Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Myth of Islamic Fundamentalism

In a February 2011 post, "Who's afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood?," I posed the question of whether the Muslim Brotherhood would take power in Egypt.  I argued that this scenario was unlikely but that, if it did come to pass, the Brotherhood would be unable to effectively rule Egypt, much less impose an Islamic state.  While I was wrong on my prediction, the votes on Muslim Brotherhood rule Egypt are now in. Clearly, it has been disastrous.  With opposition to Brotherhood rule on the rise, (see the analysis of a recent Zogby poll below), what can we predict about the future of Islamism in Egypt?

The first conclusion we can draw is that most Egyptians didn't vote for the Brotherhood because of its Islamist ideology.  Survey data indicate that Egyptians expected the Brotherhood to accomplish three main goals once it came to power.  First, they expected the dreaded security apparatus that characterized the Mubarak regime to be curtailed if not dismantled.  Second, they expected the Brotherhood to staunch Egypt's deteriorating economic condition, both by providing jobs and improving access to necessary services, such as electricity, gasoline and diesal fuel, and other basic commodities in short supply.

Finally, many who voted for the Brotherhood - especially those who were not members - wanted it to pursue a politics of national reconciliation, if only to transcend the chaos and violence that surrounded the ouster of former president Husni Mubarak.  In their view, this process would bring Egypt's conflicting ideological tendencies together and bridge the Muslim-Coptic Christian divide, and build a truly democratic state, based on tolerance  and political pluralism.

Clearly the Brotherhood has failed on all 3 accounts.  It has done virtually nothing to reign in the security forces.  The economy is considerably worse than when the Brotherhood won parliamentary elections and Dr. Muhammad Mursi won the presidency by a small margin (51.7%).  Electric power, gasoline and diesel fuel are in short supply, inflation is on the rise, the tourism sector has largely collapsed, and the Brotherhood has not been able to augment its dwindling currency reserves.  Fearful of curtailing government services, the Brotherhood has been unable to conclude negotiations for a loan offered by the International Monetary Fund.

As research I conducted years ago demonstrated, most of the Brotherhood's leadership comes from upwardly mobile professionals and, more recently, businessmen (Mursi himself is an engineer in materials science who graduated with a Ph.D from the University of Southern California)) 

Turning to the more conservative "Party of Light" (hizb al-nur), we find a similar pattern of rural to urban migration.  However, since the Egyptian economy has worsened from the time when many of the Brotherhood's leadership came of age educationally and professionally, al-Nur members are not as well situated financially and professionally as their counterparts in the Brotherhood.

The official clergy, especially those associated with al-Azhar Mosque, has always opposed the Brotherhood as interlopers who have no right to enter the realm of Islamic theological and theological exegesis.  Indeed, the clergy has often looked favorably upon the state's efforts to curtail the Brotherhood's efforts at proselytizing.

The Brotherhood is a no way a representative of "Islamic fundamentalism."  The term fundamentalism, whose currency extends back to the discussion of Protestant fundamentalism in the US during the early part of the 20th century, is not a term used by Islamists nor is it prevalent in the Arab media, print or visual. While Baptist and Presbyterian churches in particular tried to prevent clergy from introducing theological and and cultural modernism into the church, much of what Western analysts refer to as Islamic fundamentalism is actually a form of "politicized" and "invented" religion.

A phenomenon that has still not been adequately covered is the prevalence of lay members of many powerful Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its offshoots throughout the Arab world, the Islamic Call Party in Iraq (hiz al-Da'wa al-Islamiya), the Renaissance Party (hizb al-Nahda) in Tunisia, and the Justice and Development Party (hizb al-'Adala wa-l-Tanmiya) in Morocco. 

These parties all seek to provide an alternative to what they see as the inaction of the clergy in confronting social problems as well as the clergy's often implicit support for authoritarian rule.  None of these parties has made any significant contributions to Islamic theology.  The often cited case of Muslim Brotherhood supporter Sayyid Qutb ( a teacher and one time Ministry of Education functionary) is highly problematic.  Qutb's accusation, in his Milestones Along the Path (Mu'allim ala-l-Tariq), that Muslim society suffers from al-Jahiliya, i.e,  having returned to the so-called "period of ignorance" which is used to describe the period prior to founding of Islam, is based on reasoning rejected by the overwhelming majority of Muslims.

The efforts of Islamist parties to impose their definition of Islamic norms and values on society are not the result of a careful and inclusive debate over the meaning of such norms and values, but rather an attempt to impose a new form of hegemonic thinking on society.  Islamist discourse is about control, by invoking limits on the functioning of a wide variety of social institutions, including the family, women's role in society, the press, cultural and artistic expression, entertainment, as well as the political process and institutions, especially the judiciary.

What gives leaders like Muhammad Mursi and the Brotherhood's Guidance Council the right to tell Egyptians how to think, act or envision the future of their personal, political and social lives?. What right so wealthy businessmen such as Muhammad Khayrat al-Shatir or engineers such as Muhammad Mursi to make these decisions in the name of Islam, especially when they have little or no formal training in Islamic theology?

This point about who makes the decisions that affect Egyptians' daily lives is especially relevant when considering that the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, claims to be democratic.  Certainly democracy should reflect the the will of the people.  However, a June 2013 poll by Zogby Research Services:  - "After Tahrir: Egyptians Assess Their Government, Their Institutions, and Their Future" - underscores the unpopularity of Muslim Brotherhood rule.

When the 5029 Egyptians sampled were asked about their reaction to Mursi's electoral  victory, 22% viewed it as positive a year ago while 16% see it as positive now; 35% respected his victory a year ago, while only 12% respect it now; and while 33% were concerned that Mursi had won a year ago, now that number has risen to 50%.

In terms of the level of satisfaction with Mursi's performance, only 27% said they felt he "guaranteed their rights and freedoms," while 72% said he did not.  These results were replicated when voters were asked about "creating economic opportunity" (25% satisfied vs. 74% unsatisfied); "keeping me safe and maintaining order "(satisfied 26% vs. 74% not satisfied); and "supporting services that provide for my family's health care, education and other needs" (26% satisfied vs. 74% not satisfied).

Among Egypt's institutions, 94% of respondents were confident in the army as opposed to only 6 % who were not.  Respondents were likewise very confident in the judiciary, whose powers  Mursi is trying to curtail, viewing it favorably by 67% to 31%.  Egyptians have little confidence in the presidency (27% vs. 71%) and the Freedom and Justice Party (26% vs. 74%).  Indeed all political parties attracted little confidence, from the very conservative Islamist al-Nur Party to the secular National Salvation Front and the April 26th Movement.

Of Egypt's past and current leaders, only 3 were viewed as credible: Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir (Gamal Abdel Nasser) - 73% to 27% - Anwar al-Sadat - 93% to 7% - and the television comedian, Bassem Yousif - 60% to 39%.  That a politically minded satirist - whose program, "al-Barnamig," is frequently referred to as Egypt's "The Daily Show "- is telling about how little respect is enjoyed by Egypt's political elite.

But perhaps most significant are the attitudes towards Muslim Brotherhood rule and the desire for a policy of national reconciliation. Only 25% of respondents thought "the current government is able to lead our nation out of our economic crisis;" only 28% feel "the Muslim Brotherhood is committed to democracy;" and only 26% feel that "the Muslim Brotherhood is capable of administering the state."  A whopping 87% of Egyptian respondents said they wanted a "real national dialogue."

On the other hand, 72% agreed that "the Egyptian opposition is able to offer a better political alternative than
the current government:" 71% agreed that "the Muslim Brotherhood intends to ‘Islamize’ the State and control its executive powers;" and only 29% felt that "the upcoming parliamentary elections will be fair and transparent."

Overall, only 30% of voters trusted the 2 main Islamist parties, the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the conservative al-Nur Party.  The secular National Salvation Front and April 6th Movement were trusted by 34%.  However almost 39% felt that both the Islamist and secular parties are ineffective and will not be able to solve Egypt's problems.  Despite its high rating, 56% of respondents opposed the military assuming temporary control of the state.

What this analysis should make clear is that Egyptians are very pragmatic in their political choices (as are citizens in most countries who are allowed to express their political views).  As the only "official opposition" under the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood always had a head start in political organization and mobilizing supporters for the post-Mubarak parliamentary and presidential elections.  Now that the Brotherhood has shown its true colors, most Egyptians don't like what they see.

The notion of Islamic fundamentalism - and the implied uniformity of political beliefs, intentions and behavior across the Muslim majority countries of the Middle East implied by that term - belies the reality of the region's politics.  As the dismal showing of the hardliner, Saeed Jalili, in Iran's recent presidential elections, and his trouncing by the moderate cleric, Hassan Rowhani, demonstrate, few Muslims seek to live under autocratic rule, whether secular or Islamist..

Political scientists (including myself) have a bad track record in predicting important political change in the Middle East, whether the fall of the regime of Mohammed Reza Shah in 1978-79, the handshake of Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn in September 1993, or the onset of the Arab Spring in late 2010.  It is time to scrap the notion of Islamic fundamentalism in favor of a more insightful and nuanced approach to Middle East politics.

Egyptians, like citizens in other countries of the region, seek economic and physical security, democratic and accountable governance, predictability in their lives, and state policies that bring people together rather than divide them.  The peoples of the Middle East deserve more respect than being reduced to the types of stereotypes implied by the notion of "Islamic fundamentalism."

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