The comments that immediately follow below are from sundry experts and pundits on the Muslim Brotherhood (Jam`iyyat al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) collected during what is often termed the Arab Spring in Egypt beginning in January of last year. I’d like them to serve, together with with the subsequent material by yours truly on “Islam and democracy,” as a propaedeutic of sorts—or simply a backdrop—to a forthcoming post on Hamas. Of course Hamas emerged out of the Ikhwan, in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and later from the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, but is today a wholly independent social movement and political organization. I assume throughout, with Nader Hashemi in Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies (2009), that
“Normatively, secularism should not be imposed by the state on society [as in, say, Kemalist ideology or in some measure with French secularism (laïcité)] but should emerge bottom-up, from within civil society, based on democratic negotiation and bargaining over the proper role of religion in politics. In other words, in developing societies where religion is a key marker of identity, in order for religious groups to reconcile themselves with secularism, a religious-based theory of secularism is required.”
We might better appreciate this model of secularism if we recall that, historically, as Hashemi also points out, such “[d]emocractic negotiation and bargaining…was an inherent part of the transition to, and consolidation of, liberal democracy.”
(Please note: some of this material appeared previously in a slightly different version at the Ratio Juris blog, and if my stint here at the Lounge finishes before I get to the post on Hamas, it will eventually show up at Ratio Juris. I then hope to have a post or two on the role of nonviolence in the Palestinian struggle for collective self-detemination and full recognition of their rights under international law.)
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt:
“Yet it has been the very iron fist of the Mubarak regime that has helped make the Muslim Brotherhood the dominant opposition party in Egypt today. Like it or not, at this point in history Islamist parties do well all over the Muslim world; they have become the default opposition. Get used to it. They vary tremendously across a wide spectrum, from moderates to radicals, and include a small sliver of violent killers. These movements are constantly evolving. We must learn to work with the more moderate ones; that includes the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. They are not prone to love America, especially in view of our past policies, but the Brotherhood has eschewed violence for half a century and moves cautiously. If they occupy a major place in any new Egyptian government, they could well do with our help. And they will have to meet the political, economic and social demands of the people once in power: Anti-Americanism doesn’t feed bellies or reform the social order.”—Graham E. Fuller
“A final note to some American, and maybe Israeli, politicians: The Egyptian rallies are not about you. There has been no burning of American, Israeli or effigies of US Presidents because the Egyptians in the streets are not interested in politics per se. They do not fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will create an Islamic republic either. The Egyptians want change. Washington and other world capitals want ‘measured change’ that can fit their interests, something that Egyptians are not thinking of right now.”—Hussain Abdul Hussain
“Longtime scholars of the Brotherhood have cast doubts on exaggerated claims that the movement will be swept into power in a post-Mubarak/post-authoritarian Egypt. In fact, many doubt that the movement has the power to take over the entire country even if it wanted to. The Brotherhood, though the oldest and arguably best organized opposition group in the country, currently suffers from a number of ills. First, it is beset with a generation gap between the older generation of leaders, such as the current general guide Muhammad Badi‘a, and a younger generation that has sought to change the movement’s policies on a host of issues including the role of women in leadership positions and Coptic Christians. The Brotherhood is in fact no longer the dominant force that it was in the past. As a movement it has lost a lot of credibility in recent years after allowing itself to be co-opted by the Mubarak government says Khalid Medani, a professor of political science and Islamic studies at McGill University who has conducted extensive field work in Egypt including interviews with the movement’s members representing various veins of thought within it. Despite remaining the country’s largest formally organized opposition group the Brotherhood is failing to attract many new members, he says.
Although it eventually decided to participate in the January 25 demonstrations in Egypt the Brotherhood only announced its decision two days before. Its endorsement was also far from enthusiastic. Following the unprecedented size and staying power of the mass popular demonstrations against the Mubarak’s authoritarian government, the Brotherhood took a much more proactive approach in supporting the demonstrators. To date it has released eight official statements, including three signed by Badi‘a. In them the movement has been careful to not claim leadership of the demonstrations and instead says that it is simply one party among many that make up the opposition. Observers on the ground have noted that the Brotherhood is not the most visible or powerful voice represented among the hundreds of thousands to millions of demonstrators who have defied government curfews and violence to continue calling for their civil and human rights.
The Brotherhood has joined other opposition groups and demonstrators in calling for the resignation of Mubarak, the abolition of the ‘emergency law’ that has been in place since 1981 when Mubarak came to power, the holding of new elections that are actually free and fair, the release of all political prisoners, substantial amendment of the constitution, and the prosecution of government officials who have ordered the use of violence against the demonstrators. The movement has also been careful to explain its decision to enter into cautious talks with the government, which is increasingly under the public direction of Vice President Suleiman. Thus far, the Brotherhood remains unconvinced by the government’s claims that it is trying to address the popular will of the Egyptian people.
Although it is far from being a force for social or political liberalism, certainly of the kind that is desired by progressives in the U.S. and Europe, the Brotherhood is also not the all-powerful Islamist bogeyman and twin sister of al-Qaeda that it is often portrayed as. Facing its own internal divisions and problems of legitimacy among the Egyptian public, the Brotherhood is unlikely to be able to ‘seize control’ of the country even if it wanted to. Its internal problems are recognized by no one more clearly than by the Brotherhood itself, which has been careful not to further alienate the Egyptian people who have collectively led the popular uprising against authoritarianism that continues to defy an aging autocrat’s decrees even in the face of extreme state violence.”—Christopher Anzalone
“The Muslim Brothers are not a marginal force in Egypt. They are very well organized in every city, and can be credited with providing health, education, legal aid and disaster relief to citizens ignored or neglected by the state. But they are not Egypt’s equivalent of Hizballah or Hamas. As Mona El-Ghobashy has described, in the 1990s the Society of Muslim Brothers made a definite break, abandoning its secretive, hierarchical, shari’a-focused form. Today the Muslim Brothers is a well-organized political party, officially banned but occasionally tolerated. In the past twenty years it has made significant inroads in Parliament via alliances with other parties and by running independent candidates. The Brothers now fully support political pluralism, women’s participation in politics, and the role of Christians and communists as full citizens. However, with the rise of other competing labor, liberal and human-rights movements in Egypt in the 2000s, what one can call the ‘new old guard’ of the Brothers (the ones that emerged in the 1980s) have retained a primary focus on cultural, moral and identity politics. Moral-cultural conservatism is still seen by this group as what distinguishes the Brothers from other parties, a fact they confirmed by appointing a rigid social conservative, Muhammad Badeea, as leader in 2010. This turn was rejected by women and youth in the movement. This socially conservative leaning thus brings the ‘new old guard’ more in line with the moralistic paternalism of Mubarak’s government and set them against the trajectory of new youth, women’s and labor movements. This leads to new possibilities of splits in this organization or for exciting revitalization and reinvention of the Brothers, as Youth and Women’s wings feel drawn toward the 6 April coalition. The moral-cultural traditionalist wing of the ‘new old guard,’ is composed of professional syndicate leaders and wealthy businessmen. In the 1950s-80s, the movement regrouped and represented frustrated elements of the national bourgeoisie. But this class of people has largely been swept up into new opportunities and left the organization. The ‘new old guard’ of the Brothers’ business wing has started to look like a group of retired Shriners, except that in the Middle East, Shriners have stopped wearing fezes.
In the past ten years this political force of this particular wing of the Brothers has been partially coopted by Mubarak’s government from two angles. First, Brothers were allowed to enter parliament as independent candidates and have been allowed to participate in the recent economic boom. The senior Brothers now own major cell phone companies and real estate developments, and have been absorbed into the NDP machine and upper-middle class establishment for years. Second, the government wholly appropriated the Brothers’ moral discourse. For the last ten or fifteen years Mubarak’s police-state has stirred moral panics and waved the banner of Islam, attacking single working women, homosexuals, devil-worshipping internet users, trash-recycling pig farmers, rent-control squatters, as well as Baha’i, Christian and Shi’i minorities. In its morality crusades, the Mubarak government burned books, harassed women, and excommunicated college professors. Thus, we can say that Egypt has already experienced rule by an extremely narrow Islamist state – Mubarak’s! Egyptians tried out that kind of regime. And they hated it.
In recent years, as described in the work of Saba Mahmood and Asef Bayat, people have grown disgusted by Mubarak’s politicization of Islam. Egyptians began to reclaim Islam as a project of personal self-governance, ethical piety, and social solidarity. This trend explicitly rejects the political orientation of Islam and explicitly separates itself both from Brothers’ activities and Mubarak’s morality crusades.”—Paul Amar
“There is no reason Americans should accept the premise that President Hosni Mubarak is the only thing standing between chaos and/or Islamic theocracy in Egypt. So says Bruce Rutherford, a political science professor at Colgate University. Everyone seems to be imagining what post-Mubarak Egypt will look like these days, but Rutherford gamed it out years ago for his 2008 book, Egypt after Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab World. Mubarak’s insistence that there would be chaos if he resigned is, in fact, ‘a very inaccurate portrayal of contemporary Egypt,’ Rutherford said. Mubarak, in that way, would have us believe that he is another Saddam Hussein and Egypt is another Iraq. ‘The state really did collapse once Saddam left,’ Rutherford said. ‘But Egypt is a very different place.’
Egypt has a constitution that, among other things, establishes an order of succession. There’s also a strong and independent judiciary. And there’s a powerful, established police force and military. At the same time, observers don’t seem to fathom the populace’s profound lack of appetite for another authoritarian regime, Rutherford said.
Rutherford noted that pundits such as Thomas Friedman seem to think that the Mubarak regime is on one end of the political spectrum, the Muslim Brotherhood is on the other, and there is nothing in between. But Egypt is not another Iran—and the Muslim Brotherhood is not another Ayatollah Khomenei waiting to establish an Islamic theocracy. ‘There is a liberal tradition in Egypt of people who support strengthening the rule of law, constraints on state power, and the notion that government is accountable to the people,’ he said. ‘I don’t think they’d support any kind of theocracy.’
As for the Brotherhood: ‘It’s a middle class institution. Its leaders are lawyers, doctors, engineers and so on, who have in a very careful and systematic way over the last 15 years, debated how to reconcile the principals of Islam with democratic governance and have come up with thoughtful ways to do that.’
Indeed, Rutherford said, the Brotherhood has put forth arguments based on the Koran and other Islamic texts that laws should come from an elected parliament; that the Koran puts forth general principles of government, while the details need to be up to the people. All in all, he said: ‘I think there’s more cause for optimism about how the political debate will unfold.’ Yet the Muslim Brotherhood’s name alone is enough for some members of the media to cast them as the boogeymen in this story; so when talking about them, anchors—not just on Fox News—tend to use their scariest intonations, make grave sounding insinuations, and ask leading questions about their intentions.”—Michael Froomkin
Islam & Democracy: Preliminary Considerations
Historically, an Islamic rhetorical idiom has legitimated many a manner of governance: from the barbaric and despotic to the benevolent and benign. And thus the bountiful intellectual and moral fruits of Islamic traditions—philosophical, theological, juridical, and mystical in origin—are capable of justifying a wide array of political models and forms of political behavior, including models and forms of democratic provenance. Professors, pundits, policy makers, and the public in their wake, have often assumed and occasionally argued that Islam and democracy are inherently incompatible, that cultural and political properties intrinsic to “Islamic civilization” preclude the birth of anything remotely resembling “Islamic democracy.” Yet it bears keeping in mind that that these largely, and crudely, essentialist generalizations are tokens of the type termed culturalist explanation(s) and, as such, “have little relevance for the emergence and durability of democracies.” (Przeworski, et al., in Dahl, Shapiro, Cheibub, eds.)
Today a clarion call from Muslims around the world is heard on behalf of the virtues of democratic values and principles, methods and processes. The overwhelming preference of the “Arab street” (a common but in several respects unsatisfactory expression) and the majority of (more numerous) non-Arabic Muslims is for ballots (‘paper stones’) not bullets, as militant, jihadist Muslims prove the exception to the rule. In short, Islamic democracy is not an oxymoron.
Minimalist or thin theories of democracy focus on the electoral components of the democratic process, the desiderata including first and foremost free and fair, multiparty elections by secret and universal ballot. An electoral democracy is a constitutional order in which the (chief) executive and legislative offices are filled through regular and competitive elections. In Przeworski’s words, “In the end, the miracle of democracy is that conflicting political forces obey the results of voting.” By these standards, for example, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Indonesia are democratic, as are several states of the former Soviet Union; Egypt and Malaysia are quasi- or semi-democratic; Jordan and Morocco democratic by fits and starts; Algeria has democratic pretensions, as does Kuwait and Bahrain; interestingly, or oddly, Iran also scores high on this electoral scorecard. Even Saudi Arabia is unable to resist the reformist clamor for electoral democracy: the Kingdom’s cabinet has announced that it will hold its first elections for municipal councils. As various fora of dialogue or “talking shops” are essential forms of democratic participation, the fact that even some Saudi leaders are talking about reform with “reform groups” perhaps portends changes on the desert horizon, however distant.
Problems persist throughout the Muslim world: executive offices are often uncontested; opposition parties face unwarranted if not unreasonable government restrictions (and not a few parties are ‘banned’ for this or that reason), with often-limited access to media. In addition to voting fraud, authoritarian elites do not hesitate to resort to insidious forms of “electoral engineering” to achieve favorable electoral outcomes. Perchance international election monitoring can play a more effective part in preventing or discouraging attempts at electoral manipulation. For the time being, we may have to cleave to the maxim that “something is better than nothing,” hoping for the eventual triumph of reformist forces motivated by commitment to democratic values and principles axiomatically grounded in metaphysical and moral values and principles of freedom and equality and tied to the pursuit of justice.
As a consequence of electoral participation, some of the more militant Salafi Islamists have formed alliances and coalitions with both Islamic and “secularist” parties and movements, often renouncing the methods of violence in ending the campaign for an “Islamic revolution.” Denying Islamists participation in electoral politics can have deleterious results: as in Algeria, when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) resorted to rebellion and violence; other times it simply compels Islamist to engage in the politics of civil society, as with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Islamist parties demonstrating a commitment to democratic principles and procedures—i.e., to play by the “rules of the game”—are found, for example, in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia, as well in most of the republics of the former Soviet Union. Indeed, both Hamas and Hezbollah have evidenced a substantial preference for and appreciation of the value of democratic political participation, thereby demonstrating behaviorally a willingness to abide by the “rules of the game.”
One of the foremost students of civil society, John Keane, suggested in his book, Reflections on Violence (1996), “that Islam, the most socially conscious of world religions, can partly overcome the transition-to-democracy dilemma by concentrating the considerable sum of its energies on the nooks and crannies of civil society.” Both prescriptive and prescient, the prescriptive part was belied by the fact that, descriptively, Muslims from many walks of life had, for some time already, been actively engaged in the arena of civil society, carving out a social space for a “politics of identity” that strove to be at once moral/religious, nonviolent, egalitarian, welfarist, justice-seeking, and democratic. Keane’s remark remains prescient insofar as few observers outside the Islamic world had yet to acknowledge the presence of a vigorous civil society in many of the Muslim majority countries.
Civil society is located betwixt and between the intimate/private spheres of familial life, and the various organs of the State: administrative, legislative, judicial, economic, etc. In large measure, it is beholden to those selfsame institutions, for the State serves to “frame” or structure social relations outside its immediate purview (e.g., the legal system). The nature, complexity and differentiation of power relations, nodes and networks account for the interdependence and feedback loops between the State and civil society. The institutions, associations, organizations, gathering places, and social movements on the terrain of civil society act as a Deweyan schoolhouse for democracy, or as a dress rehearsal for more traditional forms of political participation. While authoritarian regimes routinely attempt to “de-politicize” or “privatize” (‘atomize’) relations within society, the modern Leviathan finds it difficult to implement this divide-to-conquer strategy, that is, to be truly totalitarian, to manipulate and control the entire spectrum of activities and dialogue constitutive of the various “publics” in civil society, even in authoritarian regimes.
The moral, political and cultural capacities of actors in civil society are based on norms of trust, reciprocity, friendship, commitment, and the like that are metaphorically termed “social capital.” The strength and circulation of this social capital signals both the desire and potential for democratization (i.e., as a variable in the transition from non-democratic to democratic rule) and may be the very locus of “democracy” in societies with governments that suffer from so-called democracy deficits. Be that as it may, it is probably analytically availing to distinguish between civil society proper and a democratic political culture, the former being a necessary yet not sufficient condition for the latter.
Delineating the lineaments of civil society involves, minimally, (1) reconfiguring the boundaries of the political (cf.: the samizdat, the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR), the ‘Flying University’ (TKN) in the former Soviet Union and East-Central Europe; CORE, the Highlander Folk School, Citizenship Schools, and SNCC of the civil rights era; the Free Speech movement, SDS, and countercultural communes, cooperatives, and clinics of the 1960s; the Beijing Spring of 1989; the United Democratic Front of South Africa; and the comunidades de base of Liberation Theology in Latin America), and this typically involves (2) reconceptualizing the nature of power (cf.: the intellectuals of the Velvet Revolutions, e.g., Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuroń; Gandhian moral and political theory; post-Gramscian Marxism, e.g., Carl Boggs; the works of Michel Foucault; the Fundi Green theorist Rudolf Bahro; and Johan Galtung)—and, finally, (3) an appreciation of the financial systems, capital flows, markets, and property rights essential for the material resources that sustain (as both cause and effect) civil society, (cf.: Henry and Springborg’s Globalization and the Politics of Development in the Middle East, 2001).
In the Middle East, civil society consists of “a mélange of associations, clubs, guilds, syndicates, federations, unions, parties and groups [that] come together to provide a buffer between state and citizen” (Augustus R. Norton). Professional syndicates (niqabat) are particularly strong in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan, and among the Palestinians. These associations (of doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, etc.) are often the leading edge of civil society owing to the high level of education, political awareness, and financial resources of their members. In Egypt, Muslim Brothers are elected majorities on the boards of most of these associations.
Among the Arab Gulf States, Kuwait’s civil society deserves mention, with its fairly free press, professional associations and cultural clubs. In particular, the diwaniyyah function as a gathering place in citizens’ homes where men socialize while discussing a variety of topics, political and otherwise. Some women have started their own diwaniyyah, and it was the diwaniyyah that gave birth to the country’s pro-democracy movement. While Kuwait’s constitution provides the framework for its civil society, the State has never recognized independent voluntary organizations. Turkey, with its Kemalist/laicist state, has a yet more energetic civil society, much of it Islamic. Still, its Islamist members “possess contradictory motivations and goals and sometimes radically different interpretations of fundamental religious principles and political platforms” (Jenny B. White). When the Kemalist regime crushed the Left in the early 1980s, Muslim activists filled the void: charitable, welfarist, and educational projects persist against a backdrop of agitation for economic and social justice. The electoral success of the Islamic Justice and Development Party (‘AK’) provides evidence of the mobilizational and organizational skills of Muslims in civil society, apart from continuity with the legacy of the Welfare and Virtue Parties.
The growth and consolidation of democracy in the Islamic world faces enormous obstacles: authoritarian political traditions and communalist orientations (including recalcitrant ‘ulamā with medievalist responses to the conditions of modernity); histories of colonialist rule and ongoing post-imperialist interference; the need to implement economic reforms by way of integration into the global economy without being subservient to the terms and conditions of Neoliberal capitalist doctrine; by-products of nationalist struggles that lacked democratic priorities; economically bloated and inefficient States with excessive military expenditures; to list a few of the more transparent and egregious difficulties. Fortunately, the level of economic development provides little information about the prospects for a transition to democracy, although per capita income does correlate with the sustainability of democratic regimes. And political economists and democratic theorists alike well know that rentier states pose peculiar problems for democratic development.
Of course “thick,” more substantive participatory and deliberative democratic theories elaborate motley social and institutional conditions that serve as prerequisites of, or that are at least conducive to, full-fledged democratic consolidation and flourishing. Among the prerequisites frequently cited for the construction of democratic societies we find a cluster of factors or variables associated with Western notions of socio-economic processes of capitalist modernization: industrialization, widespread literacy, mass communication, urbanization (often at the expense of rural life), a class structure with a sizeable middle class and independent bourgeoisie, and the norms, values and beliefs of a democratic political culture (many of these found in the history and philosophy of Liberalism) that reveal a steadfast commitment to democratic principles, including the associated legal institutions and procedures of governance. When or if the variegated potential forms of Islamic democracy do develop, as appears to be the case today in Turkey under the leadership of Justice & Development Party (AKP), and to some extent as well in Indonesia, the corresponding criteria of assessment will be more stringent, and the eudaimonistic consequences more satisfying than meeting merely the minimalist or “thin” conditions intrinsic to primarily electoral conceptions of democratic governance.
References & Further Reading:
On the the origins and early Society of Muslim Brothers (or Muslim Brotherhood), see Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993 ), and Brynjar Lia, The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement (Reading, UK: Ithaca Press/Garnet, 1998). I penned a biography of the founder of Al-Ikhwān, Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949) for Oliver Leaman, ed., The Biographical Encyclopedia of Islamic Philosophy, Vol. 1 (A-I) (London: Thoemmes Continuum, 2006): 70-74.
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