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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Muslim Brotherhood

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Muslim Brotherhood by Marion Boulby LAST REVIEWED: 02 July 2019 LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0137

The Muslim Brotherhood was established in Egypt in 1928 by a schoolteacher, Hasan al-Banna, with an educational, reformist agenda to challenge European influence on Egyptian society by the revival of Islam. The fundamental idea of al-Banna was that Muslims should live according to Islamic law and throw off the Western influences that had contributed to the decay of society. The group’s initial aim was to educate its members in a correct understanding of Islam, and it set up branches along the canal zone. After al-Banna was transferred to Cairo in 1932, he and his followers became more politicized, holding mass youth demonstrations to demand the implementation of Sharia. During World War II the brotherhood took part in anti-British plotting, with the result that they were temporarily jailed and banned. As a result, al-Banna formed the Special Apparatus, also known as the “Secret Apparatus,” a secret paramilitary group. After the war the brotherhood’s Special Apparatus actively attacked British, Jewish, and Egyptian targets. The brotherhood’s assassination of Prime Minister Mahmud al-Nuqrashi led to al-Banna’s own assassination. His death plunged the movement into a period of crisis, with a retired judge, Hasan al-Hudaybi, emerging as the next general guide. In July 1952 the Muslim Brotherhood supported the Free Officers’ coup but was quickly disillusioned with a regime that would not implement Sharia. The group’s opposition culminated in a crisis when a young member of the brotherhood attempted to assassinate Egypt’s president, Gamal Nasser. Members of the movement were then executed and imprisoned. Among these was Sayyid Qutb, who wrote extensively in prison, devising a revolutionary ideology for the overthrow of despotic Muslim leaders and the introduction of Sharia rule. Qutb was hanged in 1966, but his legacy lived on not only in Egypt but also abroad in the formation of more radical Islamist groups. The brotherhood itself has retained a reformist agenda and has evolved into the largest and most popular Islamist organization in Egypt, with broad participation in civil society institutions. The Muslim Brotherhood also spread beyond Egyptian borders, as branches were established in Jordan, Syria, and Palestine by the mid-1940s. The Jordanians made a partnership with the Hashemites, maintaining a commitment to pursuing its goals through legal, nonviolent means; establishing a network of civil society institutions; and serving in parliament and on the cabinet from 1989 to 1993. In Syria a Muslim Brotherhood uprising erupted against the secularist Baathist regime. The insurgency was quickly put down, but clashes resumed in the late 1970s until the brotherhood was brutally crushed and eradicated by the Baathist regime in Hama in 1982. In Palestine the Muslim Brotherhood remained active in the West Bank and Gaza with a reformist educational and charitable platform. In 1988 the Muslim Brotherhood formed Hamas in order to abandon its policy of reformism and join the intifada (uprising). The Muslim Brotherhood can be seen as the “parent” of contemporary Islamism, spawning numerous and ideologically disparate Islamist organizations in the Middle East, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq; Europe; and North America.

There exists one international overview of the Muslim Brotherhood—in the edited volume of Rubin 2010 . This work takes a comparative approach to a variety of Muslim Brotherhood organizations, with contributors writing on the movement in Middle Eastern, European, and North American countries. The contributors focus on organization, tactics, and ideology. Otherwise, information and analysis pertaining to the Muslim Brotherhood is found in a variety of general overviews of the history of Islam and Islamism. On Islamism, Kepel 2006 offers a comprehensive overview of the rise of political Islam globally, with references to the Muslim Brotherhood throughout. Ayubi 1991 also provides an overview of the rise of Islamism, but this work is more analytically grounded in comparing Islamic movements in six Arab states. Esposito 2002 is a straightforward introduction to the modern history of Islamism, explaining the many different ideological and organizational elements in the rise of al-Qaeda, including the role of the Muslim Brotherhood. Calvert 2002 , written for a more advanced audience, points to the conjunction of factors favoring the rise of al-Qaeda, and in so doing discusses the radicalization of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s. Roy 1996 argues in an overview of the 20th century that Islamism, as founded by the Muslim Brotherhood, has lost its political ground. Lewis 2003 is an introductory overview of thirteen centuries of Islamic history, focusing on the theory that Islamism reflects a clash of civilizations with the West. Voll 1994 is a seminal text and an introductory overview of the history of Islam globally from the 18th century, with the penultimate chapter focusing on Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islam and Politics special edition of Third World Quarterly (1988) provides a series of articles by eminent scholars on Islamism throughout the world. Noteworthy articles are by Shahid on the Muslim Brotherhood and Saad Eddin Ibrahim on Islamism in Egypt.

Ayubi, Nazib. Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World . London: Routledge, 1991.

Analytically strong comparative overview of Islamic movements’ evolution in six Arab states. Features the Muslim Brotherhood as the oldest modern political movement of Islam. Suitable for graduate students.

Calvert, John. “The Islamist Syndrome of Cultural Confrontation.” Orbis 60 (Spring 2002): 333–349.

DOI: 10.1016/S0030-4387(02)00112-6

Scholarly overview of the rise of al-Qaeda in the context of half a century of disparate Islamist thought. Highlights radicalization of Sayyid Qutb and other Muslim Brotherhood members in the 1950s. Suitable for graduate students.

Esposito, John. Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam . New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Highly accessible introductory text on political Islam, suitable for undergraduates. References to the Muslim Brotherhood throughout.

Kepel, Gilles. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam . Translated by Anthony Roberts. London: I. B. Taurus, 2006.

Comprehensive introductory overview of the origins and resurgence of political Islam. References to the Muslim Brotherhood throughout. For all levels.

Lewis, Bernard. The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror . New York: Random House, 2003.

Geopolitical overview spans thirteen centuries. Focus on 20th-century Islamism. For all levels.

Roy, Olivier. The Failure of Political Islam . Translated by Carol Volk. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

A sophisticated overview of 20th-century developments. Argues that Islamism has morphed into neofundamentalism and lost its political ground. Suitable for graduate students.

Rubin, Barry, ed. The Muslim Brotherhood: The Organization and Policies of a Global Islamist Movement . New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Comparative edited volume containing contributions on the Muslim Brotherhood’s different ideologies, tactics, and organization in European, North American, and Middle Eastern states. For all levels.

Special Issue: Islam and Politics. Third World Quarterly 10.2 (April 1988).

Issue includes a wide array of articles from respected scholars on Islamist movements in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Contributions by Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Shadid on the Muslim Brotherhood. Useful source for getting scholars’ perspectives on Islamism in the 1980s. Suitable for graduate students.

Voll, John. Islam, Continuity, and Change in the Modern World . Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994.

Seminal text on the development of Islam throughout the Muslim world since the 18th century. Penultimate chapter on Islamic resurgence includes Muslim Brotherhood. Useful for all levels for understanding Muslim Brotherhood in the Islamic history context.

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Egypt's muslim brotherhood, islam case study - violence and peace | 2018.

muslim brotherhood essay

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Note on this Case Study

No religion is inherently violent or peaceful.  However, religions are powerful forces.  They can inspire horrific violence.  They can also inspire nearly unfathomable acts of love and peacebuilding. The Muslims described here span a wide range of values regarding the intersection of their religion and violence.  Some are the perpetrators of violence, some are working to end violence and promote peace, many more are bystanders, who may build up cultural violence, cultural peace, or even both.

As always, when thinking about religion and conflict, maintain a focus on how religion is internally diverse, always evolving and changing, and always embedded in specific cultures.

The people of the north African nation of Egypt are largely Muslim today (nearly 90%) but a significant minority (about 8%) are Coptic Christians. The people of the north African nation of Egypt are largely Muslim today (nearly 90%) but a significant minority (about 8%) are Coptic Christians.[1] 

Egypt was colonized by the British from 1882 until a military revolution in 1952.  Military dictatorships then ruled until 2011, when peaceful mass demonstrations—part of the regional “Arab Spring” movement—briefly made Egypt a democracy until the military reestablished rule in 2013.[2]  Still, as different regimes rose and fell, one group was a constant presence: the Islamic group called the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).  The MB has a complex history in Egypt, sometimes advocating violence, sometimes peace.  Egyptians and international observers are thus often split in their views of the group; some claim the MB are democratic peace builders, while others believe them to be terrorists.  Regardless, the MB is diverse and complex.

The MB was founded in 1928 by Sunni Muslim Hassan al-Banna.  Al-Banna saw British colonial rule harming Egyptians, and advocated that they turn to Islam to resist Western domination.  It began as a peaceful social movement, with members building schools, mosques, and social centers for local communities hit hard by colonial policies, particularly the poor.  About ten years later, however, some members turned to violence to overthrow colonial powers, including bombings and assassinations.  The British quickly banned the group, but it continued in secret.  In 1948, a member of the MB assassinated the Prime Minister; al-Banna denounced the violence but was killed in retaliation soon after.  As opposition to the British grew, the MB supported the military coup which overthrew the colonists in 1952.  However, they opposed the secular regime that was formed, believing a government based in Islamic beliefs would better serve Egyptians.[3]

Under the new secular government of dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Muslim Brotherhood broke with the military.  In 1954, the Brotherhood was blamed for an assassination attempt on Nasser, who used it to quash his remaining rivals.  The MB was outlawed again, and thousands of members were rounded up, tortured, and imprisoned.  Underground again, some Brothers advocated further violence, inspired by the writings of Sayid Qutb, who wrote from prison that Islamic society had lost its religious character and must be restored by any means necessary. Qutb convinced some Muslims—who soon split from the MB—but his more violent views were rejected by MB leadership.  In 1970, the MB officially renounced violence, deciding to push for Islamic society by peaceful means, returning to their social service roots, and pledging to support democracy in the repressive dictatorship.  Concerned by this opposition, presidents Sadat and Mubarak kept the MB illegal.  At times the dictators allowed the MB some freedom, but times of respite were always short lived.  In 2005, for example, Mubarak arrested hundreds of Brothers and banned all political activity of religiously based groups.  Still, the MB continued to grow, as Egyptians appreciated the social services they provided to struggling communities.[4]

Mohamed Morsi

By the Arab Spring in 2011, the MB had been cruelly suppressed for over sixty years, but had become the largest Muslim group in Egypt.  The Arab Spring did not begin with the MB, but fulfilling their promise to support democratic principles in Egypt, they eventually threw their considerable support behind the movement.  After Mubarak was overthrown, the Brotherhood became legal for the first time in decades.  Able to run candidates openly again, the MB won almost half of the seats in Egypt’s assembly in 2011, and in 2012 the MB candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won a close race in Egypt’s first democratic election for president.  However, the MB’s political power was short lived.  The MB and other Islamist parties drafted a new Constitution which many Egyptians—including many Muslims—felt was too conservative and discriminated against women, secular Egyptians, and the country’s Coptic Christian minority.  When Morsi granted himself far-reaching powers and the Islamist parties approved the new Constitution while the opposition was boycotting the vote, millions took to the streets to demand Morsi’s resignation.  Morsi and the MB refused as pro-Morsi demonstrators began rival rallies.[5]

As instability grew, on July 3, 2013, the military overthrew Morsi and the MB government in a coup.  Led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military cracked down on the democratically elected MB more severely than any previous ruler.  The military arrested thousands of MB members, including Morsi and most of the leadership, and killed over a thousand Brotherhood supporters who were protesting in the streets.  They shut down MB mosques and schools, and seized their funds.  Then, in late 2013, the military declared the MB a terrorist organization by blaming a suicide bombing on them, even though an ISIS-related group claimed responsibility for the attack.[6]  Ironically, like the MB, al-Sisi, who is a devout Muslim, has tried to emphasize an Islamic foundation for his rule.  State TV has called him “God’s shadow on earth,” and he regularly looks for support from Muslim clerics at Egypt’s famous Islamic university: Al Azhar.[7]

By 2016, illegal again and threatened with extinction, the MB had split into competing factions who disagreed over the role of violence in the organization.  Many, especially older members, continue to advocate for peaceful resistance to the new government.  Others, including many younger members, believe that only a violent uprising can topple al-Sisi’s military government.  Internal disagreements have kept the MB from mounting any significant resistance, and recently some members more inclined to violence have left the MB for more radical groups like ISIS.[8]  Oppressed and disorganized, today’s Muslim Brotherhood continues to struggle with disagreements over how to achieve freedom: resistance by violence or resistance by peace.  

Additional Resources

Primary sources:.

Muslim Brotherhood’s official spokesman Gehad el-Haddad’s open letter from prison denying any MB ties to violence (2017): http://nyti.ms/2vT9t4I

Secondary Sources:

PBS Frontline documentary on the MB’s role in Egyptian revolutionary politics from 2011 to 2013 (2013): http://to.pbs.org/1VkMlyk

PBS Newshour reporting on the diversity of Islamist positions in Egypt (2011): http://bit.ly/2vTicmA

Al Jazeera English video on history of the MB (2011): http://bit.ly/2vJSNfy

Public Health student Nadine Farag on the lesser-known but incredibly widespread social services of the MB (2009): http://to.pbs.org/2vU2to9

Interview with activist Heba Morayef on how the MB has been both the victims and the perpetrators of violations of human rights (2011): http://to.pbs.org/2vokk5g

NYT on global debates about whether the MB is a “terrorist organization” (2017): http://nyti.ms/2uu75kB

Discussion Questions

What does internal diversity in Islam look like when considering Egyptian Muslim beliefs about their faith, violence, and peace?

How have the Muslim Brotherhood’s religious beliefs illustrated how religions change over time?  Why, in their context, do you think these changes took place?

How did the individuals and groups in power change the way that Muslims acted in Egypt?  What about those who were not in power?

Read the letter from official MB spokesman Gehad el-Haddad written from prison in 2017.  What is at stake here for the MB?  How does this member of the MB see religion playing a role in his actions?

Read the NYT article on nations deciding whether to affirm Egypt’s statement that the MB is a terrorist group.  Why do some leaders believe the MB is a terrorist group and some do not?  How does religion play a role in these claims?  How does Nadine Farag’s article complicate these claims?

Read Heba Morayef’s interview.  How do Egyptians who are not MB members but also do not support the regimes of Egyptian dictators view the MB?  How does religion play a role in these views?

This case study was created by Kristofer Rhude, MDiv ’18, under the editorial direction of Dr. Diane L. Moore, faculty director of Religion and Public Life.

  • [1] World Religion Database, ed. Todd M. Johnson and Brian A. Grim (Boston: Brill, 2015).
  • [2] Zachary Laub, “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,” Council on Foreign Relations, January, 15, 2014. http://on.cfr.org/2hOJPb0
  • [3] “Profile: Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,” BBC News, Dec. 25, 2013. http://bbc.in/2vrRD5C
  • [4] “Profile: Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,” BBC News; Laub, “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.”
  • [7] Declan Walsh, “Egypt’s President Turns to Religion to Bolster His Authority,” New York Times, Jan. 9, 2016. http://nyti.ms/2wz31wG
  • [8] Mostafa Hashem, “The Great Brotherhood Divide,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Mar. 2, 2016. http://ceip.org/1oW3CU9
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Muslim brotherhood and jama’at-i islami.

The Muslim Brotherhood and Jama’at-i Islami are separate movements that tend to draw the bulk of their members from different ethnic groups (Arabs and South Asians, respectively). Nevertheless, both groups are rooted in a political ideology, frequently described as “Islamist,” that calls for the establishment of a distinctly Islamic system of government.

Muslim networks al-Banna portrait 10-09-13

The Muslim Brotherhood is without question the world’s most influential modern Islamist organization. Founded in Egypt in 1928 by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna, the group advocates the embrace of Islam as a way to promote both personal development and broader social reform. Initially a religious and social organization, the Muslim Brotherhood quickly became politicized. Its ideology, which calls for establishing Islamic states based on shari’a (or Islamic) law, became the basis for virtually all Islamist movements. The group’s standard slogan, “Islam is the solution,” expresses the movement’s emphasis on the systematic application of Islam to all facets of life.

Soon after it was founded, the Muslim Brotherhood spread beyond the confines of Egypt, eventually establishing branches in nearly every country in the Arab world. In addition, it also provided the ideological basis for a number of other prominent Islamist movements outside the Arab world, including the Pakistan-based group Jama’at-i Islami, broadly translated as “Islamic society.”

By the 1950s, the secular nationalist regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt came to view the politicized Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood as a major threat to the security of the Egyptian state, and suspected members of the group were imprisoned and in some cases tortured. In the decades that followed, governments in other countries where the movement had a following, including Syria, Iraq and Tunisia, began similar crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood, prompting many members of the group to seek refuge in France, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and other places in Europe.

Expansion in Europe

By the 1980s, many of the emigrants who had taken the Muslim Brotherhood to Europe realized that they would not be returning to their countries of origin, at least in the near future, and they began to work in various European states to create more permanent organizations inspired by the movement. The Muslim Brotherhood’s earliest adherents in Europe had remained close to the original ideological goals and organizational structure of the movement in the Middle East, but later European groups sought to adapt the movement’s agenda and priorities for new generations of Muslims born and raised in Europe.

Snapshot: Muslim Brotherhood and Jama’at-i Islami

Origin The Muslim Brotherhood was founded by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna in 1928 in Egypt. Jama’at-i Islami was established in 1941 in what was then British India by journalist Abu Ala Mawdudi, who was inspired by al-Banna’s ideas.

Stated Purpose/Goals Both groups originally sought to establish legal and political systems based on Islamic law. Today, European offshoots of the groups promote Islam as a comprehensive way of life and encourage Muslims to participate in the broader society in order to advance Islamic causes.

Method/Activities National affiliates of both movements engage in a range of activities, including organizing events focused on social and political issues of interest to Muslims.

Representative Organizations/Key Figures

  • The Muslim Association of Britain, Union des Organisations Islamiques de France, Islamische Gemeinschaft in Deutschland (Germany) and Ligue Islamique Interculturelle de Belgique (Belgium) are large, national affiliates of the Brotherhood in Europe.
  • The Brussels-based Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe is the umbrella organization for the large, national Brotherhood-affiliated groups.
  • Organizations with roots in the Jama’at-i Islami include the UK Islamic Mission, the Islamic Foundation and the Islamic Forum Europe, all based in Britain.

This effort resulted in the establishment of some of the largest and best-known Muslim organizations on the continent, including the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (Union of French Islamic Organizations, est. 1983), the Islamische Gemeinschaft in Deutschland (Islamic Community in Germany, est. 1982), the Muslim Association of Britain (est. 1997) and the Ligue Islamique Interculturelle de Belgique (Intercultural Islamic League of Belgium, est. 1997). Among the founding members of these groups are Kemal el-Helbawy of the Muslim Association of Britain, a former member of the Central Guidance Bureau of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and Said Ramadan of Islamische Gemeinschaft in Deutschland, a close personal aide and son-in-law to Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and father of the well-known contemporary Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan. Another notable figure linked to the Muslim Brotherhood is Rachid Ghannouchi, the exiled leader of Tunisia’s Islamist party and a major intellectual figure in global Brotherhood circles, who now lives in London.

Today, national entities such as the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France are best understood as loose affiliates rather than as formal branches of the Muslim Brotherhood. The national organizations act as representative bodies for Muslims and advocate for Muslim causes. They also provide coordination, strategic leadership and some funding for a number of small, local Muslims organizations – some of which, particularly in France and the United Kingdom, are led by people with no direct ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. These local organizations engage in a wide range of activities designed to serve the day-to-day religious needs of Muslims, such as ensuring access to halal meat, operating prayer halls, sponsoring after-school classes on the Quran, distributing copies of the Quran or providing burial services.

The large, national Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations fall under the loose jurisdiction of the Brussels-based Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe, an umbrella group founded in 1989 that represents Muslim organizations in more than two dozen European countries. The Federation has at times suffered from leadership disputes and rivalries between its major national bodies. But all of the Federation’s constituent organizations have similar goals and objectives: promoting Islam as a comprehensive way of life, strengthening the Muslim community in Europe and encouraging Muslims to participate in European society in order to promote Islamic causes.

The Federation was responsible for the creation in 1992 of the European Institute of Human Sciences, a facility for promoting the study of classical Islamic scholarship among European Muslims. It is based in Château-Chinon in central France (near Dijon), with branches in Paris as well as in Lampeter, Wales (U.K.). The Federation also founded the European Council for Fatwa and Research in Dublin, which conducts research on Islamic jurisprudence and dispenses religious opinions on practical issues specific to Muslims in Europe, such as the observance of prayers and the permissibility – given Islamic proscriptions against interest and usury – of using Western financial systems.

Muslim networks MB woman at rally 10-09-13

Other organizations inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood have established Islamic centers across the continent to help meet the religious needs of local Muslim communities, including providing spaces for religious classes, libraries, and shops with Islamic books and other religious items. In addition, about 400 mosques and prayer spaces in Europe were said to be at least indirectly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood as of 2008. 18 The Millî Görüş organization in Germany, while not directly tied to the Muslim Brotherhood or its European coordinating structures, represents a similar ideological orientation within that country’s Turkish community.

Jama’at-i Islami

The Pakistan-based Jama’at-i Islami is one of the most influential Islamic political movements in South Asia – with branches in India and Bangladesh – and among South Asian Muslims around the world. In Europe, the group is particularly strong in the United Kingdom, where more than two-thirds of the Muslim population of about 2.9 million comes from South Asia.

Groups affiliated with the Jama’at-i Islami share much in common with groups that have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and both movements have followed a similar trajectory in terms of their evolution in Europe. The first formal manifestations of the Jama’at-i Islami in Europe date from the 1960s, with the establishment of the UK Islamic Mission and its affiliate, Dawatul Islam. These groups, which still exist today, promote Islamic education with a particular emphasis on Jama’at-i Islami thinkers and perspectives.

Muslim networks MB Mawdudi 10-09-13

In the U.K., for instance, two groups that were originally inspired by the Jama’at-i Islami – the Islamic Society of Britain and its youth wing, Young Muslims UK – are now, at least to some extent, its rivals. These newer organizations strive to promote a distinctly “British Islam” that combines mainstream civic engagement with, as they see it, a robust and confident Muslim public identity. While their active membership and intellectual appeal are largely confined to well-educated, professional Muslims, the two groups also organize well-attended mass retreats and run neighborhood mentoring programs in less-affluent Muslim areas of the U.K.

Becoming More Visible

In recent years, European organizations with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jama’at-i Islami have begun working more closely with European governments. This has been particularly true since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., as European officials have sought to reach out to their Muslim communities.

In part because of their professional staffs and middle-class leadership, groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and Jama’at i-Islami are sometimes seen by government officials and other influential members of society as being proxies for the Muslim community as a whole. For instance, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Union des Organisations Islamiques de France was one of the first organizations invited to join the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman, a group established by the French government in 2003 to represent the interests of the country’s Muslims in dealings with the government. And in the U.K., the Muslim Council of Britain (many of whose leaders have roots in groups linked to the Jama’at-i Islami) became one of the government’s chief points of engagement with the country’s Muslims soon after its founding in 1997.

This relationship became somewhat more fractious after 9/11 and the July 2005 terrorist attacks on the London transit system, however, in part because some of the Council’s member organizations were thought to be encouraging intolerance toward non-Muslims.

Muslim networks MB protest 10-09-13

Changing Agenda?

The Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates often succeed in setting the public agenda for European Muslims more broadly. But this agenda may be changing. While many of the original Brotherhood-inspired organizations are still headed by the first generation of leaders – many of whom were born outside of Europe – the second and, in some cases, the third generation of leaders – mostly born in Europe – are coming to the fore. Many of the younger leaders are pressing for an agenda that focuses on the interests and needs of Muslims in particular European countries rather than on global Islamic causes, such as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Although its agenda might be changing, the Muslim Brotherhood remains controversial in many parts of Western Europe. Many Europeans believe that some Brotherhood-affiliated organizations are promoting agendas that encourage their followers to think of themselves first and foremost as Muslims, thus hindering the assimilation of Muslims in Europe. 21 There also has been some scrutiny of Brotherhood-linked figures in Europe who have made anti-Semitic remarks, made comments in support of suicide bombings in Israel or been involved in fundraising for groups linked to Hamas, the militant Palestinian Islamic group. 22 Others have raised questions about the possible links between some Brotherhood-affiliated groups in the Middle East and global terrorists. 23 For these reasons, the leaders of Brotherhood-affiliated groups in Europe may continue to face questions about the movement’s complicated history, even as they struggle to make their agenda relevant to new generations of Muslims.

  • See Brigitte Maréchal, editor, The Muslim Brothers in Europe: Roots and Discourse , Brill, 2008. ↩
  • See, for example, Mawdudi’s Toward Understanding Islam , revised edition, New Era Publications, 1994, which was originally written in 1932 in Urdu and has since been translated into numerous languages. Also see Human Rights in Islam , The Islamic Foundation, 1976. ↩
  • See, for example, Robert Lambert, “Empowering Salafis and Islamists Against Al-Qaeda: A London Counterterrorism Case Study,” PS: Political Science & Politics , Volume 41, Number 1, pages 31-35, 2008. ↩
  • See, for example, Lorenzo Vidino, The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West , Columbia University Press, 2010. ↩
  • See, for example, Ian Johnson, “ Big Brotherhood Is Watching ,” Foreign Policy , May 26, 2010. ↩
  • See, for example, Mary Crane, “ Does the Muslim Brotherhood Have Ties to Terrorism? ” Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder, April 5, 2005. ↩

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The Philosopher of Islamic Terror

By Paul Berman

  • March 23, 2003

I. In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, many people anticipated a quick and satisfying American victory over Al Qaeda. The terrorist army was thought to be no bigger than a pirate ship, and the newly vigilant police forces of the entire world were going to sink the ship with swift arrests and dark maneuvers. Al Qaeda was driven from its bases in Afghanistan. Arrests and maneuvers duly occurred and are still occurring. Just this month, one of Osama bin Laden's top lieutenants was nabbed in Pakistan. Police agents, as I write, seem to be hot on the trail of bin Laden himself, or so reports suggest.

Yet Al Qaeda has seemed unfazed. Its popularity, which was hard to imagine at first, has turned out to be large and genuine in more than a few countries. Al Qaeda upholds a paranoid and apocalyptic worldview, according to which ''Crusaders and Zionists'' have been conspiring for centuries to destroy Islam. And this worldview turns out to be widely accepted in many places -- a worldview that allowed many millions of people to regard the Sept. 11 attacks as an Israeli conspiracy, or perhaps a C.I.A. conspiracy, to undo Islam. Bin Laden's soulful, bearded face peers out from T-shirts and posters in a number of countries, quite as if he were the new Che Guevara, the mythic righter of cosmic wrongs.

The vigilant police in many countries, applying themselves at last, have raided a number of Muslim charities and Islamic banks, which stand accused of subsidizing the terrorists. These raids have advanced the war on still another front, which has been good to see. But the raids have also shown that Al Qaeda is not only popular; it is also institutionally solid, with a worldwide network of clandestine resources. This is not the Symbionese Liberation Army. This is an organization with ties to the ruling elites in a number of countries; an organization that, were it given the chance to strike up an alliance with Saddam Hussein's Baath movement, would be doubly terrifying; an organization that, in any case, will surely survive the outcome in Iraq.

To anyone who has looked closely enough, Al Qaeda and its sister organizations plainly enjoy yet another strength, arguably the greatest strength of all, something truly imposing -- though in the Western press this final strength has received very little attention. Bin Laden is a Saudi plutocrat with Yemeni ancestors, and most of the suicide warriors of Sept. 11 were likewise Saudis, and the provenance of those people has focused everyone's attention on the Arabian peninsula. But Al Qaeda has broader roots. The organization was created in the late 1980's by an affiliation of three armed factions -- bin Laden's circle of ''Afghan'' Arabs, together with two factions from Egypt, the Islamic Group and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the latter led by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's top theoretician. The Egyptian factions emerged from an older current, a school of thought from within Egypt's fundamentalist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, in the 1950's and 60's. And at the heart of that single school of thought stood, until his execution in 1966, a philosopher named Sayyid Qutb -- the intellectual hero of every one of the groups that eventually went into Al Qaeda, their Karl Marx (to put it that way), their guide.

Qutb (pronounced KUH-tahb) wrote a book called ''Milestones,'' and that book was cited at his trial, which gave it immense publicity, especially after its author was hanged. ''Milestones'' became a classic manifesto of the terrorist wing of Islamic fundamentalism. A number of journalists have dutifully turned the pages of ''Milestones,'' trying to decipher the otherwise inscrutable terrorist point of view.

I have been reading some of Qutb's other books, and I think that ''Milestones'' may have misled the journalists. ''Milestones'' is a fairly shallow book, judged in isolation. But ''Milestones'' was drawn from his vast commentary on the Koran called ''In the Shade of the Qur'an.'' One of the many volumes of this giant work was translated into English in the 1970's and published by the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, an organization later widely suspected of participation in terrorist attacks -- and an organization whose Washington office was run by a brother of bin Laden's. In the last four years a big effort has been mounted by another organization, the Islamic Foundation in England, to bring out the rest, in what will eventually be an edition of 15 fat English-language volumes, handsomely ornamented with Arabic script from the Koran. Just in these past few weeks a number of new volumes in this edition have made their way into the Arab bookshops of Brooklyn, and I have gobbled them up. By now I have made my way through a little less than half of ''In the Shade of the Qur'an,'' which I think is all that exists so far in English, together with three other books by Qutb. And I have something to report.

Qutb is not shallow. Qutb is deep. ''In the Shade of the Qur'an'' is, in its fashion, a masterwork. Al Qaeda and its sister organizations are not merely popular, wealthy, global, well connected and institutionally sophisticated. These groups stand on a set of ideas too, and some of those ideas may be pathological, which is an old story in modern politics; yet even so, the ideas are powerful. We should have known that, of course. But we should have known many things.

II. Qutb's special ability as a writer came from the fact that, as a young boy, he received a traditional Muslim education -- he committed the Koran to memory by the age of 10 -- yet he went on, at a college in Cairo, to receive a modern, secular education. He was born in 1906, and in the 1920's and 30's he took up socialism and literature. He wrote novels, poems and a book that is still said to be well regarded called ''Literary Criticism: Its Principles and Methodology.'' His writings reflected -- here I quote one of his admirers and translators, Hamid Algar of the University of California at Berkeley -- a ''Western-tinged outlook on cultural and literary questions.'' Qutb displayed ''traces of individualism and existentialism.'' He even traveled to the United States in the late 1940's, enrolled at the Colorado State College of Education and earned a master's degree. In some of the accounts of Qutb's life, this trip to America is pictured as a ghastly trauma, mostly because of America's sexual freedoms, which sent him reeling back to Egypt in a mood of hatred and fear.

I am skeptical of that interpretation, though. His book from the 1940's, ''Social Justice and Islam,'' shows that, even before his voyage to America, he was pretty well set in his Islamic fundamentalism. It is true that, after his return to Egypt, he veered into ever more radical directions. But in the early 1950's, everyone in Egypt was veering in radical directions. Gamal Abdel Nasser and a group of nationalist army officers overthrew the old king in 1952 and launched a nationalist revolution on Pan-Arabist grounds. And, as the Pan-Arabists went about promoting their revolution, Sayyid Qutb went about promoting his own, somewhat different revolution. His idea was ''Islamist.'' He wanted to turn Islam into a political movement to create a new society, to be based on ancient Koranic principles. Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood, became the editor of its journal and established himself right away as Islamism's principal theoretician in the Arab world.

The Islamists and the Pan-Arabists tried to cooperate with one another in Egypt in those days, and there was some basis for doing so. Both movements dreamed of rescuing the Arab world from the legacies of European imperialism. Both groups dreamed of crushing Zionism and the brand-new Jewish state. Both groups dreamed of fashioning a new kind of modernity, which was not going to be liberal and freethinking in the Western style but, even so, was going to be up-to-date on economic and scientific issues. And both movements dreamed of doing all this by returning in some fashion to the glories of the Arab past. Both movements wanted to resurrect, in a modern version, the ancient Islamic caliphate of the seventh century, when the Arabs were conquering the world.

The Islamists and the Pan-Arabists could be compared, in these ambitions, with the Italian Fascists of Mussolini's time, who wanted to resurrect the Roman Empire, and to the Nazis, who likewise wanted to resurrect ancient Rome, except in a German version. The most radical of the Pan-Arabists openly admired the Nazis and pictured their proposed new caliphate as a racial victory of the Arabs over all other ethnic groups. Qutb and the Islamists, by way of contrast, pictured the resurrected caliphate as a theocracy, strictly enforcing shariah, the legal code of the Koran. The Islamists and the Pan-Arabists had their similarities then, and their differences. (And today those two movements still have their similarities and differences -- as shown by bin Laden's Qaeda, which represents the most violent wing of Islamism, and Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, which represents the most violent wing of Pan-Arabism.)

In 1952, in the days before staging his coup d'etat, Colonel Nasser is said to have paid a visit to Qutb at his home, presumably to get his backing. Some people expected that, after taking power, Nasser would appoint Qutb to be the new revolutionary minister of education. But once the Pan-Arabists had thrown out the old king, the differences between the two movements began to overwhelm the similarities, and Qutb was not appointed. Instead, Nasser cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, and after someone tried to assassinate him, he blamed the Brotherhood and cracked down even harder. Some of the Muslim Brotherhood's most distinguished intellectuals and theologians escaped into exile. Sayyid Qutb's brother, Muhammad Qutb, was one of those people. He fled to Saudi Arabia and ended up as a distinguished Saudi professor of Islamic Studies. Many years later, Osama bin Laden would be one of Muhammad Qutb's students.

But Sayyid Qutb stayed put and paid dearly for his stubbornness. Nasser jailed him in 1954, briefly released him, jailed him again for 10 years, released him for a few months and finally hanged him in 1966. Conditions during the first years of prison were especially bad. Qutb was tortured. Even in better times, according to his followers, he was locked in a ward with 40 people, most of them criminals, with a tape recorder broadcasting the speeches of Nasser 20 hours a day. Still, by smuggling papers in and out of jail, he managed to continue with his writings, no longer in the ''Western tinged'' vein of his early, literary days but now as a full-fledged Islamist revolutionary. And somehow, he produced his ''In the Shade of the Qur'an,'' this gigantic study, which must surely count as one of the most remarkable works of prison literature ever produced.

Readers without a Muslim education who try to make their way unaided through the Koran tend to find it, as I have, a little dry and forbidding. But Qutb's commentaries are not at all like that. He quotes passages from the chapters, or suras, of the Koran, and he pores over the quoted passages, observing the prosodic qualities of the text, the rhythm, tone and musicality of the words, sometimes the images. The suras lead him to discuss dietary regulations, the proper direction to pray, the rules of divorce, the question of when a man may propose marriage to a widow (four months and 10 days after the death of her husband, unless she is pregnant, in which case after delivery), the rules concerning a Muslim man who wishes to marry a Christian or a Jew (very complicated), the obligations of charity, the punishment for crimes and for breaking your word, the prohibition on liquor and intoxicants, the proper clothing to wear, the rules on usury, moneylending and a thousand other themes.

The Koran tells stories, and Qutb recounts some of these and remarks on their wisdom and significance. His tone is always lucid and plain. Yet the total effect of his writing is almost sensual in its measured pace. The very title ''In the Shade of the Qur'an'' conveys a vivid desert image, as if the Koran were a leafy palm tree, and we have only to open Qutb's pages to escape the hot sun and refresh ourselves in the shade. As he makes his way through the suras and proposes his other commentaries, he slowly constructs an enormous theological criticism of modern life, and not just in Egypt.

III. Qutb wrote that, all over the world, humans had reached a moment of unbearable crisis. The human race had lost touch with human nature. Man's inspiration, intelligence and morality were degenerating. Sexual relations were deteriorating ''to a level lower than the beasts.'' Man was miserable, anxious and skeptical, sinking into idiocy, insanity and crime. People were turning, in their unhappiness, to drugs, alcohol and existentialism. Qutb admired economic productivity and scientific knowledge. But he did not think that wealth and science were rescuing the human race. He figured that, on the contrary, the richest countries were the unhappiest of all. And what was the cause of this unhappiness -- this wretched split between man's truest nature and modern life?

A great many cultural critics in Europe and America asked this question in the middle years of the 20th century, and a great many of them, following Nietzsche and other philosophers, pointed to the origins of Western civilization in ancient Greece, where man was said to have made his fatal error. This error was philosophical. It consisted of placing an arrogant and deluded faith in the power of human reason -- an arrogant faith that, after many centuries, had created in modern times a tyranny of technology over life.

Qutb shared that analysis, somewhat. Only instead of locating the error in ancient Greece, he located it in ancient Jerusalem. In the Muslim fashion, Qutb looked on the teachings of Judaism as being divinely revealed by God to Moses and the other prophets. Judaism instructed man to worship one God and to forswear all others. Judaism instructed man on how to behave in every sphere of life -- how to live a worldly existence that was also a life at one with God. This could be done by obeying a system of divinely mandated laws, the code of Moses. In Qutb's view, however, Judaism withered into what he called ''a system of rigid and lifeless ritual.''

God sent another prophet, though. That prophet, in Qutb's Muslim way of thinking, was Jesus, who proposed a few useful reforms -- lifting some no-longer necessary restrictions in the Jewish dietary code, for example -- and also an admirable new spirituality. But something terrible occurred. The relation between Jesus' followers and the Jews took, in Qutb's view, ''a deplorable course.'' Jesus' followers squabbled with the old-line Jews, and amid the mutual recriminations, Jesus' message ended up being diluted and even perverted. Jesus' disciples and followers were persecuted, which meant that, in their sufferings, the disciples were never able to provide an adequate or systematic exposition of Jesus' message.

Who but Sayyid Qutb, from his miserable prison in Nasser's Egypt, could have zeroed in so plausibly on the difficulties encountered by Jesus' disciples in getting out the word? Qutb figured that, as a result, the Christian Gospels were badly garbled, and should not be regarded as accurate or reliable. The Gospels declared Jesus to be divine, but in Qutb's Muslim account, Jesus was a mere human -- a prophet of God, not a messiah. The larger catastrophe, however, was this: Jesus' disciples, owing to what Qutb called ''this unpleasant separation of the two parties,'' went too far in rejecting the Jewish teachings.

Jesus' disciples and followers, the Christians, emphasized Jesus' divine message of spirituality and love. But they rejected Judaism's legal system, the code of Moses, which regulated every jot and tittle of daily life. Instead, the early Christians imported into Christianity the philosophy of the Greeks -- the belief in a spiritual existence completely separate from physical life, a zone of pure spirit.

In the fourth century of the Christian era, Emperor Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity. But Constantine, in Qutb's interpretation, did this in a spirit of pagan hypocrisy, dominated by scenes of wantonness, half-naked girls, gems and precious metals. Christianity, having abandoned the Mosaic code, could put up no defense. And so, in their horror at Roman morals, the Christians did as best they could and countered the imperial debaucheries with a cult of monastic asceticism.

But this was no good at all. Monastic asceticism stands at odds with the physical quality of human nature. In this manner, in Qutb's view, Christianity lost touch with the physical world. The old code of Moses, with its laws for diet, dress, marriage, sex and everything else, had enfolded the divine and the worldly into a single concept, which was the worship of God. But Christianity divided these things into two, the sacred and the secular. Christianity said, ''Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's.'' Christianity put the physical world in one corner and the spiritual world in another corner: Constantine's debauches over here, monastic renunciation over there. In Qutb's view there was a ''hideous schizophrenia'' in this approach to life. And things got worse.

A series of Christian religious councils adopted what Qutb thought to be irrational principles on Christianity's behalf -- principles regarding the nature of Jesus, the Eucharist, transubstantiation and other questions, all of which were, in Qutb's view, ''absolutely incomprehensible, inconceivable and incredible.'' Church teachings froze the irrational principles into dogma. And then the ultimate crisis struck.

IV. Qutb's story now shifts to Arabia. In the seventh century, God delivered a new revelation to his prophet Muhammad, who established the correct, nondistorted relation to human nature that had always eluded the Christians. Muhammad dictated a strict new legal code, which put religion once more at ease in the physical world, except in a better way than ever before. Muhammad's prophecies, in the Koran, instructed man to be God's ''vice regent'' on earth -- to take charge of the physical world, and not simply to see it as something alien to spirituality or as a way station on the road to a Christian afterlife. Muslim scientists in the Middle Ages took this instruction seriously and went about inquiring into the nature of physical reality. And, in the Islamic universities of Andalusia and the East, the Muslim scientists, deepening their inquiry, hit upon the inductive or scientific method -- which opened the door to all further scientific and technological progress. In this and many other ways, Islam seized the leadership of mankind. Unfortunately, the Muslims came under attack from Crusaders, Mongols and other enemies. And, because the Muslims proved not faithful enough to Muhammad's revelations, they were unable to fend off these attacks. They were unable to capitalize on their brilliant discovery of the scientific method.

The Muslim discoveries were exported instead into Christian Europe. And there, in Europe in the 16th century, Islam's scientific method began to generate results, and modern science emerged. But Christianity, with its insistence on putting the physical world and the spiritual world in different corners, could not cope with scientific progress. And so Christianity's inability to acknowledge or respect the physical quality of daily life spread into the realm of culture and shaped society's attitude toward science.

As Qutb saw it, Europeans, under Christianity's influence, began to picture God on one side and science on the other. Religion over here; intellectual inquiry over there. On one side, the natural human yearning for God and for a divinely ordered life; on the other side, the natural human desire for knowledge of the physical universe. The church against science; the scientists against the church. Everything that Islam knew to be one, the Christian Church divided into two. And, under these terrible pressures, the European mind split finally asunder. The break became total. Christianity, over here; atheism, over there. It was the fateful divorce between the sacred and the secular.

Europe's scientific and technical achievements allowed the Europeans to dominate the world. And the Europeans inflicted their ''hideous schizophrenia'' on peoples and cultures in every corner of the globe. That was the origin of modern misery -- the anxiety in contemporary society, the sense of drift, the purposelessness, the craving for false pleasures. The crisis of modern life was felt by every thinking person in the Christian West. But then again, Europe's leadership of mankind inflicted that crisis on every thinking person in the Muslim world as well. Here Qutb was on to something original. The Christians of the West underwent the crisis of modern life as a consequence, he thought, of their own theological tradition -- a result of nearly 2,000 years of ecclesiastical error. But in Qutb's account, the Muslims had to undergo that same experience because it had been imposed on them by Christians from abroad, which could only make the experience doubly painful -- an alienation that was also a humiliation.

That was Qutb's analysis. In writing about modern life, he put his finger on something that every thinking person can recognize, if only vaguely -- the feeling that human nature and modern life are somehow at odds. But Qutb evoked this feeling in a specifically Muslim fashion. It is easy to imagine that, in expounding on these themes back in the 1950's and 60's, Qutb had already identified the kind of personal agony that Mohamed Atta and the suicide warriors of Sept. 11 must have experienced in our own time. It was the agony of inhabiting a modern world of liberal ideas and achievements while feeling that true life exists somewhere else. It was the agony of walking down a modern sidewalk while dreaming of a different universe altogether, located in the Koranic past -- the agony of being pulled this way and that. The present, the past. The secular, the sacred. The freely chosen, the religiously mandated -- a life of confusion unto madness brought on, Qutb ventured, by Christian error.

Sitting in a wretched Egyptian prison, surrounded by criminals and composing his Koranic commentaries with Nasser's speeches blaring in the background on the infuriating tape recorder, Qutb knew whom to blame. He blamed the early Christians. He blamed Christianity's modern legacy, which was the liberal idea that religion should stay in one corner and secular life in another corner. He blamed the Jews. In his interpretation, the Jews had shown themselves to be eternally ungrateful to God. Early in their history, during their Egyptian captivity (Qutb thought he knew a thing or two about Egyptian captivity), the Jews acquired a slavish character, he believed. As a result they became craven and unprincipled when powerless, and vicious and arrogant when powerful. And these traits were eternal. The Jews occupy huge portions of Qutb's Koranic commentary -- their perfidy, greed, hatefulness, diabolical impulses, never-ending conspiracies and plots against Muhammad and Islam. Qutb was relentless on these themes. He looked on Zionism as part of the eternal campaign by the Jews to destroy Islam.

And Qutb blamed one other party. He blamed the Muslims who had gone along with Christianity's errors -- the treacherous Muslims who had inflicted Christianity's ''schizophrenia'' on the world of Islam. And, because he was willing to blame, Qutb was able to recommend a course of action too -- a revolutionary program that was going to relieve the psychological pressure of modern life and was going to put man at ease with the natural world and with God.

V. Qutb's analysis was soulful and heartfelt. It was a theological analysis, but in its cultural emphases, it reflected the style of 20th-century philosophy. The analysis asked some genuinely perplexing questions -- about the division between mind and body in Western thought; about the difficulties in striking a balance between sensual experience and spiritual elevation; about the steely impersonality of modern power and technological innovation; about social injustice. But, though Qutb plainly followed some main trends of 20th-century Western social criticism and philosophy, he poured his ideas through a filter of Koranic commentary, and the filter gave his commentary a grainy new texture, authentically Muslim, which allowed him to make a series of points that no Western thinker was likely to propose.

One of those points had to do with women's role in society -- and these passages in his writings have been misinterpreted, I think, in some of the Western commentaries on Qutb. His attitude was prudish in the extreme, judged from a Western perspective of today. But prudishness was not his motivation. He understood quite clearly that, in a liberal society, women were free to consult their own hearts and to pursue careers in quest of material wealth. But from his point of view, this could only mean that women had shucked their responsibility to shape the human character, through child-rearing. The Western notion of women's freedom could only mean that God and the natural order of life had been set aside in favor of a belief in other sources of authority, like one's own heart.

But what did it mean to recognize the existence of more than one source of authority? It meant paganism -- a backward step, into the heathen primitivism of the past. It meant life without reference to God -- a life with no prospect of being satisfactory or fulfilling. And why had the liberal societies of the West lost sight of the natural harmony of gender roles and of women's place in the family and the home? This was because of the ''hideous schizophrenia'' of modern life -- the Western outlook that led people to picture God's domain in one place and the ordinary business of daily life in some other place.

Qutb wrote bitterly about European imperialism, which he regarded as nothing more than a continuation of the medieval Crusades against Islam. He denounced American foreign policy. He complained about America's decision in the time of Harry Truman to support the Zionists, a strange decision that he attributed, in part, to America's loss of moral values. But I must point out that, in Qutb's writings, at least in the many volumes that I have read, the complaints about American policy are relatively few and fleeting. International politics was simply not his main concern. Sometimes he complained about the hypocrisy in America's endless boasts about freedom and democracy. He mentioned America's extermination of its Indian population. He noted the racial prejudice against blacks. But those were not Qutb's themes, finally. American hypocrisy exercised him, but only slightly. His deepest quarrel was not with America's failure to uphold its principles. His quarrel was with the principles. He opposed the United States because it was a liberal society, not because the United States failed to be a liberal society.

The truly dangerous element in American life, in his estimation, was not capitalism or foreign policy or racism or the unfortunate cult of women's independence. The truly dangerous element lay in America's separation of church and state -- the modern political legacy of Christianity's ancient division between the sacred and the secular. This was not a political criticism. This was theological -- though Qutb, or perhaps his translators, preferred the word ''ideological.''

The conflict between the Western liberal countries and the world of Islam, he explained, ''remains in essence one of ideology, although over the years it has appeared in various guises and has grown more sophisticated and, at times, more insidious.'' The sophisticated and insidious disguises tended to be worldly -- a camouflage that was intended to make the conflict appear to be economic, political or military, and that was intended to make Muslims like himself who insisted on speaking about religion appear to be, in his words, ''fanatics'' and ''backward people.''

''But in reality,'' he explained, ''the confrontation is not over control of territory or economic resources, or for military domination. If we believed that, we would play into our enemies' hands and would have no one but ourselves to blame for the consequences.''

The true confrontation, the deepest confrontation of all, was over Islam and nothing but Islam. Religion was the issue. Qutb could hardly be clearer on this topic. The confrontation arose from the effort by Crusaders and world Zionism to annihilate Islam. The Crusaders and Zionists knew that Christianity and Judaism were inferior to Islam and had led to lives of misery. They needed to annihilate Islam in order to rescue their own doctrines from extinction. And so the Crusaders and Zionists went on the attack.

But this attack was not, at bottom, military. At least Qutb did not devote his energies to warning against such a danger. Nor did he spend much time worrying about the ins and outs of Israel's struggle with the Palestinians. Border disputes did not concern him. He was focused on something cosmically larger. He worried, instead, that people with liberal ideas were mounting a gigantic campaign against Islam -- ''an effort to confine Islam to the emotional and ritual circles, and to bar it from participating in the activity of life, and to check its complete predominance over every human secular activity, a pre-eminence it earns by virtue of its nature and function.''

He trembled with rage at that effort. And he cited good historical evidence for his trembling rage. Turkey, an authentic Muslim country, had embraced secular ideas back in 1924. Turkey's revolutionary leader at that time, Kemal Ataturk, abolished the institutional remnants of the ancient caliphate -- the caliphate that Qutb so fervently wanted to resurrect. The Turks in this fashion had tried to abolish the very idea and memory of an Islamic state. Qutb worried that, if secular reformers in other Muslim countries had any success, Islam was going to be pushed into a corner, separate from the state. True Islam was going to end up as partial Islam. But partial Islam, in his view, did not exist.

The secular reformers were already at work, throughout the Muslim world. They were mounting their offensive -- ''a final offensive which is actually taking place now in all the Muslim countries. . . . It is an effort to exterminate this religion as even a basic creed and to replace it with secular conceptions having their own implications, values, institutions and organizations.''

''To exterminate'' -- that was Qutb's phrase. Hysteria cried out from every syllable. But he did not want to be hysterical. He wanted to respond. How?

VI. That one question dominated Qutb's life. It was a theological question, and he answered it with his volumes on the Koran. But he intended his theology to be practical too -- to offer a revolutionary program to save mankind. The first step was to open people's eyes. He wanted Muslims to recognize the nature of the danger -- to recognize that Islam had come under assault from outside the Muslim world and also from inside the Muslim world. The assault from outside was led by Crusaders and world Zionism (though sometimes he also mentioned Communism).

But the assault from inside was conducted by Muslims themselves -- that is, by people who called themselves Muslims but who polluted the Muslim world with incompatible ideas derived from elsewhere. These several enemies, internal and external, the false Muslims together with the Crusaders and Zionists, ruled the earth. But Qutb considered that Islam's strength was, even so, huger yet. ''We are certain,'' he wrote, ''that this religion of Islam is so intrinsically genuine, so colossal and deeply rooted that all such efforts and brutal concussions will avail nothing.''

Islam's apparent weakness was mere appearance. Islam's true champions seemed to be few, but numbers meant nothing. The few had to gather themselves together into what Qutb in ''Milestones'' called a vanguard -- a term that he must have borrowed from Lenin, though Qutb had in mind a tiny group animated by the spirit of Muhammad and his Companions from the dawn of Islam. This vanguard of true Muslims was going to undertake the renovation of Islam and of civilization all over the world. The vanguard was going to turn against the false Muslims and ''hypocrites'' and do as Muhammad had done, which was to found a new state, based on the Koran. And from there, the vanguard was going to resurrect the caliphate and take Islam to all the world, just as Muhammad had done.

Qutb's vanguard was going to reinstate shariah, the Muslim code, as the legal code for all of society. Shariah implied some fairly severe rules. Qutb cited the Koran on the punishments for killing or wounding: ''a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear.'' Fornication, too, was a serious crime because, in his words, ''it involves an attack on honor and a contempt for sanctity and an encouragement of profligacy in society.'' Shariah specified the punishments here as well. ''The penalty for this must be severe; for married men and women it is stoning to death; for unmarried men and women it is flogging, a hundred lashes, which in cases is fatal.'' False accusations were likewise serious. ''A punishment of 80 lashes is fixed for those who falsely accuse chaste women.'' As for those who threaten the general security of society, their punishment is to be put to death, to be crucified, to have their hands and feet cut off, or to be banished from the country.''

But Qutb refused to regard these punishments as barbarous or primitive. Shariah, in his view, meant liberation. Other societies, drawing on non-Koranic principles, forced people to obey haughty masters and man-made law. Those other societies forced people to worship their own rulers and to do as the rulers said -- even if the rulers were democratically chosen. Under shariah, no one was going to be forced to obey mere humans. Shariah, in Qutb's view, meant ''the abolition of man-made laws.'' In the resurrected caliphate, every person was going to be ''free from servitude to others.'' The true Islamic system meant ''the complete and true freedom of every person and the full dignity of every individual of the society. On the other hand, in a society in which some people are lords who legislate and some others are slaves who obey, then there is no freedom in the real sense, nor dignity for each and every individual.''

He insisted that shariah meant freedom of conscience -- though freedom of conscience, in his interpretation, meant freedom from false doctrines that failed to recognize God, freedom from the modern schizophrenia. Shariah, in a word, was utopia for Sayyid Qutb. It was perfection. It was the natural order in the universal. It was freedom, justice, humanity and divinity in a single system. It was a vision as grand or grander than Communism or any of the other totalitarian doctrines of the 20th century. It was, in his words, ''the total liberation of man from enslavement by others.'' It was an impossible vision -- a vision that was plainly going to require a total dictatorship in order to enforce: a vision that, by claiming not to rely on man-made laws, was going to have to rely, instead, on theocrats, who would interpret God's laws to the masses. The most extreme despotism was all too visible in Qutb's revolutionary program. That much should have been obvious to anyone who knew the history of the other grand totalitarian revolutionary projects of the 20th century, the projects of the Nazis, the Fascists and the Communists.

Still, for Qutb, utopia was not the main thing. Utopia was for the future, and Qutb was not a dreamer. Islam, in his interpretation, was a way of life. He wanted his Muslim vanguard to live according to pious Islamic principles in the here and now. He wanted the vanguard to observe the rules of Muslim charity and all the other rules of daily life. He wanted the true Muslims to engage in a lifelong study of the Koran -- the lifelong study that his own gigantic commentary was designed to enhance. But most of all, he wanted his vanguard to accept the obligations of ''jihad,'' which is to say, the struggle for Islam. And what would that mean, to engage in jihad in the present and not just in the sci-fi utopian future?

Qutb began Volume 1 of ''In the Shade of the Qur'an'' by saying: ''To live 'in the shade of the Qur'an' is a great blessing which can only be fully appreciated by those who experience it. It is a rich experience that gives meaning to life and makes it worth living. I am deeply thankful to God Almighty for blessing me with this uplifting experience for a considerable time, which was the happiest and most fruitful period of my life -- a privilege for which I am eternally grateful.''

He does not identify that happy and fruitful period of his life -- a period that lasted, as he says, a considerable time. Perhaps his brother and other intimates would have known exactly what he had in mind -- some very pleasant period, conceivably the childhood years when he was memorizing the Koran. But an ordinary reader who picks up Qutb's books can only imagine that he was writing about his years of torture and prison.

One of his Indian publishers has highlighted this point in a remarkably gruesome manner by attaching an unsigned preface to a 1998 edition of ''Milestones.'' The preface declares: ''The ultimate price for working to please God Almighty and to propagate his ways in this world is often one's own life. The author'' -- Qutb, that is -- ''tried to do it; he paid for it with his life. If you and I try to do it, there is every likelihood we will be called upon to do the same. But for those who truly believe in God, what other choice is there?''

You are meant to suppose that a true reader of Sayyid Qutb is someone who, in the degree that he properly digests Qutb's message, will act on what has been digested. And action may well bring on a martyr's death. To read is to glide forward toward death; and gliding toward death means you have understood what you are reading. Qutb's writings do vibrate to that morbid tone -- not always, but sometimes. The work that he left behind, his Koranic commentary, is vast, vividly written, wise, broad, indignant, sometimes demented, bristly with hatred, medieval, modern, tolerant, intolerant, paranoid, cruel, urgent, cranky, tranquil, grave, poetic, learned and analytic. Sometimes it is moving. It is a work large and solid enough to create its own shade, where Qutb's vanguard and other readers could repose and turn his pages, as he advised the students of the Koran to do, in the earnest spirit of loyal soldiers reading their daily bulletin. But there is, in this commentary, something otherworldly too -- an atmosphere of death. At the very least, it is impossible to read the work without remembering that, in 1966, Qutb, in the phrase of one of his biographers, ''kissed the gallows.''

Martyrdom was among his themes. He discusses passages in the Koran's sura ''The Cow,'' and he explains that death as a martyr is nothing to fear. Yes, some people will have to be sacrificed. ''Those who risk their lives and go out to fight, and who are prepared to lay down their lives for the cause of God are honorable people, pure of heart and blessed of soul. But the great surprise is that those among them who are killed in the struggle must not be considered or described as dead. They continue to live, as God Himself clearly states.''

Qutb wrote: ''To all intents and purposes, those people may very well appear lifeless, but life and death are not judged by superficial physical means alone. Life is chiefly characterized by activity, growth and persistence, while death is a state of total loss of function, of complete inertia and lifelessness. But the death of those who are killed for the cause of God gives more impetus to the cause, which continues to thrive on their blood. Their influence on those they leave behind also grows and spreads. Thus after their death they remain an active force in shaping the life of their community and giving it direction. It is in this sense that such people, having sacrificed their lives for the sake of God, retain their active existence in everyday life. . . .

''There is no real sense of loss in their death, since they continue to live.''

And so it was with Sayyid Qutb. In the period before his final arrest and execution, diplomats from Iraq and Libya offered him the chance to flee to safety in their countries. But he declined to go, on the ground that 3,000 young men and women in Egypt were his followers, and he did not want to undo a lifetime of teaching by refusing to give those 3,000 people an example of true martyrdom. And, in fact, some of those followers went on to form the Egyptian terrorist movement in the next decade, the 1970's -- the groups that massacred tourists and Coptic Christians and that assassinated Egypt's president, Anwar Sadat, after he made peace with Israel; the groups that, in still later years, ended up merging with bin Laden's group and supplying Al Qaeda with its fundamental doctrines. The people in those groups were not stupid or lacking in education.

On the contrary, we keep learning how well educated these people are, how many of them come from the upper class, how wealthy they are. And there is no reason for us to be surprised. These people are in possession of a powerful philosophy, which is Sayyid Qutb's. They are in possession of a gigantic work of literature, which is his ''In the Shade of the Qur'an.'' These people feel that, by consulting their own doctrines, they can explain the unhappiness of the world. They feel that, with an intense study of the Koran, as directed by Qutb and his fellow thinkers, they can make sense of thousands of years of theological error. They feel that, in Qutb's notion of shariah, they command the principles of a perfect society.

These people believe that, in the entire world, they alone are preserving Islam from extinction. They feel they are benefiting the world, even if they are committing random massacres. They are certainly not worried about death. Qutb gave these people a reason to yearn for death. Wisdom, piety, death and immortality are, in his vision of the world, the same. For a pious life is a life of struggle or jihad for Islam, and struggle means martyrdom. We may think: those are creepy ideas. And yes, the ideas are creepy. But there is, in Qutb's presentation, a weird allure in those ideas.

VII. It would be nice to think that, in the war against terror, our side, too, speaks of deep philosophical ideas -- it would be nice to think that someone is arguing with the terrorists and with the readers of Sayyid Qutb. But here I have my worries. The followers of Qutb speak, in their wild fashion, of enormous human problems, and they urge one another to death and to murder. But the enemies of these people speak of what? The political leaders speak of United Nations resolutions, of unilateralism, of multilateralism, of weapons inspectors, of coercion and noncoercion. This is no answer to the terrorists. The terrorists speak insanely of deep things. The antiterrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things. Presidents will not do this. Presidents will dispatch armies, or decline to dispatch armies, for better and for worse.

But who will speak of the sacred and the secular, of the physical world and the spiritual world? Who will defend liberal ideas against the enemies of liberal ideas? Who will defend liberal principles in spite of liberal society's every failure? President George W. Bush, in his speech to Congress a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, announced that he was going to wage a war of ideas. He has done no such thing. He is not the man for that.

Philosophers and religious leaders will have to do this on their own. Are they doing so? Armies are in motion, but are the philosophers and religious leaders, the liberal thinkers, likewise in motion? There is something to worry about here, an aspect of the war that liberal society seems to have trouble understanding -- one more worry, on top of all the others, and possibly the greatest worry of all.

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Rethinking Political Islam

Subscribe to the center for middle east policy newsletter, shadi hamid and shadi hamid senior fellow - foreign policy , center for middle east policy @shadihamid william mccants william mccants former brookings expert, public policy manager - google @will_mccants.

May 6, 2016

  • 73 min read

Led by Shadi Hamid and Will McCants , Rethinking Political Islam is an initative of the U.S. Relations with the Islamic World project.

The rapid succession of events of the past four years have challenged conventional wisdom on political Islam. After the democratic openings in 2011, mainstream Islamist groups—affiliates and descendants of the Muslim Brotherhood—rose to newfound prominence after decades in opposition, but grappled with the challenges of governance and political polarization. The subsequent “twin shocks” of the coup in Egypt and the emergence of ISIS are forcing a rethinking of some of the basic assumptions of, and about, Islamist movements, including on: gradual versus revolutionary approaches to change; the use of tactical or situational violence; attitudes toward the state; and how ideology and political variables interact.

Rethinking Political Islam is the first project of its kind to systematically assess the evolution of mainstream Islamist groups across 12 country cases— Egypt , Tunisia , Morocco , Syria , Yemen , Libya , Saudi Arabia , Kuwait , Jordan ,  Pakistan , as well as Malaysia and Indonesia . Each author has produced a working paper that draws on on-the-ground fieldwork and engagement with Islamist actors in their country of expertise.

Authors then write  reaction essays  focusing on 1) how reading the other country cases has made them think differently about their own country of focus, and 2) broader observations on regional commonalities and divergences. These are presented on the Brookings website in a real-time format, so readers can track responses and reactions between the authors as they grapple with each other’s cases.

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We then ask Islamist leaders and activists to respond and offer their own perspectives on the future of their movements. They will have the opportunity to disagree (or agree) with some of the leading scholars of political Islam, in the spirit of constructive dialogue. Authors will then produce final drafts incorporating additional insights gleaned from months of discussion and debate.

We are also asking a select group of outside scholars to  respond to the overall project. We’ve had contributions from Jacob Olidort  (with a response from  Raphaël Lefèvre ), Jonathan Brown , Andrew Lebovich ,  Ovamir Anjum ,  Mustafa Gürbüz. We are also experimenting with a number of innovative formats, such as this email dialogue between Shadi Hamid and Andrew Lebovich.

Islamists on Islamism Today

Read the latest interviews and responses from Islamist activists and leaders:

  • Habib Ellouze Ennahda Shura Council Member
  • Ali al-Bayanouni Former General Guide of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood
  • Mustafa Elnemr Muslim Brotherhood youth activist
  • Nael al-Masalha (in conversation with Shadi Hamid) Former member of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood 
  • Rabih Dandachli ( essay and video interview ) formerly head of the political bureau of the Beirut office of Lebanon’s Gamaa al-Islamiyya
  • Asif Luqman Qazi ( essay and video interview ) Senior leader within Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami
  • Abdelouhad Motaoukal Head of the political section of Adl wal Ihsane, Morocco’s largest Islamist movement
  • Sayida Ounissi (in conversation with Monica Marks) Ennahda member of the Tunisian Parliament
  • Ammar Fayed Muslim Brotherhood youth activist and Istanbul-based researcher
  • Amr Darrag (in conversation with Steven Brooke) Egypt’s former Minister of Planning and International Cooperation in the Mohamed Morsi government

Steven Brooke, University of Louisville Since July 3, 2013, Egypt’s government has embarked on an extensive campaign to dismember the Muslim Brotherhood’s formidable network of social services. With electoral participation, civic activism, and social service provision now foreclosed, street activism has become the lone vehicle for Brotherhood mobilization. This paper uses the lens of the Brotherhood’s schools and medical facilities to show how regime repression and the rise of alternative models of social service provision are incentivizing the Brotherhood to adopt more confrontational methods of opposition.

Adobe Acrobat PDF

Read Brooke’s reactions to the other Rethinking Political Islam working papers »

My paper for this project focuses on a very specific episode: the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood’s social services under Egypt’s current military regime . In the papers, and in our discussions at the June 2015 workshop, one issue that came up was how social service provision plays into discussions over Islamist groups’ decisions on how to manage the distinction between an inclusive, mass-based political party ( hizb ) and a hierarchical, exclusive social movement ( haraka ), and whether these can coexist. Social services, and in particular the way that they are targeted by the regime, serve as an ideal lens through which to examine the issue. This, in turn, helps highlight the dilemmas Islamist groups face as they attempt to build mass support.

Regimes in Syria , Tunisia , and Libya heavily repressed the Muslim Brotherhood, forcing it to operate clandestinely and largely underground. This historic alienation from society renders the task of building broad support in post-authoritarian situations difficult. It seems that to bypass these difficulties, today these branches tend to piggyback on existing social relations, such as familial networks, to build support. While this is most prevalent in Tunisia, it also finds parallels in Syria and potentially Libya. To the extent that this facilitates the maintenance of a high-quality, committed membership, it benefits the haraka . But because it replicates existing networks instead of activating new sources of support, it works to the detriment of the hizb . Indeed, in many contexts these two approaches are diametrically opposed. Islamists in democratizing Tunisia are grappling with this dilemma most directly, although one can see it potentially looming in the future for Islamists elsewhere in the region.

The problem of how to rebuild mass social support after a long absence is not unprecedented. The Egyptian Brotherhood encountered a similar dilemma when they re-emerged in the 1970s under Anwar al-Sadat. In that case, the Brotherhood’s open and legalist social service provision helped to rebuild the organization’s mass appeal—it benefitted the hizb over the haraka . Indeed, the group’s ability to deliver social services to broad swathes of Egypt’s public was a vital component of its electoral success both under Mubarak and during the brief democratic interlude that followed. Yet following the military coup, as my paper details , the Egyptian government’s broad crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is forcing the organization to emphasize organizational survival and cohesion over mass political appeal. For social services, this potentially means a reorientation away from the traditional legalist, above-ground emphasis on non-discriminatory provision and towards a “club good” model, in which members of the Muslim Brotherhood have priority.

Coming out of long periods of political repression, Tunisian Islamists are forced to confront this dilemma directly . For decades, the group’s social services were bent to the club good model. But now, as the organization increasingly emphasizes the importance of electoral competition and struggles to institutionalize a mass-based political party, the pull to reorient their social service networks towards the hizb style provision will only grow. This issue will potentially come to a head early next year as the movement debates whether to formally erect a firewall between the party and the movement. I suspect that the incentives for electoral competition will be so powerful as to make any distinction between the party and the movement essentially meaningless, as happened in Egypt.

In terms of broader themes that emerged from the papers, one consistency was an emphasis on how Islamism—as an ideology or system of governance—interacts with pre-existing structural cleavages. These cleavages differ in type and influence across multiple country contexts. In Jordan , for instance, the ethnic tension between Jordanian and Palestinian members in the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood seems to play a large role. In Yemen , the country’s geographic schism potentially plays a larger role. In other cases, it may be tribal or socioeconomic divides.

Perhaps the most obvious cleavage is between Sunni and Shia Muslims. In some places, Islamist groups have been able to overcome this divide. In Kuwait , it is the Muslim Brotherhood which allies with the Shia blocs in parliament, while the Salafist parties abjure cooperation in principle. In Yemen too, the Brotherhood there and other mainstream Islamists downplayed the sectarian angle, at least initially. In other cases, however, the polarization has sucked in Islamist groups. Saudi Arabian Islamists fell in behind the King in support of the war in Yemen, painting it as a necessary intervention to push back Shia encroachments. In Syria , the influence of Said Hawwa and Ibn Taymiyya on the group’s internal educational curriculum, and in particular their demonization of the Alawites, combines with the ongoing polarization in the country to supercharge the country’s sectarian conflict. Indeed, in his paper on Pakistan , Matthew Nelson suggests that sectarian conflict—rather than ideological convergence—is one potential area where The Islamic State can make inroads and gain influence among South Asia’s militant groups.

In terms of a research agenda, the interaction of underlying structural cleavages with an overarching ideology of Islamism recommends the continuing importance of comparative research, either cross- or sub-nationally. For instance, why have Kuwaiti Islamists been relatively more able to overcome the sectarian divide than their Saudi and Syrian counterparts? How do tribe, Islamist movement, and political party interact in Jordan, Libya, and Yemen? Why have the Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama-based factions in the Syrian Brotherhood developed their own distinct identities, but comparable subnational or regional identities have never emerged in Egypt?

The question Stacey Philbrick Yadav poses in her introduction suggests a second broader theme: how do Islamists who, for years have situated their activism inside the institutional structures of the state, cope with the collapse of these structures? While not the only point of emphasis, the question of violence speaks directly to this dilemma. It seems that, at least in terms of how they conceptualize the use of violence, the ideological impact of the Egyptian coup and the rise of the Islamic State have been minimal: the Brotherhood has for so long been a gradualist, accomodationist movement that it cannot easily reorient to a revolutionary, confrontationist approach to political contestation. Indeed, it seems almost inconceivable to think of a takfiri trend re-emerging in the Islamist ideological corpus, even after the political failures of the past two years.

The Brotherhood also faces practical problems in the effective deployment of violence. As one of the participants in the June 2015 workshop noted, “the Muslim Brotherhood does not do violence well,” meaning that the group lacks the leadership and skill for a sustained and organized campaign of violence. In Syria, for instance, the Brotherhood’s networks could not engage in effective offensive operations, even though the resources and opportunities were available. Some, frustrated with the group’s military impotency, have defected to avowedly violent groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra).

Prior to July 2013 the lack of this capacity for violence was, for many Islamist groups, a boon for the way that it helped demonstrate their commitment to the electoral process. Yet the Egyptian coup and subsequent repression of the Brotherhood complicated, if not reversed this calculus. After July 2013, Islamists’ political progress was subject to the caprice of those with the guns. In terms of “Rethinking Political Islam,” one potentially interesting research agenda is to further probe Islamists’ divergent responses to their political opponents’ ability to deploy—or threaten to deploy—violence to circumscribe their political ascent. For instance, why did political crisis cause Tunisian Islamists to back down and aggressively disavow and even clamp down on armed Salafi groups, while in next-door Libya it caused Islamists to ally with armed actors to preserve their political gains?

Download a PDF version of this reaction essay »

  Read Muslim Brotherhood youth activist Ammar Fayed’s reaction to the working papers »

Read Muslim Brotherhood leader Amr Darrag’s reaction, followed by Steven Brooke’s response »

Go back to the top »

Monica Marks, University of Oxford A series of regional and local challenges—including the rise of Salafi-jihadism, the 2013 coup in Egypt, and local suspicions over its aims—have prompted Tunisia’s Ennahda party to narrow its range of political maneuver and rethink the parameters of its own Islamism. Ennahda has assumed a defensive posture, casting itself as a long-term, gradualist project predicated on compromise, a malleable message of cultural conservatism, and the survival of Tunisia’s democratic political system.

Read Marks’s reactions to the other Rethinking Political Islam working papers »

Conferences on the Muslim Brotherhood and related Islamist movements generally address dynamics in just one or two countries. This project, though, enabled me to consider in a detailed way how the twin shocks of Egypt’s 2013 coup and the rise of ISIS affected Brotherhood analogue movements spanning Morocco to Malaysia. This broad survey emphasized to me, more than ever, the sheer diversity of these movements and the primacy of structural and contextual factors in shaping their evolution and responses.

What we have here is a multiplicity of Islamisms. Just as scholars have begun exploring the concept of “multiple secularisms,” we have much work to do in looking comparatively at various iterations of Islamism, and the factors that spur Brotherhood-inspired movements to rebalance religion and politics in very different ways from one socio-political context to another.

A major takeaway for me was the realization that we as scholars and analysts need to reflect more deeply on the comparative costs and benefits of partification , or the process of morphing what were originally religious movements into “normal” political parties. For many social movements—unionists, feminists, Islamists, etc.—the choice of whether, when, and how to become a political party incurs various costs and benefits depending on the political context. I was especially struck by Avi Spiegel and Steven Brooke’s papers on Morocco and Egypt . Brooke suggests that the Sissi regime’s crackdown is forcing the Brotherhood to move away both from further investment in electoral politics as well as its more traditional club goods model of above the ground, non-discriminatory service provision. Writing on Morocco, Spiegel asks us to consider whether non-electoral forms of activism, represented by movements like Al-Adl wal-Ihsan, may in fact be more effective or advantageous than the party political structure we associate with Islamist groups like the Justice and Development Party (PJD).

I found Spiegel’s encouragement to focus more on non-electoral activism quite prescient. Indeed, it has often seemed to me that, as political scientists, we assume the superiority of hizb (party) over haraka (movement)—the notion that, as movements become more sophisticated, they naturally develop into parties, and that parties are more effective, evolved counterparts to movements. That’s not necessarily the case. As many of the papers and interventions in this project demonstrate, the extent to which Islamist groups invest in haraka (movement activities, often including religious study groups and “club goods” model service provision) vs. hizb (party activities, including mobilization for electoral competition and bargaining with other political actors) varies depending on the carrots and sticks available in different political contexts. Haraka and hizb are not totally separate categories—indeed, for social movements of many stripes, movement and party activities melt into one another. But the extent to which movements, particularly confessional movements, choose to invest in party style organization over “movement” activism is a fascinating question for comparative researchers, and one that I think has been quite undertheorized in the existing literature on Islamist movements.

These questions have real relevance for my own case study, Tunisia’s center-right Islamist Ennahda a party whose internal dynamics I’ve been studying since 2011. Unlike the Egyptian Brotherhood and most of its regional analogues, Ennahda did not have the powerful network of social service provision typically associated with Islamist movements. The party began as a religiously oriented movement inspired by the 1970s sahwa (revival), and developed throughout the 1970s and 1980s as an increasingly religio-political actor whose roots were in theological study circles and religiously oriented community-building activities. Regime repression during the 1990s and 2000s, however, made it virtually impossible for Ennahda to operate openly in Tunisia, curtailing its ability to develop and sustain a strong organization of haraka -oriented activism. Ennahda’s activities during the 1990s and early 2000s focused mainly on providing limited, underground forms of support to its beleaguered activists in Tunisia.

This absence of a strong, above ground system of social service provision, however, proved partially advantageous. When Ennahda re-entered the political scene following Tunisia’s January 2011 revolution, it came back as an essentially political party, nimble and unburdened by the demands of a competing parallel movement. This allowed Ennahda to act more flexibly and pragmatically than Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), for example, which functioned as a constrained auxiliary to the larger Muslim Brotherhood movement.

The writings and discussions we’ve shared in the Rethinking Political Islam project have also inspired me to think more deeply about two other issues: the oversimplification of “hawks” vs. “doves” dichotomies, and the importance of generational tensions in magnifying certain intra-party cleavages and shaping group recruitment.

As David Patel pointed out in his paper on the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood , and as many other contributors echoed in their writing, traditional modes of analyzing Islamist groups’ intra-party tensions often fail to capture the lived realities of the actors themselves. Patel focused on the importance of ethnic cleavages (Palestinian-Jordanian vs. “indigenous” Jordanian) and the importance of political considerations—namely to what extent the Brotherhood should engage in politics on the monarchy’s terms—in shaping intra-party tensions and cleavages. In this respect, the main sources of disagreement between Jordanian Brothers don’t seem as closely linked to religious or “ideological” divides as previously assumed. Traditional dichotomizing methods of discussing intra-party Islamist tensions, which often employ the snappily illustrative terms “hawks vs. doves” and assume religious or theological issues will often provoke the most important disagreements, often elide Islamists’ lived realities.

This certainly echoes my own experiences with Ennahda leaders and supporters throughout Tunisia. While religious issues have definitely sparked intra-party disagreement, I’ve been fascinated to discover that—more often—the major sticking points for leaders and supporters have been related to political concessions, principally concessions made on “revolutionary,” or revolution-related, issues. These include the leadership’s opposition to a proposed electoral exclusion law that was hugely popular with Ennahda’s base, its decision not to run a presidential candidate in 2014, and its strategy of not just partnering with its major anti-Islamist rival, Nidaa Tunis, but seemingly supporting certain Nidaa policy initiatives that would erode the pursuit of transitional justice, an extremely important issue to Ennahda’s base.

Lastly, I found reflections on the importance of generational tensions—raised most powerfully by Raphaël Lefèvre in his paper on Syria and Avi Spiegel in his work on Morocco —worthy of more sustained reflection. Scholarly work and journalistic reporting on Islamist movements often reflects the perceptions of a handful of those movements’ national leaders – usually older men. Yet, young people, male and female, are at the heart of those movements’ efforts to recruit and to refresh and sustain their activities moving forward. As my paper on Tunisia discussed, generational tensions—concerning religious and revolutionary concessions—have been one of the most prominent axes of disagreement inside Ennahda over the past four years. The party’s leadership acknowledges it has paid insufficient attention to developing a renewed educational curriculum for young recruits, and that it has lost members—especially young members—as a result of some of the party’s concessions

  Read Tunisian Member of Parliament Sayida Ounissi’s reaction to the working papers »

Avi Spiegel, University of San Diego Moroccan Islamists have proven resilient in the wake of the Arab Spring and have offered a different model of Islamist participation that partly reflects the country’s unique monarchical context. The Brotherhood-inspired Justice and Development Party (PJD) has secured a foothold in government through an accommodationist posture towards Morocco’s monarchy, while the anti-monarchical popular movement Al Adl Wal Ihsane has sustained its appeal and access through non-violent activism.

Read Spiegel’s reactions to the other Rethinking Political Islam working papers »

In my paper on Morocco , I interrogate the possibility of a Moroccan “model” of political Islam—especially considering the apparent durability of the country’s main Islamist party, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD). After all, the only sitting Islamist prime minister in the Arab world resides in Morocco.

In this short reaction essay, I will outline some observations and questions that have impacted my own thinking of the Moroccan case and of Islamism writ large. These are culled from reading the numerous country studies for this project, from taking part in the June 2015 workshop and discussions with fellow working group members in Washington D.C., and from participating in a three-day working group on the next generation of political Islam with Islamist activists in Doha, Qatar.

In general, the notion of Islamist “success” needs to be problematized. As Western social scientists, we seem particularly drawn to the study of elections. The data sets are available, and, indeed, we tend to reflexively study “them” the way we study “us.” We love measuring and tracking “democracy,” focusing on winners and losers, on horse races, victories, and defeats. We study these things, I suspect, because we are guided by the belief, perhaps even the zeal, that these outcomes matter—that the winners of elections actually win something. Yet, in authoritarian contexts—even post Arab Spring contexts—does electoral success translate into success writ large? What if longstanding regimes have stacked the deck—rigged the rules—to such an extent that electoral success might not mean what we think it does? In the Moroccan context, it becomes necessary to ask whether the PJD is really able to enact a far-reaching political agenda or affect widespread social change (or any kind of social change for that matter) in a context when the king still dominates the political sphere—specifically when it comes to religion.

Conversely, and more critically, what about non-electoral or extra-electoral means of political activism? This is an especially important question in a post-coup moment where the Egyptian Brotherhood’s experiment with electoral participation (post-Mubarak) appears to have been nothing short of abject failure. Is it perhaps conceivable that parties and movements that do not participate in elections are actually having a more dramatic effect on society? In this regard, I was particularly fascinated by Matthew Nelson’s paper on Islamist activism in Pakistan . Pakistan is a context where the leading Islamist party appears—at least on paper—to be struggling (garnering relatively low electoral results). Yet despite (or perhaps because of) these poor electoral outcomes, the party is massively influential in ways that electorally “successful” Islamists such as the PJD are not: in influencing judicial appointments, religious tradition, educational mores, and societal norms writ-large.

Given this, it is now necessary to pay special attention to Islamist groups that might eschew electoral participation or at least those who are active in domains outside elections. In this regard, Steven Brooke’s highly timely account of the challenges facing the Egyptian Brotherhood in terms of social service allocation is a critical case study. Another such group that demands more attention is Al Adl Wal Ihsane in Morocco. Reading the other papers emboldens me to study Al Adl anew—to appreciate that the successes of Al Adl’s extra-electoral activism as something that demands further attention and to interrogate the diverse ways in which Al Adl has become the largest Islamist group in Morocco without participating in elections. PJD gets the headlines, the ministry appointments, the fame, the international attention, but perhaps Al Adl’s activism is more durable? Perhaps the more critical model is the one that we don’t see everyday.

Another issue that demands further investigation is the relationship between movement and party (between haraka and hizb ) in the modern Islamist project. Navigating this terrain—between longstanding Islamist movements and their newly formed parties—is a primary challenge for both scholars and Islamists alike. And this remains a topic that has not merited the amount of attention it deserves. In this regard, Morocco may also very well offer a critical case for study.

The challenge for Islamist movements is how to structure or even conceive of this relationship—between haraka and hizb . When the haraka is too influential, when it looms too large, then the party is limited in its ability to act autonomously. This may have helped spell the demise of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood—or at least doomed its ability to govern effectively. Conversely, when a party lacks a social movement organization to aid in mobilization and activism, when it lacks an organized social foundation, then the party is more vulnerable to external shocks. Based on my reading of the papers in this series, this appears, in part, to explain the continued struggles of Islamist parties in Libya and Yemen —or at least their inabilities to regroup or rebuild in the face of massive setbacks.

The Tunisia case offers a fascinating case of Islamists trying to navigate this new terrain in real time. In Monica Marks’ explication of the challenges facing Tunisia’s Ennahda , she suggests that the movement is now at a critical moment: about to decide whether to separate themselves into a haraka and a hizb . The risks, of course, for a new party are profound: a haraka helps it maintain order and discipline (especially when a young person’s activism in the party is dependent on being “accepted” into the larger movement). Yet, this all-or-nothing approach might also impair a party’s ability to attract broad swaths of new members, especially those who might be interested in electoral politics, but not in full scale social movement activism.

As I detail in my new book— Young Islam: The New Politics of Religion in Morocco and the Arab World —Morocco’s PJD faced this very predicament in 1997 in the wake of newfound electoral success. New prospective members, young people outside of its established haraka networks, quickly became interested in the party and, thus, the party had to figure out how to grapple with, and integrate, these people “off the street.” In light of other parties’ similar challenges and internal debates around the region, I will expand further on this in my continued work. I look forward to considering these and other points in the coming weeks and months.

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Raphaël Lefèvre, Carnegie Middle East Center After 30 years in exile outside of Syria, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has become an important component of the western-backed Syrian opposition. Despite its influence, the expansion and radicalization of the Islamist scene in Syria challenges the legitimacy of the Brotherhood’s gradualist approach and constrains its presence on the ground.

Read Lefèvre’s reactions to the other Rethinking Political Islam working papers »

The Muslim Brotherhood often portrays itself as a “peaceful” movement focused on religious education, political activism, and charity work. This has to a large extent held true in recent decades. Yet the highly repressive contexts which followed the Arab Spring led some Muslim Brotherhood members to rethink their approach and consider the use of violence. Members have already taken up arms in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. The trend could now be about to affect Egypt.

There, Brotherhood leaders have largely insisted on the need for protests to remain peaceful since the July 2013 overthrow of Mohammed Morsi. But, under pressure from growing levels of state repression, the movement could sooner or later embrace violent tactics too. Historical precedents and a cross-country comparison suggest that this dynamic could well be self-defeating. It would increase levels of popular mistrust and intensify internal tensions–without actually raising the prospect of bringing down the military regime in Cairo.

Option of last resort

In his paper on Libyan Islamists , Omar Ashour argues that the effect of the military coup in Cairo spread well beyond Egypt. It sent a powerful message throughout the region that “only arms can guarantee political rights – not the constitution, democratic institutions and certainly not votes.” In Libya, that dynamic pushed the local Muslim Brotherhood branch, itself threatened by Khalifa Haftar, a rogue army general, to facilitate the rise of the Libya Dawn militia. In Syria , it may have encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood to temporarily increase their support for the Shields of the Revolution Commission and other pro-Brotherhood rebel groups.

Already in 1979 the Syrian Brotherhood had declared a “jihad” against the regime of Hafez al-Assad who, at the time, was cracking down on the movement throughout the country. Research suggests that other branches in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt have, at various points in their history, also adopted the use of violence as a tool to face repression. Their attacks included the targeted killing of symbols of authoritarian regimes such as senior security officers or high-level party officials. The contrast is stark with the indiscriminate bombings and killing of civilians that characterize attacks carried out by extremist groups like the Islamic State or al-Qaida.

The “blood factor”

What is most striking about the involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood in past acts of violence was their utter failure to bring about tangible military results. Brotherhood leaders tasked a “military branch” or a “secret apparatus” with carrying out special operations. But militant cells were often small in size and composed of lawyers, medical doctors, or engineers. Their fairly elitist make-up restricted popular appeal and their lack of genuine military expertise limited operational effectiveness.

It also led to a blowback from society. Most often, regimes in place resorted to collective punishment by taking revenge on whole segments of the opposition and on the entire Islamist movement. In Syria, Hafez al-Assad responded to the challenge of the Brotherhood by ordering the indiscriminate mass killing of hundreds of inmates at the Palmyra prison and of tens of thousands of residents in the city of Hama. This increased levels of resentment and mistrust against the Muslim Brotherhood in segments of Syrian society. Omar Ashour observes a similar process in Libya and wittingly called it the “blood factor.”

Violence and factionalism

The Brotherhood’s armed struggle can also be costly at the internal level. The use of violence is indeed a divisive issue in movements which otherwise place heavy emphasis on gradualist means to change society, such as by spreading religious awareness or engaging in party politics. Possible exceptions include the Palestinian and Lebanese contexts, characterized by Israeli involvement, in which the “resistance” has remained fairly consensual. Yet, elsewhere, the debate surrounding the nature and extent of the use of violence has led to internal frictions.

Stacey Philbrick Yadav suggests that, within the Islamist Islah party in Yemen , it led to a power struggle between a gradualist faction and a more militant one. Matthew Nelson, for his part, argues that debates about violence within Pakistan’s Jama’at-e-Islami added to pre-existing generational and ideological tensions. It led to the departure of members who then formed a more militant organization called Jundullah. A similar process characterized the Fighting Vanguard’s split from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s.

“Terrorism” or “self-defense”?

The Brotherhood’s use of violence, beyond being operationally inefficient and internally divisive, also carries with it the risk of blurring in the public eye the difference which sets mainstream Islamist movements apart from more radical ones. The line is indeed fine between what some think is “self-defense” and what many consider “terrorism.” Regime figures in Libya and Syria were quick to grasp the opportunity. Until today they refer to the Muslim Brotherhood as “terrorists” who are “identical copies” to extremist groups like the Islamic State.

Omar Ashour interestingly suggests that one way forward may be to devise a new sub-category within the armed Islamist typology. That new category would account for the recent growth of anti-regime Brotherhood militancy but would not necessarily equate it with Islamic State-style ideologies and ultra-violent tactics. It could perhaps model that of the national liberation movements which, most often, used political violence on a temporary and selective basis. A debate has now opened on these concepts. It is unlikely to be closed any time soon.

Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Hobart and William Smith Colleges After the country’s uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s multi-factional Islamist party Islah enjoyed new opportunities for institutional power, joining a coalition government in December 2011. But, while the Muslim Brotherhood faction within Islah initially seemed ascendant, it has since found itself targeted by the Houthi movement, weakened in relation to other factions within the party, and increasingly dependent on external actors to retain its political relevance.

Read Philbrick Yadav’s reactions to the other Rethinking Political Islam working papers »

The papers included in the “Rethinking Political Islam” collection offer several core lessons for those of us who study Islamism. These lessons both confirm and expand upon earlier insights in the existing literature on Islamism, and provide new points of analysis as Islamists respond to dramatic region-wide events that remain undertheorized. As I work to revise my original paper on Yemen , there are concepts and approaches worth reevaluating, and other issues where I will dig in with renewed commitment. More specifically, as I outline below, reading others’ work has encouraged me to better attend to the interaction between regional and local dynamics, to more aggressively resist using Egypt as an analytic benchmark, and to think more explicitly about how to balance case specificity and analytic generality in my approach to Islamism.

What we mean by “context”

In my earlier work on Islamists in Yemen and Lebanon, I made the reasonably straightforward (but nonetheless necessary) argument that we cannot understand Islamists only or largely by studying Islamists – that rules of the game, partisan and extrapartisan alliances, and discourses at work in the broader political field all matter critically for the nature of Islamist practice. While this has long been clear to many scholars of Islamism, it has needed restating by many of us in the face of ahistorical accounts that privilege an often-fictional attachment to some kind of essential “Islamist ideology.” (Think, for example, of recent efforts to determine “how Islamic” the Islamic State really is…). To demonstrate the ways in which Islamists are situated actors (“just like everyone else”), scholars working in Comparative Politics and drawing upon the broad and interdisciplinary tradition of Social Movement Theory have explored the widely varying domestic contexts in which Islamists function, and inquired into the many ways in which they both reflect and shape these contexts.

Evidence of this research tradition is clear in many of the papers in this collection. Avi Spiegel’s paper on Morocco offers a particularly clear and potentially tractable “three c” rubric of context, control, and competition that is useful for understanding Islamist activism. There are lots of other ways in which we do this, and each of us probably has his or her pet approach in our broader research, whether this is made explicit in these contributions or not. For me, it’s always been the iterative relationship between discourse and institutions. Regardless of the specific categories we use, this focus on the ways in which Islamists engage with regimes and with their primary interlocutors is essential.

What the papers as a whole also help to make clear, however, is that we should not focus too narrowly on these factors solely in their domestic context, as area specialists most often do. The same set of factors can and should be examined at the regional and international level. Indeed, it is precisely at the nexus of these domestic, regional, and international levels that this collection is poised to make the best contribution. This means, for example, that to resist the framing of the war in Yemen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran by framing it as a domestic civil conflict is to risk mischaracterizing the opportunities and constraints facing central actors, including the Islamists in the Islah party. With Yemen’s transitional government—which includes Islah—in exile (or detention), the party’s relationships to both its fellow Yemenis and regional allies matter in determining its political future, though this is not yet well-elaborated in my working paper.

Yemen scholars have been writing for much of the past year about the factors other than sectarianism that matter for understanding the domestic context of the rise of the Houthi movement. Yet reading Toby Mattheisen’s paper on Saudi Arabia was particularly helpful for me in thinking about how discursive framing across the region is unfolding in relation to Saudi Arabia’s domestic effort to de-Arabize Arab Shi’a. While I stand by the general effort to draw attention to domestic Yemeni factors that often evade detailed analysis, the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the attendant escalation of sectarian rhetoric and violence have undoubtedly made some forms of politics less possible than they might once have been. Rethinking Islah’s options in light of regional dynamics is essential, particularly as sectarian framing seems to grow more rigid the longer the war extends. What this will mean for Islah is not yet clear, but as I move forward with revisions to my own paper, I anticipate that I will devote more attention to the impact of international and regional dynamics than I did in my original draft.

A world beyond Umm al-Dunya

If the first major lesson involves reevaluating and expanding the parameters of a particular approach, the second has provoked me to dig in my heels. Reading the papers as a whole has underscored the necessity of thinking critically about the meaning of “the Brotherhood” as an analytic category, and challenging the (usually-but-not-always implicit) Egyptocentrism that continues to plague our collective analysis. As becomes clear through a reading of these papers, what it means to be a Brotherhood “analogue” or “affiliate” differs in content and in depth across the twelve country cases. Some reference to Egypt seems justified, of course, insofar as it was in Egypt that the first Brotherhood was established, and from Egypt that its intellectual influence spread. Yet the recitation of this particular history has a totemic quality that directs us to assume relationships and establish benchmarks. Perhaps this has also been exacerbated by many Islamists’ self-identification (as in Yemen, where I describe a Brotherhood cohort within the broader Islah party). But we have not more fully examined the meaning of this self-identification, of this intellectual reach.

We seem to be doing something beyond simply giving an account of historical influence or impact and I worry that many of us—myself included—have implicitly treated the Egyptian Brotherhood and its experience as a conceptual ideal type, against which we are evaluating the authenticity of subsequent organizations in terms of their closeness or distance. Is this justified? What does visiting a Brotherhood bookstore in Aden to buy works by Egyptian authors that are banned in Egypt signify for Yemeni Islamists? Certainly, nothing in my research would suggest it indicates that Yemeni Islamists judge themselves in terms of their closeness or distance to the “real thing,” or identify as in any way subordinate to or derivative of Egyptian Islamists.

Part of the prompt for this project asked us to explicitly address the impact of the suppression of Egyptian Brotherhood since 2013 on Islamists elsewhere in the region. As the essays show, impact is non-linear. It does not appear that those whose experience has most “closely” resembled or whose ideology has hewn most closely to an Egyptian benchmark are taking different lessons than those that are “farther” from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in ideology or practice. This, by itself, is interesting. But it also helps to make the case, I think, that analytic (as opposed to historic) Egyptocentrism is unjustified. I am not suggesting that studying the impact of the Egyptian coup is unjustified as it clearly has been important for many of the organizations about which this group of authors has written – but rather that the logic of impact is not grounded in the relationships these organizations have to a “mother” institution.

This opens up new options for those of us who work on countries often treated as “outliers”—cases located both geographically and conceptually at the periphery of our collective analysis of the Middle East as a region. Yemen, of course, is one of these cases, where the Islah party is either mistakenly identified as “the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood” or dismissed as something exceptional, owing to its diverse composition of tribal, Salafi, and “Brotherhood” leaders. I’m not sure we have the right vocabulary for talking about this yet—is there a way to take seriously the self-identifications of “Brothers” in ways that do not necessarily reproduce this politics of authenticity and distance? I don’t know the answer to this, but I am quite certain, after reading these papers, that I do not want to cede much ground to those who approach Islamists across the region (and outside of the region, as I’ll discuss next) as a facsimile of greater or lesser clarity of the Egyptian Society of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Striking analytic balance

It is thus both possible and perhaps unsurprising that I’m making an argument in favor of some messiness when it comes to Islamism. That I don’t think we really have—or need—a “theory of Islamism,” so much as we need—but often don’t have—a theory of politics. This contention has been influenced by my participation in a similar collaborative project on Islamist parties in the Arab Middle East and in South and Southeast Asia. In that project, the similarities and differences that we mapped between Islamist parties suggested that the Brotherhood had no particular explanatory pride of place. Many lessons from that volume are echoed clearly in this project. But because it was driven by a set of questions and subsequent hypotheses about politics rather than about Islamists, Egypt and the Egyptian experience was somewhat naturally decentered. The concepts that were the most useful in explaining variation across space and time were bread-and-butter political concepts, having little or nothing to do with the ideolog(ies) of Islamism. Ideas mattered for the cases in that project, but the form(s) of their articulation, their modification over time, and the varied effects of their reception occurred always (and only) in relation to institutions and practices—of Islamists and non-Islamists alike. I think we could read the lessons from these papers in the same way, deriving analytic lessons about the relationship between ideas and institutions without sacrificing case specificity or our shared interests in the political implications of organized Islamism. To do so, we need to think less in terms of proper names and more in terms of processes, but I fear we remain too closely anchored to the former.

Omar Ashour, University of Exeter Libya’s diverse Islamist actors played a substantial role in the 2011 armed revolution against Moammar Gadhafi and the subsequent collapse of Libya’s democratization process into armed conflict. The advances of ISIS in Libya and the breakdown of Brotherhood electoral activism in neighboring Egypt, however, present an ideological and recruitment challenge to Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi factions.

Read Ashour’s reactions to the other Rethinking Political Islam working papers »

It was a pleasure to read the other papers. I would like to highlight a few points related to regional commonalities and differences in the context of Libya and the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood (LMB) . The first is how the LMB dealt with the rise of the Islamic State in Libya, compared to other contexts, in terms of rhetoric, narrative, and behavior. The second point is the impact of the brutal fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the electoral fall of Ennahda in Tunisia on the LMB. A third point is about the generational gap and youth recruitment from the “Islamist potential pool” compared to Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria. The fourth point is about critical social services activities highlighted in Steven Brooke’s paper on Egypt , and how is that different in the Libyan case. A fifth and final point is related to sponsored “private” media and their impact on the LMB.

On the first point, the LMB has responded quite critically to the rise of the Islamic State in general and their emergence in Libya in particular, not unlike reactions from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia . Politically and logistically, the LMB supports the Libya Dawn Coalition and General Abdul Salam Jadallah al-Obeidi, the General Chief of Staff of engagement with Islamic State forces in Sirte and other towns, who is loyal to Tripoli. The LMB escalated its anti-Islamic State rhetoric after the Islamic State in Libya targeted Misrata, which is controlled by the Tripoli side, in May 2015. The statement issued by the LMB on June 1, 2015, called for “eradicating the ISIS threat in Libya.” The relationships between the LMB and jihadists and other Salafi factions was never easy even before Khalifa Hefter’s second coup attempt in May 2014. In 2013, Salafists in Tripoli publicly burned copies of the works of Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and the Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb. Other Salafi factions have accused the LMB of compromising its principles to gain influence in the political sphere. In Derna, jihadist elements have targeted the LMB and their party (the Justice and Construction Party, JCP), bombing their offices and cars.

The brutal fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt led to the belief among many LMB figures that hard power is necessary. Alliances with powerful regional militias, factions within armed institutions and/or arming loyalists of the organization were all options that were partially implemented in the Libyan case. This should not be construed as a transformation towards jihadism, but it can engender a sub-category within an armed Islamist typology, mainly focused on what I would call defensive militancy . The level of militancy can increase however, depending on how repressive the political environment is. The Tunisian “model” and Ennahda’s behavior within it seemed to be less attractive and less practicable in Libya, as LMB leaders understand the different nature of Libya’s political polarization and the particularities of the Libyan crisis. Also, several younger members of the LMB do not see Ennahda’s cautious, compromising approach as inspirational, but more as a “politically defeated” project.

A related point is youth recruitment. I was struck by what colleagues said about Ennahda’s and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s youth-recruitment crisis (and the fact that many of the younger members are sons and daughters of the older ones). The Egyptian Brotherhood did not have this problem, at least between 2011 and 2013 (though sons and daughters were also recruited and regularly ascended in the organization’s internal structures). But there are certainly some commonalities within the Libyan context. Recruitment of blood relatives does not happen just within the LMB, but also within other parties, where the tribal/clan links are noticeable. The Muslim Brotherhood/LMB’s traditionally preferred spheres of institutional politics (elections, constitutional assemblies, and parliamentary party politics) and social services are not the most attractive recruitment tools for a revolutionary younger generation in the middle of a civil war (especially given the outcomes in Egypt and Tunisia). Hence, the LMB has a similar recruitment crisis when it comes to this segment of the Libyan youth. This crisis may diminish, depending on how the situation in Libya changes (whether towards an escalation or a de-escalation and a compromise), as well as based on the policies and the rhetorical choices of the LMB.

In terms of social services, the LMB did not have similar opportunities to connect with the masses like the Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia . Due to decades of Moammar Gadhafi’s totalizing control over the public sphere, the organization also did not have the opportunity to build structures or institutions within the country, or to create a parallel network of clinics and social services. This had an impact on both electoral results as well as on their popular image.

A final related point to “popular image” is the anti-MB media impact, sponsored by their local and regional political rivals, as well as the legacy of Gadhafi’s propaganda against the LMB. It is not uncommon to hear Libyans claim that the LMB is working in league with al-Qaida or Ansar al-Sharia (a hardline militia that was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in January 2014) and that there are no differences between these groups. At times, the anti-Brotherhood rhetoric enters the realm of the farcical. A panelist on one TV show claimed that a well-known Libyan Islamist had been seen meeting Hassan al-Banna (assassinated in Cairo in 1949) in a Doha hotel lobby. A guest on another show insisted Gadhafi himself had been a member of the LMB. Those claims, as absurd as they might sound, have had an impact on public perceptions of the LMB. The media campaign against the LMB/JCP has, at times, spilled over into violence. For example, in the aftermath of the July 2013 killing of Benghazi activist Abdulsalam al-Mesmari, a vocal critic of the LMB and other Islamist groups, angry mobs ransacked and burned the JCP headquarters in Tripoli and Benghazi. One fiercely anti-Islamist TV channel ran footage of Mesmari talking about the Brotherhood on a loop, with an accompanying ticker that read: “Who killed Abdulsalam?” This strategy of sponsored media blaming any negativity on the LMB has been very successful, not just in Libya but also in Egypt. It elevates already high levels of social and political polarization and undermines fragile transition processes.

Saudi Arabia

Toby Matthiesen, University of Oxford Saudi Arabia’s fragmented Islamist field has displayed a diversity of responses to the coup in Egypt, the conflict in Syria, and the Saudi-led war in Yemen. While a group of younger Saudi Islamists and intellectuals have embraced elements of democracy, the war in Syria, the authoritarian political system, and domestic sectarian tendencies have rallied support for the ISIS model of violent political change.

Read Matthiesen’s reactions to the other Rethinking Political Islam working papers »

One of the outcomes of reading the various papers for me personally was the realization that we need to look at Islamist networks as global actors, rather than as actors confined to one particular country or one particular region (i.e. the Middle East). As a Middle East expert, I often focus on what is going on in that region. But the ramifications of the Arab uprisings, the Egyptian coup, and the rise of the Islamic State are felt throughout the world in places with large Muslim populations. So Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia need to be taken into consideration. We too often consider these places “marginal” to the politics of the Middle East and to the politics of Islamist movements more broadly. But with the increasing internationalization of conflicts in the Middle East and the breakdown of borders, this position becomes increasingly untenable, which is why I thought the papers on Pakistan , Malaysia, and Indonesia were important.

In addition, the importance of the Gulf for these transnational networks needs to be stressed. I am doing this in my paper on Saudi Arabia to a certain extent, and the Kuwait paper by Courtney Freer is also doing that, but I think we cannot overemphasize this element of it, as it relates to Islamists’ funding, shelter and refuge, media presence, Islamic finance, and ideological guidance. So I assume the position of Qatar should be discussed a bit more, perhaps in the introduction. Without a good analysis of Qatar’s role, we cannot understand the trajectories of the Muslim Brotherhood branches in the Gulf or in the wider Middle East. I suppose the United Arab Emirate’s hostile approach towards the Muslim Brotherhood also needs to be explained and contextualized. And Bahrain has for decades been a hub for Islamic finance, much of it linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood also has a branch in Bahrain, which has applauded the government’s crackdown on the opposition since 2011 . Nonetheless, Bahrain is often left out of debates on the regional Muslim Brotherhood.

Another interesting topic is the development of affiliated political parties out of broader Muslim Brotherhood movements and how that affects the movement at large, and might even lead to splits. In my case ( Saudi Arabia ) this has obviously not happened, because political parties are illegal, but splits have happened for doctrinal and political reasons. However, the context of electoral politics discussed in many of the other country cases is quite different. In some ways most analysts thought the Brotherhood and Brotherhood-inspired movements were extremely well positioned to win elections and eventually attain power across the Middle East. However, as of 2015—and not just because of the Egyptian coup—that perception is not so widely held anymore. A puzzling country for me is Syria . I remember most people thinking that outside of the Baath apparatus and the state institutions, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was the most powerful force, and would come to power if the state “opened up” or lost control in the 2000s. In contrast, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has not managed to impose itself as the main opposition force to the Assad regime, even though Islamist groups more generally have side-lined the secular opposition. So in other words, have we overestimated the power of the Brotherhood as an organizational and political force?

And despite the power of all the spoilers—the old regime and international actors—was there not a chance of the Brotherhood and Morsi governing in a better and more inclusive way?

The crackdown on both political and charitable activities in Egypt will have repercussions for the larger trajectories of the group, and in particular may make militancy acceptable as a political tool. Are there precedents in other countries that we can look at to compare or draw inspiration from?

Another question that needs to be addressed is how important clerics are in the Brotherhood. This is something various authors discussed at the June 2015 workshop, but it could be something that each paper tries to address as well. In addition, one needs to explain the relationship between the national branches and the Muslim Brotherhood international organization. I know this is usually quite opaque, but I think it would be key to address in this project, given that we cover Muslim Brotherhood-type organizations in such a large number of cases across the Middle East and Asia.

Sectarianism is another key issue. I am fascinated by the different and changing positions of Brotherhood branches and clerics vis-à-vis the Shia and the Iranian Revolution and then the Islamic Republic of Iran. My understanding is that the Brotherhood in general was quite positively impressed by the Iranian Revolution, and that the Brotherhood is one of the least anti-Shiite Sunni Islamist movements. Perhaps that is something that some of the papers (those on Syria , Kuwait , Saudi Arabia , and other countries with Shia minorities could address ). However, over the last few years, there has obviously been a shift here, and it would be interesting to see if this is a regional Brotherhood phenomenon or a localized reaction emerging from the Gulf (think also Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s pro-Hezbollah stance in 2006 and anti-Iran, anti-Shia position since 2011).

In addition, it would be interesting to know more about the youth activities of the different Brotherhood branches. This is very well outlined in the Kuwaiti case study . I also noticed this aspect in other Gulf states, in the sense that in richer countries this youth activism was equally or even more important than the better known social service provision aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for example. This might have something to do with the political economy of the Gulf, but it would be good to find out if there are similar youth programs in the other places (summer camps, sport camps, weekend trips, etc.).

A final question that remains is whether the Brotherhood does better or worse in monarchies than in Arab republics, and what kind of impact the form of government has on their activities? I enjoyed the discussion of the Moroccan , Jordanian , and Kuwaiti cases. Perhaps given that the Muslim Brotherhood is by and large a “working-within-the-system” movement, the limits (but also opportunities) of activism and influence within an authoritarian parliamentary monarchy are quite conducive to the movement (as opposed to attempts to topple the system through armed struggle as in Syria or attempts at governing alone as in Egypt ).

Courtney Freer, LSE Kuwait Programme In the face of a government crackdown, Kuwait’s diverse Islamist opposition—composed of a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate and various Salafi groups—has emphasized compromise and gradualist reform over radical domestic political transformation. Particularly after the Egyptian coup and the rise of ISIS, Kuwait’s Islamists have put aside their strict social agendas and worked more closely with non-Islamist opposition to advance common democratic aims, suggesting that exclusion can in fact spur the moderation of mainstream Islamists.

Read Freer’s reactions to the other Rethinking Political Islam working papers »

Most studies of the Muslim Brotherhood, including my own work on the Brotherhood in Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), focus on specific country cases, treating each branch or affiliate of the Brotherhood as a distinct organization. The degree to which Brotherhood groups in different countries vary in terms of their political stances and means of mobilization is striking and has become clearer after participating in the June 2015 “Rethinking Political Islam” workshop. In fact, variation among the country cases led me to question the extent to which the label of Brotherhood is helpful in predicting how local Brotherhood affiliates will act. Certainly, Ennahda’s agenda bears little resemblance to that of the Islamic Constitutional Movement in Kuwait . What does the label of Brotherhood mean, then, considering that the organization’s role differs so greatly depending on the local political context in which it operates?

Following the Arab Spring, political Islam seems to have become increasingly locally focused: domestic politics has come to dominate the agendas of Brotherhood groups around the region. As broad-based opposition coalitions formed in many Arab states during the 2011 uprisings, the Brotherhood joined such groupings, sometimes at the expense of its traditional ideological commitments. While a broadly Islamist agenda has been successfully integrated into a variety of political environments, the Brotherhood itself appears to lack transnational cohesion. It has become possible, in the post-Arab Spring era, to be both wholly supportive of the Brotherhood and entirely focused on domestic politics. Even for the Muslim Brotherhood, then, “all politics is local.” While branches of the Brotherhood have developed independent domestic political agendas, discussions at the June workshop revealed three primary issues facing all Brotherhood organizations, regardless of local political context.

First, all branches of the Muslim Brotherhood have been forced to adjust their tactics depending on the type of regime that governs the state in which they operate. Common patterns emerge under certain type of regimes. One similarity is a distinctive gradualism employed by Brotherhood affiliates operating in monarchical systems. In thinking about the Jordanian and Moroccan cases, I found myself drawing comparisons to the Kuwaiti situation . Brotherhood affiliates in states ruled by monarchs appear better able to influence government decisions by maintaining ties with, and to a certain extent cooperating with, the regime. Although Brotherhood affiliates elsewhere did not lead uprisings in 2011, they never had the symbiotic relationships with regimes exhibited in the region’s monarchies. Perhaps the centrality of parliamentary elections in more democratic states has made relations between regime and Brotherhood more competitive and contentious than in states where all actors agree that the monarch retains the last word in political decision-making.

Meanwhile, states undergoing civil strife like Libya , Syria , and Yemen feature distinctive patterns of Brotherhood participation as well. Branches in such states struggle to maintain relevance in a variety of ways: in Libya, by tying itself to powerful militias; in Syria, by attempting to deliver services and to provide protection for civilians on the ground; and, in Yemen, by relying on ties to powerful international actors. In states where violence has broken out, then, the Brotherhood has been forced to find new ways of maintaining political capital, yet has largely failed to do so. Case studies from South Asia demonstrate yet another type of interaction with the prevailing government systems, in terms of military support of Islamist organizations—like Jama’at-e-Islami in Pakistan .

A second significant issue facing Brotherhood-inspired movements throughout the Middle East and Asia concerns the extent to which they privilege contesting elections over other activities, such as the provision of social welfare. In my analysis of Brotherhood branches in states that do not hold legislative elections (Qatar and the UAE), I have tended to focus on the political impact of Brotherhood-sponsored social activities. In these states, the Brotherhood used its youth centers and Quranic study circles to attract a new generation of followers that eventually came to support their policies in other aspects of life. While their focus has historically been on amending social policies like diminishing the influence of Western culture and the availability of alcohol, views on such matters also inform views about the appropriate role of the government more broadly. It is interesting to find, through discussions with Brotherhood members in particular from Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey, how electoral success became a kind of all-encompassing goal, while social activities receded to the background. This debate involves a broader discussion of whether the hizb (party) or haraka (movement) takes priority in Islamist organizations.

The Justice and Development Party (PJD) in Morocco , like the Brotherhood in Kuwait and Jordan, has compartmentalized hizb and haraka , while in Tunisia Ennahda has moved away from social service provision almost entirely, as the group’s opponents maligned the practice as a means of buying electoral support. In the Gulf states, the social sector, managed through informal personal relations rather than institutionalized political life, has proven to be a successful arena through which the Brotherhood has gained support among large segments of the population, though it is uninstitutionalized. The model of informally organized social action contributing to political capital appears unique to the Gulf, a region where Brotherhood affiliates cannot contest parliamentary elections (barring Kuwait) and are not needed for the provision of social welfare due to handsome government disbursements. Such a model may have useful application in other states where the Brotherhood is increasingly driven underground and could serve to reignite Brotherhood support in countries where political freedom is restricted. Certainly, the Qatari case, wherein the Brotherhood formally disbanded itself in 1999, proves that a structured organisation is not required for the Brotherhood to hold political sway, particularly in terms of influencing the government’s social policies.

A third overarching issue is determining the extent to which it is appropriate and politically useful for Brotherhood blocs to cooperate with non-Islamist organizations to push for broad-based reform or to enhance their representation in parliament. In Kuwait , the Brotherhood has deepened cooperation with secular members of the opposition as a means of advancing its program for a constitutional monarchy, rather than maintaining their strictly Islamist social agenda. This had led to the formation of a single opposition movement comprised of both Islamist and secular blocs. In a similar way, the Jordanian Brotherhood worked alongside other members of the opposition through the Higher Coordination Committee of the Jordanian Opposition Parties, in an effort to push more effectively for broad-ranging political reform during the 2000s. The Jordanian Brotherhood, like the Kuwaiti Brotherhood, has remained vocal about its demands for a constitutional monarchy. It remains to be seen to what degree ties with secular political blocs enhance or hinder the Brotherhood’s ability to promote reform.

Having examined various differences and similarities among several Muslim Brotherhood branches, the benefits of comparative analysis in my own work have become more clear. Specifically, I hope to think more systematically about the political strategies of Brotherhood affiliates under monarchical rule. Strikingly, it seems that the Kuwaiti Brotherhood is in many ways more similar to Moroccan or Jordanian Islamists than its counterparts in neighboring Saudi Arabia , underscoring the pitfalls of focusing on Brotherhood-inspired movements in isolation or solely by geographic region.

David Siddhartha Patel, Brandeis University The events of the post-Arab Spring period have not fundamentally altered the goals and tactics of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood or changed the dynamic of its relationship with Jordan’s monarchy. The 2015 split within the group initiated by the Zamzam Initiative reflects long-growing divides between Palestinian-Jordanian Islamists and Transjordanian Islamists that preceded the Arab Spring.

Read Patel’s reactions to the other Rethinking Political Islam working papers »

This reaction paper makes four points, two of which are ways in which reading the other country cases and participating in the June 2015 workshop made me think differently about Islamist movements in Jordan , my country of focus. A third point is a brief observation of regional commonalities and divergences. My final point is a polemic against the ongoing marginalization of Iraqi studies.

After reading other country cases—particularly those on Kuwait , Pakistan , Morocco , and Egypt —I was struck by how the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood has benefitted by not having to face significant Islamist rivals inside Jordan (putting aside Hizb al-Tahrir and the splinter Islamic Center Party). Competition—usually from the less pragmatic right—influences the demands that mainstream Islamist movements make on regimes and their willingness to participate in political processes. For example, in my comparison of Jordan with Morocco, I paid insufficient attention to the importance of competition between the Justice and Development Party (PJD) and Al Adl Wal Ihsane for the same base of popular support. While Al Adl basks in non-participation and illegality, the PJD participates and has had to tolerate and even embrace the regime to have its activities licensed. When Al Adl temporarily assumed a leading role in Arab Spring protests, the PJD avoided street action and participated in elections. Jordan’s Islamic movement, in contrast, is less constrained (for lack of a better word) by competition on its right when dealing with the regime. The “new” Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, if it survives, would be to the left of the “old” Brotherhood. Also, I likely overestimated in my paper the degree to which the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood look to their Moroccan brethren to judge how well they are doing in the international Brotherhood firmament, although the timing and content of reforms suggests that the Jordanian regime did look, to some extent, toward developments in Morocco before acting.

I argued in my paper that the most important cleavage among Jordanian Islamists is “ethnic,” between Transjordanians and Palestinian-Jordanians. I reinterpret purported ideological divides, including the Zamzam Initiative and recent formation of a rival Muslim Brotherhood organization, in these terms. In our June workshop discussions, it was easy for several other authors to apply my “ethnic” perspective on Islamist movements to cases that they knew well. I argue that Islamism can be used to bridge salient ethnic, linguistic, and regional cleavages in a society but that we rarely analyze Islamist movements in these terms, and we lack sufficiently developed theory to know what conditions make it likely that Islamist movements will successfully bridge such divides. I learned that the Jamaat-e-Islami tried to unify East and West Pakistan but became “Punjabified” and joined the army in killing Bengalis. In Afghanistan, Islamists tried to unite different linguistic groups but had mixed success. In Syria, the Brotherhood struggled to overcome the historic divide between Damascus and Aleppo (and, after 1981–1982, Hama), and much of what we call “Salafi-leaning” and “Sufi-leaning” wings of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood might more accurately reflect regional interests. These, like Jordan, were largely examples of Islamists failing to transcend salient cleavages. The questions raised beg for additional case study work and a cross-national dataset. I think it would be productive to import theories of ethnic politics—such as the work of Robert Bates, Dan Posner, and Kanchan Chandra—to investigate this question further.

For the most part, movements affiliated with or inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood participated, where possible, in elections in the 1990s and early 2000s. Reading the papers, though, I was struck by how different their trajectories were until that point. The paths movements took toward participation in the 1990s varied considerably in timing, how democratic the process was when they first participated, and the relationship with the regime and other movements at the time. If we start in 1990 and look at developments until the present day, Islamist movements might look like they are diverging from a similar participatory/“moderate” starting point. But, if we go back to the 1950s or earlier, the pattern will look different; maybe Islamist movements briefly converged on participation during a short-lived transnational period of political openness and then returned to a more common pattern of following differing trajectories based on local events.

In his paper on Morocco , Avi Spiegel quotes a PJD leader in 2014 saying, “We’re the one last Islamist party remaining in government in the region.” That leader is wrong, as are the scholars I recently heard debating whether the “most successful Islamists” in the Arab world were in Tunisia or in Morocco. By almost any measure, the most successful mainstream Islamists in the Arab world are in Baghdad, where Islamists have governed Iraq since 2005. Three different leaders of the Islamic Da’wa Party have served as Prime Minister, and a gaggle of other Islamist parties and movements – SCIRI/ISCI, Badr Organization, Sadrists, Iraqi Hezbollah, Fadhila, the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi Accordance Front (Tawafuq) – have provided for over a decade the majority of Iraq’s ministers, deputy prime ministers, deputy presidents, chairs of parliamentary committees, and provincial governors. Yet, we rarely talk about Iraq when analyzing regional commonalities and divergences; Iraqi Islamists are largely absent from comparative discussions. Perhaps academics are sectarians, hesitant to compare Shi’ite Islamists with Sunnis. If so, that is a shame because some of Iraq’s Shi’ite Islamist movements underwent ideological changes that would make for fascinating comparisons with Sunni groups. For example, Da’wa (and, arguably, Badr and SCIRI/ISCI) abandoned their support for wilayat al-faqih in the 1990s or 2000s and came to accept participation in an electoral system free from clerical oversight. Comparing Shi’ite movements with Salafis (!) might help us understand the conditions under and the process by which groups compromise ideological commitments when presented with political opportunities. But, even leaving aside Iraq’s Shi’ite Islamists, Iraq’s Muslim Brotherhood has been influential, dynamic, and worth including in discussions of Brotherhood-like movements. Muslim Brotherhood leaders in the Iraqi Islamic Party have served as Iraq’s deputy president (Tariq al-Hashimi), deputy prime minister (Rafi al-‘Issawi), and speaker of the Council of Representatives (Iyad al-Samarra’i). Muslim Brotherhood members have been ministers of higher education, planning, state for foreign affairs, and state for women’s affairs. I was asked at the June workshop how the six months the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood spent as a part of the Jordanian government in 1990–1991 affected the movement. The Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood has been a constant presence (except for a brief hiatus in 2007–2008) in the Iraqi government for a dozen years! Similarly, the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood has weathered splits, electoral defeats, challenges from Salafis, constitutional debates, and the necessity of political compromise. Yet, Iraq and its participatory Islamist movements remain pariahs for comparative scholars. The U.S.-led occupation of Iraq ended five years ago; it is time to include the Arab world’s “most successful” Islamist movements in our discussions of Islamist responses to a changing political landscape.

Matthew J. Nelson, SOAS, University of London Mainstream Islamist parties in Pakistan such as the Jama’at-e Islami and Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam have demonstrated a tendency to combine the gradualism of Brotherhood-style electoral politics with missionary activities and, at times, support for proxy militancy. As a result, Pakistani Islamists wield significant ideological influence in Pakistan, even as their electoral success remains limited.

Read Nelson’s reactions to the other Rethinking Political Islam working papers »

Focusing on Pakistan , my paper tracks two broad sets of Islamist actors—the Jama’at-e-Islami (JI) and the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI). The Jama’at-e-Islami is analogous to the Muslim Brotherhood, but the JI’s student wing has generally been more influential within the party than Brotherhood student wings in the Middle Eastern countries covered by this project and, over time, the JI has moved beyond merely contesting elections to cozying up with military dictators as well. The JUI is led by clerics rooted in Sunni Deobandi madrasas and, like the JI, it has also contested elections and enjoyed the patronage of military dictators. Since the early 1970s, both groups have joined ruling coalitions, and the JUI has also led coalitions governing at a provincial level.

My paper provides a sense of the religious and political networks surrounding each of these two parties, including (a) a network of independent schools functioning largely as private businesses (with each network competing with state schools and other private schools for students); (b) various dawa (religious education) organizations affiliated with ideologues from each group as well as mass-based movements like the (Sunni Deobandi) Tablighi Jama’at; and (c) militant proxy groups operating in places like East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Kashmir, and Afghanistan.

Neither group is a “Salafi” group. In Pakistan, the “Salafi” terrain is associated with a Sunni sub-group known as the Ahl-e-Hadith with its own range of schools, dawa organizations (e.g. Jamaat-ud-Dawa), and militants patronized by the Pakistan Army (e.g. Lashkar-e-Taiba). In Pakistan, Salafism is not a target of the security establishment; in some ways it is part of that establishment.

Considering the other papers in this project, I would like to offer five brief thoughts. These broadly comparative thoughts may help to stitch the papers together and place the case of Pakistan in context.  

Islamist parties and state power

Broadly, there are two groups of countries involved in this project—those like Egypt or Malaysia where Islamists have won power outright (either at a national or a provincial level) and those where this has been less likely and collaboration with the existing regime or “mere survival” is the name of the game. In each of these scenarios, pragmatic politics play an important role, both in the realm of electoral success and in the realm of “mere survival.” Pragmatic politics and a general absence of ideological “red lines” (allowing Islamists to move away from what might be considered religiously “right” in order to do what is politically “smart” for their party) figure prominently in the political experience of Pakistani Islamists as well. However, Pakistan fits in between the two camps described above.

At the provincial level, Islamists in Pakistan have not merely joined coalition governments in Pakistan, but led them—thus providing Pakistani Islamists with an opportunity to enact religious policies under a broad hisba (enforcement-of-piety) banner as well as social justice policies of a more explicitly economic nature (while, at the same time, suffering at the polls for their failure to satisfy complex constituent demands, just like any other party). In this sense, Pakistan’s Islamists illuminate something about the practice of Islamist governance.

At the national level, however, the electoral success of Pakistani Islamists has been quite limited, meaning that collaboration with other parties has always been the name of the game. Thus, both the JI and the JUI have reflected something closer to the Islamist mantra found in many other countries: “do not govern alone.”

Unlike any of the other cases in this project, however, collaboration between Islamist political parties and the state in Pakistan has reached beyond electoral and monarchical politics to include direct collaboration with the Army. This pattern was less prominent under Pakistan’s first dictator, General Ayub Khan, than it was under later dictators like Generals Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf.  

Islamist parties and violence

In general, this project includes some countries where Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi factions have been deeply involved in anti-state violence ( Syria , Libya ) as well as countries where both groups have shied away from, or strongly disavowed, violence.

In Pakistan, however, the story is a more complicated. Although both the JI and the JUI have generally eschewed violence themselves, we see proxy militants tied to the student cadres of both groups collaborating with the state in transnational violence and, in a looser fashion, battling the state as well. Clearly, the value of the inclusion-moderation hypothesis is limited when “inclusion” involves proxy militants patronized by the military.

In Pakistan, religious violence is not traced to concerns about an absence of proper religious education (as in Tunisia ). Instead it is traced to the role of religious education provided within and outside of the state. There is, however, no clear “Islamist” position on the use of violence. Both the JI and the JUI have used violence to collaborate with the state and, via loosely affiliated proxies, to rebel against it. In fact this dual position has made it difficult for the state to describe insurgent elements within each group as an exclusively “foreign” element that must be excised and destroyed.  

Islamist politics and state strength

Across the different countries examined in this project, the context within which Islamist strategies are formulated is shaped by specific, robust, and enduring forms of constitutional architecture (electoral, monarchical, or both) as well as specific patterns of state breakdown.

In Pakistan, both constitutional architecture and elements of state breakdown exist simultaneously. By and large, Pakistan’s relatively stable constitutional architecture (including its fairly permissive approach to civil society-based activism) has defined the parameters within which local “debates about religion” take place. But, in some parts of the country, the reach of the state is either limited by design (e.g. the Federally Administered Tribal Areas [FATA]) or deeply inconsistent (e.g. Karachi). In these areas, patterns of state breakdown explain trajectories of strategic decision-making more than the legal architecture of the state.

The Arab cases in this project reflect a relatively “statist” approach to religious politics. In Pakistan, this statism is relaxed—both via civil-society activism and via patterns of state collapse.  

Islamist politics and transnational spillover

Broadly, one might expect patterns of transnational spillover to figure prominently within transnationally networked Islamist formations like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jama’at-e-Islami as well as transnationally networked jihadi formations like al-Qaida. However, the papers in this project clearly show that existing hypotheses regarding the transnational “demonstration effects” of the Arab Spring (or the rise of the Islamic State) have been overstated. Indeed, one is struck by the rather limited extent to which Islamist parties around the world actually engage in cross-national comparative thinking regarding their “fellow travelers.”

It seems that this project will offer new conclusions about the relative power of “transnational” and “domestic” drivers within the greater scheme of Islamist politics.

Turning specifically to the transnational reach of the Islamic State, I found myself wondering whether “Salafism” might be a less important as an ideological driver than country-specific patterns of anti-Shia sectarianism. In Pakistan, it is not “Salafism” that links those claiming attachments to the transnational aspirations of the Islamic State. On the contrary, “sectarian” politics figure in several of the countries featured in this project, from Syria and Malaysia to Indonesia , Yemen , Saudi Arabia , Kuwait , and Pakistan .  

Islamist politics and youth

Finally, I was struck by the extent to which internal generational cleavages matter within various Islamist movements, not only in Pakistan, with reference to the JI’s student wing (and the Taliban), but also in Tunisia , Syria , Egypt , and many other countries.

In the past I have written about the religious politics of young people in Pakistan, stressing the ways in which domestic stalemates generate a push for expanding transnational ties. In this project, however, I came away with a greater appreciation for the domestic side of this equation and the role that generational divides play in activating or intensifying domestic cleavages.

Southeast Asia

Joseph Chinyong Liow, The Brookings Institution Although the Arab Spring prompted greater discussion of Islamism in Southeast Asia, links between Southeast Asian Islamists and their counterparts in the Middle East have remained nebulous. While Southeast Asian Islamists have largely eschewed revolutionary approaches to political change, some parties have remained explicit about their desire to not only Islamize society but to establish an “Islamic state.”

Read Liow’s reactions to the other Rethinking Political Islam working papers »

Reading the papers, the immediate impression is that the project is Arab-centric. This observation is not meant as a criticism, but rather to make a recurring point about the study of Islamism.

By way of this, there are three areas where the phenomenon of Islamism in Southeast Asia differs somewhat from trends identified by several of the papers in Middle Eastern cases.

First, several papers suggest—both explicitly as well as implicitly—that the tension between reformists and traditionalists that defined the pre-Arab Spring study of Islamism may no longer be as pertinent a framework in a post-Arab Spring era. Indeed, the cases of Egypt and Tunisia bear this out, where the main divide is the degree of revolutionary fervor. This is not necessarily the case in Southeast Asia, which was largely unaffected by the Arab Spring. In Indonesia , Arab Spring-type social mobilization in fact took place much earlier, in the late 1990s during the Asian financial crisis that precipitated the end of President Suharto’s New Order regime. Indeed, it was this turbulent climate that gave rise to the Islamists of the Brotherhood-inspired Prosperous Justice Party, or PKS.

Second, a striking difference between Southeast Asian Islamists and their counterparts in the Middle East is the participation of Islamists in coalitions which include not only non-Islamist parties, but more notably, non-Muslim parties. In Malaysia , the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party (PAS) remains a member of a political coalition which includes socialist and non-Muslim parties, though the coalition has started to crumble because of differences between reformists and traditionalists (assuming an “evolutionary scale” of Islamism exists, then Islamism in Malaysia is arguably “less evolved” than in its MENA counterparts?). In fact, PAS has been a member of every political coalition that ever existed in the political history of post-independence Malaysia. As for the PKS, it too was a part of the ruling coalition led by the Democratic Party, and at its peak occupied up to four Cabinet positions. There is scant information in any of the other papers on MENA cases of Islamist participation on ruling or formal opposition coalitions, and certainly not with non-Muslim parties.

Third, in the case of the PKS, several recent high profile cases of corruption involving senior party officials highlight an interesting point which some of the papers discuss—the matter of fixing, overhauling, or moralizing the political system. In the PKS case it is actually the reverse, where rather than Islamists changing the system, as they claimed to want to do in their early days, you have the system changing the Islamists, who get sucked into the patron-client system that outlived the New Order. There is a further dimension to the discussion on gradualism and the nature of the political system. The comparison between Morocco and Kuwait was made in terms of monarchical systems which shape (perhaps constrict?) Islamist activism. Malaysia is also a monarchy (in fact, it has nine sitting monarchs at any given time!) and, though it’s a constitutional monarchy, ultimate religious authority is vested in the monarch, not the mufti of the state. I’m not sure if this is similar in other monarchies. Nevertheless, my point is that in reality, the monarch in Malaysia has had very little influence over governance and government. This is largely because royals in Kuwait and Morocco are much more constitutionally and practically powerful, but I thought it was an interesting comparison nonetheless.

The discussions on the Muslim Brotherhood (and its offshoots) that surface in various papers highlight something that could be pursued further in future work on Southeast Asia—the parallel Islamist civil society in Malaysia and Indonesia. The topic of Islamism and Islamist activism in Southeast Asia is one that has been the subject of a vast number of research projects. That said, the majority of this interest has centered on political Islam as expressed in the realm of mainstream politics and focused on partisan politics (as is the case in many of the papers here). On the other hand, there remains a dearth of knowledge and research on urban-based parallel Islamist civil society groups and movements and how their emergence, activism, and transnational nature have reconfigured Islamism in Southeast Asia, particularly recently. In Malaysia and Indonesia, mainstream Islamist parties are being slowly but visibly bypassed by these new groupings that have focused their activities and energies in the civil society sector.

Evidence of this shift—both in public discourse as well as the increased media attention paid to these new groups—can be seen all around Southeast Asia today: From the “public moral policing campaigns” unilaterally conducted by fringe groups like the Front Pembela Islam in Indonesia to the role played by radical groups like the Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia in the aftermath of the tsunami that hit Aceh and the earthquake that devastated Jogjakarta in Central Java. Likewise, in Malaysia new right-wing NGOs and lobby groups like the Persatuan Ulama Malaysia and Teras Keupayaan Melayu have taken center stage on issues ranging from moral policing to the promotion of Malay-Muslim dominance (Ketuanan Melayu), bypassing the more established Malay-Muslim political parties and civil society organizations of the past. It is important to note that once-liminal or marginal figures like the radical cleric Ustaz Abu Bakar Bashir have now moved to the center of public attention. Media reports on how activist Muslim civil society groups frequently mobilize to defend religious rights, as in the case in Malaysia, and to engage in moral policing, often seen in Indonesia, as well as the state’s inability or reluctance to rein in these activities, seem to suggest a shift to a right-wing agenda in both countries.

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Argument: Egypt’s Sisi Rules by Fear—and Is Ruled by It

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Egypt’s Sisi Rules by Fear—and Is Ruled by It

By falsely labeling all critics as muslim brotherhood shills, the egyptian president shows how scared he really is..

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  • Steven A. Cook

According to Nashat al-Daihi, the host of an Egyptian television program called “With Pen and Paper,” I am in the pay of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was not the only Egyptian outraged over my last column , which was about how Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ruined Egypt. Sisi’s online supporters poured forth an endless amount of whataboutism and personal insults on my Twitter—er, X—timeline for what seemed like days, revealing once again that all hope for thoughtful debate on social media was lost long ago.

The claim is absurd on its face. There is simply no way that the Muslim Brotherhood would pay me for anything based on who I am and what I have written about them. I don’t believe the group’s shtick and never have. They, like others in Egypt, are adept at leveraging the discourse of political reform in pursuit of an anti-democratic agenda.

Moreover, I am skeptical of the mythology that the Muslim Brotherhood has created around the immediate post-Hosni Mubarak era. There was more Brotherhood electoral chicanery and intimidation that went into its candidate Mohamed Morsi’s election to the presidency in 2012 than anyone cares to admit. Even if the Brotherhood had been less incompetent in its attempt to gain control of the state, I doubt Egypt would have been an Arab Spring success story.

Having written about Egypt for years, I’m used to this sort of thing by now, and my practice is usually to ignore such bile. But al-Daihi’s comment caught my eye. That’s because the accusation that Sisi’s critics are employees of the Muslim Brotherhood is symptomatic of two related problems that the Egyptian leader and his supporters have, for which they do not have any answers.

First, as I wrote in my previous column, there is a large, growing, and noticeable divergence between what the government promises Egyptians and how they experience everyday life. When people have the temerity to point this out, they are branded as supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood or, in the case of a large number of Egyptians, subjected to imprisonment and physical abuse. This ferocious response is a measure of how much Sisi and his supporters know and fear that there are many Egyptians who recognize this gap and its potentially destabilizing nature.

Second, and more important for our purposes here, is that despite Sisi’s best efforts, he still can’t get rid of the long shadow the Muslim Brotherhood continues to cast over Egyptian politics and society.

Of course, even well before the Sisi era, it was common for Egyptian officials to alternately appease and repress the Brotherhood. In the early 1940s, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Nahhas bent to the Brotherhood’s political pressure and cracked down on alcohol and prostitution while allowing the organization to publish its newspapers. A few years later, a new government cracked down on the Brotherhood—before yet another government resumed placating the group.

Gamal Abdel Nasser imprisoned thousands of Brotherhood leaders and members, let some of them out, and then imprisoned them again. His successor, Anwar el-Sadat—a onetime fellow traveler of the Brotherhood—released them and gave them the opportunity to publish and preach. However, they fell out over Sadat’s peace with Israel, and Egypt’s jails filled up with Brothers once again.

After Sadat’s assassination in 1981, Mubarak afforded the group the opportunity to resume its activities, believing that a higher profile for the Brothers in publishing, education, and civil society would draw support away from the extremists who had murdered Sadat. After about a decade, Mubarak determined he’d had enough and ordered the security services to bring the group to heel. Throughout this pattern of accommodation and confrontation, the Muslim Brotherhood remained an important political, social, and cultural actor in Egypt.

In recent years, both the repression of the Brotherhood and the allegation that the government’s critics are members of (or otherwise in the pay of) the group have become more pronounced and dangerous. That is because Sisi has sought to recast Egypt’s nationalist narrative by writing the Muslim Brotherhood out of it.

Nationalism doesn’t just occur spontaneously. It is conjured and imagined—and it is the result of concerted political projects. It is thus periodically subject to reinterpretation to suit political leaders’ needs. This is precisely what Sisi has done to portray the Brotherhood—whose origins, prestige, and worldview are firmly rooted in the Egyptian experience—as both violent and alien to the society from which it was born.

After the coup d’état that brought Sisi to power, parallel to the state-led media campaign that sought to create and sustain a reservoir of support for what was called Egypt’s “second revolution” was a drive to portray the Muslim Brotherhood as “ fifth columnists .” The Brothers were routinely depicted as being agents of either the Qataris and/or the Turks.

At the same time, Sisi justified the violence he employed to suppress the Brothers on the grounds that the group was a terrorist organization. There was a time when the Brotherhood maintained a so-called secret apparatus or armed cadres, but they were dismantled long ago. Still, the Egyptian government made a direct link between the Brothers and Islamic State-like extremism. When analysts questioned the government’s narrative and its use of violence, they were routinely depicted in the Egyptian press as instruments of the Brotherhood. Put 100 Western Egypt watchers in a room and ask for a show of hands of people who have been accused of shilling for the Brothers, and I am certain a majority would respond affirmatively.

This brings us back to the leadership’s second problem for which it has no answer: Try as Sisi might to rewrite Egypt’s nationalist narrative, his effort to banish the Brotherhood from it is malarkey. The Brothers played an important role in some of the most important nationalist episodes of the 20th century. They agitated against the British occupation, and although they were initially positively disposed toward the Egyptian monarchy, they opposed King Farouk throughout much of the 1940s and early 1950s.

The Brotherhood was among the first groups to raise the alarm over Zionism and Jewish migration to Palestine. In the 1948 war between the new state of Israel and its neighbors, the Brothers fought (albeit ineffectively) against Israelis near Beersheba, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, though they did distinguish themselves by aiding thousands of Egyptian soldiers and officers stranded in the Faluja pocket—near the Gaza Strip—in the last stages of the conflict.

There was, however, another critical political dimension to the Brotherhood’s activism regarding Palestine. The group, consistent with Islamic reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, believed that the weakness of Muslim societies invited foreign intervention. Inasmuch as they and many others regarded Zionism an instrument of European colonialism, the Palestinian struggle against Israelis was seen as the same nationalist struggle that Egyptians were waging against the British.

The Brothers were not the only actors in these complex events, which spanned decades. There were, of course, the Wafd Party, the Free Officers, and a variety of others. But even as Sisi tries, you cannot deny the role that the Brotherhood plays in issues that were and remain critical to Egypt’s nationalist narrative.

In some ways, this is an old Egyptian story, where basic questions about society, governance, identity, and the country’s role in the world have long been contested. But because Egypt’s leaders rely mostly on fear and coercion to maintain political control, they are vulnerable to would-be political leaders who have answers to these questions.

Sisi can bring a lot of force and violence to bear, which is why accusations that someone is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or in the pay of the organization are so potent. Non-Islamist, peaceful Egyptian oppositionists have been hauled off to prison as a result, making it all the more difficult and dangerous for activists to pursue their agendas.

At the same time, the accusation is empty—mindless, even—a rote response to any and all criticism for a leader and his supporters, who are unable to conjure a coherent response to their critics. It is also the kind of response that political leaders use when they are afraid. Indeed, as much as Sisi rules by fear, he is ruled by it.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at  Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book, The End of Ambition: America ’ s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East , will be published in June 2024. Twitter:  @stevenacook

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