Egypt’s election commission has announced that Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, has won the country’s presidential election. In February 2011, I posted the following essay on the history of the Muslim Brotherhood and thought it might be a good idea to re-post it.
The Muslim Brotherhood is an example of modern grass-roots political activism coupled with an Islamic ideology. Since its founding over 80 years ago, it has sought to fuse religious revival with a resistance to foreign domination, cultural imperialism, and colonialization. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood is a collection of national groups which are sometimes considered to be terrorist organizations by some American politicians. This diary will focus on the history of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood began in Egypt in 1928. It began when six Egyptian workers who were employed by British military camps in the Suez Canal Zone visited Hassan al-Banna, a young school teacher. They told him:
Arabs and Muslims have no status and no dignity. They are no more than mere hirelings belonging to the foreigners.
The men asked Banna to become their leader. He accepted and this was the founding of the Society of Muslim Brothers.
The newly formed society began by starting an evening school. In the early years, the focus was on Islamic education, with an emphasis on how to implement an ethos of solidarity and altruism in daily life, rather than on religious philosophy or theology.
In 1931, the Brotherhood completed the construction of a mosque (their first major project) and founded a Cairo branch of the society. The following year, the headquarters for the Muslim Brotherhood was moved to Cairo. Here Banna began giving evening lectures on the Qur’an for the poor people who were without learning.
From just three branches in 1931, the Muslim Brotherhood grew to 300 branches throughout Egypt by 1938. During this time, it became a major political opposition group with a highly diverse membership.
During the early 1930s, the Muslim Brotherhood resembled an ordinary Islamic welfare society. It did small-scale social work among the poor, built and repaired mosques, and established schools which taught children how to read and write. As it grew, the Brotherhood established pharmacies, hospitals, and clinics for the general public. They launched a program to teach adults to read and write by having courses in coffee shops and clubs.
Banna observed that in Egypt there were no serious efforts to make the history and teachings of Islam comprehensible to young people. In order to meet this need, Banna began training some young, highly motivated teachers who could operate independently from both the government and the religious establishment.
Recognizing the importance of mass media, the Brotherhood authorized the creation of a publishing company and purchased a printing press in 1933. To fund this venture, they created a joint stock company in which only Brotherhood members were allowed to buy shares. This insured that the project would be owned by the members and not controlled by the government or wealthy elite. With the publishing company, they were able to print several newspapers.
Egyptian politics during the 1930s were controlled by the landed aristocracy and urban elite. The Muslim Brotherhood began to emerge as a countervailing force, speaking for the educated middle and lower middle classes. They placed emphasis on social justice, on restoring the egalitarianism of the early Muslims, and closing the gap between the classes. According to Banna:
Islam is equal for all people and prefers nobody to others on the grounds of differences in blood or race, forefathers or descent, poverty or wealth. According to Islam everyone is equal... However, in deeds and natural gifts, then the answer is yes. The learned is above the ignorant... Thus, we see that Islam does not approve of the class system.
As the Brotherhood’s social ideology took shape over its first two decades, it began to advocate the nationalization of industries, laws to protect workers against exploitation, a reduction of the maximum wage for senior civil servants, ambitious health and literacy programs funded by higher taxes on the wealthy and better unemployment benefits. By 1948, they were advocating land reform which would enable small farmers to own land.
Banna argued that Islam should be applied to the problems of the modern world and used as the moral foundation of a national renaissance for Egypt. This renaissance would require a reform of political, economic, and social systems. Banna drew upon both Western thought (including René Descartes, Isaac Newton, and Herbert Spencer) and Islamic thought to support his arguments. He would write:
"We need to drink from the springs of foreign culture to extract what is indispensable for our renaissance."
Jihad is an important concept in the philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood: jihad refers to the armed struggle to liberate Muslim lands from colonial occupation and, just as important, to the inner struggle that Muslims need to make to free themselves from an ingrained inferiority complex and from fatalism and passivity towards their condition. Jihad is the courage to dissent:
The greatest jihad is to utter a word of truth in the presence of a tyrannical ruler.
The Brotherhood’s appeal to younger people has come in part from its openness to a diversity of Islamic belief and practice. Banna felt that the Brotherhood should focus on basic social and political issues rather than on theological issues. The Brotherhood attracted large numbers of young, educated Egyptians, particularly students.
With regard to type of political system most compatible with Islam, Banna said in 1938:
When one considers the principles that guide the constitutional system of government, one finds that such principles aim to preserve in all its forms the freedom of the individual citizen, to make the rulers accountable for their actions to the people and finally, to delimit the prerogatives of every single authoritative body. It will be clear to everyone that such basic principles correspond perfectly to the teaching of Islam concerning the system of government. For this reason, the Muslim Brothers consider that of all the existing systems of government, the constitutional system is the form that best suits Islam and Muslims.
Following World War II, several members of the Brotherhood, including Banna, ran for parliament, but were defeated in rigged elections. While Banna insisted on nonviolent action, the exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood from parliamentary politics strengthened the position of those who advocated a confrontation with the state.
In 1948, Ahman al-Khazindar Bey, a judge who had given a prison sentence to a Muslim Brother for attacking British soldiers, was assassinated. Banna expressed his revulsion at the assassination. However, the Egyptian government issued a decree ordering the dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood. The government suspected that the Brotherhood was planning a revolution and was also anxious to remove one of the main causes of political unrest in the country. Many members of the Brotherhood were arrested and Banna was kept under close police surveillance.
When a member of the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated the prime minister, Banna again condemned the assassination. He called on members to refrain from violence and intimidation. The new prime minister, however, attempted to suppress dissent with brutal repression, include the systematic use of torture. By July 1949, there were about 4,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood in prison.
The Egyptian revolution of 1952 resulted in autonomy from the British. The Muslim Brotherhood played a supporting, but not crucial, role in the revolution. Under the rule of Gamal ‘Abd al Nasser (1954-1970) many members of the Muslim Brotherhood were held in concentration camps. Here they were often tortured. Outside of the prisons, the Muslim Brotherhood went underground and reorganized.
One of those held and tortured by the government was Sayyid Qutb, the former editor of the Muslim Brotherhood’s newspaper. In 1964 he was released for several months and during this time his book Milestones was published. The book is often described as being anti-Western and anti-secular. He argued that humanity was in the midst of a profound crisis caused by the failure to adopt a value system that could allow human beings to live in harmony. He saw the threat of nuclear war as a symptom of this ailment. He saw Islam as the solution. Human beings, he argued, had erred in allowing themselves to establish their own value systems instead of accepting God’s sovereignty. He appealed to Muslims to form a revolutionary vanguard that would remove the governmental systems that kept the people in ignorance (jahiliyyah).
In 1965, the government accused the Muslim Brotherhood of organizing a revolutionary plot. About 18,000 people were arrested, between 100 and 200 were imprisoned, and 38 were killed while in custody. The raids were accompanied by an intense media campaign against the Brotherhood.
During the reign of Anwar al-Sadat (1970-1981), the Muslim Brotherhood remained illegal. The concentration camps were closed in 1971 and the imprisoned Brothers were gradually released. During this time, members of the Brotherhood advocated the application of Shari’a law. In 1980, the constitution was amended to state that Shari’a is the main source of all legislation.
Under the presidency of Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011), the Muslim Brotherhood was officially illegal, but tolerated. The Brotherhood was not allowed to distribute literature or assemble in public. Despite being outlawed, the Muslim Brotherhood increased its membership and influence.
In recent years, the Muslim Brotherhood has frequently called for greater democracy. In 2004, ‘Abd al-Mun-im Abu-I-Futah told the International Crisis Group:
The absence of democracy is one of the main reasons for the crisis here, in Egypt and the Middle East. The Muslim Brothers believe that the Western governments are one of the main reasons for the lack of democracy in the region because they are supporting dictatorships in the Arab and Islamic region in general, despite the fact that it has been proved that the absence of democracy and freedom is the reason for terrorism and violence.
As the current events in Egypt unfold, so does a new era for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.