Who are We, and What do We Want? – Evaluation

This post is part two, following up with an evaluation of a post-revolution Muslim Brotherhood booklet which reprints selected writings of their founder, Hassan al-Banna. For part one, which is a summary translation of the book, please click here. This post opens by finding first that which is worthy, and then re-lists controversial statements which are provided with commentary.

In evaluating this booklet, several observations emerge, which must be carefully delineated. First of all, there is much worthy of respect. The Muslim Brotherhood commands the allegiance of its followers due to its insistence on following God and Islam completely in every phase of life. There is commitment to personal piety, family wholeness, social solidarity, and national transformation. The vision is simultaneously large and minute. Furthermore, it is advanced in transparency, as should be expected for a mission built upon fidelity to God and religion.

As an aside, this puts a question to many in the Brotherhood today. The organization is accused of acting in non-, or at best partial, transparency, especially as they argue their support for a modern, civil, democratic state. How do they respond to the more controversial remarks of this booklet? Are they willing to deny them outright? Or, are they violating the commitment of al-Banna to clarity and transparency? More on this below.

Second of all, the reader should take care not to dismiss the Brotherhood’s portrayal in the booklet due to their insistence on partisan interests. It may be true the Brotherhood will clash with Western powers over several issues, and it may be that in some cases Western policy is in the right. Yet the Brotherhood advances a program on behalf of its different identities – Egyptian, Arab, Muslim – many of which are legitimate aspirations of a sovereign people. The issue in al-Banna’s day was that the Arab world did not enjoy sovereignty. Arguments are possible its full sovereignty was often limited post-independence as well. Anti-Western sentiments should not be dismissed out of hand.

As an aside, it is worthwhile to note in this particular booklet at least, there is no polemic leveled against the Jews. Al-Banna wrote before the advent of the Israeli state, which was thereafter viewed principally as another colonialist project. There is a difference between being anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli; arguing from silence, this historical text suggests there is no necessary opposition to Jews in the Muslim Brotherhood, at least in its incarnation.

Third of all, the domestic ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood are depicted as peaceful. They begin with a call, then the formation of committed bands of believers. They seek influence in all areas of society, and eventually engage in a constitutional struggle. They wish to win the entire nation within their fold, and if successful, who can argue with their ascendance?

Addressing the question of their current transparency, then, they furthermore announce the stages of their program. Propagation, empowerment, implementation. While the stages can be simultaneous, public statements about the importance of democracy may be fully transparent for a stage in-between empowerment and implementation. This does not deny them the right to further propagate – democratically and civilly – for more and more implementation. The issue, perhaps, is that their propagation has not yet been sufficient. The test will be if circumstances propel the Brotherhood to abort their methodology and grab power prematurely. Patience has been their virtue, but is the tree yet ripe?

Critical attention, then, after this sympathetic introduction, must turn to the quite objectionable statements of the booklet. These fall into two basic categories, which overlap substantially. First, there are the statements which assert not only the superiority of Islam (permissible in terms of doctrine and belief), but also its sovereignty. Second, there are the statements which envision violent promotion of international aims. There is within Islam that which can be understood as a call to unite faith with politics, religion with state. The Muslim Brotherhood clearly believes in this interpretation. Modern members of the Brotherhood, therefore, must speak clearly to the following issues extrapolated from the booklet:

  • We believe Islam incorporates … the Quran and the sword.

To what degree does this involve the right of any state to monopolize violence, which would be governed by Islamic principles, to be argued as virtuous? Or, is it an invitation to carry out the principles of Islam through violent methods?

  • The Quran has made Muslims to be the guardians for an incapable humanity, giving them the right of superintendence and sovereignty over the world.

It is a far different matter to assert one’s faith is absolutely correct, than to take this principle and demand sovereignty over all others. Muslims should be free to argue the benefits of their religion, in both faith and policy. Yet assuming ‘the right’ of sovereignty precludes one from learning for others, who are then established in an adversarial relationship, unless they submit as those ‘incapable’.

  • We will establish a state which implements practically the regulations and teachings of Islam.

Perhaps it can be semantics to argue what makes a state ‘civil’ versus ‘religious’. There is no necessary reason a civil state cannot enshrine moral or religious principles in law. The question concerns the a priori nature: Must religious regulations be implemented? Furthermore, under whose interpretation? Does this include controversial rulings such as cutting the hand of a thief and death for the apostate? Though the booklet does not answer this last question, the apparent answers for the first two are: ‘Yes’, and, ‘ours’.

  • [We] will pursue them and raid in their own lands, until the entire world celebrates the name of the Prophet and the teachings of the Quran. The shade of Islam will cover the earth, and then what the Muslim desires will be achieved: No sedition and all religion will be for God.

Again, the preaching of Islam is free to convert the whole world, should it be successful. Yet by all appearances this statement calls for the violent, offensive, military advance of the religion. Islamic nations currently do not have the power to do so. Would they, if so equipped? Do not statements like this, unless clearly repudiated, justify those who might wish to keep the Muslim world weak and subjected, or at the least interpret the world through a clash of civilizations?

  • We recognize no system of government that does not emerge from the foundation of Islam. We recognize no political parties or traditional forms which the infidels and enemies of Islam have forced upon us.

Many modern Islamic scholars, politicians, and analysts find the principles of a modern democratic system within Islamic sources and history. Their academic efforts should not be dismissed out of hand. Yet the stridency of this statement begs the question if the Brotherhood is only using democracy as an ascent to power. If established, would they allow the flourishing of the democratic necessity – political parties – seemingly declared forbidden by this statement?

  • [We desire] an Islamic nation, desiring every part of the Islamic world to join with us.

There is no necessary reason why Islamic majority nations should not come together in some sort of union, as Europe has already accomplished to some degree. Yet this statement appears to resurrect the controversial idea of ‘caliphate’ (stated clearly elsewhere), and at the least indicates the Brotherhood’s ambition stretches far beyond the governance of Egypt. Their members may have legitimate answers, but they deserve to be served the question.

  • We desire the flag of God to fly high over the lands which once enjoyed Islam and the call of prayer declaring ‘God is great’, but then returned to unbelief. Andalusia, Sicily, the Balkans, southern Italy, and the islands of the Mediterranean were all Islamic colonies and must return to the bosom of Islam.

As above, the people of all nations should be free to choose their religion, and why should Muslims not harbor dreams of seeing their former territories reconvert to Islam? Yet the tone here is aggressive and militaristic, especially in light of earlier statements. Should the nations of southern Europe be on alert?

  • We desire to announce our call to the whole world, and to cause every tyrant to submit to it, so that there is no sedition and all of religion is for God.

People in the west should be slow to judge this statement, given the policies of their nations which have sought the downfall of tyrants. It is true a tyrant can be made to peacefully submit, and this statement does lead with the priority of ‘call’. Nonetheless, the question is fair: Who would be considered a tyrant, and should non-Muslim leaders be on alert? Is a religion, in this case Islam, a fair measure in which to pursue international justice?

  • We declare no Muslim to be an infidel, unless he speaks of his unbelief, or denies a fact of religion, or impugns the purity of the Quran.

There have been numerous Islamist groups which do declare those of opposing orientation to be infidels, and the Brotherhood here takes a stand against this trend, consistent with historical Muslim practice. At the same time, does this statement limit what in the west would be considered legitimate academic study or religious debate concerning the Qur’an? Furthermore, does it limit the ability of a convert from Islam to publish his new or non-faith? On this point many Muslim Brothers are quite clear in the affirmative. Those who find this a threat to religious and intellectual freedom would appear right, therefore, in opposition to the Brotherhood.

  • [Government] members should be Muslims who perform the pillars of Islam and not those who willfully neglect them … It is permissible to seek the help of non-Muslims should this be necessary, but not in the positions of general authority.

This is an important point for Muslim Brothers today to be clear about, as most assert that the coming Egyptian state should be one of equal rights for all citizens. Will they then clearly denounce the founding opinions of al-Banna – consistent with much of Islamic history – as a relic of the past? It is not necessary to condemn this history outright, as arguments are possible it was more inclusive and tolerant than other contemporary versions of governance. That it does not match the ideals of a modern, pluralistic world, however, appear clear.

In conclusion, given the growing international stature of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is incumbent not only upon Egyptians but also the world to clearly understand both the near- and far-term goals of the organization. Al-Banna preached the Brotherhood must be transparent; do his descendants honor his example?

Yet ultimately, what is most important is not the answers which savvy Muslim Brothers might deliver to a Western audience, no matter their level of sincerity and transparency. What matters is the meaning these words convey to a Muslim audience. This text has sought to reveal what Muslims are hearing, though it is limited in precision through the interpretation of a non-Arab, non-Muslim. Yet it appears that if this booklet represents current Brotherhood philosophy, it is distinctly different than the public image displayed to Westerners and Egyptian non-Islamists.

Egypt, the region, and perhaps the world are in a crucial phase of history. Opinions and policies must be built on fact and clarity; the Brotherhood owes it to all to define who they are, and what they want.

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