Why the Muslim Brotherhood has a Double Discourse

This excerpt is from the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, published by the American University in Cairo, and authored by a former Muslim Brotherhood member. It is a very long, scholarly, and essential summary of the history of Islamism in Egypt since the revolution. My brief reflection follows:

Another major factor that will affect the future of Islamism is the authenticity-modernity dialectic. Long decades of exclusion from the polity have hindered Islamist scholarship in sociopolitical domains. However, since authenticity is such an integral component of Islamism, Islamists cannot simply discard authenticity and unconditionally accept modern notions such as democracy. If more politically experienced groups do so, they are criticized by less experienced, more stagnant ones as ‘inauthentic,’ and their ‘Islamist legitimacy’ is consequently jeopardized.

This authenticity-modernity dialectic is most clearly manifested in the relationship between neoliberal Islamists and all the others. While the neoliberals’ unconditional pursuit of relevance to modern societies has boosted their popularity among globalized, modern segments of the society, their lack of focus on authenticity has almost completely discredited them among other Islamists.

Striking a balance between authenticity and sociopolitical relevance is a major challenge for different Islamist groups. Attitudes toward notions like ‘democracy’ and ‘the state’ reflect different groups’ positions on the matter. Al-Azhar—the symbol of authenticity—issued a statement outlining the principles of an ‘Islamically acceptable’ political system. While the definition was widely accepted by different social groups and by intellectuals, signaling success on the moderation parameter, it was criticized by Islamists, and particularly by Salafis. More significantly, none of the Islamic activists or intellectuals were invited to the first round of talks and workshops that Al-Azhar held in the run-up to the publication of this key declaration. Arguably, Al-Azhar made a political calculation—influenced by long years of disempowerment and state control and the difficulty of fighting Islamists in the struggle for legitimacy—to side with other social actors, and to win the battle for religious authenticity and representation on non-Islamist grounds.

The MB, being the most experienced political Islamist group, approached the challenge differently. The group resorted to the writings of Yusuf Al-Qaradawi40 and other credible scholars to justify its acceptance of a ‘civil’ state and emphasize the authenticity of that position. On other matters, including questions of public morality, the group’s position remains vague, as they attempt to appease audiences on both sides. The separation of the FJP from the MB has given the group more room for political maneuvering, wherein the party could adopt a politically correct stance while the Brotherhood as a whole stresses religious authenticity.

Identifying the authenticity-modernity debate is only one of many insights offered by the author, Ibrahim el-Houdaiby.

The Muslim Brotherhood, rightly, is often accused of a double discourse in which they shape their comments according to the audience listening. Without condoning, Houdaiby makes understandable the context in which they operate. It is a delicate balance to satisfy both the conservative and progressive electorates.

Of course, as events in Egypt unfolded the Brotherhood increasingly chose to lean towards the conservative base. On the one hand, Houdaiby does an excellent job highlighting socio-political factors which contributed, and presents the Islamist landscape as one of competition. On the other hand, current popular discourse presents it as shrewd, even sinister, cooperation. To some degree surely both are true.

Unraveling their true motivation is the necessary task, which includes now even the judiciary to determine the Brotherhood relationship to violence and provocation. But within this effort Houdaiby’s effort is invaluable; he elucidates the dynamics which govern modern Islamism. Set aside the article to read when you have a chance, and be discerning.

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