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Get to Know Egypt’s Islamists

The Muslim Brotherhood's history is characterized by internal conflict and compromise.
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It is remarkable that after years of occupying countries with predominantly Muslim populations—following attacks motivated by a particular brand of Islam—most Americans, including commentators and politicians, remain misinformed about the politicization of Islam and the effect Islamism has across this area of the world. The recent war in Iraq and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan tragically highlighted the importance of understanding demographic and sectarian complexities in the Middle East and South Asia.

Yet events across the Arab world in the last few years have made it clear that it is not only in countries where American troops are patrolling streets or the CIA is conducting drone strikes that significant, unpredicted, and often violent political and cultural changes can take place. This is perhaps the most clear in Egypt.

Given Egypt’s crucial position as the Arab world’s most populous nation, it is especially welcome that Emory University’s Carrie Rosefsky Wickham has written The Muslim Brotherhood, an accessible and informative analysis of one of the most important and perhaps most misunderstood political organizations in the Middle East.

In June 2012 Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was sworn in as president of Egypt after elections held in the wake of huge popular protests that brought down the military-backed dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Although not where the Arab Spring began, Egypt had quickly become the focus of attention amid the wave of protests across the Arab world in 2011, and Mubarak came to represent the sort of authoritarianism that protesters across the region were demonstrating against. The protesters in Tahrir Square seemed to stand for all who wanted democracy and liberal reforms.

After Morsi came to power the fact that Egypt was to be led by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood caused concern among those segments of Egyptian society that had been comfortable with Mubarak’s rule. The Arab Spring had resulted not in the emergence of a moderate Egyptian government but one headed by a member of a political movement founded on Islamism. The Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral successes naturally enough also revived discussions in America about the role of Islamist movements in Middle Eastern politics and what U.S. foreign policy should be in the region. Democracy promotion had been a pillar of U.S. foreign policy under George W. Bush—but what if the democrats who came to power in the Middle East were distinctly illiberal ones?

Wickham’s book provides a fascinating historical account of the Muslim Brotherhood and its development over the decades, while also showing how misguided much of the commentary on the Muslim Brotherhood is. Wickham argues that while the Muslim Brotherhood undoubtedly wants to implement political change, it has itself undergone transformations throughout its history, prompted by political reality. This dynamism makes characterizing the Muslim Brotherhood’s mission and the ambitions of its members very difficult.

One of the most revealing parts of The Muslim Brotherhood is its examination of the group’s ideology, which is the key concern many in the West have with its involvement in Egyptian politics. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded on a particular strict interpretation of Islamic law (Shariah) at the beginning of the last century, and it is today viewed by many in the West as the embodiment of a worrying political Muslim worldview. But while it may come as a surprise to an audience unfamiliar with Egyptian politics, for some of the Muslim Brotherhood’s history it has been a proponent of granting political rights to women, despite opposition from many members, and of democratic reform. It has also, like any political movement, experienced its share of internal conflicts.

Founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, the Society of the Muslim Brothers was only one religious organization in Egypt that was reacting against Western influences in Egypt. Under al-Banna’s charismatic leadership, the movement grew to hundreds of thousands of members only a little over a decade after its founding—and the entire population of Egypt in 1940 was only around 17 million. Wickham’s account of the Muslim Brotherhood’s beginnings outlines not only what the group stood for but also what it came to represent a reaction against—namely Western influences and domestic authoritarianism, though Wickham notes as well the Brotherhood’s own worrying relationship with authoritarian governments in Europe.

To many observers in the West, it seems contradictory that the Muslim Brotherhood has evolved and developed in opposition to authoritarianism while also advocating a strict interpretation of Islam as a basis for personal and political life, an interpretation that if fully implemented would hardly be characterized by tolerance. Wickham explains how some members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership intend Shariah to be implemented.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book is a discussion of an interview she conducted with Morsi in 2010 in which he said that while the Muslim Brotherhood would allow for individuals to doubt the foundations of Islam in private, the Muslim Brotherhood would prohibit the promotion of such doubt in public. In fact, even homosexual activities and breaking fast during Ramadan would be considered tolerable as long as not promoted in public. While far from ideal for anyone sympathetic to liberalism, Morsi’s understanding of political Islam is different from the sort of totalitarian fundamentalism that the West often associates with Islamism.

Egypt has become a recurring target of libertarian-leaning legislators in Congress, who highlight the fact that aid continues to be handed out to Cairo despite its illiberal leadership. While non-interventionists might well applaud criticisms of the American government’s policies relating to Egypt, Wickham highlights the fact that the situation there—and the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence—cannot be understood simply as a resurgence of fundamentalist Islam that has been brewing in the region for decades.

Indeed, non-interventionists are not immune to broad generalizations. When Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told an audience at CPAC this year, “I say not one penny more to countries that are burning our flag,” he was making a point that resonates with Americans who want to scale back U.S. involvement in the rest of the world, but he was also drawing a rather tenuous link between the behavior of some Egyptians and Egyptian officials in government who happen to be members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that Wickham points out cannot be characterized in sound bites. If noninterventionists want to be more involved in foreign-policy decisions on Capitol Hill, they will have to move beyond rhetoric and deal with the complex political reality in places like Egypt.

Anti-Americanism has been seen in Egypt across the political spectrum. During the coup this summer, some protesters bemoaned the U.S. relationship with Morsi, with one memorable sign reading, “Obama your bitch is our dictator.” In contemporary Egypt, it seems that the U.S. will continue to be viewed with suspicion—and in some cases anger—by whichever side is out of power, presenting American legislators with an awkward diplomatic situation.

While The Muslim Brotherhood provides an excellent account of the organization’s history and how it compares to other Islamist movements in the Middle East, the most valuable lesson of Wickham’s book is that the Muslim Brotherhood is an example of how long-term politics in Egypt, like anywhere else, is conducted with ideological compromise and pragmatism. While Americans accept this as a given in domestic politics, it is too easily forgotten when the political situations in other countries are considered. sep-issuethumb

After reading Wickham’s book it becomes easier to understand why so many Egyptians feel that the Muslim Brotherhood is their only refuge. The organization is exactly what the West fears during times of political upheaval—but during times of relative stability, it’s something more complex. Without the violence that followed Morsi’s removal, Wickham’s book would have been a fascinating examination of an influential and often misunderstood political movement. But given the present situation in Egypt, the book provides more than just an interesting history of the Brotherhood—it also allows the reader to examine the country’s most significant political change in perhaps a generation with a more informed perspective.

Matthew Feeney is assistant editor of Reason 24/7 at Reason.com.