Monday, February 14, 2011

Egypt: the role of the Muslim Brotherhood

This is too good not to cite.

From Brian's Coffeehouse:

The Muslim Brotherhood's support for democracy is not a momentary tactic, but has roots in its theological foundations. The group draws on the traditional of Islamic reformism associated with Jamal al-Din al-Afghani in the 19th century, which taught that instead of traditional Islamic jurisprudence, Muslims should rely on contemporary interpretation of the Qur'an and hadith. These modern interpretations can be harsh and puritanical, as well as liberal, and the Muslim Brotherhood has interpreted criminal law, for example, fairly literally. Politically, however, a key principle is "shura," or consultation, which at least since the Young Ottomans opposed to the Tanzimat reforms of the mid-1800's has for many carried connotations of democracy. Richard Mitchell, whose 1969 book on the Muslim Brotherhood remains a standard, explained it thus:
"'The nation,' 'the people,' in fact, are the source of all the ruler's authority: 'The nation alone is the source of power; bowing to its will is a religious obligation.' The ruler has no legal existence and deserves no loyalty except as 'he reflects the spirit of the society and is in harmony with its goals.' Banna described the relationship of ruler and ruled as a 'social contract' in which the ruler is defined as a 'trustee' and 'agent'...Since the ruler is the 'agent contracted for' by the nation, he is 'elected' by it."

Not all or even most of the specific systems of government proposed under this framework could be called "democratic," as many involve religious tests for office, limited electorates, and clerical councils with important powers, but the point I make is that for the Brotherhood, there is no break between advocating democracy and core political theory.

In the present context, I'm not even convinced that the Muslim Brotherhood wants to exercise power....

If there is a related concern going forward in Egypt, it does not involve the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization, but rather the generally illiberal impulses of Egyptian society. The specific form of Islamic Revivalism involving puritanical intolerant religious ideas has been growing steadily in Egypt for many years.... One factor seems to be returning guest workers from Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. Migration from conservative rural areas to the cities is also spreading that conservatism through urban society. ...

Most important, however, is the sudden upsurge of new, competing ideologies and paths to dignity and meaning in life. I don't have the materials at hand to provide concrete examples, but I was struck by the way in which the reasons many protesters gave for wanting to participate in the uprising paralleled those of people attending conservative shari'a classes at their local mosque. This passage by Mohammed Bamyeh is kind of what I mean:
"Third, remarkable was the virtual replacement of religious references by civic ethics that were presumed to be universal and self-evident. This development appears more surprising than in the case of Tunisia, since in Egypt the religious opposition had always been strong and reached virtually all sectors of life. The Muslim Brotherhood itself joined after the beginning of the protests, and like all other organized political forces in the country seemed taken aback by the developments and unable to direct them, as much as the government (along with its regional allies) sought to magnify its role.

"This, I think, is substantially connected to the two elements mentioned previously, spontaneity and marginality. Both of those processes entailed the politicization of otherwise unengaged segments, and also corresponded to broad demands that required no religious language in particular. In fact, religion appeared as an obstacle, especially in light of the recent sectarian tensions in Egypt, and it contradicted the emergent character of the Revolution as being above all dividing lines in society, including one’s religion or religiosity. Many people prayed in public, of course, but I never saw anyone being pressured or even asked to join them, in spite of the high spiritual overtones of an atmosphere saturated with high emotions and constantly supplied by stories of martyrdom, injustice, and violence.

"Like in the Tunisian Revolution, in Egypt the rebellion erupted as a sort of a collective moral earthquake—where the central demands were very basic, and clustered around the respect for the citizen, dignity, and the natural right to participate in the making of the system that ruled over the person. If those same principles had been expressed in religious language before, now they were expressed as is and without any mystification or need for divine authority to justify them. I saw the significance of this transformation when even Muslim Brotherhood participants chanted at some point with everyone else for a 'civic' (madaniyya) state—explicitly distinguished from two other possible alternatives: religious (diniyya) or military (askariyya) state."

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