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Islam

The Brothers: Gnostic Reformers of Islam

Muslim Brothers and Salafists praying in Tahrir Square [Alisdare Hickson - Flickr]

With the exception of a few chosen ones, humankind is on the road to perdition. The all-encompassing project for the Islamic community’s regeneration developed by the Muslim Brotherhood is based on a dualistic vision of history

This article was published in Oasis 27. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2018-11-12 11:03:18

Convinced they are living in a world that is on the road to perdition, the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideologues have thought up an all-compassing project for the umma’s regeneration as an antidote to society’s Westernization. The organization has known how to mobilize sizeable strata of the population by offering them a welfare network and a salvation utopia but its sectarian nature and its hostility towards the nation-state have made it a destabilizing force.

 

 

The Muslim Brotherhood is a transnational movement that was born in Egypt at the end of the 1920s in reaction to the collapse of the Caliphate. The Brothers have set themselves the goal of unifying the umma and appointing it to “guide the universe.” This by permitting it to rediscover the true Islam and founding an Islamic state whose determining principle would be the integral application of sharia, starting with the latter’s most emblematic elements: its criminal sanctions.

 

In order to understand this movement, let us allow it to speak for itself. Let us put the much-studied Hasan al-Bannā and Sayyid Qutb to one side and concentrate on ‘Abd al-Qādir ‘Awda, the organization’s second-in-command, hanged by Nasser’s regime in 1954: “Muslims have long continued to stray from Islam, abandoning its precepts. They have adopted principles and laws that are founded on their own vagaries and base interests and this has led to dissolution and corruption; their countries are overflowing with sins and evil, whilst destitution and suffering are heaped on their communities.”[1]

 

The author’s diagnosis in this text is understandable and many believers may agree with it. Can any of us consider ourselves to be good believers? Or think that democratic, capitalist societies embody the set of values held by the great religions? Or, more simply, justice? If one believes in the possibility of Christian or Islamic politics, then it must be said that no such thing currently exists on earth. The egalitarian discourse, too, is seductive. Reserving the monopoly on greatness and power to Allah means removing it from the great of this world.

 

Insistence on action and the duty to participate has allowed various strata of the population to access political life. The movement has been a structure that warmly welcomes unimportant, plain people who are often rootless or alienated. But it has also been a great charitable network, a family substitute, a great cause and a meritocratic organization. Or again, a fraternal myth of collective salvation. During the 1920s and 1930s, many believers feared that their religion was incompatible with science and rationality. The Muslim Brothers’ movement told them – in a manner they found convincing – that Islam would be able to reckon with both, quite fearlessly.

 

 

An All-Encompassing Project

The project was initially intended to be “all-encompassing:” al-Bannā stated that the movement was at the same time a Sufi brotherhood (tarīqa), a Salafi movement, a sports organization for young people, a political association... Constructed in the umma’s likeness, the Brotherhood is transnational and has put down roots in dozens of countries. Some of its branches have, at different times, come to power in Sudan, Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey whilst, in other contexts, they have been associated with political administrations. This project was intended and intends to be “educational.” It has formed admirable and exemplary militants capable of spending decades in prison without wavering for an instant. The Brothers are generally very present in the educational sector, where they have a crucial (not always positive) role. It is also necessary to consider what the movement says it is against, however. It is against colonial domination but also against much more than this. It is against the Westernization of society and government and against the principle of autonomy, one of the driving forces in modern politics. It is against great Arab culture, whether classical eras or (Islamic or secular) reform. It is against the nation-state, which divides the umma and waters down Islamic identity. It is against any form of division or divisive discourse, against the “official” Islam that sacrifices too much to politics and, lastly, against popular religion, which it describes as a mishmash of superstitions and a school promoting laxism and passivity. What all these elements have in common is the fact of perverting Islam and having little to do with its original message. Popular religion forgets – or does not truly accept – the centrality of jihad, conceived as both a violent and a peaceful form of struggle: something inadmissible at a time when the Muslim world is occupied by Western powers and Islam’s hegemony has been overpowered in this or that sphere of activity (law or teaching, for example). The problem is aggravated by irrational fatalism.

 

In other words, humankind has gone in the wrong direction and followed the road to perdition. The fact that many of the movement’s members have a minimalist take on this diagnosis, does not change matters in the slightest. The key concepts and the message are those of a structure that makes it possible to speak of modern “gnosis:” a lost humankind that has fallen under evil’s sway, a vanguard that has preserved a memory of good, is reactivating it and passing it on to its disciples and, eventually, the intra-mundane achievement of paradise. The main means is jihad, which can be either violent or peaceful.

 

When the diagnosis is this sombre, one expects the number of enemies to multiply. When one believes oneself to be in the right, one expects the various forms of error to coalesce against oneself. Hence al-Bannā’s predilection for secrecy, even though he lived in a semi-liberal Egypt and enjoyed the benevolence of many powerful figures, including the king. In order to survive, the movement has to be secret and highly disciplined, it has to develop absolute obedience and it has to be two-sided: at the same time “organisations, party and religious movement for the masses” and a clandestine apparatus, a great shop with a hidden workroom. The clandestine apparatus comprises various levels and its members have different ranks that correspond to degrees of initiation. You do not join the Brothers: they co-opt you after they have surrounded you, helped you, observed you and tested you.

 

When the diagnosis is this black, it has to be kept alive, fed and confirmed. The Brothers often produce very valid criticisms of their environment and excel in the art of emphasising other peoples’ individual and collective defects. But they also have no hesitation in resorting to far less commendable techniques such as lying, mythicizing and totally inventing.

 

“Lies are forbidden in Islam,” one of them used to say, “except in the case of jihad. And since militant Brothers are in a situation of permanent jihad…”

 

Some of my colleagues have contested this diagnosis, arguing that systematic lying is not an exclusive prerogative of the Brothers. It should therefore be added that these lies render communication with other political forces difficult because they create a parallel imagination, a form of surrealism that stigmatizes the other and a memory that has almost nothing in common with the other collective imaginations and is opposed to them.

 

 

A Sectarian Form of Socialization

Secrecy, obedience and possession of the truth in an allegedly error-laden environment, all provoke a “sectarian form of socialization.” The Brothers often succeed in creating a counter-society within society: a militant will work in a business owned by a Brother, will marry the sister or daughter of a Brother and will choose to be treated by a doctor who is a Brother. This counter-society will have its own memory: a mishmash of real and invented facts that tell a holy story punctuated by trials (which are sufferings sent by God) and victories. The trials are never the result of an error on the part of the political leadership but, rather, the fruit of evil’s multiform perversity and they serve to weigh an activist’s loyalty, sincerity and reliability.

 

What is the nature of the relationship with Muslims who do not belong to the Brotherhood? If they are not anti-Islamist, they are considered “inferior” and, at the same time, potential recruits or potential voters. But they are also the uninitiated who do not know the truth about perdition. Or they are victims. Everything depends on the situation, the religious and political map of the country under consideration and the people involved.

 

The movement mistrusts intellectuals and debates. Al-Bannā used to say that the main cause of the umma’s lagging behind were the specious disputations between ulama that had divided and weakened it, preventing union and action. Training a hundred men was more valuable than writing a book. Furthermore, the main defections – the ones that have done the most harm – are the defections of intellectuals and educated people. This statement must be relativized, however. Indeed, it should be recalled that this attitude is shared by all the political formations and parties in the region who do not appreciate “critical support” (the liberal Wafd party included) and that the ex-Supreme Guide, Mahdī ‘Ākif, encouraged internal debates and took account of the educated urban youth’s aspirations.

 

The Brotherhood’s main intellectual, Sayyid Qutb, did not come from its ranks. In this, he was like many other Islamist intellectuals, who took their first steps within other groups. Qutb systematized al-Bannā’s intuitions and favourite themes, taking them to an extreme. Al-Bannā used to say that Muslims did not truly practise Islam or that they practised a very toned-down form of Islam but he only spoke of apostasy (ridda) in order to deny that he had ever levelled this accusation: a change of tune that denotes the lack of clarity on the issue. The fact remains that others in the movement’s rank and file had indeed taken that step before Qutb. The latter, following in the footsteps of the Pakistani Mawdūdī, crossed the Rubicon and accused the world of being in a state of jāhiliyya i.e. pre-Islamic ignorance and perdition. The argument is crystal clear: God has denied men the right to make laws, reserving to Himself this prerogative, and the fact of not recognizing this and appropriating this right amounts to apostasy.

 

The movement’s contribution to what we can call “great Arab culture” is almost nothing. That should not be surprising, given its scorn for human creations that can distract people from God’s path. No great musician, poet or writer has been a Brother. There is the professor of philosophy or the jurist operating at a decent or above-average level but the most brilliant Islamist intellectuals are not Brothers. The Brothers produce professors, teachers, doctors and engineers. In some countries, they have almost succeeded in killing the film industry by putting pressure on actors and actresses, whilst some of their executives have fought and often obtained the banning of this or that thinker (e.g. Farag Foda and Nasr Hāmid Abū Zayd[2]) or this or that newspaper.

 

The organization is “two-sided” or even three-sided. On the one hand, it is a mass movement that seeks to recruit any Muslim whose behaviour is in line with Islam’s precepts. This is the reason why the activists’ profiles can be so varied: some shake women’s hands, others do not. Some are liberal, others are conservative and still others are very rigid. On the other hand, the organization is a clandestine, secret apparatus that is rigidly hierarchical and ruled with a rod of iron (or is presumed to be because these parties with a Leninist structure are often Brezhnevian). Ever since the Brotherhood’s re-foundation in the first half of the 1970s, the key positions in this system have been occupied by Qutbists, with the possible exception of the Supreme Guide. Indeed, keeping the political environment in mind, the Qutbists have often wanted a person acceptable to the authorities or the public to occupy the highest post.

 

 

Recruitment and Internal Organization

There are no candidacies to become a Brother: one is co-opted. The Brotherhood’s militants observe people who seem “pious” in the mosque, at school, at university, in the cities that welcome immigrants. They help them, surround them, do sports with them, involve them in group activities and gradually structure their social universe; unless they decide that the candidate is not a good recruit. After a “trial” period, they propose that he become a Brother: a proposal that is generally accepted. At this point, the neo-Brother is introduced into a cell called an usra, which is led by a militant who has access to the next level.

 

There are various degrees of belonging: between three and five, according to different authors. This contradiction can be smoothed away by arguing that the lowest levels are not really part of the organization but are still a trial period. The three real levels are those of Brother, active Brother and mujāhid (militant, fighter) Brother. The organization is overseen by the Shura Council and a Guidance Office. Most of the members of the Egyptian Guidance Office are valiant, pious men who do not love politics and trust those amongst themselves who handle it: the strongman, Khayrat al-Shātir, first and foremost.

 

All members are bound to absolute obedience and are forbidden to divulge the organization’s secrets. This rule was re-interpreted by the ex-Supreme Guide, Mahdī ‘Ākif, who wanted to encourage the Brothers to express their opinions and have their say. Once a decision had been taken, however, everyone had to fall into line with it.

 

At that point, the movement’s internal variegation was discovered and all sorts of classification proposals were made. There were the elderly, considered limited and stupid – which is a great injustice – as opposed to the so-called 1970s generation (university students at the time), considered more open, more “democratic” and expert in political action, and lastly, the young, who represent “everything that is good.” If every generation has a particular collective experience, the attribution of good or bad marks does not stand up to scrutiny. Hussām Tammām saw the rural militants as opposed to the urban ones[3] and attributed to the former (whose ascent he lamented) a hostility towards high culture, which was itself fiercely critical of the rural world. Others are opposed to those who prefer preaching to politics and vice versa.

 

The memories of dissidents who have abandoned the Brotherhood (Tharwat al-Khirbāwī, for example[4]) highlight particular tensions. The members of parliament and those who held positions of responsibility within the trade unions (who had to talk to everyone and be at the service of all the association’s members, whether or not they were Brothers) found themselves set against those who managed the movement’s apparatus and considered the trade unions a kind of booty at the strategic service of the organization and its members, without taking account of the other forces. One of the crucial conflicts has always been between those adhering to Qutb’s great narrative and those who consider it pernicious. It should be noted that the latter do not dare to reject his works openly and try to convince themselves that he was saying something other than what he was really saying.

 

Al-Bannā recruited several foreign students in Egypt and they founded branches of the movement once they returned to their own countries. One of these (the Sudanese branch) has come to power. Some have allied themselves to regimes, others have opposed them and all change their position according to the circumstances. On the whole, the strategy is intended to be gradualist, which fact does not rule out recourse to violence. It begins by forming the individual Muslim, then the Muslim family, a Muslim society and an Islamic government, with the ultimate aim of dominating the world (ustādhiyya al-‘ālam).

 

 

The Islamist International

During the 1980s, the Egyptian Mustafā Mashhūr (one of the Brotherhood’s strong men and leader of the “hawks”) tried to confederate the Brothers’ branches into an international organization, for which he drew up a constitution and internal regulations. The project was seriously compromised by divisions following the invasion of Kuwait, however. Many branches of the Brotherhood put their money on the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, and the other branches never forgave them for this. At present, it can be said that the Brothers’ International is much more than the socialist International and much less than Comintern. They all know each other and consult each other but the general rule is that every branch decides its own line of action. When there are disputes, the two conflicting parties can jointly request arbitration from the centre (where the Egyptians are over-represented). It should be noted that the Egyptian motherhouse is usually far more rigid and dogmatic than the other branches. Indeed, it sees itself as the guardian of the temple: it is the “pope”, whereas the others are provincial parish priests who enjoy a wider margin for manoeuvre so that they can try out experiments. The situation is probably changing now, given that the Egyptian movement has failed the test of power, but it is difficult to assess the general situation from Cairo.

 

In the limited space available, it is impossible to outline the strategies of all the Brotherhood’s different branches. In the West, they seem to be doing their best to control the Muslim religious institutions, become the interlocutor with authorities and defend the civil and personal rights of Muslims. On the whole, they fight Islamophobia, whether real or alleged (the term is highly debatable), and seek to ensure that Western societies accommodate Islam without endangering Muslim identity (as defined by the Brothers); this by making minimal concessions. Or, if one prefers, they encircle the public space in order to obtain this or that concession, deploying a “chipping away” strategy. On Arab soil, these branches make every effort to “Islamize” society and the public space, weaken non-Islamist ideologies and dominate the religious and political sphere. In all countries (both Muslim and non-Muslim alike), the movement has a complicated relationship with the other Islamist actors, whom it sees as competitors capable of endangering the great project, or useful idiots who allow the Brothers to present themselves as pragmatic and reasonable moderates. In any case, the Islamists always constitute a threat all the same, insofar as their existence prevents the Brothers having a monopoly on the “Islamic word” and compromises their religious and political legitimacy. In all the countries I know, the organization is dominated by hard men who rarely have public visibility. It remains secret, leaving the limelight to personalities who are considered attractive and who know how to address different kinds of public.

 

The relations between Islamist ideology and nationalism should also be considered briefly. We know that some authors call it “the highest stage of nationalism,” stating that it seeks to achieve political, economic and cultural liberation simultaneously. For all that this may occasionally be true, it is generally a contradiction in terms. The Brothers’ ideology is hostile towards nationalism because it considers it an imported ideology that destroyed the Caliphate and prevents the umma’s reunification. In practice, the Brothers who have come to power have demonstrated an Internationalism that has certainly provoked their downfall in Egypt and, to a lesser extent, in Tunisia. If the United Arab Emirates is their worst enemy it is because this country (currently in a nation-building phase) knows that the Brotherhood’s ideology considers the nation-state no more than a springboard to the umma’s reunification.

 


[1] ‘Abd al-Qādir ‘Awda, Al-Islām wa awdā‘unā al-siyāsiyya (Dār al-kitāb al-‘arabī, al-Qāhira, 1951), p. 5.
[2] Farag Foda was an intellectual and a human rights activist. He was accused of apostasy and assassinated in 1992. Nasr Hāmid Abū Zayd was a scholar of Islam and an advocate of modern Qur’anic hermeneutics. For this reason, he was accused of apostasy and forced to flee to the Netherlands. He died in 2010.
[3] See Hussām Tammām, Al-Ikhwān al-muslimūn. Sanawāt mā qabl al-thawra (Dār al-shurūq, al-Qāhira, 2012), pp. 71-93 in particular.
[4] Tharwat Khirbāwī, Sirr al-mab‘ad. Al-asrār al-khafiyya li-jamā‘at al-ikhwān al-muslimīn (Dār nahda misr li-l-tabā‘at wa-l-nashr wa-l-tawzī‘, al-Qāhira, 2012).

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