Adding to the anti-Muslim Brotherhood frenzy that’s currently consuming much of the American right, Evangelical leader Chuck Colson writes:
The sad truth is that while Mubarak can’t be called a “friend” of the Copts, he at least tried to reign in his and their common enemy: the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is the original and still most influential Islamist group in the world. Its progeny include al-Qaeda and Hamas.
While the Brotherhood has participated in the electoral process, it’s with an eye to creating an Islamic republic at the center of the Arab world. To call the Brotherhood a force for democracy is insane—and dangerous.
In its vision of a society where the Qur’an is the “sole reference point” for the ordering of family and social life, there is no room for the Copts. The Brotherhood has been implicated in the burning of churches, seminaries and Copt-owned businesses, as well as the murder of Coptic Christians.
All of this makes talk about “democracy” in Egypt and “everyone being an Egyptian” a bit premature. It’s not at all clear whether Copts, whose ancestors have lived there since time immemorial, would be recognized as “Egyptians” in a new government.
Before dealing with the specifics of Colson’s argument, I think it’s important to address his assumption that a democratic Egypt would more than likely be ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood. Out of a population of some 80 million people, the Brotherhood only has around 100,000 members. Writing shortly after the uprising began, Scott Atran noted that support for the Brotherhood has been
less a matter of true attachment than an accident of circumstance: the many decades of suppression of secular opposition groups that might have countered it. The British, King Farouk, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar el-Sadat all faced the same problem that Hisham Kaseem, a newspaper editor and human rights activist, described playing out under Mr. Mubarak. “If people met in a cafe and talked about things the regime didn’t like, he would just shut down the cafe and arrest us,” Mr. Kaseem said. “But you can’t close mosques, so the Brotherhood survived.”
If Egyptians are given political breathing space, Mr. Kaseem told me, the Brotherhood’s importance will rapidly fade. “In this uprising the Brotherhood is almost invisible,” Mr. Kaseem said, “but not in America and Europe, which fear them as the bogeyman” (New York Times).
A recent poll conducted by the Washington Institute of Near East Policy shows that the Brotherhood has an approval rating of just 15% and that “its leaders get barely 1% in a presidential straw vote. Asked to pick national priorities, just 12% choose shariah over national power, democracy, or economic development. Asked to explain the uprising, economic conditions, corruption, and unemployment (30-40% each) far outpace ‘regime not Islamic enough’ (7%)” (Washington Post).
Now moving on to Colson’s argument.
First, it’s absurd to lump the Muslim Brotherhood together with such jihadist groups as al-Qaeda and Hamas. Although it’s true that both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were once associated with the Brotherhood, Colson fails to mention that these individuals left the Brotherhood because, as they became more and more radical, their beliefs became incompatible with the group’s. As Robert Leiken and Steven Brooke write, “The Brotherhood is a collection of national groups with differing outlooks, and the various factions disagree about how best to advance its mission. But all reject global jihad while embracing elections and other features of democracy” (Foreign Affairs). The Brotherhood has repeatedly condemned al-Qaeda and other radical groups and has in turn been condemned by these groups (AFP, New English Review, Foreign Affairs).
Colson’s claim that the Brotherhood is against the Copts, that there would be “no room” for the Copts in a Brotherhood-dominated Egypt, is equally absurd. The Brotherhood has long defended Egyptian’s Coptic Christians. Last November, for instance, when an al-Qaeda group declared that all Christians were “legitimate targets,” the Brotherhood, not only condemned this belief, but called upon all Muslims to protect Christians (The National, Xinhuanet). After radicals bombed an Alexandrian church on New Year’s day, the Brotherhood put its words into action and attended “Christmas Masses with their Coptic Christian brethren, serving as human shields against further potential acts of extremist violence on the Christian holy day” (Washington Post, Juan Cole, ABNA). As anti-Mubarak protests began last month, the Brotherhood again “called on prominent members of the Muslim clergy in Egypt to help protect the churches in the country” (Waging Nonviolence, The Peninsula).
While Colson insists that the Brotherhood intends to impose an Islamic system upon Egypt, the group insists that it’s committed to democracy. Last week, it publicly rejected calls by Iran’s Ayatollah Kahmenei for an Islamic revolution, maintaining instead that it “regards the revolution as the Egyptian People’s Revolution not an Islamic Revolution” and “asserting that the Egyptian People’s Revolution includes Muslims, Christians, from all sects and political [sic]” (Eurasia Review).
After spending two weeks talking to members of the Brotherhood, James Traub, an American journalist and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, remarked how struck he was “by their reluctance to impose their views on others and their commitment to [the] democratic process.” As one member told Traub, “We do not want to establish a country like Iran, which thinks that it is ruling with a divine mandate. We want a government based on civil law, with an Islamic source of lawmaking.” Traub proceeds to write:
And just what is an “Islamic source of lawmaking?” Muhammad Habib, then the Muslim Brotherhood's deputy supreme guide—its second-ranking official—explained to me that, under such a system, parliament would seek the advice of religious scholars on issues touching upon religion, though such views could never be binding. A democratically elected parliament, he asserted, would still have the “absolute right” to pass a law the Brotherhood deemed “un-Islamic.” And the proper redress for religious objections would be a formal appeal process in the constitutional court.
Maybe they were lying. But I didn’t think so. More to the point, the Muslim Brotherhood's then 88-member caucus in the legislature studiously avoided religious issues and worked with secular opposition members on issues of democracy and human rights. They all lived together in a hotel, showed up for work every day, and invited outside experts for policy briefings. It was widely agreed that the Brothers took parliament far more seriously than members of the ruling party ever had. (Foreign Policy)
(See also Carrie Rosefsky Wickham’s “The Muslim Brotherhood After Mubarak.”)
Now I don’t write any of this to suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood is a perfectly benevolent organization and that, if it somehow gains power, we should blindly trust it to do the right thing. No group of people, especially one given power over others, should be trusted blindly. But I do think it’s important to understand that the narrative being forwarded by such people as Chuck Colson has almost no basis in reality.
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Some more reading on the Muslim Brotherhood:
- Juan Cole: Fear Not the Muslim Brotherhood Boogeyman
- Christopher Anzalone: The Muslim Brotherhood Myth
- David M. Faris and Stacy Philbrick Yadav: Why Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood isn't the Islamic bogeyman
- Adam Serwer: A Primer on the Muslim Brotherhood
- Yours Truly: Pay No Attention to the Lunatic Right: Why Americans Shouldn’t Fear the Muslim Brotherhood