By Andrew Harrod, PhD. exclusive to the Religious Freedom Coalition
Egypt’s “Muslim Brotherhood is done,” stated the native Egyptian Copt and Hudson Institute Islamism expert Samuel Tadros on November 2 at McLean, Virginia’s Westminster Institute. Yet his presentation “The Future of Islamism in Egypt” before an audience of about 30 ominously examined how the dangerous ideology of Islamism would continue to outlive repeated failures by the Muslim Brotherhood and other organizations.
Tadros noted that the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists to hold power in various Arab nations following the misnamed 2011 “Arab Spring” popular overthrow of Arab dictators. Accordingly, “people were happy to talk about the end of Islamism,” a “phenomenon that the Arabic-speaking world had suffered from for generations.” Particularly in Egypt, following the July 3, 2013 military overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government, state repression facing the Muslim Brotherhood “today is much larger than anything they have faced in the past,” with thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members either jailed or exiled.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s one year ruling Egypt left a disastrous impression upon Egyptians, Tadros noted, with the discovery that Muslim Brotherhood members “were as incompetent, if not worse, than the ones that they had always rallied against.” “The Islamist slogan from the 1970s and 1980s was ‘you have tried the left and you have tried the right,’” references ideological directions associated respectively with Egypt’s past dictators Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. “Why don’t you try Islam, why don’t you for once give God a chance?” the Muslim Brotherhood had asked; “well, people have, and it didn’t work out,” Tadros stated.
Yet the “world of Islamism is much wider than the Muslim Brotherhood, and it is, of course, older than the Muslim Brotherhood,” Tadros noted. Egyptian Salafi organizations like el-Gamiyya el-Shariyyah, founded in 1913, and Ansar El Sunna Al Muhammadiyah (1926) predated the Muslim Brotherhood’s establishment in 1928. He accepted one former Muslim Brotherhood member’s estimate that there were 20 Salafis in Egypt for every Muslim Brotherhood member, meaning that Egypt had ten million Salafis given an estimated 500,000 Muslim Brotherhood members before July 2013.
Tadros compared the hierarchical Muslim Brotherhood’s rigorous 5-8 year membership process, where the “name brotherhood in Muslim Brotherhood is a real bond of brotherhood being created,” with the grassroots Salafi movement. In contrast, “you wear a jellabiya, you grow your beard thick, and you are a Salafi…no one examines you, there is no process…it is a self-declared profession, you are born again.” Distinct from the Muslim Brotherhood’s strict top-down regimentation, in Salafism “you are a Salafi, I am a Salafi; you interpret, I interpret.”
The Muslim Brotherhood’s demise, Tadros noted, should not mask that “unlike the Brotherhood, which is an organization, Islamism is an idea. It is much harder to completely eradicate an idea than to eradicate an actual physical organization.” He described how the “very basic and simple Islamist idea” evokes past Islamic civilization grandeur and claims that “to return to being great again all we need to do is to go back to Islam.” “That the problem is not Islam, as endless European intellectuals have suggested, but instead that the solution is actually in Islam, that idea still makes sense. The idea that we are Muslims, that this is our identity, still makes sense.”
In reality, Tadros noted, history had demonstrated that
Islamism continues to fail to answer the basic crisis that gave birth to it, the crisis of modernity that the Arab and Muslim world has faced, the crisis of the realization of the Western technological and technical advancement and of the backwardness of the Arab-Muslim world.
Islamism “has not succeeded, yet it is still appealing,” Tadros analyzed. “People emerge every number of years and say, ‘well, the problem is never in the ideology, the problem has been in the implementation’” by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Unlike Communism, “Islamism is not some alien implant into a country,” given that the “very word, of course, is derived from the word of Islam,” but “is deeply rooted in the culture of the region” of the Middle East.
Islam’s cultural predominance means that Muslim Brotherhood opponents like Egypt’s new strongman, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, must maintain Islamic legitimacy, Tadros noted. “As much as the regime wants to target the Muslim Brotherhood, it also has a deep need for, to say the least, conservative religious institutions such as Al Azhar,” the university located in Cairo that is Sunni Islam’s leading authority. Sisi’s regime “cannot portray its war against the Brothers as a war against Islam. If the Brotherhood succeeds in making it Islam versus Sisi, Islam wins.”
While Sisi made a well-received call for Islamic reform at Al Azhar on January 1, 2015, the Egyptian television host Islam Behery misestimated the extent of the regime’s willingness to subject Islam to criticism. His show’s increasing challenge to Islamic canons brought him on December 28, 2015, a blasphemy convictions and one-year jail term. “His story is a cautionary tale about the extent of the regime’s willingness to completely destroy Islamism,” Tadros stated.
Tadros noted that “Islamism is successful because it has not had had any competitors really” and “is operating in a complete vacuum.” American policymakers often speak of being “engaged in a war of ideas,” but “there is only side fighting that war,” as the “Western canon is not translated into Arabic.” Egyptian philosophy students, for example, have never read in Arabic Plato or Aristotle, last translated in the 1920s and 1930s. In contrast, in the 1950s and 1960s “when Nasser crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, these were the high days of Arab nationalism and Arab socialism. Nasser was the hero of the Arab masses across the region.”
Tadros concluded that
as long as there is no competing ideology capable of solving that crisis or offering an alternative answer to the problem, we are going to continue to see an ideology in flux that continues to give birth to new forms that each claim that all the others have failed but we are the ones that will finally achieve history and create the state that will connect heaven and earth.