Middle East Providence Published Articles

Islamism: Contextualist or Essentialist? Or Both?

My new article for Providence Magazine.

Islamism Contexualist Essentialist
Photo Credit: Mosque in Tunisia. By Tarek, via Flickr.

In an excellent review of Shadi Hamid and Will McCants’ Rethinking Political Islam, Olivier Roy says there are generally two ways to think about Islamism.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, he first briefly introduces three important shockwaves—the Arab Spring, the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the emergence of Islamic State (ISIS)—that have affected the debate.

As Hamid and McCants write, “After decades speculating on what Islamists would do when they came to power, analysts, academics—and Islamists themselves—finally have an answer. And it is confusing.”

The confusion tends to be filtered into analysis based on one’s predisposition.

There is a contextual approach, as Roy explains: “The policies and practices of Islamist movements are driven less by ideology than by events and sees such groups as reactive and adaptive.” He elaborates:

Contextualists believe that Islamist groups seek to adapt to circumstances and country-specific norms (for example, by recognizing the monarchies in Jordan and Morocco). The groups’ main goal is to survive as coherent organizations and political actors. And their use of religious rhetoric is often little more than “Muslim-speak”—a way to express a unique identity and articulate grievances, especially against the West.

There is also an essentialist approach: “Islamists are fundamentally ideological and that any concessions they make to secularist principles or institutions are purely tactical.”

A corollary to this argument is the idea—extolled by critics of Islamism but also some of its adherents—that Islamic theology recognizes no separation between religion and politics, and therefore an authentic Islamist cannot renounce his ideological agenda in favor of a more pragmatic or democratic approach.

The presentation is skillful, and after researching Islamist movements and parties across the Muslim world, Roy offers a conclusion…

Please click here to read the rest of the article at Providence Magazine.


Islamists Elsewhere

Islamism Asia

The Atlantic has an insightful piece on the history of American engagement with political Islam. It is written by authors previously recommended as scholars of the movement.

The whole is worth reading, but here is an excerpt describing non-Arab Islamist success — outside of the political process.

It is often assumed politics and governance is the standard of judgment. But is that the case?

Pakistan’s Islamists provide an intriguing counterpoint to the Moroccan “model.” Yet it is a counterpoint that very few Moroccans—or Arab Islamists anywhere—seem much interested in.

Jamaat e-Islami, Pakistan’s Muslim Brotherhood analog, usually wins only a handful of parliamentary seats, yet, as Spiegel points out, the movement may very well be more influential than its Moroccan counterpart, in terms of “influencing judicial appointments, religious tradition, educational mores, and societal norms writ large.” There are other ways of winning besides, well, winning.

In Southeast Asia, Islamist parties, while gaining a significant share of the vote, have not been able to win outright on the national level.

They have, however, helped “Islamism” spread throughout society and become normalized, with even ostensibly secular parties embracing the idea that Islam—and even explicit sharia ordinances—have an important role to play in public life. The lesson here may appear counterintuitive.

The worse Islamists do in elections, the less of a threat they pose to their non-Islamist competitors, who, in turn, seem to have less of a problem appropriating Islamist styles for their own electoral purposes.

Of course, the causal relationships become complicated: One of the reasons that Islamists don’t do as well in South and Southeast Asia is because they’re less distinctive, since these societies seem to have coalesced around a relatively uncontroversial conservative “middle.”

Democracy empowers and encourages all parties, Islamist or otherwise, to seek the center, wherever that may be. As the center shifts rightward, Islamist groups are further emboldened, particularly in polarized societies where candidates pay little price for their radicalism.

It is little surprise, then, that Indonesia, the largest Muslim democracy in the world, has seen a sectarian upsurge. (In May 2017, a Muslim candidate who had developed a reputation as a young “moderate” played on hardline conservative sentiment to unseat the governor of Jakarta, a Christian, who was subsequently imprisoned for blasphemy.)

People often say that Islamism has already conquered Egypt, even if the Brotherhood lost. There is a conservatism to society that wasn’t always here, at least as judged by photos of teachers and students from the 1950s and earlier.

Cairo University Islamism
Cairo University, 1959.

There is also this interesting nugget on Islamists at home:

By the time the Arab uprisings toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011, the United States had already begun thinking about a new approach toward Islamists.

In 2010, the National Security Council began work on a Presidential Study Directive focused on the question of what a push for genuine political reform in the Middle East would look like—including the normalization of Islamists as political actors.

The immediate challenge after the revolutions of 2011 was therefore not one of deciding whether to increase engagement with Islamists—the Obama administration had already come around on that issue—but rather the question of how and to what extent to undertake such a shift.

I either didn’t know or had forgotten this data point. With all the Egyptian accusations that the US was plotting the Muslim Brotherhood takeover of the nation, it would have been poignant consideration at the time — and now.


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.



Why the Carnage in Pakistan?

Pakistan Lahore Easter

At least 69 people are dead in the Pakistani city of Lahore, many of them from Christian families celebrating Easter in a public park.

The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility, stating it directly targeted Christians and promises further attacks in the future.

From Lapido Media, an anonymous British NGO worker provides a first-hand account:

A crowd of some 25,000 protesters had gathered in Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s twin city, and after prayers, started marching towards the capital. As night fell they arrived in front of the National Assembly building and fighting broke out.  Tear gas was fired, and the rioters smashed Islamabad’s new metro bus stations, assembled at great expense only a year earlier.

As we drove home from Easter Sunday celebrations we could hear the chanting: thousands of people in the heart of Pakistan’s capital city demanding that the government institute a policy of ethnic cleansing.

A challenging question is why such brutality exists, coupled with hardcore support for a blasphemy law that further targets religious minorities.

The author takes note of many signs of tolerance emerging after the tragedy in Lahore, and finds hope:

While there are Muslims who pray for the rights of Pakistani minorities; while there are Muslims who text me condolences on the Christian lives lost in Lahore; while there are Muslims who risk their lives to demand government action against radical clerics who openly declare their support for Islamic State –while such people exist, there is hope for Pakistan.

But he also lays blame on one man in particular who set it all in motion:

It is not easy to step back from three decades of officially-sanctioned Islamism; the retrogressive reforms of General Zia, who strengthened the blasphemy law and degraded the rights of Pakistani women, cannot be undone without a fight.

At such analysis Countercurrents balks:

There is a tendency among historians and analysts to place most if not all of the blame for the current state of affairs on the shoulders of the US-sponsored dictator General Zia-ul-Haq.

Instead, the author faults the very movement that created Pakistan in the first place:

In the late 1930s, elements within the Muslim elite, motivated by narrow and selfish interests, began to aggressively pursue an agenda involving the creation of a separate state for India’s Muslim population.

The oft-repeated phrase “Jinnah’s Pakistan” should be familiar to even the most casual observers. Those who conjure up this tired slogan whenever minorities are targeted must come to terms with the fact that it was the “Quaid” himself who set the dangerous precedent of using communalist rhetoric for political ends.

Jinnah, a westernized, non-practicing Muslim, cynically raised the cry of “Islam in Danger” as part of his campaign to drive a wedge between Muslims and Hindus and gain support for the partition of the Indian subcontinent among the sections of the Islamic clergy.

Based on the bogus claim that Muslims and Hindus constituted two distinct nations, the partition that gave birth to the “Land of the Pure” was a tragedy of immense proportions, resulting in an orgy of violence and untold suffering for millions of people on both sides of the artificial border.

What is happening is simply the inevitable result of official policy…

… rooted in Pakistan’s creation through the partition, that encourages the identification of Islam with the state, consequently diminishing non-Muslims to second-class status while also fanning the flames of religious fundamentalism and strengthening the power of the clerics.

Quartz, however, wants to absolve Jinnah, quoting:

His speech advanced the case for a secular, albeit Muslim-majority, Pakistan: ‘I cannot emphasize it too much. We should begin to work in that spirit and in course of time all these angularities of the majority and minority communities, the Hindu community and the Muslim community … will vanish.’

And again:

You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State …

Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.

That this has not happened is a fault that rests in the decline of the state itself:

Pakistan’s most prominent human rights activist, Asma Jahangir, warns that the worst is yet to come. ‘Past experience has shown that the Islamists gain space when civilian authority weakens,’ she pointed out in an article a few years ago.

‘The proliferation of arms and official sanction for jihad have made militant groups a frightening challenge for the government. Pakistan’s future remains uncertain and its will to fight against rising religious intolerance is waning.’

I am no expert in Pakistan, but right or wrong, this is analysis. The greater question is what can be done about it.


Fear and Islamism in Egypt

MB England EgyptIs the Muslim Brotherhood really Qutbist? Are frustrated members inclined toward the Islamic State? In an interview with Ahram Online, political commentator Wahid Abdel Maguid both reconsiders assumptions and reminds of reality:

Abdel-Meguid, a member of the Constituency Assembly of Egypt since 2012, is reluctant to endorse alarm concerning a supposed nationwide infiltration of militant Islamist movements. Nor is he willing to corroborate “exaggerated accounts” suggesting militant Islamist groups like ISIS are finding ready recruits in the Brotherhood ranks.

“That is an overblown story. I don’t deny that there’s a sympathy there, or that some young and angry members have defected to ISIS. But their numbers are limited,” Abdel-Meguid says.

Abdel-Meguid says the Brotherhood has not been under the sway of Sayyid Qutb’s radical thinking. Qutb was an early Brotherhood leader with some violent ideas…

“That is security jargon – this Qutbi thinking. It’s popular in security circles and promoted by security-aligned media, in part to excuse the McCarthyism practiced against the Muslim Brotherhood,” Abdel-Meguid opines.

Under the three-decade rule of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, Abdel-Meguid says, the state continued the short-sighted and undemocratic scheme of using the Muslim Brotherhood to serve a political agenda.

Mubarak, however, did not aim to use Islamists groups to defeat other political movements, but rather to present moderate Islamist groups like the Brotherhood as an unsavory option – “the Islamist alternative” to his rule.

“The state allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to function across the social sphere. First within universities then within syndicates and then by establishing some 2000 NGOs – which are now being taken over by the state one-by-one in a McCarthyist campaign,” he says…

For the most part, Islamists tangoed. The Brotherhood continued to act across the social spectrum, contesting parliamentary elections and criticising the regime, “short of criticising Mubarak himself”.

“This was the situation when they started taking part in the slow surge of political activities that started around 2005, but once the demonstrators started to use slogans directly slamming Mubarak they [the Brotherhood] would step back. This was the case until the early hours of the 25 January Revolution,” says the long-time politcal commentator.

The landslide success of all kinds of Islamist candidates at the 2011 parliamentary elections tempted the Brotherhood to go back on that agreement and to fall prey to the “arrogance of power”, says Abdel-Meguid.

This arrogance set off a series of misguided political choices that eventually reminded society of its fear of “the Islamist alternative”, an alternative that had now become reality.

“This explains the attitude of those who were very supportive of the Islamists in 2011 and were subsequently very supportive of the military in 2013,” when elected president Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood member, was ousted.

The Islamists’ failure to grasp the political inclinations of society was highlighted when Morsi invited to 6 October celebrations one of the militants convicted of being involved in Sadat’s assassination at the same celebrations just 30 years before.

“What they did was suicidal and it will be a very long time before the damage is rectified, especially with the terrifying expansion of groups like ISIS scaring Egyptians and the wider world,” Abdel-Meguid concluded.


A Regime-Islamist Reconciliation?

morsi-sisiVery important but under-reported news in this article from al-Ahram Weekly:

Recent developments suggest the possibility of a thaw in relations between the state and political Islam. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi recently met with three members of the Dissident Muslim Brothers, a breakaway group from the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is also a reconciliation initiative, proposed by Tarek Al-Bishri, between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood. The legal scholar, known to be close to the Islamist trend, hopes the initiatives will attract Saudi backing.

After describing recent incidents of terrorism, the article provides perspective from the former Brothers:

Speaking to the press following the meeting between Al-Sisi and Dissident Muslim Brothers, Tharwat Al-Kharbawi said those attending agreed that a reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood is unrealistic.

Al-Kharbawi described the three-hour meeting as “an extraordinary meeting with an extraordinary man …You can rest assured that Egypt is in good hands. But we all have to work together to ensure he is not left alone.”

In the background are discussions with Brotherhood members in detention:

Al-Zafrani (ex-MB) told the press that the statements of repentance issued by some detainees was discussed. He said Al-Sisi welcomed the recantations. He quoted the president as saying that the principle of revision, admission of mistakes and repentance is acceptable as long as those issuing the declarations have not committed criminal acts.

Security sources report a growing number of imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood members are renouncing their membership of the group. Muslim Brotherhood leaders deny there is any such trend.

As for the reconciliation initiative, Bishry revealed it to a Turkish newspaper:

He also spoke of the January revolution, parliamentary elections and the importance of safeguarding the Egyptian state. “The continued existence of the state in Egypt is vital … we must preserve and perpetuate it through the participation of the people,” he said.

Al-Bishri argued that the ongoing conflict in Egypt is between three forces: the state and its backbone the army; Islamists and their grassroots organisations; and liberal elites who control the media. “The state, which is the strongest, should reach out to all,” he said.

Brotherhood dissidents dismiss Al-Bishry, finding him inclined to the Brotherhood above all.

After describing the long prison sentences given to many Brotherhood leaders, the article concludes with its analysis. The two sides are simply positioning:

In the confrontation between the state and political Islam, pressure is being sustained, on the one side, by long prison terms for Muslim Brotherhood leaders. On the other, there are bombings and violence being carried out by anti-state, pro-Islamist forces, considered by the state to be linked to the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

It is a game of nerves in which each side is seeking to strengthen its hand for whatever negotiations eventually ensue.

Certainly, Al-Sisi’s meetings with leaders from breakaway Muslim Brothers and reports that the new Saudi monarch is eager to settle the situation in Egypt suggest some form of social, if not political, reconciliation is increasingly likely.

Right or wrong in this conclusion, the article is worthy of consideration.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

The Implications of Charlie for Political Islam

Fadel Soliman
Fadel Soliman

What is the message of Charlie Hebdo concerning political Islam? It must be allowed to compete and win power, lest these tragedies be repeated.

Of course, the political messages made out of terrorism are many. Some say greater security measures are needed. Others call for limitations on Muslim immigration. Some call for curbs on freedom of speech. Others demonize Islam as a whole.

But there is a powerful argument that states the flare-up of terroristic violence is tied to the grievances of Muslim people around the world. These could be the sufferings of the Palestinians, or the innocent victims of drone strikes. But one of the most animating interpretations of grievance comes in the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood at the hand of military authorities in Egypt.

Evaluation of this argument is beyond the scope of this article. But understanding the perspective is necessary to best appreciate the mindset of the segment of Islamists who insist they are committed to the peaceful pursuit of power. In this case the spokesman will be Fadel Soliman.

Soliman is the founder and director of Bridges Foundation, who following the September 11 tragedy wished to bring peoples together by correcting misunderstandings of Islam. An Egyptian, he created a Cairo branch in 2005 under the auspices of then-Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, and enjoyed wide favor in both countries, winning endorsements also by congressmen and military leaders in the US.

But over the course of the Arab Spring his position of favor with the government changed. Soliman was an active participant in the revolution, but was also among the protestors at the pro-Morsi sit-in at Raba’a al-Adaweya, where he witnessed sixteen of his students killed in the bloody dispersal. He has not returned to Egypt since.

In December he published a video in which the above perspective on political Islam is established. He is horrified by the emergence of the so-called Islamic State, but more so by the attraction Muslim youth are beginning to show. Millions, he said, own the dream of ruling by sharia.

When the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated power could come through peaceful, democratic methods, they flocked to his support. But following the coup, he states, the world has witnessed an unprecedented recruitment of jihadists to Syria and Iraq. The worst, he predicts, is yet to come.

This message is given as part of a video series organized by the Munathera (Debate) Initiative, asking, “There won’t be change without…” Soliman’s answer is, “…the renewal of hope for peaceful change.” But Soliman can offer no specifics on what to do to renew this hope. He remarked about the strength of protests in the streets, and noted the violence in Syria only began when the army split. Tactics, however, are for the leaders, and he is part of no Islamist organization.

But he is an observer and knows his community. He compared the situation to a pipe with two spigots. If one is plugged up (political Islam), the water will definitely come out the other (jihadist Islam).

He did have a message for the church, however, given in Christmas felicitations offered to the leaders of Christians against the Coup. Copts should think for themselves and stop following the political dictates of the church. He believed violence is coming given the choices made to support Sisi.

“I am so worried about the future of Egypt,” said Soliman, “especially about the reactions of Muslims toward you.”

Soliman noted parallels to Mamluk Egypt when some Copts, he said, cooperated with the ‘coup’ attempt of the invading Mongols. Some viewed this as treachery, and in 1321 mobs took it out on the community as a whole, destroying churches and looting homes. Historian Phillip Jenkins says the government, after initially trying to suppress the riots, eventually looked the other way. Soliman said many Muslims today view Christian support of the coup as similar treachery.

But is this an accurate description? Copts have lauded the current climate as one in which Copts have never received such appreciation from state and society together. Muslims in the millions also backed Sisi, but many Islamists focus on Christian participation.

Soliman is clear he is not making a threat, he is describing his fear. But he speaks powerfully about the need for justice for those who have shed blood, and is convinced about the best method revealed to man.

“Sharia means absolute justice for everyone,” he said, noting his previous efforts to locate the UN Declaration of Human Rights in its contents. “So if I see a world of injustice its application is my dream.

“It is my right as a Muslim and as an Islamist to see sharia prevailing. It is my right, whether I am right or wrong.”

As mentioned above, ‘right or wrong’ is beyond the scope of this article. But right or wrong in his assessment of Egypt, right or wrong in his judgment of sharia, his vision is right in the eyes of millions.

Will these copycat Charlie Hebdo? Should the threat yield greater allowance to political Islam? Does it warrant greater curtailment? This is only one of the political debates in its aftermath, but Egypt is the ongoing laboratory.

This article was first published on Arab West Report.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: National List

Flag Cross QuranGod,

What value is there in praying over the squabbling of politicians?

President Sisi gathered representatives of the political parties and asked them to agree on one national list to present to the people for upcoming parliamentary elections. Many have met to discuss, but so far they have fully failed.

But does it matter to you? Is the request valid? Is their unity desired?

At present there are four main blocs. One consists of politicians and businessmen related to the old regime. Another comes from old school opposition figures. A third gathers newer parties born after the revolution.

The final bloc is the Salafi Nour, currently awaiting judicial rulings on its continuing legality as a ‘religious’ party. To date, they have been ignored in the efforts of the first three to negotiate a common non-Islamist list.

But the first three blocs are fluid, and in the background is the success of Tunisia’s non-Islamists to squeeze out the Brotherhood-like Nahda.

If only for the prayers of Egypt’s non-Islamists, should newer revolutionaries ally with old regime figures? Is this betrayal of their birthright, or recognition of greater threat?

Guide all negotiations to what is right and best, God. But for all the bickering, these parties fight over a twenty percent slice of parliament. The rest goes to independents who may receive support of different parties, but lie outside their sphere.

God, you inhabit messy spaces. You concern yourself with man’s foibles. However often the manner is outside your preference, it is here your will is made known.

Parliament may determine a lot.

At the least it is necessary for Egypt’s stability. Therefore, God, let it come. As for its members, give Egypt good men who will serve – both constituencies and principles.

Whatever share the parties have in this measurement, honor them accordingly. If they unite over a consensual national list, honor their sacrificed interests. If they divide over core issues, honor their commitment to platform.

And if anything else, may they bear the consequences of selfish ambition.

Squabble they may, and it may be necessary. But guide each one’s concern to be part of your list, their names found in the Book of Life.

Here there is no bloc, no negotiation, no election – only grace. May every politician act accordingly.


Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Islamism or Jihadism: A False Choice

Fadel Soliman
Fadel Soliman

In the year 1321 Muslim mobs, with tacit allowance from the Mamluk Sultan, destroyed 60 churches in Egypt and openly attacked Copts on the roads and in their homes. Incitement included accusations Christians supported the invading Mongols in their ‘coup’ attempt against the state.

According to UK-based Fadel Soliman, these days may soon return. Coptic support for President Sisi and his coup against the democratically elected Islamist presidency of Mohamed Morsi has resulted in a ‘poisoned atmosphere’ between religious adherents.

‘I am so worried about the future of Egypt,’ said Soliman, ‘especially about the reactions of Muslims toward you.’

Soliman issued this comparison in the context of a larger argument about restoring hope to Muslim youth who own the dream of ruling by sharia. Too many, he laments, are attracted by the success of the so-called Islamic State following the ‘betrayal’ of the democratic dawn.

‘Either give the way to Muslim youth to try to reach their dreams through peaceful means,’ he told Lapido Media, ‘or they will definitely seek violent means. This is normal, this was expected to happen.’

Soliman is the Egyptian founder and director of Bridges Foundation, a UK-based NGO that aims to overcome misconceptions about Islam. His work has been praised by diverse figures such as Representative Michael Doyle of Pennsylvania and the liberal satirist Bassem Youssef of Egypt. He has consistently condemned terrorism and appealed to the Islamic State for the return of Alan Henning, later beheaded.

He is also an Islamist, arguing sharia law supports and enhances the principles contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He wishes justice for Egypt, to which he has not returned since the dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-in at Rabaa where he witnessed sixteen of his students killed.


But the crucial question is – if his argument is correct will frustrated Islamists flock to a jihadist vision? And similarly, should policymakers encourage ‘moderate’ Islamists as a counterweight to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State?

The argument is very popular in academic circles, informing much of the enthusiasm of the initial Arab Spring. Khalil al-Anani of Georgetown University in Washington DC, writing in Foreign Affairs, speaks for many in his worry about a return to authoritarianism in Egypt.

‘Through its clampdown on political dissent, Cairo has created a fertile ground for ISIS and groups like it,’ he wrote,‘with the potential to recruit young people, Islamists, and moderates alike.’

Indeed, most Muslims in Egypt are religiously conservative. The 2013 Pew survey showed 74% want sharia to be the law of the land, with 56% believing Egypt’s current legal system is deficient. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi parties captured nearly three-quarters of the parliament in the 2012 elections. It would appear these numbers represent those are ripe for radicalisation.

But Soliman’s appraisal of Egyptian politics fails to account for the millions of Muslims and Christians who rejected the presidency of Morsi. Coup or not, the subsequent ‘yes’ votes for the constitution and Sisi’s presidency each exceeded the 13 million Morsi won in 2012.

These numbers do not negate the conviction of Islamists that they have been cheated out of gains fairly won. Their grievances have been buttressed by the 632 people killed at Rabaa, according to Egypt’s semi-governmental National Council for Human Rights. A minimum of 6,400 people have been detained for ‘rioting’, according to the Ministry of the Interior.


But the assumption these frustrations will drive Islamists to violence is simply a form of bigotry, according to Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute in Washington DC.

‘I disagree with this line of argument,’ he said. ‘It is shallow and insulting to Muslims. It is the bigotry of low expectations.’

Where Soliman sees the path to violence as normal—despite his firm rejection—Tadros sees responsibility.

‘Violence is a choice,’ he said. ‘It is not an inevitable one. Just as some have chosen the path of terrorism, there are millions of men and women who have chosen not to become terrorists, not to kill their enemies.’

Estimates of Egyptians fighting in Syria and Iraq range between 5,000 and 8,000. Islamist movement expert Ahmed Ban of the Nile Center for Strategic Studies believes this makes up 20-30% of their fighting force.

These are significant numbers. But according to two recent polls, only three to four percent of Egyptians view the Islamic State in positive terms. Viewed in light of a population of 90 million, small percentages cause considerable worry. But Egyptians, including the mass of Islamists, are not rushing headlong into jihadism.

Soliman says that every time he criticizes the Islamic State his Facebook and Twitter feeds light up in protest.

But Khaled Dawoud of Egypt’s Constitution Party, writing for the Atlantic Council, says the majority of Egyptians in Syria and Iraq travelled there during the presidency of Morsi. It was not the failure of Islamism that boosted jihadism, but its success.

Egypt has instituted travel restrictions to Turkey to prevent the further flow of citizens to the Islamic State. Terrorism continues in the restless Sinai where the Islamic State has formed a local chapter. The threat is real.

Prioritising values

But even peaceful Islamists have a distinct illiberal agenda, writes Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution in his acclaimed book Temptations of Power. The premise that democracy would moderate them did not prove true in Egypt. In an excerpt from the Atlantic he describes the conflict this makes for observers, but Egyptians bear the greater struggle.

‘The ensuing—and increasingly charged—debate over the role of religion in public life put Western analysts and policymakers in the uncomfortable position of having to prioritise some values they hold dear over others,’ he wrote.

In the ongoing debate about how to include Islamists in the political order, foreign governments and Egyptians will set their agenda according to particular interests and principles.

But the implicit threat of jihadism should not be given a place of priority. It is neither sufficiently true nor morally honorable.

This article was originally published at Lapido Media.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Blame and Impose

Flag Cross Quran


The last three years in Egypt have been troublesome. Find a culprit, and force your way.

An early culprit was Mubarak. Today he faces a verdict that may exonerate him.

The current culprit is the Muslim Brotherhood, according to a national fact-finding investigation into the post-June 30 violence. They initiated the violence in the dispersal of their pro-Morsi sit-in, and followed it up against Christians across the nation.

An ongoing culprit is also named. The security services exercised an inordinate and random response, resulting in hundreds of deaths. They have the ire of Islamists who called for nationwide protests this weekend, but did not galvanize.

God, of course there are many to blame. Find them and transparently hold them to account. But blame deflects from one’s own culpability.

Give Egypt humility, and help her hold herself to account.

For it far easier to impose. The state has the strength and is asserting its right. Thousands have been arrested and dissenters marginalized.

But even weakness seeks to impose. A Salafi group, backed by the Brotherhood, called on the masses to impose sharia law and Islamic identity.

Each is trying to fix what went wrong.

The state does not wield the sword in vain, God, you have asked it to maintain justice and order. But the human impulse to blame and impose contradicts other principles you demand. Mercy, patience, confession, and other-centeredness – these are absent among too many.

Preserve goodness in Egypt, God. Protect her against those who wish her ill, but may she not respond in kind. Generate a wide consensus, so that no force is necessary.

Issue no blame, God, and impose no wrath. Forgive, and rebuild Egypt.



Nour’s Quiet Dissenters

From the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a lucid article explaining the current situation of the Salafi Nour Party.

Having backed the popularly-led military overthrow of President Morsi, the party ensured at least its short- to mid-term survival, and did not go the way of the Brotherhood. But in doing so they have fractured their internal cohesion and invited the derision of many Islamists, their natural constituency. The results of their gamble remain to be witnessed, likely in upcoming parliamentary elections.

But here is an interesting excerpt about leadership in the Salafa Dawa, the socio-religious preaching association that gave rise to the Nour Party:

The movement’s controversial support for the military has also heightened internal divisions. The initial division that weakened the movement followed a disagreement between Emad Abdel Ghaffour, the former leader of the Nour Party, and Yasser Borhami, deputy head of the Salafi Dawa, that led to the former splitting off to form his own Watan Party in January 2013. Nour’s backing of the military and the crackdown on the Brotherhood deepened the rifts between those remaining in the party. A number of the original founders of the Salafi Dawa have stopped attending its meetings, such as Dr. Said Abdel-Azeem, who before June 30 had announced that he believed in “the legitimacy of President Mohammed Morsi.” Abdel-Azeem stayed the course after July 3 and appeared on the speakers’ podium at the Rabia al-Adawiya protest repeatedly; he has been against the Nour Party’s support of the military since the crisis between Nour and the Brotherhood began in January 2013. Dr. Mohammed Ismail al-Muqaddam has also been absent from the movement since July 3, declining to appear in public or speak about politics.

Even more illustrative of the fragmentation within the Salafi leadership is the sermon given by prominent Salafi figure Dr. Ahmed Farid at a mosque in the Amiriyya district of Alexandria on February 28, in which he called for “returning to our origin.” He added that “for 40 years, we have wanted to return to missionary work (al-dawa) and forget politics,” even though only a few days earlier he himself had participated in a political conference supporting the latest constitution. Even though a majority of the Salafi Dawa leadership is sympathetic to these dissenters, Borhami, the most powerful figure in the movement, continues his efforts to convince his followers that the political Salafi Dawa organization is emerging from the current crisis stronger than before. Borhami has sent his pupils and followers throughout Egypt’s provinces to rally Nour Party supporters and convince them of the wisdom of nominally condemning the use of violence against pro-Brotherhood protesters while tacitly accepting it by supporting the military regime, including Nour’s recent endorsement of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for president and calls for their followers to vote for him.

I have no evidence to the contrary, but I am curious how the author judges the majority to be sympathetic to dissenters. Is it an emotional sympathy, or something more? If more, might they be letting Borhami take the lead, watching to see what happens, but ready to let him take the fall if necessary?

Under this speculation, ‘if necessary’ could come from two directions. The first, as the author makes clear, is the possibility that Nour Party support for the transition may still not be enough to preserve their political presence. If they are denied a continuing place in politics under Article 74 of the new constitution, Borhami would be the one to hold accountable.

Less likely, but still the goal of many Brotherhood-sympathetic Islamists, is that the military overthrow of Morsi might still be reversed. If so, Borhami could be highlighted as the traitor while those keeping quiet now quickly seek to mend fences.

In any case, the interactions are fascinating. Read the full article linked above to get a good overview of the situation.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

How Salafis Supported the Constitution in Upper Egypt

Hamdi Abdel Fattah of the Nour Party
Hamdi Abdel Fattah of the Nour Party

Post-Morsi, some say, the Salafi Nour Party was pushed into a corner. Others say they played their cards perfectly. In any case they supported the 2014 constitution despite its removal of religious provisions they largely orchestrated only two years earlier. While the Muslim Brotherhood and most other non-Nour Salafis railed against what they called the ‘coup and its constitution’, the Nour Party nimbly tried to navigate the landscape.

So what did they do, and what was their rhetoric? In an interview with Arab West Report Sheikh Hamdi ‘Abd al-Fattah provided perspective from Maghagha, a city in the governorate of Minya.

The party held one large mass conference in Minya, in which Mohamed Ibrahim Mansour, Nour’s representative on the Committee of Fifty which wrote the constitution, joined Sheikh Sharif al-Hiwari from Alexandria, and the local deputy of the Endowments Ministry formed a panel. The party’s approach to the constitution was explained by Mansour and others; Mansour himself spoke for an hour and answered questions for an hour and a half more. Everything was done in full transparency, ‘Abd al-Fattah stated.

From the government to the district level, such as in Maghagha and Beni Mazar, the Nour Party organized marches and had small four-to-five delegations circulate in the streets. Both were meant to give opportunity for people to speak face-to-face with party leaders and have their concerns answered.

For more details, and to discover the reasoning behind their controversial support, please click here to read the full article.


Building Democratic Polity in the Face of Islamism

From The Immanent Frame, an article describing where democracy went wrong in Egypt, and doesn’t blame the Islamists. The author draws on James Madison’s assertion that factionalism cannot be destroyed without destroying freedom, and that the only path is to create democratic governmental mechanisms that prevent a certain faction from taking over the state.

This, unfortunately, never took place in Egypt. Non-Islamist political forces, for one reason or another, were never able to develop the kind of broad and cohesive coalitions that could have effectively represented them. After the constitutional crisis of the fall of 2012, moreover, they effectively threw in the towel, and formed the National Salvation Front.

The article states the NSF sought to undermine the government rather than seek to compete with it.

Even if it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood is essentially an anti-democratic movement, it could not have threatened an Egyptian democracy, at least as long as other Egyptian political movements played their role in such a democracy by organizing their supporters into cohesive parties that could effectively compete at the ballot box. Even if it took a couple of rounds of electoral losses before they successfully organized themselves, it would have been worth it to build a genuine democratic coalition.

The question the opposition might give in response is that the Brotherhood showed inclination not to reform the state and open up a democratic polity, but to inherit the Mubarak state and maintain its relative authoritarianism. The author admits the Brotherhood’s illiberal leanings, but finds it would not ultimately have mattered.

In short, so long as there is at least the credible prospect of a politically competitive system, there is no reason to believe that the principles underlying the median voter theorem would not have applied to restrain the Muslim Brotherhood until such time as the non-Islamist opposition could have organized itself more effectively. Ironically, then, it may very well be the case that the biggest problem facing Egyptian democracy is not that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is too committed to its own organization, as many Egyptian commentators have suggested, but rather that other Egyptian groups lack the internal discipline necessary to form an effective nationwide coalition.

This seems too rosy an application of Madison, but spot on concerning the fault of the opposition. But there is more strong critique to come.

Success at the ballot box is not mere “ballotocracy,” to be casually dismissed, as many Egyptian liberals have claimed. An inability to form an electoral majority signifies an inability to govern—at least in the absence of overwhelming force.

So what then? Here is the author’s hindsight analysis:

The fact that there is no credible liberal democratic political party does not mean, however, that Omar Suleiman was right. It only means that Egypt has not yet produced such a party. The existence of such a party is not, however, a precondition for a functioning electoral democracy; it is the product of the practice of democracy over multiple rounds and iterations.

It is too late now, unless it isn’t too late. This would be the claim of the liberals, that the democratic order is now coming under a strong and guiding hand. The author disagrees, and thinks they took the easy way out.

As a result of their short-sighted strategies, Egypt faces at least several years of renewed authoritarianism. Instead of attempting to exclude their competitors from politics, Egyptians need to embrace competitive politics and accept the substantial costs of building a competitive electoral system from the ground up, even if that requires letting your opponents win from time to time.

Ironically, his advice may have been heeded by an unintended audience. The Salafi Nour Party may have sensed what was coming, took their licks, and ensured their coming place in the order – democratic or otherwise.

If not democratic, Muslim governments have long had their ‘sultan’s sheikhs’, as the Nour Party is now derogatorily called by pro-Morsi Islamists. But if democratic, they stand ready to inherit the Islamist mantle. Perhaps they will lose elections to come, but by building up the polity, their bet is for the long haul.

Who knows the developing political orientation of the people, but if Gulf funding is any indicator, these Salafis may be the best students of Madison.


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.


Islamists on the Demise of Islamism

From the Hudson Institute, a very long but very worthy survey of Islamist reflection on current events in Egypt and the fall of Morsi. In addition, it translates in full three current articles on the subject by leading non-Egyptian Islamists, and here is an excerpt from Tunisia’s Rashid al-Ghannouchi:

What is called “political Islam” is not in a state of decline. Rather it is in the process of correcting its mistakes and preparing for a new phase, which is not far away, of the practice of better governance. It does not need decades to recover larger opportunities that await it in the time of open-source media spaces, and in the face of coup projects which nakedly lack any moral, civilizational or political cover.

They (Islamists) are deeply rooted movements in their societies carrying the values of peaceful democratic revolution and the values of communalism as a substitute for individuality in a successful marriage of the values of Islam and the values of modernity.

Two thoughts: First, as the Muslim Brotherhood was scrambling to after the fall of Morsi but before the full scale crackdown witnessed now, many Brothers admitted vaguely that their movement had ‘made mistakes‘. But this seemed less an admission as a plea for allies, and was rejected wholescale by the revolutionary forces who believed the Brotherhood betrayed them.

Above, Ghannouchi argues that this current trial is producing the reflection necessary to achieve better governance, chief of which is a spirit of inclusion. Perhaps he speaks confidently because of Tunisia’s experience, in which Islamists engaged in political give-and-take to produce a consensual constitution which falls short of Islamist hopes.

But if Egyptian Islamists are engaged in this reflection it is not demonstrated in the public discourse of Brotherhood leadership, mostly abroad. Instead the focus is on a full return of Morsi’s legitimacy and a prosecution of all involved in the ‘coup’. Perhaps this is popular rhetoric from which they can retreat at the moment of success, but it continues the problem from which their movement suffers: doublespeak.

For at the same time Muslim Brothers are reaching out to other revolutionary movements uncomfortable with the behavior of the army. They might find among them allies, but having had full opportunity to be inclusive, choosing instead to discard them at the moment of success, why should these groups trust them again? Now under pressure, have they really reformed? Especially when faced with Ghannouchi’s vision, stated in a 2009 article also translated by the author:

Nothing can stop the advance of Islamism:

which makes the task of empowering it a matter of time and standing in its way is pure stubbornness to the ways of history and society… attempting to stop it only results in more extremism and explosion. Islamism is not limited to a party or a group, the Islamic project is broader than being reduced to a party or a governance program, governance is merely a part of its project, and is not the greater part or the most important.

Would-be allies are invited to participate in the governance of the state, but only in light of the inevitability of full, Islamist triumph. It is not simply a matter of ‘why trust them again’. The Islamist goal, as articulated by Ghannouchi, is one of ideological domination. Within this vision is good governance and general morality, yes, but not ultimate plurality. If other revolutionary groups have a different vision, why should they enable?

Second, I wonder if Ghannouchi’s vision is anachronistic. He claims in the first quote above that political Islam is the union of Islam and modernity, but does he seek to inherit something that no longer exists? Western analysts say that civilization is now in post-modernity. Perhaps they are wrong and even defining the difference is beyond the scope of this reflection.

But have Islamists struggled a century to achieve a goal that is now but a vapor? If modernity was the effort to ideologically define the rapid industrial, educational, and technological advances of mankind – leaving many behind – post-modernity is an admission of this ideological failure. Islamists might say, ‘Wait, you haven’t tried us yet,’ but is the world willing to experiment? Or rather, by asserting a single ideology, worse, wrapped in religion, are they flailing against a general rejection of grand claims? Plurality, especially in the West, is the non-ideology of the day.

Can Islamism speak to this, or is it hopelessly behind the times? These are questions only, but Ghannouchi prompts them. Do even his hopeful answers miss the mark?


Churches Burn, Christians Sing

This video – with transliterated subtitles – was produced by a church choir in Minya, Upper Egypt, a region which witnessed several severe church burnings. They stand within one church’s charred remains, and sing about love and forgiveness.

May they truly live these words.

Many Christians have spoken that if these heinous attacks are the price they must pay to secure a civil state of free and equal citizenship, they are willing. But are they willing also not just to forgive alleged Islamists who committed these crimes, but also reach out to them in love and understanding? Right now, their temptation is to celebrate the upswing of their fortunes and join in the condemnation, if not demonization, of all things Islamist.

For a view of some of these crimes, please see this video, recently released by the Bible Society showing the attack on its branches in Minya and Asyut.

Yes, if they wish, condemn all things Islamist, but not all people Islamist. This is the test of their song: All crimes notwithstanding, can they differentiate between actions, ideas, and the people themselves? The love of which they sing demands they stand against the tide and seek transparent justice for all currently accused.

And then, amidst it all, to forgive. This is far easier in song than in deed, but meditation in song can transform the heart. Can it transform the Copts? Can it transform the nation? The outlook is bleak, therefore, keep singing…

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Churches Gain, Islamists Lose in Latest Draft of Egypt’s Constitution

Morsi and Bakhomious

From my recent article in Christianity Today, published December 10, 2013:

Egyptian Christians will soon have a law to regulate church building. But this is only one achievement celebrated by Copts in the revised national charter scrubbed of most of its Islamist tinge.

“Christians have freedom of belief and practice,” said Safwat al-Baiady, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt and a member of the constitutional committee. “And for the first time in the history of Egypt’s constitutions, building churches becomes a right.”

Article 235 of the new draft constitution addressed this longstanding complaint, where permission to build or repair required presidential and security authorization.

Egypt’s constitution of 2012, written by an Islamist majority under the now-deposed president Mohamed Morsi, also provided for many personal and religious freedoms. But that text included clauses of limitation “according to shari’ah law.”

Please click here to read how limitations on freedom were removed – or not – from the constitution, at Christianity Today.


Recruitment Compared: The Brotherhood vs. Salafis

From an older article at the Hudson Institute, with a very thorough description of how one becomes a Muslim Brother or a Salafi:

First, the Brotherhood uses a rigid process of internal promotion to ensure its members’ commitment to the gama’a and its cause.  The process begins at recruitment, when specially designated Muslim Brothers scout out potential members at mosques and universities across Egypt. During the process of recruitment, prospective Muslim Brothers are introduced to the organization through social activities, such as sports and camping, which give the Brotherhood an opportunity to further assess each recruit’s personality and confirm his piety.  If the recruit satisfies local Brotherhood leaders, he begins a rigorous five-to-eight-year process of internal promotion, during which he ascends through four different membership ranks, muhib, muayyad, muntasib and muntazim before finally achieving the status of ach ‘amal, or “active brother.”

During each stage of internal promotion, the rising Muslim Brother’s curriculum intensifies, and he is tested, either orally or through a written exam, before advancing to the next stage.  For example, a muayyad (second stage) is expected to memorize major sections of the Qur’an and study the writings of Brotherhood founder al-Banna, while a muntasib (third stage) studies hadith and Qur’anic exegesis.  Rising Muslim Brothers also assume more responsibilities within the organization: muayyads are trained to preach in mosques and recruit other members, and muntasibs continue these activities while also donating six-to-eight percent of their income to the organization.[11]  This process serves to weed out those who are either less committed to the organization, or who dissent with some of its principles or approaches.  Muslim Brothers’ commitment to the organization is further established through their assumption of a bay’a, an oath, to “listen and obey,” which occurs sometime after the midpoint of this promotional process.[12]

Second, the Brotherhood pursues its Islamizing project by maintaining a well-developed nationwide hierarchical organization.  At the top of this structure is the Guidance Office (maktab al-irshad), a twenty-member body largely comprised of individuals in their late fifties to early seventies.  The Guidance Office executes decisions on which the 120-member Shura committee (magles al-shura al-‘amm) votes, and orders are sent down the following chain of command: the Guidance Offices calls leaders in each regional sector (qita’), who transmit the order to leaders in each governorate (muhafaza), who pass it on to their deputies in each subsidiary area (muntaqa), who refer it to the chiefs in each subsidiary populace (shu’aba), who then call the heads of the Brotherhood’s local cells, known as usras, or “families.”  The usra is typically comprised of five to eight Muslim Brothers, and they execute the Guidance Office’s orders at the local level throughout Egypt.  Such directives can include everything from managing social services to mobilizing the masses for pro-Brotherhood demonstrations, to supporting Brotherhood candidates during elections.

The union of a committed membership and a clear chain-of-command provides the Muslim Brotherhood with a well-oiled political machine and thereby a tremendous advantage over the Salafists.  Indeed, whereas the Brotherhood is one cohesive entity that can summon hundreds of thousands of veritable foot soldiers, not to mention the millions of ordinary Egyptians who benefit from its social services, to execute its agenda, the Salafist movement is entirely decentralized and spread out among a plethora of Salafist groups, schools, and shaykhs.

In a certain sense, Salafists are mirror images of Muslim Brothers in that they privilege ideological objectives above organizational ones.  Indeed, many Salafists are “quietist,” in that they view Salafism as a personal religious commitment and reject attempts to politicize it: “I don’t have to join any organization to be more religious,” stated Bakr, a Salafist who participated in the youth coalition that organized the 2011 anti-Mubarak protests, when asked why he never considered joining the Muslim Brotherhood, he said: “There is no organization in Salafism because an organization needs a target.  And there is no target in Salafism, the only point is dawa (outreach).”  Even those Salafists who are deeply involved in Salafist organizations view their affiliation as secondary to their personal religious commitments. “Salafist streams are movements and different schools, not an organization,” said al-Gamaa al-Islamiya member Abdullah Abdel Rahman, son of the infamous “Blind Shaykh” Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  “It’s a way of life.  Anyone who follows the Holy Book and Sunna, they call him a Salafist.  They don’t have a certain person to follow.  …  They all have their own schools, but agree on one way.”

Salafism’s deeply personal, self-directed nature is perhaps most evident in the independent process through which one becomes a Salafist.  In stark contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood’s five-to-eight-year, four-stage process of internal promotion, one becomes a Salafist simply by declaring himself a “multazim,” or “obligated” to follow a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunna.  Typically, a multazim attaches himself to a specific Salafist shaykh, with whom he studies how to live a deeply conservative lifestyle.  But the multazim can choose his shaykh, unlike a Muslim Brother, who is assigned to an usra and handed a standardized curriculum.

It is a long article, written after the passage of the Islamist dominated constitution in 2012, but still relevant.

It is too early to say how things have changed, but I imagine Muslim Brotherhood recruitment is rather difficult now. Much of their upper leadership is in prison, but presumably the lower ranks can carry on activity, however impeded. I gather their usras explain much mobilizing force behind recent smaller area protests.

As for Salafis, the question is if the leading sheikhs have been compromised by cooperation with the current government. It may be much easier, however, for the average Salafi-inclined individual to resort back to a quietist, non-political faith that had long accepted the misguided rule of Mubarak, which if less than legitimate made rebellion also illegitimate for the social strife it would incur.

But the present is still being written, so we will see.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Delaying Constitutional Confict

Flag Cross Quran


It has been three months since Morsi’s ouster, and the first step in the announced transitional roadmap is still underway. It is, in many ways, the linchpin. The constitution is to be amended and presented to the people in referendum.

When it comes, the Brotherhood will have to make a choice: Vote no or boycott. But the primary Salafi party has made their choice to participate, while deferring the choice of consequence: Yes or no.

Salafis possess nearly inconsequential power in the mechanics of the constitution: They are one vote out of fifty. But they possess great legitimizing power. Without them on board the removal of Morsi is much more easily portrayed as an attack on Islam, or at the least, Islamism.

In exchange they want the religious identity and sharia provisions of the old constitution preserved. As the committee of fifty does its work to revise, they tackle the easier questions first. These are left for later.

God, the Salafi party has been praised for having great political acumen; give them also great wisdom, for they are not necessarily the same.

As the Islam and sharia principles are debated one-by-one, help them to know where to yield and where to stand firm. Where, God, is the proper point of consensus?

And as they go back to their supporters, give them the skill to communicate their choices. Having earlier been maximalist in their demands under Morsi, can they now justify an accepted minimalism? Will it be a valuable political lesson for newly politicized religious conservatives? Or will their earlier rhetoric eat them alive?

Or, might you use these men to lead their supporters deeper into the multi-particular national good?

But God, what if the national good is non-Salafi, as many of the fifty will argue? Give them wisdom if they don’t get enough of their way, or anything at all.

Should they accept? Should they vote no? Should they demonstrate? Should they mount a new revolution?

So give wisdom also to the committee at large. What of Salafi demands is in the national good? To be certain this good involves diligent discussion of a significantly popular viewpoint.

Perhaps there is wisdom, God, in handling easier articles first. There is still time to complete their task. But help the committee to avoid deadline deals from political expediency.

Rather, let this discussion find space now in the national debate: How should the political claims of Islam, as interpreted by some, be incorporated into the political system of a nation, as experienced by all? In their entirety, in continual negotiation, or not at all?

Your answer, God, determines how Egyptians should both pray and politic. Pull as many to your side as possible, in sincere conviction and purity of heart.

And for those who remain in other opinions, honor them also. May they never willfully fight against you, and may they never be fought against as if on your behalf. Knit these together into one nation, where you are present in the messy workings of men, in all their insincerity and impurity.

And in this, God, give them a wise and worthy constitution. Do not delay the conflict, but resolve it in the end, with embraces all around.



Humble Wrestling: The Only Solution for Islamists and Christians?

I believe events like this conference in Jordan, excerpted below, are absolutely necessary, even if they don’t really go anywhere. But agreement can never be achieved unless they go at all. Here, from al-Monitor, is an example illustrating absolutely different worldviews:

So an obvious question was posed to the Islamists: Do you accept, alongside your Islamic laws and alongside the personal status laws for other communities, that in your countries there is also one civil personal status law that is optional? In other words, do you accept that a person is given the choice to either follow the laws of his sect or leave his sect and resort to the civil law under the confines and protection of the state?

Faced with this question, the Islamists did not hesitate to assert their absolute refusal of the proposal: a civil law, even if optional, is forbidden — a person may not leave his religion. By “person” they mean a “Muslim,” because current laws allow non-Muslims to convert to Islam. Sometimes they even encourage it as a means to either escape harassment or obtain a government job reserved for Muslims, in addition to dozens of other reasons.

In lieu of agreement, the article states attendees suffered ‘a vicious cycle of pleasantries’. Such a description characterizes much inter-religious dialogue, and is useful in its own right. Pleasantries can lead to friendship.

But what is necessary, especially in Egypt, is for Christians and Islamists to wrestle over the future of their nation. Christians may not be able to force their way, but if Islamists were to seek their blessing, and do all that is necessary to get it, they just might succeed.

The Islamists did not hesitate to confirm they have the right to reach power as they see it and practice it. They kept repeating the following mantra: “We will only resort to democracy that emanates from the ballot box.” Many tried to explain to them that democracy is not just the ballot box, but the Islamists did not pay them much attention. The Islamists’ main concern was to assert their rejection of what happened in Egypt and confront the rule of the “coupists,” as they call Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule, against the legitimate authorities. Regarding the concerns of their fellow Christian citizens, it seemed to a large extent to not be part of their concerns today or tomorrow.

Unfortunately, this has largely been Egypt’s experience.

It is hard for anyone to be humble. Many Islamists might find it even more difficult to seek this Christian blessing, as they see themselves as the possessors of the completed and perfected faith, and furthermore, they are numerically superior. How arrogant, they might think, of Christians not to yield. Don’t we give them protection under sharia law?

Ah, but this means little to them:

One last example that illustrates the dialogue’s difficulties was the discussion about personal status laws in countries dominated by Islamists. The Islamists usually try to show that they are open to other groups by supporting, as a rule, that other sects are given their own personal status laws — whereby every sect is given its own laws governing marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption, transfer of ownership and other family matters. But at the same time, the Islamists insist that Islamic law is a “major” or a “principal” source of legislation of the state. Discussion by Christian participants at the conference showed that this rule is not sufficient, fair or balanced. In fact, it often conceals a gradual process to subdue non-Muslim citizens in those countries by degrading the minorities’ demographic and geographic presence, Islamicizing society and eliminating pluralism.

Islamists either smile slyly at this complaint, choose to ignore it, or else they cannot even comprehend it – confident in their understanding of God’s will in sharia law as best both for them and for Christians. True humility is harder for the one who believes that he already humbly and generously gives to his ‘lesser’. They have a point, but humility does not prove points. It loves and embraces.

So what should humility look like for the Christians? No one must ever abandon principles and convictions. Humility is not a game of power and pressure. Rather, it must come in an acknowledgment that Islamism is a strong societal impulse, and those who possess it are their fellow citizens.

Here is where it is easy, and necessary, for me to duck out of the discussion. If both sides came humbly, what would they decide? Here, I have no say. Even in asking both sides to come to the table I have nearly gone to far. Why should they yield even that initial bargaining position, when sides are viewed in mutual distrust?

I don’t know, and I can’t convince them. All I can do is trust that it is ‘right’. All I can hope for is that God would honor it, and dishonor all who seek first their particular benefit.

After all, the status quo is not working. Christians are often ignored or used as pawns, and Islamists have failed to successfully establish their project anywhere there is religious diversity.

It is not dialogue that is necessary, though it is helpful. It is wrestling. It is the sort that, like Jacob with the angel, would not let go until he secures a blessing. It is the sort that engages in respect and will not cease until it is mutual.

I don’t know, maybe that is not humility at all. But humility might be able to avoid Jacob’s fate. Though he obtained his blessing, he lived the rest of his life with a dislocated hip.

Christians and Islamists have dislocated far more. Perhaps it cannot be otherwise. Perhaps their ideas are completely incompatible.

Fair enough. Ideas cannot be humble, they can only seek their own. But people are more flexible. People can wrestle.

People can bless. It is time Christians and Islamists begin this strategy with one another, even if unilaterally.