‘Flagship’ of Islamist revival

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The story of the Brotherhood

After conjuring up this “diagnostic narrative” of the ills, the Brotherhood presented the “solution” which was a call for the revival of Islam because for Banna Islam was “an all-embracing concept which regulates every aspect of life”

In the ongoing Saudi-Qatari diplomatic row, one of the thirteen demands put forward by Saudi Arabia is that Qatar must sever its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood which it has branded as a “terrorist organisation.” Of the other three countries ie Egypt, Bahrain and UAE, who are a part of this spat on the Saudi side, Brotherhood had a running affiliate in Bahrain whereas it was founded in Egypt. It is the oldest surviving “flagship” organisation of Islamist revival in the Middle East and North Africa with active associate organisations in at least six countries other than the ones mentioned above.

As no Muslim country in the world is a model developed welfare state, the scope for revivalist religious organisations like Brotherhood will always be there. When it was founded By Hassan al-Banna as Jamiyyat al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin (the Society of Muslim Brothers), Egypt was suffering from shortages of basic food, widespread poverty, spiraling inflation and a highly unequal distribution of wealth. The challenge of ending this mess fell on the shoulders of a ruling class which was pampered and privileged yet factional-ridden and unmindful to the afflicting malaise. The Brotherhood’s immediate objective thus became poverty alleviation but before it could do this, it had to build a narrative to explain why the country was in such throes in the first place? In brief, its narrative highlighted that all the ills were the result of growing social and moral bankruptcy because people had divorced Islamic ethos and heritage from their lives.

The problem was compounded by decades of British occupation and the Brothers had to develop yet another narrative which argued that the western civilisation was “bankrupt and in decline” and in the backdrop of World War I, global economic depression and rising fascism, Banna rejected the west by contending, “Its foundations are crumbling, and its institutions and guiding principles are falling apart. Its political foundations are being destroyed by dictatorships, and its economic foundations are being swept away by crises. The millions of its wretched unemployed and hungry offer their testimony against it.” Next, he turned his guns against the secular values and practices, which were propagated in Egypt through “cheap”, “lewd” and “suggestive” content of media, films and music along with other western ways such as the free mixing of genders as well as spread of alcohol, gambling, prostitution, etc, that in turn were aped by the natives which created moral and sexual problems in the society. Moreover, the Brothers felt that the secular models of law and education were out of touch with the beliefs and sentiments of the natives. Furthermore, Banna vowed to eliminate foreign influence which was quite stark even after Egypt had gained nominal independence in 1922.

After conjuring up this “diagnostic narrative” of the ills, the Brotherhood presented the “solution” which was a call for the revival of Islam because for Banna Islam was “an all-embracing concept which regulates every aspect of life” and clarified that “Some people mistakenly understand by Islam something restricted to certain types of religious observances or spiritual exercises” but it was not so as it fully regulated “the affairs of men in this world and the next.” As to the question about the type of Islam, the Brotherhood referred to the “true” and “pure” religion that was practised during the times of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his Companions.

Moreover, it promoted a vision of Islam which it called “din wa dawla” (religion and state) in which there was guidance for private belief as well as governance. It elaborated that the system of governance must be based on “al-nizam al-Islami”(an Islamic order) completely grounded in sharia because it contained all qualities of democratic and socialist systems of the west and was devoid of their inherent defects. A Brotherhood newspaper asserted that what the French Revolution decreed in terms of human liberty, equality and fraternity and what the Russian Revolution promised in terms of social justice were already ordained by the Islamic revolution fourteen hundred years ago.

The organisation that started with just six members in 1928 grew within a decade into two thousand branches having six hundred thousand members. This growing popularity was achieved through direct contact with masses in mosques, coffeehouses, private homes and by primarily setting up community service projects. Although the Brotherhood was influenced by the thought of Rashid Rida and Muhibb al-Din al-Khitab, argues Carrie Rosefsky Wickham in her seminal work on this organisation that it “never offered a detailed and coherent vision of Islamic order it sought to create,” may be because in early years its stress was more on “amal” (action) and “tanzeem”(organisation) than on “fikr” (ideology) and that made it susceptible to various conflicting interpretations. Some allege that its slogan to establish an Islamic order was actually a strategy to capture state power to impose its agenda by force which Banna refuted by arguing that its mission was just to bring about social reforms. Other Brotherhood leaders admitted that the imposition of sharia necessitated the support of state’s authority which they hoped to attain by building popular pressure for their cause. A third variety of its leaders extended support to the institution of parliament, popular elections, independent judiciary and protection of human rights. Another chunk of its leadership emphasised the need of “ijtihad”(exercise of human reason) to formulate laws by deriving knowledge from the sacred texts of Islam to tackle issues of the modern times.

These variegated ideas about the conception of an “Islamic order” apart, Carrie Wickham points out that the whole Brotherhood project was marred by several ambiguities and unresolved contradictions. For example, would elected legislators or the sharia be the source of supreme legislative authority? Moreover, what would be the status of non-Muslims or those Muslims who would not subscribe to its agenda? Furthermore, would it tolerate political pluralism or not? In addition, would it support or oppose intellectual and artistic freedoms as well as the rights of citizens to choose their own values and lifestyles? Lastly, by claiming that it was the “self-righteous” organisation with the “true” and “correct” message of Islam for all the Muslims; it arrogated “to itself the exclusive authority to interpret God’s will” which clearly meant that it was intolerant of dissent.

The organisation that started with just six members in 1928 grew within a decade into two thousand branches having six hundred thousand members

Despite criticism of parliament and politicians, the Brotherhood decided to contest the 1942 elections but Banna was pressurised to withdraw from the race by the ruling Wafadist government, however, he and five other Brothers were allowed to contest the 1945 elections which all of them lost amid allegations of electoral fraud thus turning it into an “anti-system” organisation. Such has been the story of Brotherhood in the first two decades of its almost ninety-year history. More to follow in the coming weeks.