Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 December 2005
Issue No. 772
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sameh Fawzi

Brothers and others

While the Muslim Brotherhood courts the Copts, doubts remain as to the movement's credentials regarding religious and moral tolerance, writes Sameh Fawzi*

In The Conquest of Egypt, a document allegedly compiled by Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Khairat El-Shater, calls are made for the abolition of plurality among Muslims. "Plurality has given many Muslims excuses for evading organisational affiliation," it states. "We must realise how important it is that people perceive us as the sole representatives of Islam and that this image becomes so fixed in people's minds as to gradually eliminate the possibility of others fulfilling this role."

This appeal has many dangerous ramifications. Above all, it indicates that if the Muslim Brotherhood were in a position to enforce its ideological monopoly, the vast majority of the populace would face severe restrictions on its freedom of opinion and belief, not just on religious matters but on social, political, economic and cultural affairs as well. This raises the spectre of the suppression of freedom of religion. The sequestering of the freedom of opinion and belief of the religious majority of the population must inevitably carry over into how that majority interacts with other faiths and into the scope of religious freedom available to the affiliates of those faiths. Why, after all, should a religious majority that has had its freedom of opinion and belief suppressed tolerate the continued existence of that freedom within a religious minority? In short, the document suggests that if the Muslim Brothers succeed in appointing themselves as the sole representatives of Islam and, hence, the exclusive spokesmen for divine will, all political, intellectual and religious diversity and dynamism will gradually vanish.

It follows from the foregoing that the Muslim Brotherhood regards the Copts as a single homogenous political entity. It would further like to portray this political entity as having a sectarian programme of its own, so as to more forcefully justify the Brotherhood's Islamist project, in accordance with which what has been described as the happiest minority in the world would have to unconditionally submit to the ostensible will of the majority, as formulated by the Brotherhood authorities.

Unfortunately, this perception of the rules of democratic practice harbours a two-fold fallacy. On the one hand, it is grounded in a static perception of social divisions and, consequently, ignores the fluctuating and diverse dynamics of the actual competition over various political alternatives. On the other hand, it presumes that there actually is a majority that espouses a single cohesive Islamist project. Firstly, Islamist factions differ considerably in their conception of an Islamist project. More significantly, while the majority of the population is Muslim, we cannot speak of a political Islamist trend that enjoys the support of the majority of the country's Muslims. What we can speak of is various shades of a political, cultural and social drive that has drawn the support of Muslims and Copts alike but that can by no means be described as an Islamist trend that has secured the support of the majority of Egypt's Muslims.

Against this backdrop, it is interesting to consider the statement by Maamoun El-Hodeibi to the effect that the Copts form a political party. The former Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide went on to urge that a census be taken of Egyptian Copts so that they could be proportionally represented in the legislative assembly. His statement, too, is indicative of the intent on the part of the Brotherhood to manufacture a Coptic sectarian political movement with the purpose of legitimising their own political project. If the Copts can be cast as a homogenous political entity with a political platform and entitled to parliamentary representation the Muslims in all their political and intellectual diversity can be similarly reduced to a religiously oriented political party championed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is no secret that over recent months Muslim Brotherhood leaders have been trying to engage in dialogue with Coptic leaders. These overtures were not undertaken for the obvious reason that the Muslim Brotherhood has failed to reassure the Copts both in terms of its rhetoric and in terms of its political practices. The Islamist organisation is solely interested in luring the Copts aboard the "Islam is the solution" train without having to undertake any substantial revision of its long-held positions regarding the bases of citizenship. If anything, therefore, its political manoeuvrings have been inspired by a false sense of complacency that it has the most to gain from the current commotion over political reform and that others would gladly cling to its coattails. The attitude is not only indicative of the Muslim Brothers' position towards Copts, but their perceptions of how society as a whole should be organised.

It is sufficient to read the reform initiative issued by the Muslim Brotherhood in the spring to realise how remote their thinking remains from the underlying principles of a modern democratic state. That document was a blatant call for the establishment of an Islamic state that would become the cornerstone of Islamist universalism. It would revive the hisba system, imposing strict moral guardianship, or policing, over women and over artistic and cultural expression. It would deprive Copts of full citizenship rights and it would establish religion rather than a civil constitution as the basis for the relationship between the citizen and the state. In rallies organised to support Muslim Brotherhood candidates in the recent legislative elections, demonstrators waved Qurans and chanted "Islam is the solution". Naturally, there were no Copts on the Muslim Brotherhood list. It is a purely religious organisation with an Islamist political agenda. That is how it defines itself. What could they possibly want from the Copts? Do they expect the Copts to voluntarily accept dhimmi (second class) status and the attendant obligations and restrictions imposed on non-Muslim communities?

In general, the Brotherhood sees only itself. They are a part of the opposition but they have no fondness for others in the opposition. Copts and advocates of a civil state who have worked together with Brotherhood members in occupational syndicate activities have often come away with deep feelings of anxiety. Brotherhood syndicate members have clearly used their weight to promote an agenda of their own. The Physicians Syndicate has been Islamicised with syndicate funds funnelled into purely Islamic activities at home and abroad, rather than into activities that serve all members. Syndicate affairs have acquired a political character that has very little to do with advancing the profession and promoting the welfare of practitioners.

In general, syndicate work with Muslim Brothers has more in common with a winner- take-all fight than it does with partnership, and they have given no indication that they are willing to change their approach. On the contrary, in the recent parliamentary elections the Muslim Brotherhood vowed to defeat the Progressive Rally (Tagammu) Party's candidate in Bandar Minya -- Waguih Shukri, a Copt -- who could have easily defeated his NDP rival in that constituency. The same phenomenon occurred in other constituencies in which other candidates of other opposition parties fielded themselves against NDP candidates. One notable instance occurred in Kafr Shukr against the Tagammu candidate Khaled Mohieddin. The battle in Kafr Shukr, said Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef, was to free that constituency from heresy and secularism.

In short, in their thinking and practice the Muslim Brothers will brook no "other".

* The writer is managing editor of the weekly Watani newspaper.

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