Monday, December 18,  2017

Politics

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Challenges of Freedom

BY Ibrahim El-Houdaiby

The Brotherhood and its leaders must realize that they do not defend the religion as much as the religion defends them, and they are not more concerned about it than others. 


The playground for national activism in Egypt changed more in 60 days than it did in 60 years. Although the regimes of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak differed in their approaches to nationalism, politics, and economics, one significant feature united all three - they all relied on a security-based system of governance rather than a politically based systemof governance. As such, their positions vis-a-vis the different domestic political factions were always influenced by and informed by their vision of authoritarian security based governance and nothing else.


This reality impacted all Egyptian national factions / players, including the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The ruling regimes varied in how they dealt with - the MB  - moving from allowing their calm and partial inclusion to utterlyrepressing them, and accordingly the MB was never a full-fledged participant in political affairs. The group was always subject to repression, which led its leaders to focus on the challenges of existence and sustainability.


For long years, the MB was accustomed to operating under repression. To facilitate its operations, it developed the tools and messages it viewed as necessary [to survive], which included significantly broadening their message, far more then the original message upon which the MB was founded.  The discourse advocated the deferral of internal differences to ensure the MB’s organizational cohesion, which was critical to secure its continued survival and existence. Terminology emerged within the literature of the MB that constituted intellectual suppression for the benefit of organization (examples include expressions such as “members who have lost the way of da’wa – "calling to the way of God”) as well as linking the notion of steadfastness to organizational commitment to the MB). Such literature dealt with differences of opinion as if they were an infection that needed a cure. The MB developed mechanisms to centralize decision-making processes in an effort to limit the capacity for difference of opinion. The MB redefined and regenerated the meaning of notions such as “trust” and “soldiery” to justify this centralization.   Meanwhile, execution of centralized decisions was done in a highly decentralized manner, in order to limit the impact of the blows and repression that were frequently dealt to the Brotherhood.


In my opinion, the prolonged period spent by the MB in a repressive environment resulted inOn the ideological front, the starting point is to determine the theoretical and ideological foundations and dogma upon which the vision for the future of the MB would be based.  chronic deformations of its theoretical and organizational foundations. On the level of theory, the MB’s significant broadening of its messageattracted elements from different [Islamic] schools of thought and the MB ceased to be representative of any particular school of thought or methodology. At times, the situation reached an extent where the original tenets of the MB’s mission were completely obscured and mixed with other Islamic ideologies that were less authentic, less moderate, and less profound. The dividing lines between ideologies were no longer clear. In fact, I think that only four points of agreement remained as common ground between the Brotherhood’s members: the comprehensiveness, thoroughness, and completeness of Islam (while disagreement continued about the implications of that for forms of organized action); acceptance of democracy (with disagreements about its meaning and depth); acceptance of political pluralism (with some ambiguity as to how much difference of opinion is allowed); and the renunciation of violence as a means for gaining political control. 


On the organizational level, the country’s chronic state of emergency blurred the boundaries in the minds of many MB leaders between the concept/ideology and the organization. Accordingly, a lot of the notions formulated during the state of emergency became centralized to the extent that discussions about institutional activities and efforts, compliance with regulations, and accountability of the leadership became marginalized.  And, discussions about ideological differences and opinions became taboo while the means of addressing such a taboo differed markedly. In the final analysis - the underlying reality here is that years of oppression succeeded in confining the MB within the boundaries of their organization - and, the organization itself became the purpose of their existence. They cracked down on any attempts at reform in order to defend the simplest manifestation of their identity.


Then the Egyptian revolution came along to be the basis of a new situation that did not include repression and where everyone agreed to reject exclusion and security-based policies. The Brothers thus found themselves facing a challenge unbeknownst to them; the challenge of freedom, which, in my opinion is a more serious challenge than repression. There is no longer a threat to the MB’s existence, the group’s identity is no longer threatened, therefore there is no basis upon which to delay reform. On the contrary, the greatest threat to their identity now would be the lack of reform. Without reform the Brotherhood would become completely detached from its surrounding reality.


Four points of agreement remained as common ground between the Brotherhood’s members: the comprehensiveness, thoroughness, and completeness of Islam; acceptance of democracy (with disagreements about its meaning and depth); acceptance of political pluralism (with some ambiguity as to how much difference of opinion is allowed); and the renunciation of violence as a means for gaining political controlIt seems to me that the Muslim Brotherhood is not yet used to the challenges of freedom. The first requirement of freedom is to accept and nurture diversity. Such acceptance is not yet visible through the MB’s policies or public positions. Evidence of this includes their refusal that a Brother joins a political party other than their own Freedom and Justice Party (which reflects a lack of real separation between the MB and the political party [the FJP] and a persistence to deny or oppress internal diversity, which should manifest itself in the form of diverse political programs and parties). Another example reflecting the lack of acceptance of diversity, the MB rejected the conference for dialogue organized by the MB’s youth to discuss the latter’s vision for the group’s future (which is a situation that shows the youth are more capable of addressing and dealing with differences than their leaders). Another example is the MB’s position on its leading members who have either announced their intention to join other parties or to nominate themselves for presidency (one of the leading Brotherseven stated that these members would pay the price for their decisions). While other statements byMB leaders said the group was still facing repression and attempts to exclude it from the scene (which reflects a psychological refusal to emerge from the [“victims”] pit).


I think the challenges of freedom impose on the Brotherhood the need to work with a great deal of wisdom in addressingtheir ideological and organizational deficiencies, which resulted from years of repression. On the ideological front, the starting point is to determine the theoretical and ideological foundations and dogma upon which the vision for the future of the MB would be based. 


In my opinion, there are currently four schools of thought being mixed together within the Brotherhood:

  • The first school of thought is that of al-Banna – a school with foundations at al-Azhar although it was not al-Azhar’s dominant trend
     
  • The second school is the al-Azhar school of thought – with its tenets of tradition, juristic schools of thought, and balanced opinions
     
  • The third is the Salafi school – with its different forms ranging from Egyptian Salafis to Wahabism
     
  • The fourth is the Qotbi school (relative to SayyidQotb) – (with the recognitionthat those MB that follow the Qotbi school do not adopt violence and takfir(denouncing others as infidels) as do other Qotbis outside the Brotherhood.)
     

If the MB desires to take a constructive course, the first thing it should do is to clearly determine the theoretical foundations that it embraces and represents. Everything outside of that school of thought would not represent the MB and would not factor into its programs and plans.


A single school of thought will serve as the foundation for a real civilized role that the Muslim Brotherhood would play. The programming and organizational diversity needed by the MB to cope with the challenges of freedom would be based on such a foundation. The basis for the MB platform and program is that Islam, although a doctrine for living life, is not a political ideology, and instead Islam represents a general framework of values for life and some holistic rules and legislative principles that inform life’s different activities. This concept alone can form the basis for an infinite number of political programs and inclinations. Therefore, limiting these programs – of liberal, leftist, nationalist, and other inclinations – within one structure, because it is Islamist, is to persist in defending identity in its simplest form rather than engaging in reform through developing a structured political discourse. And if this approach persists, the idea of Islam will be confined to one political project, which is certainly negative for Islam and will draw it away from its role in informing society’s values. The Brotherhood’s responsibility necessitates them making way for political diversity that manifests itself in different political projects originatingeither from within,or close to, the Brotherhood.


On the other hand, by organizational diversity I would like to see a retreating role for the traditional MB organization and a making way for other manifestations of schools of thought that would play their part in society’s different sectors. These manifestations as such must enjoy strong relations with specialized institutions related to their field of operation and enjoy autonomy and independence from the original nucleus of the MB.  The juristic aspect, for example, must be more strongly connected to al-Azhar and its scholars as the source of knowledge. Similarly, the social da’wadimension must be grounded in Azhari scholarship. It would then be the organization’s mandate to translate scholarly ideas into social andmoral movements as did the Sufi orders in the past (before they came under state control during the last two centuries). The same [the seeking of specialized knowledge in each area / school of thought] applies to the MB’s different facets,until it becomes a school of thought that transcends organization and thrives on freedom, and reaches all people through the realm of freeideas. As such, it would fulfill its founder’s vision to be “a new spirit running through the nation’s body.” I see no other choice for the Brothers if they truly desire to play an effective role in Egypt’s national playground.


The challenges of freedom impose a new reality onto the Muslim Brotherhood; one that differs from their longstanding experience. The challengesforce attention away from identity and toward reform, and give precedence to ideas over organization and to hope over anxiety. The Brotherhood and its leaders must realize that they do not defend the religion as much as the religion defends them, and they are not more concerned about it than others. They must also realize that strong organization is not the primary means to reach a goal. These are lessons that everyone must learn from the Egyptian revolution.

Ibrahim El Houdaiby is a freelance columnist and researcher. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from the American University in Cairo (AUC), where he is currently pursuing a Master's Degree. He has a diploma in Islamic Studies from the High Institute of Islamic Studies where he is currently completing his Master's Degree in Shariah



READ MORE BY:  Ibrahim El-Houdaiby

 

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