guidelines to  adapt alien values and practices to their lives. Most Islamists, including Muslim Brothers, don’t make an issue of it.  Hence unlike traditionalists and radical fundamentalists, Islamists in general are enthusiastic supporters of modernization. The difference between secular and Islamist modernizers is that the former’s goal is modernization for its sake; the latter’s modernization for Islam’s sake.

President-elect Mursi has a Ph.D. in engineering from the United States and modern education spans the Brotherhood’s rand and file.  Muslim Brothers are especially focused on scientific and technological education. Egyptians call them the “Brotherhood of Engineers” (Ikhwanul Muhandithun) because of the large number of engineers (and physicians) in its rank.

Unlike in the early phase of the movement, the Egyptian Brotherhood today has acquired deep roots in society and has grown to become the country’s largest political organization.   Mursi’s call for a nationwide struggle to rid Egypt of the new military autocracy indicates that the organization now feels strong enough to challenge the military regime.  Other opposition groups, too, understand that a nationwide campaign against the SCAF autocracy isn’t possible without the Brotherhood’s lead.  Hence in spite of their bitter ideological struggle with the Brotherhood, most leftist and centrist political parties and groups have vowed to join its struggle for the democratization of Egypt.

I believe that Professor Ashour and other observers who see the Brotherhood’s pragmatism as its abandonment of its mission will revise their views. The Brotherhood remains committed to serving and propagating Islam, while spearheading Egypt’s democratization and modernization campaigns.

• Mustafa Malik, a Washington-based columnist, hosts the blog ‘Islam and the West.’

Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of the blog Community, worked three decades as an American journalist and as a researcher for U.S. think tanks. He wrote continually for major U.S. and overseas newspapers and journals. He also conducted fieldwork in Western Europe and the Middle East on U.S. foreign policy options, "crisis of liberalism" and Islamic movements.

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