The Muslim Brotherhood is a difficult subject to tackle. Some of this is the fault of others – there appears to be significant bias against them in many quarters. Some of this is their own fault – they are a closed organization accountable to no government oversight.
Some of it is due to the nature of their task. Their goal – to be examined below – is currently being pursued in the arena of politics. It is the nature of politics to appeal to as many as possible, presenting one’s ideas in as amenable a form as possible. The general public is left wondering what is real and what is spin, though usually most politicians can be pegged somewhere along a definitive spectrum.
This is true of the Brotherhood as well, which has fully embraced the vagaries, if not the hypocrisy, of the political game.
Yet despite their changing postures and the confusion it engenders, almost everyone understands the Muslim Brotherhood to be a conservative, religious entity seeking greater integration of Islam into the fabric of society and government.
The difficulty is in establishing what this means. Detractors make them out to be fascists, while promoters paint them as democrats. Brotherhood rhetoric – tailored to the audience – can lend credence to either extreme.
Therefore, the best solution is to examine what the Brotherhood says to itself. Earlier I partially translated and analyzed a book distributed by the Brotherhood which assembles excerpts from the speeches of Hassan al-Banna, the group’s founder.
More recently I came across the transcript of an address given by Khairat al-Shater, the MB’s chief financier and one-time presidential candidate. The video and translation are available online; the original speech was delivered in Alexandria on April 21, 2011, significantly before current political machinations yet after revolutionary euphoria had settled. Now that the democratic moment has arrived, Shater doubles the effort to maintain cohesion and discipline, so as to accomplish the goal of Nahda – renaissance.
Some of his speech concerns the political arm of the Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party. But while Shater calls this only an instrument, the group – the Brotherhood itself – is his focus. Interestingly, though, it also is only an instrument:
‘The Gama'a [group – the Muslim Brotherhood] is thus an instrument and not a long-term goal. It is a … means to Islamize life in its entirety and institute religion.’
In this line of thought the Brotherhood is conceived as a vanguard, but Shater is clear the responsibility for renaissance is not theirs alone, it is upon all:
‘When we talk about developing the Ummah’s [nation, in collectivity of Muslims] Nahda on the basis of Islamic Reference, we don’t mean that the Muslim Brothers are the Ummah’s representatives in developing the Nahda, but rather that they think, plan, spread awareness, and market the idea. The entire Ummah participates in developing its Nahda because the responsibility falls on the shoulder of the Ummah as a whole.’
Therefore, while the Muslim Brotherhood seeks power in order to implement this renaissance, it does not imply the monopolization of power. Current political events may or may not argue otherwise, but establishment of a dictatorship is not part of the essential Brotherhood program:
‘[We desire the revolution] to guarantee that the current government or any future government commits to the interests of the people, to building a stable political life including peaceful rotation of power, independence of the judiciary, rule of law, security, and attempts to develop the country and people and fix [their] problems.’
Yet while these aims are democratic and for the good of the nation, the group as an instrument is clearly a vanguard, derived not from useful political philosophy but from God’s method in establishing Islam, exclusively along this vision:
‘The Muslim Brotherhood’s method is that of the Prophet's, and thus we say that the Muslim who is connected to the Gama'a and the method must believe and realize that he is on the right path and that he must not be on a path other than this one.’ The stakes are high, for without this group religion itself cannot exist:
‘Omar Bin Al-Khattab [the second caliph in Islam], which some scholars attribute to the prophet himself, stated, “There is no religion without a Gama'a, no Gama'a without an Imam [leader], and no Imam without obedience.”’
Therefore, as seen above, the goal of the Muslim Brotherhood is to ‘restore Islam’. Here is how Shater states it clearly, at the opening of his address:
‘You all know that our main and overall mission as Muslim Brothers is to empower God’s religion on Earth, to organize our life and the lives of people on the basis of Islam, to establish the Nahda of the Ummah and its civilization on the basis of Islam, and to subjugate the people to God on Earth.’
The word ‘subjugate’ should not imply compulsion, but it does have a clear worldwide connotation. It is achieved through the concept of Ustathia, best translated as ‘professorship’.
‘Therefore, the path was clear, thus the Rashidun [rightly-guided] Caliphs continued the stage of the Global State of Islam, and so its domain expanded, and the Persian and Roman (Byzantine) States fell as the new state of Islam emerged on the global level. This state arrived after some time to the point where it became the strongest state in existence, and therefore Ustathia was actualized in reality.’
The crisis for Muslims came centuries later when the caliphate fell. Since that time the Muslim Brotherhood has been a patient organization, recognizing that preparatory work must be done in stages. Yet the end goal is clear:
‘As Ikhwan we have spent a long time … developing the Muslim individual and God willing we will continue. We are developing the Muslim household and God willing we will continue. We are developing the Muslim society and God willing we will continue. We are preparing for the stage of Islamic government after this because it is what follows the stage of society.’
While nothing Shater mentions in his speech demands the use of military force, he does make analogy to the Prophet when he raided outside of the Arabian Peninsula, seeking application of Ustathia beyond the realm of the peoples of Islam.
He does not speak in detail of what Ustathia would imply if realized, but it seems fair to translate the concept as ‘leadership of the world’. A few final comments are necessary in conclusion, therefore.
It must be remembered that while this speech was given to Brotherhood members, these ideas are discussed publically. A popular preacher close to the Brotherhood interpreted this vision during a presidential campaign stop as anticipating a march of millions of martyrs to Jerusalem to establish the United Arab States.
Yet when asked about the idea of caliphate by Western audiences, the Brotherhood refers to ideas like the European Union or the gradual economic integration of Islamic nations. Asked specifically about that preacher, they emphasize he is not a Brother, does not speak for the group, is not based in reality, and in any case they have enough to worry about in Egypt.
But there is no denial; the dream is simply pushed back a hundred years or more.
It is not a matter of timing since God is on their side. Long or short, they follow the path of the Prophet and will in the end be victorious.
For non-Muslims, then, or non-Brotherhood Muslims, what should the response be? It is hard to gauge.
There is no reason a nation should be prevented from integrating their religion into the fabric of society if this is the will of their people.
Furthermore, there is no reason sovereign states should be prevented from consolidation if this is the will of their people.
Then, when a civilization establishes itself it is fully natural for it to seek a place of primacy in leadership and the promotion of principle consistent with its interests.
In each of these aspects Western nations, indeed Western civilization, can see itself reflected. If it criticizes the Brotherhood, does the pot call the kettle black?
Recognizing this reality, there are three areas worthy of discussion in which to take caution concerning the Brotherhood.
First, though a sensitive topic, Islam itself must be considered – at least in the sense the Brotherhood interprets it. Do the values of Islam in their entirety, since the Brotherhood calls for full implementation, befit the world and the principles of human rights?
Second, this consideration begs the following. Is the Brotherhood a worthy vanguard? By embracing the duplicity of politics do they show themselves as true Muslims or as frauds and manipulators? This is essentially a question for Muslims within their lands of influence.
Third, whether or not Islam is a power for good in this world, the discourse of the Brotherhood reinforces the narrative of a clash of civilizations. They are clearly engaged in a civilizational struggle in which Islam must obtain worldwide leadership. Many in the West are very guilty of the same; the question is if all must desist.
The above is rendered in hopeful education about the Muslim Brotherhood’s purpose. Loud cries from many are issued with little consideration to be fair toward their intentions. Others fail to consider these matters at all, either from ignorance, complicity, or dismissal.
Neither attitude serves the public. I am hopeful this article honors their words and contributes to the better discussion of proper domestic and international response.