(Muslim) Brothers Gonna Work It Out (OK, probably not): Part I

It hasn’t been a peaceful few months in North Africa. Most everybody (right?) knows what’s been happening in Egypt, where an already difficult situation may have become unfixable early Saturday when police killed at least 72 (this is the official figure; the actual number is likely much higher) protesters while trying to contain/repress/massacre a rally in support of deposed former president Mohamed Morsi. In Libya, a political activist named Abd al-Salam al-Mismari was murdered Friday while leaving a mosque in Benghazi, and crowds of protesters gathered to storm the political offices of the religious parties he opposed, who are suspected in his killing. In Tunisia, a leftist politician who opposed that country’s ruling Ennahda Party, Chokri Belaid, was assassinated in February, and another figure in the leftist/secular opposition, Mohamed Brahmi, was assassinated on Thursday, and in case you’re the type who does believe in coincidences, it turns out they were both shot with the same gun.

Obviously there are a lot of similarities between the current circumstances in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. All three countries were impacted by the Arab Spring, which actually started in Tunisia, and in all three cases long-serving and repressive dictators were toppled by popular uprisings. But what ties these recent events together in particular is the involvement, on some level, of the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, one of the big early winners of political upheaval in the Arab world was the international Society of Muslim Brothers (Jama’ah al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin), with the organization’s political party fronts winning elections in Tunisia and Egypt, and coming in second in elections in Libya. Also too they’re apparently in charge of US Amercia now, on account of Obama secret Muslim ooga booga Kenya or whatever (you can read all about it at the Daily Caller, but I ain’t linking to it, sorry). But the Brotherhood’s success in winning elections has not led to success in governance, and the popular demonstrations that ousted Morsi’s government in Egypt may only be the start of the Brotherhood’s problems. But, hey, who are these guys, anyway? Let’s take a look.

"I don't always drink beer, but... I never drink beer."
“I don’t always drink beer, but… I never drink beer.”

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded by an Egyptian named Hassan al-Banna (d. 1949) along with six men who are known to history as, um, “the six guys who Hassan al-Banna formed the Muslim Brotherhood with,” I guess? Seriously, whoever they were they’ve been mostly bigfooted out of the story. Al-Banna was born in 1906 in a small town in the Nile Delta called Mahmudiyah, to a father, Shaykh Ahmad, who was locally known as a good prayer leader and fine scholar of the conservative Hanbali school of Islamic law. Egypt in the early part of the 20th century was, to put it mildly, a bit of a mess. It had been under uncontested Ottoman control (albeit under appointed governors who had varying levels of autonomy depending on the situation in Istanbul) from 1517 until 1798, when a French Revolutionary army under Napoleon invaded and took control of the country. Napoleon, for his own part, was there to disrupt British interests in the east (i.e., India); the Revolutionary leaders who sent him there did it to get the increasingly popular general as far away from Paris as they could.

If you’ve taken a high-school European history course, you probably know what happened: the British fleet under Lord Nelson annihilated the French fleet in the Battle of the Nile in August, and Napoleon’s invasion was essentially over. It took another year and an aborted campaign into Syria, but without a sea lane for reinforcement and resupply from France, Napoleon’s position was untenable. Combined British and Ottoman military pressure forced him to flee fake a triumphant return back to France in 1799, and the army he left behind was beaten shortly after (what was left of it finally escaped in 1801). Egypt was nominally restored to Ottoman control, and Istanbul sent an army, under the command of an Albanian general named Muhammad Ali Pasha, to put down an incipient move by the Egyptian governor to establish independence. Muhammad Ali Pasha immediately made himself the quasi-independent viceroy (khedive) of Egypt, and despite technically owing allegiance to the Ottomans, ruled independently of them.

Sounds like Egypt is on the way to full independence, right? Well, thing is, the British, who had played such an important role in turning back Napoleon’s invasion, never really left. When the Suez Canal was dug in 1869, making Egypt by far the easiest and safest way to travel from Britain to India and back, the British only became more interested in “protecting” Egypt. The massive foreign debt being run up by Egypt’s khedives also gave the European powers a reason/excuse to be intimately involved in Egyptian affairs. When a popular/military revolt threatened to topple the khedive, Tewfik Pasha, in 1882, a combined British and French (they were friends by now, hooray!) army invaded and reinstalled him. Now the British effectively controlled the country, from that point until 1922. So in 1906 Egypt was a country under the nominal rule of its new khedive, Abbas II, under the even more nominal suzerainty of the Ottomans, and under the practical and immediate control of Great Britain. Like I said, a mess.

Now you have Egypt, a country with a proud history, stuck with a weak monarchy serving two foreign masters (one of them European, to boot). Simultaneously, throughout the Islamic World there was a sort of general 19th century angst about European supremacy (which had only really become apparent over the course of the 18th century). The intersection of these two situations produced a number of influential Egyptian thinkers who were focused on the subject of Islamic decline and revival. Two of the most significant were Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905) and his partner Rashid Rida (d. 1935), who introduced the idea of Salafism, and thus laid the intellectual groundwork for the Brotherhood. Both, ironically, would probably be opposed to what Salafism has come to mean today.

Abduh believed that Islam, the civilization more than the religion (if the two can be separated) was stagnating at its core. For centuries its brightest thinkers, such as they were, remained bound by a body of legal interpretation and political thought that had coalesced in what we would consider the medieval period (in particular the period after the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1258 through the formation of the “Gunpowder Empires”–the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals–in the early 16th century). He attributed Europe’s ascendency to European society’s embrace of man’s intellectual capacity and free will, and called on Islamic society to return to the time of the salaf (“ancestors”) who formed the earliest Islamic community around Muhammad and his revelations. He did not mean that modern Islamic society should look like Muhammad’s Arabian movement, but rather that it should mirror the earlier community’s embrace of critical reasoning and consensus-building in fleshing out its legal and societal structures, that it should be free to develop new ideas that worked in a 19th century world rather than stuck adhering to ideas that were current 500 years earlier.

Rida went further, arguing for a return to the shari’a as the guiding legal principle of the Islamic World and a restoration of some kind of caliphate to restore unity to that world. However, he maintained Abduh’s belief in the centrality of human reason and the need for Islam to once again tap into that capacity in order to bring itself into the modern world and compete with Europe. An earlier reformer, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897) had already done much to advance the notion that Islamic unity, or pan-Islamism, was the only hope that Islamic society had of resisting European colonialism, though he coupled his desire for unity with a belief that even a unified Islamic World could resist Europe only by adopting European innovations fully and quickly. Abduh and Rida, both heavily influenced by al-Afghani’s ideas of pan-Islamic unity, were less convinced of the importance of the latter.

But we’re getting away from the story of Hassan al-Banna, who was very political from a very early age. He participated actively (at the age of 13) in the 1919 Egyptian Revolution, the one that led the British to finally decide that Egypt was more trouble than it was worth and bug out declare Egypt’s independence in 1922. He studied to be an educator, first at the conservative mosque school in Mahmudiyah and with his very conservative father, then in Cairo at the Dar al-‘Ulum, which was founded in 1871 to train students in modern, “European” subjects. In 1927 he took a teaching job in Ismailiyah, which was the city from which the Suez Canal was operated and was, thus, the one place in Egypt where British influence was still very strong (they might abandon the country, but the British couldn’t afford to abandon the canal). It was here, disgusted by lingering colonialism and by the Egyptian government’s embrace of westernization and secularism, that al-Banna formed the Society of the Muslim Brothers. Its initial goals were modest, limited to what you’d expect of a charitable organization concerned with maintaining Islamic piety in the face of westernizing tendencies, but by the end of the 1940s it had offices all over Egypt, satellites forming in other countries in the region, and a membership of roughly 500,000, committed to resisting the Europeanization of the Islamic World.

We can see in al-Banna that the ideas of Abduh and Rida were already being corrupted into the modern definition of “Salafism,” the movement to establish a single Islamic political entity governed just as Muhammad’s community in Medina was governed. Where Abduh and Rida had embraced Shari’a as the legal framework for society and held the early salaf community up as a model for modern Islam because of its intellectual vibrancy and rigor, rejecting the kind of “tradition must be obeyed” stagnation of recent centuries, al-Banna reinterpreted their embrace of the early community as a call for modern Islamic society to adhere strictly to the model of that early community and try to recreate its laws, social structures, and political institutions. Abduh and Rida wanted to take Islamic society out of the 15th century and into the 20th by using the Islamic society of the 7th century as inspiration; al-Banna saw the 7th century society as a blueprint.

Al-Banna was also influenced by Sufism, having been a member of a Sufi order back in Mahmudiyah, and he organized his new society very much on the Sufi model, with him at the center as its shaykh/teacher and his disciples learning from him before going out to teach new recruits. His message of a return to Islam’s roots as the path to overcoming the threats of European colonialism and corrupting modernity was eagerly received by much of contemporary Islamic society, and this explains the society’s rapid growth. His call for unity reflected al-Afghani, though he was much more resistant to adopting European innovations. Al-Afghani had distinguished between European advances that he saw as enriching and worthwhile and those that were symptoms of what he saw as its European society’s rotten materialism, but al-Banna saw almost every European innovation as materialistic and potentially corrupting.

Al-Banna’s opposition to the British, his rejection of western culture in general, and his deep antisemitism, which was certainly influenced by what he saw as the Jewish and British displacement of the Palestinians but went far beyond a simple concern for the Palestinians, drew him inexorably to Hitler in the 1930s. The latter’s nationalist push for a German Reich echoed al-Banna’s own desire for a pan-Arab or even pan-Islamic nation that spanned the length and breadth of the caliphate at its height (i.e, from Spain to at least Iraq, if not all the way India), and obviously they shared an insidious, irrational hatred of the Jews. Al-Banna had members of the society translate Mein Kampf into Arabic and pledged that the Brotherhood would insure a British defeat when Hitler’s armies were ready to invade North Africa (obviously he kind of flopped on that one). In 1936, when Arabs in Palestine revolted against the British mandate and what they saw as its favoritism toward Jewish immigrants, the Brotherhood raised funds and held rallies in support of the rebels throughout the Arab world, and did much to make the Palestinian cause a pan-Arab concern.

By 1948, when the Brotherhood sent fighters on its own accord to participate in the Arab-Israeli War, the Egyptian monarchy decided it had had enough and banned the Brotherhood, driving it underground. Some enterprising Brotherhood member assassinated the Egyptian Prime Minister, Mahmud al-Nuqrashi Pasha, in retaliation, earning a sharp rebuke from al-Banna, who decreed that terror was utterly unacceptable in Islam. At any rate, by this point the Brothers were becoming known for their violence, having also previously assassinated a judge and clashed with police. Al-Banna himself was assassinated a year later, probably by the government or someone similarly angered by Nuqrashi’s assassination. It’s worth noting that al-Banna was supposed to be meeting with a government negotiator when he was killed, and that negotiator just coincidentally never showed up.

So that’s how the Muslim Brotherhood was formed. While Hassan al-Banna was not a nice guy–you kind of forfeit any sense of decency when you help propagate Mein Kampf, you know?–it is worth noting that the MB’s origins were in charitable works and a focus on personal piety, and it’s also worth noting that al-Banna categorically rejected terror as a tactic in furthering the Brotherhood’s project. Next time I’ll talk about the MB’s most influential figure, Sayyid Qutb, and maybe bring us up to the present day (depends on how verbose I feel like being).

Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

10 thoughts

  1. The rapid collapse earlier this month of Egypt’s Brotherhood regime demonstrates that Qutb’s philosophy isn’t an alternative to modernity. It’s the opposite of modernity, better known as backwardness. The Muslim world deserves better

    1. I agree, but Morsi, and Ennahda in Tunisia, aren’t getting Qutb quite right either. Their inability to govern competently is part ideological and part structural.

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