Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 June - 4 July 2007
Issue No. 851
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Theoretical deficits

The Muslim Brotherhood is decades behind in formulating its position both towards, and within, the democratic process, writes Khalil El-Anani*

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) exemplifies the equivocal relationship between Islamists and democracy, a relationship that is problematic for the interpretation of both traditional and contemporary Islamist thought.

The primary difference between the MB -- the "mother" organisation in Egypt -- and its off- shoots scattered in close to 70 Islamic countries, is that the MB stands at the beginning of the path in terms of dealing with the issues posed by democracy whereas many of its younger, less centralised off-shoots have already accommodated themselves to the democratic process.

There are those who argue that the difficulties and complications facing the MB in Egypt makes such a situation inevitable. There has been no opportunity for ijtihad (jurisprudential interpretation), they say, let alone for the development of an innovative approach to democracy. Such arguments are fundamentally flawed, not least because it remains unacceptable, whatever the reasons, for any organisation that seeks to present itself as an alternative to the status quo, especially one that claims such deep roots in Egyptian society, to remain closed to contemporary developments. The failure to take on-board change, at a practical and intellectual level, does not speak highly of the group's ideological development.

Any organisation, one might reasonably assume, suffering political persecution would be keen to show it has every qualification to legitimately occupy a position within the nation's polity. Such an entity would feel bound, surely, to offer a progressive vision of the relationship between religion and politics so that it might become a model for other Islamic forces. Indeed, there are branches of the Brotherhood -- the Tunisian Renaissance Movement and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Jordan -- that have suffered oppression, yet this has not prevented them from developing and refining their thought and political vision. Using political persecution as an excuse for intellectual stagnation within the MB might have been possible during the years under Gamal Abdel-Nasser when the group was almost ground out of existence but it has not applied for more than three and a half decades. It is a hollow excuse, its falseness exposed by the MB's own experiences following its return to political life 35 years ago.

The MB has, it is true, succeeded in casting off some of its historical encumbrances, including its position towards political pluralism, rejected by the MB's first Supreme Guide, Hassan El-Banna, for reasons of his own. It has also changed its position on violence, political participation and the constitution. Yet while no one speaking in good faith could deny that the MB has developed its political discourse over recent years, equally, no one could say, in the same good faith, that the group possesses a "political" agenda that embraces the concept of democracy.

It would be a mistake for the MB to view its current crisis with the Egyptian regime as just one in a series of "historical" crises that began when the MB was banned in 1954. Quite the opposite, since one result of the current crisis has been to force the Brotherhood to begin to examine its own political discourse and willingness to remodel its organisational and educational structures on a sounder, more democratic basis.

In mid-January 2007, the MB's Supreme Guide announced that the group would soon establish a political party. It was a step long delayed and one that was eventually taken not because of any intellectual turnaround on the part of the organisation's leaders but as a response to the pressure the regime had placed on the MB.

The MB's decision, then, should not be interpreted as evidence of some deep-rooted transformation in its attitude to democracy and the group's ability to develop a progressive Islamist discourse capable of approaching democracy remains questionable.

The MB is often accused of promulgating a religious discourse that deals only in generalities, of engaging in a contradictory intellectual discourse and a political discourse that is at best two-pronged, at worst two-faced. Indeed, at many points in the group's history the MB's determined vagueness has been its most decisive, its greatest, strength. Three obstacles stand in the way of the Brotherhood developing a democratic discourse. The first is inextricably tied to the group's approach to Islamic jurisprudence, and the weakness of religious renewal within the MB. The MB's religious discourse today differs little from that espoused by its founder, Hassan El-Banna, more than three quarters of a century ago. The main features of this discourse were defined in the report of the fifth Brotherhood convention held in 1938. They are based on the notion that Islam is a complete system and the ultimate guide to life in all its aspects. It holds that Islam rests upon its two fundamental sources (the Quran and the hadith, the prophet's sayings) and that it can be applied at any time and in any place. These ideas are embodied in El-Banna's famous saying that Islam is "religion and the earthly world [ din wa-dunya ]".

The Brotherhood has been incapable of benefiting from the distinctive jurisprudential interpretations offered by Azharites belonging to the organisation such as Mohamed El-Ghazali and Youssef El-Qardawi, let alone progressive proposals put forward by those close to Brotherhood thought but living outside Egypt, as in the early writings of Hassan Al-Turabi and the contributions of Rashed Al-Ghanoushi and Abdullah Al-Nafisi among others. This causes great embarrassment for the Brotherhood when it faces issues that require jurisprudential and religious interpretations, such as those related to women, Copts, freedom, political ideology and the application of Islamic law and Islamic penal codes.

The second obstacle relates to the Brotherhood's intellectual history, which fails as a philosophical enterprise. This is the problem Gamal El-Banna characterises as "insufficient theorising". The intellectual contribution of the Muslim Brotherhood was cut off with the death of its founder Hassan El-Banna. None of the supreme guides have produced a work that can be considered an addition to Brotherhood thought with the exception of "preachers, not judges", issued under the name of the second Supreme Guide Hassan Al-Hadibi, which addressed the issue of apostasising [ takfir ] introduced by Sayed Qutb. The Brotherhood's dearth of theory, as Gamal El-Banna puts it, is what allowed the emergence of interpretive efforts different from the Brotherhood's approach, such as the writings of Qutb in Signs Along the Path ( Maalim fil-Tariq ) and Mohamed Abdel-Salam Farag's book The Missing Religious Duty ( Al-Farida Al-Ghaaiba ).

Islamic thinker Abdullah Al-Nafisi suggests that the intellectual leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has shrunk and, following the execution of Qutb, was transferred to Brotherhood organisations in the Levant (Said Hawa, Fathi Yekin). Al-Nafisi stresses that those who read and understand the writings of Said Hawa have read and understood the movement- oriented thought of the Brotherhood for the period from 1970 to 1993. Possibly the most important two books Hawa wrote were An Introduction to the Preaching of the Muslim Brotherhood and Lessons in Islamist Activity.

Al-Nafisi divides the movement- oriented thought of the Muslim Brotherhood, starting from its establishment in 1928 until the early 1990s, into three primary stages that are represented by three types of scholars -- El-Banna, Qutb and Hawa. El-Banna took psychological and intellectual liberties in his writings, while Qutb expressed elitist, vanguard, movement-oriented thought. As for Hawa, he was the best at expressing the intellectual and movement-oriented dualities the Muslim Brotherhood espoused, fluctuating between theoretical and intellectual strictness within the organisation and ideological fluidity outside of it.

The third obstacle relates to the Brotherhood's political discourse. Despite developments in the vocabulary of this discourse over the last two decades, it continues to suffer from hesitation and vagueness. Its development has also been slow. The Brotherhood has yet to announce the programme of its political party. It might not differ much from the famous reform initiative announced on 4 March 2004, or the election platform on the basis of which its candidates entered the 2005 and 2007 elections.

In addition, some of the Brotherhood's leadership views the issue of any party within the context of cutting deals. Historical problems that hamper the organisation's political thought such as positions on women, Copts, and different ideologies and thought systems such as secularism and communism, as well as the issue of freedoms and the Islamic penal code, are all dealt with on an ad hoc basis.

Simply put, if the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt wishes to remain an original party in the Egyptian political equation, it has no choice but to re-establish itself on a progressive intellectual basis capable of overcoming the decades it has lost in formulating an approach to democracy.

* The writer is a political analyst with Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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