Cairo Journal (Part II)

For the Muslim Brotherhood, "Islam Is the Solution."


"We are not rigid," says Dr. Essam El-Erian, a physician and high-ranking official in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. I have come to his Cairo office to discuss the brotherhood's agenda. More specifically, I hope to explore how the brotherhood's use of Islam as the basis of a political program might be at odds with the views of Muslims like Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, who rejects the idea of Islamic political parties on the grounds that they create divisions among Muslims.

A genial man with a confident, sometimes booming voice, El-Erian tries immediately to set me straight: "Islam cannot be used by anybody," he says. "Islam is Islam. All of the basics are in the text."

But texts do not read themselves. People read them. And according to the reading of the sacred text by Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian schoolteacher who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, Islam was intended to be an all-encompassing way of life—not merely a religion but the basis of a social-political order, a theocracy. Al-Banna believed that Islam was the solution to the problems faced by all Muslim societies that had long been dominated by western colonial powers. While the immediate objective of his organization was to provide welfare and assistance for Egypt's downtrodden, its ultimate goal, al-Banna taught, was to supplant the secular regimes left by the colonizers with an Islamic state, a new caliphate that would unify all Muslims in a supranational order.

Al-Banna was assassinated in 1949, following the murder of the Egyptian prime minister by an alleged brotherhood member. But the brotherhood continued to grow and spread to other parts of the Middle East and even beyond. While some of the new groups would eventually splinter off from the parent organization, often acquiring different names (such as Hamas in Palestine) and often adopting violent tactics that the brotherhood itself came to renounce, the brotherhood would remain the prototypical Islamist organization. Its embrace of Islam as a totalizing political ideology is the model for Islamist groups around the world.

In Egypt itself, the brotherhood expanded steadily, building a large following through its charitable works despite recurrent government crackdowns. In 1966, for example, President Gamal Abdel Nasser hanged one of the organization's leading ideologues, Sayyid Qutb, who had explicitly called for a revolution to overthrow Nasser's secular socialist state. Facing prosecution, many other brotherhood leaders fled to Saudi Arabia, where they came into contact with Wahhabi clerics and acquired an even more puritanical conception of Islam. Officially renouncing violence, the brotherhood was given a reprieve by Anwar al-Sadat, Nasser's successor, and began to participate in mainstream politics. But that brief period of tolerance ended in 1981, when a more militant Islamist group assassinated Sadat. The new president, Hosni Mubarak, introduced an emergency law that allowed the government to arrest brotherhood members at any time and for any reason—leaving the brotherhood to this day to operate in a murky realm between barely tolerated and outlawed. In the last parliament elections, in 2005, both the regime and outside observers were surprised when brotherhood members, officially running as independents, won 88 seats in the parliament, making the brotherhood (unofficially, of course) the largest organized opposition to the ruling National Democratic Party.

The political successes of the brotherhood, like those of other Islamist groups throughout the Middle East, have posed dilemmas for the West. Claiming to embrace the democratic process, the Islamists say that they are doing what the West, particularly the United States, has long been calling for. The question, of course, is whether the brotherhood and other Islamist groups will tolerate true democratic and liberal values if they come to dominate a government through elections. Will they, for that matter, allow subsequent elections to take place? Or will it be, as some observers fear, "one vote, one time"?

Part of the problem is knowing what the Muslim Brotherhood stands for. Does it, for example, believe that Islamic sharia law—and a very narrow, rigid, Wahhabi-style conception of sharia should replace all current codes of secular civil and penal law (which, in Egypt's case, blend the general principles of sharia with European law)? What kind of tolerance will it show to non-Muslims, including the large Coptic Christian minority and the much smaller Jewish minority? Will women be able to hold office—or, for that matter, drive cars?

Getting clear answers to such questions is not easy, as many have found. When I ask El-Erian what the brotherhood's program is on some of these key issues, he treats me like a slightly dim pupil who can't grasp the inanity of his own question.

"Program?" he booms. "This matter of programs is something that is very hypothetical, and we must deal with today, with the present, and not the possible future."

But if the brotherhood is to play the game of politics, I persist, then it must have positions that the voters can evaluate.

"The people know who we are," El-Erian stonewalls. "They trust who our candidates are."

"But where do you stand on the matter of women holding political office? Will you allow Coptic Christians to run for elected office?"

"Listen," he says, "these are all theoretical, hypothetical matters."

When the slightly dim pupil persists, the physician tries a different tack. "Our program is evolving and changing. There are many views."

Which, of course, is true. I knew that El-Erian himself had recently gotten in trouble with some of his associates for saying that a brotherhood-dominated government would continue to recognize the state of Israel. Clearly, the brothers have not yet reached a consensus on that question, nor probably on many others.

But how, I wanted to know, did the brotherhood's rigid and highly political conception of Islam compare with that of the grand mufti and other moderate, traditional Muslims who are still thought to be Egypt's majority? Again, El-Erian answers cryptically by saying that Ali Gomaa changed his own positions after becoming grand mufti in 2003. What that change was El-Erian does not say, but my research suggests that Gomaa has long been a moderate traditionalist with strong ties to a Sufi order. Since Sufis are among the most broad-minded and philosophical of Muslims—and are often denounced by Wahhabis as sinful innovators—it is hard to imagine how the mufti was once less moderate than he is today.

No matter how the mufti might have changed, though, I still want to know how the brotherhood's view of Islam and Islamic law comports with that of the mufti today.

"We are not rigid," El-Erian says. "In many aspects, we are on the same side with Ali Gomaa. We are moderates."

I will not learn about those "aspects" because El-Erian announces that he has run out of time. But whatever points of harmony there might be, it is quite clear that the brotherhood and the grand mufti will never come to agreement on the political uses of Islam.

Political Islam may, in fact, be inherently baffling, and not simply to non-Muslims. Even al-Banna's younger brother, Gamal al-Banna, was a bit perplexed by what his brother meant when he came up with the slogan "Islam Is the Solution." A prolific writer who is alive and writing to this day, Gamal thought that his brother was a utopian who idealized the first caliphates (the so-called rightly guided caliphates that followed immediately after the death of the Prophet) as model states in which religion and politics were harmoniously, even seamlessly, blended. In fact, as Gamal well knew, even those first caliphates were riven with strife and discord, frequently resulting in outright battles and murders. One succession struggle in the early caliphates produced the largest rupture in the faith, the Sunni-Shiite schism, which lasts to this day. Historically, religion and politics have blended as unsuccessfully in Islam as they have in other major religions.

Which is not to say—nor would the mufti himself say—that Islam should not influence the political and social order. As the foundation for moral reasoning for most Muslims, how could Islam not have an influence on the laws and institutions of a predominantly Muslim nation? The question is how direct or exclusive that influence should be. And to resolve that, Muslims will have to arrive at a clearer consensus on what sharia means—whether it is a broad set of ethical principles set forth in the sacred texts or a fixed legal code that can be imposed directly on society. Islamists and puritanical literalists tend to think the latter. And that is probably why most Muslims find the Islamist program unacceptable and even frightening.

But is the more moderate and traditionalist view of the role of Islam and sharia a view that has been tainted because of its support by clerics who are seen as being part of the state establishment? That is a question to which I will turn in the next blog.