Rethinking Political Islam, but then What?

Rethinking Political Islam
(Image: A painting of Mohamed Morsi in France. Flickr/ThieryEhrmann, via The Islamic Monthly.)

The first part of the title is the name of a very good explanatory piece in The Islamic Monthly. It also is the name of a new book by Shadi Hamid and Will McCants, collecting analysis from Islamists published individually at Brookings.

The trouble is, this article leaves me with more questions.

First the good stuff:

In the early 1990s, a new debate around the role of Islam and politics — and more specifically “Islamist” movements — emerged. In an alternate universe, if certain things at that moment had turned out differently, the Middle East’s path might have diverged considerably.

In the first round of Algeria’s elections in 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, won 47.5% of the vote and 188 of 231 seats. For the first time, an Islamist party was on the verge of coming to power, not through revolution (as had happened in the case of Iran) but through democratic elections. The country’s staunchly secular military quickly stepped in and aborted the elections, plunging Algeria into a civil war from which it has yet to recover.

And so the debate erupted over the “Islamist dilemma” — would Islamists who came to power through elections cede power if they were voted out of office? Or, as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian famously put it, would it be “one man, one vote, one time”?

Two opposing camps formed: those who believed these groups could be incorporated within the democratic process, as long as they played by the rules, and those who thought their ideology rendered them irreconcilable.

It’s been more than 25 years, and the debate is more or less where it started. In some ways, it’s worse.

The article describes it as worse in the Trump desire to criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood, and I largely agree. There is a significant risk:

Even more worrying [is that] it would affect not just U.S. foreign policy, but American politics and the safety and security of American Muslims.

The camp of Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon sees designation of the Brotherhood as an opening salvo against U.S. Muslim organizations and Muslims more broadly, blurring the lines between extremists, Islamists, and ordinary American Muslims.

As The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart has argued, the Bannon camp “uses the specter of the Muslim Brotherhood and Sharia law to depict American Muslim political participation, and even religious expression, as a security threat.”

Whatever real challenges there are from Islamism, they must not be manipulated to demonize Muslims. This is happening all too frequently these days.

But there is a historical insight Bannon-types latch onto:

Some of the most prominent American Muslim organizations today were started by members or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood decades ago.

Although most of these organizations were never formally linked to the Brotherhood and the influence of their Brotherhood founders has since evaporated, the Trump administration could argue that they should be subject to legal sanction once the Brotherhood is criminalized as a terrorist organization.

Yes, again, the criminalization aspects are very worrisome. But I am curious: Has the Brotherhood influence really faded? The authors know better than I do, for I do not know the American Muslim scene well. But I would be interested to know more about that assertion.

In any case, there are certainly challenges from Islamism, which the authors put forward well:

The illiberal policies pursued by many Brotherhood or Brotherhood-like organizations would harm the cause of human rights in Muslim-majority countries.


On the one hand, the Brotherhood’s many illiberal branches could set back the cause of human rights should they come to power in Muslim-majority countries. On the other, denying them the opportunity to come to power denies another fundamental human right — the freedom to participate in elections — and sets back the cause of democracy.

This is a dilemma. But I’m afraid the concluding advice raises more questions:

The U.S. should chart a middle way.

It should not help illiberal Brotherhood groups win democratic elections but neither should it prevent them. It should not cheer the electoral success of Brotherhood groups but neither should it refuse to work with them once in power if it serves other important U.S. interests.

In other words, it should treat the Brotherhood like any other illiberal political movement.

That seems like sound advice, but one – is it ‘rethinking’? It sounds like what we have always done, at least officially.

And two – is it sound?

On the first count, if our official policies have not been actual reality, we must delve into competing quasi-conspiracy theories. Some say the US has indeed backed the Brotherhood in Egypt, pushing for the ouster of Mubarak knowing full well the Brotherhood was the primary organized political force, perhaps wishing to entrust a new Middle East to Islamists rather than autocrats. Some versions of the conspiracy say we even went further, and funded and nurtured them.

Or alternately, some say we prevented their continuing in power by not adequately opposing the overthrow of Morsi and designating it a coup. Some versions of the conspiracy say we quietly cheered on as his administration was undermined, and are glad for a return of a military backbone status quo.

So which is it? The official reading of US policy is that we accepted the election results that brought Morsi to power, worked with him once there, and then worked with the administration that removed him and subsequently won a popular election. That sounds exactly like the article’s advice.

Except that the publication of the article was timed to correspond with the fourth anniversary of the clearing of the pro-Morsi protest camp, when hundreds of his supporters were killed. It is a news hook, yes. Is it also political sympathy?

If so, why not? They won the elections, though they thereafter lost much of the population. But American policy? Under the advice of the article, should we have stepped in against Morsi’s removal, or let it be?

On the second count, could it not be argued that the US should work to deny illiberal parties from coming to power, of any stripe? Right-wing neo-Nazis in Europe, for example? There are many strands of American politics that wish to isolate and limit their influence in the US. That seems quite right.

So without crossing the line into undermining democracy, if the Brotherhood-type groups are as illiberal as the author’s suggest, would it not be reasonable for the US to seek to prevent their ascendance – openly and publicly?

Perhaps there are wise reasons not to – non-interference in other nations’ internal affairs being a primary one. But I have never liked the one they propose, even if it has logical merit:

On national security grounds, criminalizing non-violent Islamists risks pushing them into the arms of violent groups targeting the U.S., increasing the risk to American lives.

Again, the criminalizing argument is necessary. Human rights extend to those you disagree with. But if a group can be so easily pushed to violence because it doesn’t get its way – that is not a good indication they should be given their way. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The Brotherhood proudly proclaims that jihad is its way and martyrdom is its highest aspiration. Islam allows for non-militant explanations of these terms, but Brotherhood groups in Gaza and Syria and Libya have all embraced militancy. The Egypt branch is torn, but even then, its prior choice of peacefulness was tactical.

Would it not be reasonable to work to prevent them from achieving the power necessary for implementation? Reasonable, that is, without undermining democracy and national sovereignty?

But there again is the dilemma, and perhaps the gap between official and unofficial policy.

The article did a very good job setting the scene. I only wish they wouldn’t have cut off the depth of their analysis right when it started to get interesting.

Then again, the authors are prolific on this topic. Surely their answer is found in other texts. Explore freely.

And please read for yourself, and comment with your thoughts. It is a fairly crucial part of American debate these days.



Is the Brotherhood ‘Rethinking’?

Rethinking Political Islam
(from Brookings)

When Brookings released a new paper from a young Muslim Brotherhood member based in Istanbul within the context of an ongoing series on political Islamism, prominent analyst Eric Trager had a poignant reply on Twitter:

“Brookings’ “Rethinking Islamism” series jumps the shark, features MB who, of course, doesn’t rethink anything.”

I laughed, but upon reading the analysis of Ammar Fayed I also noticed some sections where the group does appear to have reviewed its current situation and its year in power. I will highlight a few sections below.

But Trager also tweeted a comment that rings somewhat true:

“Islamists on Islamism – By casting MBs as research analysts, Brookings is allowing itself to become Ikhwanweb.”

Much of the article is simply a restatement of the Muslim Brotherhood internal narrative. There is no mention of the Turkey-based satellite incitements to violence, and only token mention of the ‘blurry’ line between revolutionary protest and violent means. That the people turned against Morsi is attributed solely to state-controlled media, and current divisions in the group are downplayed against an inherent unity asserted without refuting current outside analysis.

As an insider, Fayed is in a good position to know, and the paper on this count is still very valuable. But perhaps Brooking miscasts it; it is less an analysis than the presentation of one particular trend within the organization.

Unfortunately, it also seems somewhat contradictory. The overall theme is that the Muslim Brotherhood has not turned to wholescale violence because it would contradict the longstanding traditions that favor a social outreach over revolutionary change.

Fayed provides a very useful insider’s view of Brotherhood history, and contrasts the group with more violent actors:

This “model” [of the MB] carries out social services through official institutions subject to the law and operates under the authority of the state. The other carries out social services only to further the direct replacement of an absent or failed state with “Islamic rule.”

I think this is true, but toward his conclusion he says that the group is starting to change in its understanding of its enemy:

The conflict has shifted from a political conflict between the Brotherhood as an opposition group and the ruling regime into a conflict between the Brotherhood and the idea of the Egyptian state itself.

I agree with the author that the Brotherhood has not turned to violence in large swaths. But in contrast to his intended point that this will not likely happen, this point opens up that the MB is warming to a position he cast earlier as the domain of extremists. Within it he also takes a swipe at the Coptic Orthodox Church, stating “in the view of many” they are “abettors to the killings and ongoing repression”.

Earlier, Fayed relates how this state apparatus framed the Brotherhood:

By the end of June 2013, the state succeeded in “factionalizing the Brotherhood,” by portraying them as fifth-columnists separate from the rest of the population with self-serving goals. The message was clear, that the Brotherhood doesn’t have Egypt’s best interests at heart, only its own.

Certainly this was a message mobilizing against the Brotherhood. The author spends much of the paper describing the group’s attitude toward social services, showing how it serves the good of society at large.

But at the start of the paper, describing the Brotherhood founder’s somewhat nebulous and shifting attitudes toward politics, he wrote:

In the opening of the first issue of al-Natheer magazine in May 1938, Hassan al-Banna clearly stated “Until now, brothers, you have not opposed any party or organization, nor have you joined them… but today you will strongly oppose all of them, in power and outside of it, if they do not acquiesce and adopt the teachings of Islam as a model that they will abide by and work for…There shall be either loyalty or animosity.”

Clearly, this us-versus-them mentality is deeply ingrained in the Brotherhood ethos. The ‘loyalty or animosity’ theme is also a hallmark of Islamic extremism.

But this leads to one of the author’s points of reflection. The Brotherhood needs to better cooperate with others:

As long as the Brotherhood’s political imagination is unable to overcome the mindset of “coup versus legitimacy” and develop an alternative political discourse that meets the demands of the disaffected social segments that ignited the January revolution, then the Brotherhood itself may be an obstacle in its efforts to build a new culture of protest.

And in Fayed’s final conclusion, he makes an appeal:

Until now, the group has not formed a clear political vision. Nor does it have the tools to remove the military from its political calculus. Therefore, the group must work with other forces that reject the policies of the current regime.

Such an alliance, he believes, can form a broad national front whose goals and programs are based on the priorities of the revolution at large. This national front could also delineate pragmatic plans to coexist with the political and economic influence of the military for the foreseeable future.

The strategy is sensible, but he fails to state one of the most significant reasons this is not happening. Early on, the national front forces he describes felt betrayed as the Brotherhood collaborated with the military against the revolution. Yet even in this appeal to them now he does the same – imagining pragmatic plans to coexist with the military.

In a sense, this may help prove his point. The Muslim Brotherhood is not a very revolutionary organization. In fact the author’s semi-solution is to consider abandoning the political project and return to its comprehensive social role. If out of politics, he posits, the group could be a powerful force to marshal the populace to push non-Brotherhood politicians toward Islam-inspired positions.

Here is where Fayed’s most powerful rethink takes place:

The Brotherhood’s brief experience of being in power and its subsequent removal by military coup has served to strengthen the idea of separating the Brotherhood’s role as a social institution from its role as a political force …

In hindsight, it appears that the Brotherhood’s direct participation in competitive politics has done substantial damage to decades of social and religious institution building.

But since this social institution building project has been dismantled, as he acknowledges, where can the Brotherhood go now? He doesn’t see the group diving into violence, but acknowledges there is no space for reconciliation with the regime as long as Sisi is in power.

In short, there is a deep impasse in which the Brotherhood can only hope that current conditions deteriorate until the people rise again in revolt. Whatever authority comes next, it seems, might be able to work out an arrangement to restore the group.

In history this has been seen before. After Nasser, Sadat gave an opening. It may be wise to wait. Without stating it so clearly, this may be his real analysis on why the Brotherhood has not resorted to violence.

Of course he also mentions the many Brotherhood members in prison, which makes a difference also. But instead of his focus on internal Brotherhood dynamics, I would propose a different reason:

Army unity did not break, Egypt is demographically homogenous, and the people do not like violence.

For consider, the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine believes in armed struggle. The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria believes in armed struggle. Every situation is different, of course, but there is nothing intrinsic to the Brotherhood that believes in nonviolence. In Egypt, they made practical decisions on the best way to pursue their objectives within the scope of the possible.

In a vastly more constricted setting, they do the same today.

Had a division of the army broken off, should we imagine the Brotherhood would not have rallied behind it? Had they seized a portion of Upper Egypt, for example, would they not be fighting to defend it?

It is true the Brotherhood has not run off into Sinai, but an insurgency does not control Sinai, it only plagues it. Furthermore, the Brotherhood was never strong there, it would be unfamiliar terrain.

So why are not thousands of Brotherhood members committing individual terrorist acts? I would suggest it takes quite a bit to turn a frustrated political activist into a wanton killer, especially if there is no well-defined endgame. The Egyptian people do not like violence; Brotherhood members are drawn from the people. Besides, there is already a long history of Islamist insurgency from a few decades ago that only served to alienate the masses.

No matter how difficult the situation, they hold to the calculated decision that violence is still not the winning option. Give them at least some credit for this, but not necessarily the honor of principle. They have always been willing to fight, and the Brotherhood has never denied it. Their comprehensive vision of Islam does not sideline the use of force, only regulate it. The Brotherhood are pragmatists.

So what is Ammar Fayed? A very particular viewpoint within the Brotherhood that has won pride of place at an esteemed think tank. It may or may not be their dominant viewpoint, but it is insight into their world, provided the analysis is viewed within the possibility of propaganda.

In this Brookings is providing a very valuable service. It is allowing Islamists to speak into the academic discussion about Islamism. As long as it is properly introduced, I hope there will be more.