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The Islamist Tsunami and Arab Society

Supporters of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi

Supporters of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi
Photo Credit: Wissam Nassar

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When the news came that Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) had been declared Egypt’s President, the immediate concern was about what kind of society the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists would want to create, and how this election would affect society in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. Would they want to establish a robust civil society or a pious Islamic one, and would it be tolerant and respectful towards women and religious minority rights? Whenever the Muslim Brotherhood are asked if Sharia law will be imposed, the response is that their intention is to build a “democratic and civil state” that guarantees freedom of religion and the right to peaceful protest, as has been stated by Mursi himself on several occasions. But anyone who traces the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists over the past decades — in Egypt, Tunisia or anywhere else in the Arab world — will see that their intention is to further Islamize their societies, not to create civil alternatives. Before they gained power, their approach was from the bottom up, but now that they have the reins of power; they might instead approach their task from the top down.

If the MB’s intention is to build a democratic and civil state, what explains Tunisian MB mentor Rachid Ghannouchi’s obsessive criticism of Habib Bourguiba, the father of modern Tunisia? If Ghannouchi were scathing toward the corrupt regime of the overthrown Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, that would be understandable; but why against Bourguiba, who was the liberator of women and cultivator of modernism in Tunisia? Ghannouchi always rejects parallels drawn with Khomeini, insisting that he is more like Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and that the Tunisian MB party, known as Ennahda or Rebirth, is closer to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey.

But, unlike the AKP, Ennahda has neither an obvious economic program nor a political program — omissions which suggest that Ennahda will instead pursue a social agenda of rapidly Islamizing Tunisian society, as revealed in Ghannouchi’s writing about the history of women in the Arab world: “Before the emergence of the Islamist movement, woman found herself in an unstable and decaying society whose liberation was purely superficial: nudity, eroticism, leaving the house and the intermingling of the sexes.”

Ghannouchi has also highlighted the importance of “tradition” in art: “Art is linked to the values and traditions of society, and no one should take away freedom of expression through art, as long as it reflects those traditions.” According to these comments Ennahda’s true goal is not, as the title of his party would suggest, a Rebirth or a program of development, but rather the fuller Islamization of society, making it more “traditional;” that is, backward-looking. In mid-June, during Tunisia’s annual spring art fair, Tunisian Islamists threw rocks and petrol bombs at modernist works they deemed offensive to religious sensibilities. One person was killed, hundreds of people were injured and arrested, and riots lasted for two days This is the extremism that Ghannouchi’s “tradition” defends.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, established in 1928 with the aim of Islamizing Egyptian society from the bottom up, saw, under Mubarak’s corrupt regime, a social decay set in that strongly increased the Islamists’ appeal. The Brotherhood, with its battle cry of “Islam is the Solution,” greatly benefitted from this erosion; it was not surprising that they were able to and gain the support of the majority and win elections.

In the short run, the Mubarak Government also benefited – in addition to marginalizing liberals and pro-democracy forces, it could also present the rise of Islamists as an implicit threat to the West as “It is either us or the Islamists” – but eventually, primarily with Mubarak’s insistence that his son, Gamal, succeed him, that strategy failed.

Although Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood claims a likeness to the Turkish AKP, when Erdogan suggested, perhaps ambiguously, that Egypt guarantee a secular state in its new constitution, the MB became angry with him. The MB will campaign against any secular party that seeks to revise Article 2 of Egypt’s constitution, which states that “the principle source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence [Sharia law].” The MB also claims that anyone who challenges Article 2 is somehow facilitating an American and Israeli plot against Egypt.

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About the Author: Najat AlSaied is a Saudi PhD researcher in media and development at University of Westminster in London.


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