A primary accusation against the Muslim Brotherhood is that it is two-faced in its politics. Within Arab contexts the organization, it is said, promotes a radical Islamist agenda, yet when addressing Western audiences its discourse becomes more moderate. A comprehensive answer to this charge is not possible within a single interview, and may be impossible altogether. The Muslim Brotherhood is composed of diverse membership, all of which may be categorized as Islamist in the sense of esteeming the role of Islam in government, but which harbor different visions as per means, extent, and implementation. This interview is but one man’s opinion on some of the hard issues Western critique levels at the Brotherhood, but it is hoped that he is, to a degree, representative.
Dr. Gamal Nassar is a journalist, writer, and the director of the Civilizational Center for Future Studies. He has been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood for over thirty years, and served nine years as media advisor to the General Guides Muhammad Mehdi Akef and Muhammad Badie. He is a founding member of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and one of the 550 members of the regional party office in Giza. He is a graduate of Cairo University, with MA degrees in Philosophy and International Negotiation.
The following text will convey Dr. Nassar’s perspective on the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the FJP, the Salafis of Egypt, and Hamas of Gaza. It will also seek his perspective on the writings of Hassan al-Banna from the treatise, ‘Who are We, and What do We Want?’ as described in a previous text. Dr. Nassar spoke passionately, authoritatively, and clearly on these topics.
The Freedom and Justice Party
Why does the Muslim Brotherhood have just one party, and why is it kicking out members who seek other political visions? What is the political vision of the FJP? What is the role of Islam? Furthermore, is it truly independent, as required by law, or under the direction of the Brotherhood? Each of these questions betrays distrust that the Muslim Brotherhood is being sinister. Are they after democracy, or an Islamic state?
Dr. Nassar celebrates that after the revolution all segments of society have had the freedom to craft political parties. Though only about 10% of Muslim Brotherhood activity is political in orientation, it is appropriate their politics formalizes into a party. Why only one party? It is pragmatic – otherwise the power of the Muslim Brotherhood would be diffused.
The extent of rebellion, he states, has been greatly exaggerated in the press. Yes, there have been several breakaway parties from the Muslim Brotherhood – the Renaissance Party, the Pioneer Party, and the Egyptian Current Party – but those members, generally acknowledged as youth, represent less than 1% of Brotherhood youth membership. Sixty percent of the Muslim Brotherhood, in fact, are youth (under 40 years old), which is the same percentage as society at large. Dr. Nassar wondered that perhaps the Brotherhood might allow free political participation for members in the future, but that for now those leaving do not represent a new trend – in the 1990s the Wasat Party also emerged from the Brotherhood organization, and is independent today.
As for the independence of the FJP, Dr. Nassar related that party leadership tendered their resignation from their Brotherhood responsibilities in the Guidance Bureau and Shura Council, though they maintained general membership. The FJP is administratively and financially independent, taking its own decisions.
Does their continuing membership, however, imply necessary obedience to the general guide? This is not the way the Muslim Brotherhood functions, Dr. Nassar replied. First of all, the general guide does not issue instructions unless they are thoroughly studied by the group. Second of all, membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is akin to membership in a club. Anyone is welcome to join, but there are rules to abide by. The FJP operates within the framework of these rules.
Dr. Nassar made it clear that the FJP, like the Brotherhood in general, desires a civil state. It rejects the idea of a religious state, for this has never existed in the history of Islam. Yet what then about the ‘Islamic frame of reference’ which the party espouses? What does this entail?
The frame of reference is in one sense recognition of the heritage of Islamic civilization. In another and more telling sense, it is the obligation of the government to not issue laws which violate Islamic sharia. Dr. Nassar stated that sharia protects Muslims and Christians alike, guaranteeing their citizenship. This was seen with Muhammad during his Compact of Medina, in which Muslims, Jews, and pagans lived equitably under Muhammad’s rule. It was also witnessed during the caliphate of Omar ibn al-Khattab, when he entered Jerusalem and guaranteed freedom of worship to Christians now under his rule.
The decision on what violates the sharia, he added, is not to be made by religious scholars. An Islamic frame of reference is not the rule of men of religion. Rather, it places the decision in the hands of the regular judiciary, culminating in the constitutional court. This is the prerogative of a civil system.
Laws permitting adultery and the drinking of alcohol, for example, would be struck down as clearly contradicting sharia. Dr. Nassar believed, however that forced wearing of the hijab would not be enacted, as this was not a clear matter. He did state that the Brotherhood would encourage all women to be appropriately modest in their dress.
Well enough that the FJP wants a civil state, but what about Salafis? Does not the Brotherhood cooperate with them, even as they call openly for an Islamic state? Do they not call democracy a form of unbelief? Will democracy in Egypt be a one-time event?
Dr. Nassar acknowledged that the FJP cooperates with Salafi groups in Egypt, but that it does also with liberal and socialist perspectives. When asked the difference between the Brotherhood and Salafis, though, he stated there was no essential difference, only in non-essential matters. A key distinction was that traditionally Salafis avoided politics, while it has always been a component of the Brotherhood program.
Dr. Nassar went on to clarify, then, that when Salafis call for an Islamic state, he believes they are asking in essence for the same thing he described above. The problem is that the term ‘secular state’ has entered the political discourse, and Salafis take this to be anti-religion. They compensate by calling for an Islamic state, to make sure religion and politics are not separated.
Dr. Nassar realized that some were afraid Salafis, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, would treat democracy like a ladder to power, and then kick it away once it was obtained. This is not the case, with the FJP at least. He believes in a democratic system that rotates and shares power. The Brotherhood does not seek to dominate the political scene. Rather, it is working for an overall goal of promoting an Islamic renaissance, not just for Egypt, but for all Muslim peoples and the world at large. It is a civilizational project, not to be achieved by force, but by wisdom, preaching, and good communication.
In terms of Egypt, however, Dr. Nassar appeared agitated. We are not from Mars, he declared, we are Egyptians. Everyone has the right to seek to gain authority, as do we. Yet it is the people who are to choose in elections, and we hope they will choose us. Just look at the recent university elections in Ain Shams. We lost; did anything bad happen afterwards? No, our goal is to serve the people, and Egyptians know well enough what they want.
Hamas and Israel
Is Hamas part of the Muslim Brotherhood network? Are their terrorist activities supported by the Brotherhood in Egypt? What does the Brotherhood think of the Camp David Accords? Of Israel as a state? Of Jews in the Middle East?
Dr. Nassar described the Muslim Brotherhood as an ideological organization, spread worldwide in over eighty countries including the United States. Yes, the general guide represents the Brotherhood in the world, but there is no worldwide organizational structure, and each region is free to shape its own policy as long as it does not go against the general principles of the group. This is the situation with Hamas; they know their circumstances best.
To begin with Egypt, however, Dr. Nassar acknowledges the Muslim Brotherhood does not recognize the state of Israel. All the same, they deal with the situation in reality, and are asking for the amendment of the Camp David Accords, given that the treaty works in favor of Israel and to the detriment of Egypt. Yet any international adjustments, such as these, must be ratified by the Egyptian parliament.
Asked, however, if reality permitted, would the Muslim Brotherhood seek the disappearance of the Israeli state, Dr. Nassar said this was not only the wish of the Brotherhood, but of Egyptians and all Arabs. He was clear that Islam called Muslims to support the followers of Judaism and Christianity, but that it was also clear Muslims should fight those who fight them. The state of Israel is akin to a thug who entered your home by force. Is it not right to resist his occupation? Should the homeowner recognize the thug’s right to be there? Should he enter negotiations with the thug in order to get him to leave? Should he accept any situation that grants the thug the living room and kitchen in exchange for the bedroom? Should there be a democracy in which the thug gets to vote? This is all ludicrous, Dr. Nassar explained, and as such the resistance of Hamas is legitimate.
Even the means Hamas utilizes, such as the firing of rockets into Israel, is legitimate. Dr. Nassar noted that Israel also fires rockets into Gaza, which kill indiscriminately. Yet the residents of southern Israel are not strictly civilians – they are settlers and occupiers; they have usurped the land. Even outside of the West Bank and Gaza, the Jews there have come from Europe, Russia, Africa and elsewhere, taking land that was not theirs. Should Palestinians then only ask for up to the 1967 lines? No, the whole land is occupied, and it is moral to fight back against oppression.
In this sense, in the ideal, even a one state solution would not properly satisfy justice. Dr. Nassar stated that while the Jews of Palestine resident for generations had every right to live in the land, the others should go back where they came from. Reality may not permit this, as the Zionist lobby is strong, especially in America. Why else is the United States threatening to veto UN membership for Palestine, when South Sudan has been granted a state? The US is neither for democracy nor justice, simply its own interests. By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood idea is moderate, believes Islam is incorporated in all aspects of life, and intends to reform humanity.
Commenting on the Writings of al-Banna
Click here for a previous text exploring ‘Who are We, and What do We Want?’
- The Quran establishes Muslims as guardians over an incapable humanity, giving them the right of superintendence and sovereignty over the world.
God has chosen Muslims to be guardians, or witnesses, to the world because they have received his grace. Humanity is not able to know the truth or what is good, suffering many problems and limitations. Muslims should therefore rise to meet this need, acting as guardians – though not as father to child – to benefit, advise, and direct the people.
In terms of sovereignty, previous prophets like Moses and Jesus were sent only to their own people, but Muhammad was sent to the whole world. In the world there is a struggle between right and wrong which will continue until the resurrection. Muslims enter this struggle to bless the whole world peacefully – not through war – and spread the message of Islam. As this message spreads, it will also take sovereignty over the areas that accept it.
- 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.
Even though they are a minority, Muslims are in Europe, for example, and can play a role in spreading Islam there. European civilization is filled with materialism and desires, which Islam can balance with its focus on spirituality. This should be done with wisdom and good communication, and not with force, for there is no compulsion in religion.
Why not use a different word, then? And do not Muslims celebrate the raids of Muhammad?
When al-Banna wrote his message what I explained was understood naturally; ‘raiding’ was not intended. What is meant is that the religion should spread, but it is not my job to force you. I can only advise you, since freedom of religion is very important.
- The Muslim should then work to restore the international position of the Islamic nation, so that its lands are liberated and its glory revived in the return of the lost caliphate and all desired unity.
- 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.
‘Caliphate’ is only a word; what is intended is the unity of the Islamic nations, not dissimilarly to the European Union. We want them to cooperate, even to have a single leadership decided by elections.
Yes, this should also include the former Muslim lands – this should be the goal of every Muslim, not just the Muslim Brotherhood. ‘Colony’ in Arabic linguistic terms is positive – it means to develop and build up. What European nations did, however, was to destroy and exploit, seeking to make the colonies European. In terms of those nations mentioned in the text, they were originally Islamic, until the European raids took them away.
- 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.
- The Muslim should work for professorship of the world by spreading the call to Islam in all corners (quoting the Quranic verse): Fight them until there is no sedition, and all of religion is for God.
A tyrant, like Israel today, overturns what God has made natural for people. This is the meaning of sedition; it should be fought against, so that religion – the natural state – is for God. Elsewhere the Quran teaches that you should only fight someone who fights you, and that this should be a last resort.
Yet if it is your job to spread Islam and others deny and fight you, should you be silent? Reason says you should fight back; people must know that God’s will is to be implemented. Yet if it is said that the United States is oppressing Muslims, this does not mean there should be a counterattack in the US. No, the foundation of preaching religion is in wisdom and good communication; fighting is only a last resort.
- Do not adorn tombs of the deceased or call upon the help of departed saints.
If Sufism in its interpretation of Islam helps people to lift up their souls, it is very good. Yet if they deviate from proper religion, the Muslim has an obligation to make their error clear to them. This also is the role of the state, to raise consciousness as per right religion. Yet we should stop no one from visiting tombs, nor should we tear them down as happened in Saudi Arabia. A large part of the problem is simple ignorance, but yes, the practice should be prevented.
 Bassam Qutb, who had his membership frozen for supporting the presidency of Abdel Munim Abul Futouh, running in defiance of a Brotherhood decision not to pursue the presidency, estimated in June that 4000 youth were similarly disciplined. Unofficial estimates put total Muslim Brotherhood membership between 400,000 and 700,000 people, suggesting Dr. Nassar’s figure to be accurate.