Monday, January 31, 2011

The Islamist Menace

Prayer, Egypt, 2011. By Kerttu Kelomaa-Sulonen, used with permission.

When following the chatter about the Egyptian revolution, every now and again someone goes "but what about the Muslim Brotherhood?" This is hardly surprising, as the specter of Islamic radicalism was the main justification the American—and, to perhaps a slightly lesser degree, European—governments presented for supporting such a nasty character as Hosni Mubarak. What's more, Egypt was the cradle of modern political Islam, and the biggest such organization—the Muslim Brotherhood—is rather big in Egypt. It is probably the biggest single organized opposition party there at this time, in fact. Political Islam is a reality, and should there be genuine political pluralism in Egypt, it will be very much a player there.

That doesn't mean that men will have to grow beards, women will be forced to wear "burkhas"1, and everybody will grab a rifle and start a jihad against Jews, Christians, and Americans.

Thing is, political Islam is as heterogenous a beast as political Christianity, at least. It runs the gamut from parties rather similar to the Christian Democrats in Germany or either of the American main political parties to extremist groups that really are scarily violent. You could roughly divide this continuum into four blocs. From center to right:

The moderates. These are parties much like any conservative political party with religious overtones. They want a pluralistic political system that allows them to promote their agenda, and they understand that not everybody shares their goals. This agenda includes stuff that in the American context would be lumped under "family values"—for religious expression in the public sphere, against pornography, against gay rights, for restrictions on sale and use of various intoxicants, and so on. Many such parties are a good deal more moderate than, say, the American Religious Right. Your vanilla (social) conservatives, only with an Islamic flavor instead of the Christian or Jewish one we're more used to seeing and dealing with. Plus they're pretty progressive on economic matters. Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party is the best-known example, and has proven to be capable, responsible, and boring when in power. Their mirror image on the left would be one of the boring established left-of-center Social Democratic parties in and out of power all over Europe.

The revisionists. These guys want an Islamic state. That is, on top of the "moderate" agenda, they want the legal system to be based on Islamic jurisprudence, or at least a separate civil law for Muslims. The system they want would include features like restrictions on women's rights, a subordinate position for non-Muslims, and official political participation of clergy. However, they're ready to work within the constraints of a pluralistic political system to actually get there. They want to take a secular democracy, gain the support of a supermajority, and then abolish it in favor of an Islamic form of government. At least according to their own statements, the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah fall into this category. Their mirror image on the left would be the Eurocommunist parties in Western European countries—rarely or never in power, often in loud opposition, sometimes participating in left-of-center governments.

The radicals. These have the same goals as the revisionists, with an additional layer: they don't want Islamic government in just whatever country they're working in, but over the entire Muslim world. They envision a society where the Muslim Ummah is united under a new Caliphate; the Caliph is elected by the Ummah, and consults with an advisory council—the Shura—in governance, but ultimately wields absolute power. Only Muslims would be allowed to participate in the political process; non-Muslims would only be permitted to take legal action should the rights guaranteed to them as protected minorities be violated. The radicals are looking for revolutionary situations to seize and exploit in order to further their world revolution. The best-known organization in this category would probably be the Hizb ut-Tahrir, somewhat ironically carrying the same name as the theater of the Egyptian revolution. The Iranian governing coalition—Abadgaran—would be an example of what these guys would look like in power. The leftist mirror image would be the revolutionary Communist parties of Europe from the late 19th century to the collapse of the USSR: in power in the Soviet bloc, prominent fringe participants in the political process through the 1980's outside it, but largely defunct since the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

The extremists. These have the same agenda as the radicals, but aren't ready to wait for revolutionary situations. They're the ones blowing themselves up in trains and hijacking airplanes. Al Qaeda, duh. On the left, their mirror image would be the 1970's left terror organizations like the Baader-Meinhof group, the Red Army Faction, or the Red Brigades.

The problem is that in our neck of the woods, we tend to lump this whole gang together and plaster the face of Bin Laden on top. That's about as accurate as equating Angela Merkel with David Duke, the Christian Democrats with the Ku Klux Klan, or the British Labor party with the Red Army Faction. In other words, it would be downright laughable, if it didn't have such tragic consequences. Your average left-of-center greenish liberal has more in common with a moderate Islamist than either of them has with David Duke or Osama bin Laden—and the European and American conservatives most scared of them rather ironically have more or less the same politics.

Now, back to Egypt.

Because of the repressive nature of Mubarak's regime, it's hard to get a good handle on the power relations, both about the potential and actual support for the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole, and about the internal divisions within the party. It's likely that under such circumstances, at least some of the four above blocs would paper over their differences and work together. What's more, the repressive system tends to muddy the messages; people will speak differently depending on who's listening. This means that there will be different kinds of noises coming from the party, depending on who's talking. These divisions will emerge should a pluralistic system appear.

I am pretty certain that a large supermajority of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood falls into the "moderate" or "revisionist" bloc, with only fringe elements in the "radical" or "extremist" groups which are the really scary ones. I'm also pretty certain that the "revisionist" bloc doesn't have enough support to take over the system, which would effectively make it an extension of the "moderate" one. This means that there's no reason to panic about the Muslim Brotherhood: it's entirely likely that they would prove to be perfectly sane and constructive participants in a new, politically pluralistic Egypt.2

The only scenario that's causing me a little bit of worry is the Bolshevik one—they didn't have a great deal of support in 1917's Russia either, but they managed to seize control of the revolution through sheer determination, ruthlessness, and a lot of luck. It's conceivable that the radical and extremist elements in the Muslim Brotherhood could do the same for the Egyptian revolution. That would be tragic.

A potential hijacking of the revolution by fringe elements, however, is not a good enough reason to support an odious dictator like Hosni Mubarak. Instead, it is a call to vigilance for all supporters of the revolution—emphatically including the moderate and revisionist majority of the Muslim Brotherhood—to stop that from happening. That is very much in their interest too: after all, the first thing the Bolsheviks did after seizing power was to have the Mensheviks and SR's shot.

The Egyptians must be free to choose whatever system they want to live in. The key word is "free." That will mean that parties some of us in this neck of the woods may not much like will participate in it, or may even assume leading roles. Should the revolution succeed, we will see more of the Muslim Brotherhood. What form that relationship will take depends a great deal on us. If we continue to make the mistake of spraypainting beards and turbans (with a burning fuse in) on them, we will regret it. If we accord the Egyptian people the respect they have so richly earned, I am sure that it will be returned in kind.


1God I hate that word. The burkha is a traditional Pashtun garment. You know, Afghanistan. In Egypt, the full veil is called the niqab, and I understand that it's mostly worn by Bedouins and extremely conservative women in the countryside. Muslim women in the cities often—but not invariably—wear the hijab, or headscarf. That's not really all that different from Christians wearing crucifixes, or Jews wearing kippot, and I don't see any huge reason to get all upset about it.

2For conservatives, anyway.


  1. Glad you wrote this. There is so much gross generalization and blatant ignorance going on. I don't even have the patience left to write a blog post about it.

    Pushing the counter-narrative is work sometimes. As you know.

  2. Yeah. I forgot to even mention that the specter waved by some of the loonies—that of Islamists who want to forcibly Islamicize the rest of the world after setting up the Caliphate—is completely fictional; not even the radicals or extremists have that in mind. It slipped my mind because the concept is so risible. Yet I think many people worry about that too. Perhaps it's because of the Bolsheviks again—world revolution was officially on their agenda, after all. Reds under the bed and all that.

  3. That was an interesting read as always Petteri :)