Joas Wagemakers, an Associate Professor of Islamic and Arabic Studies at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Utrecht University, recently released The Muslim Brotherhood: Ideology, History, Descendants. EER was pleased to interview Dr. Wagemakers recently about his book. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
EER: What are the main events in forging the Muslim Brotherhood and what were the distinct characteristics of the ideology in that early phase?
JW: There was no real main event that triggered the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood, but there were several trends in operation at the time that contributed. One, very importantly, was the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924 by the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic. This led to a lot of soul-searching among Muslims. Some were happy with this; many more were not. The question became: If the governing authorities are not going to implement Islam any more—as they had done for 1,300 years before that—who is going to be responsible for this? The Brotherhood arose in this vacuum, mimicking the structure of a state with one leader to whom members swore an oath of fealty (bay’a) and so on, and the group began to conceive of its mission as holding the state to account on the basis of Islam. The second thing, which endured before and after the founding of the Brotherhood, was British colonialism. The British had occupied Egypt from 1882 onwards, initially for economic reasons, and later becoming more assertive in the political and security realms. This was particularly evident to [the Brotherhood’s founder] Hassan al-Banna because he had worked there as a teacher in the 1920s, a city where British troops arrived in Egypt from the Mediterranean Sea.
Those two events—the fall of the Caliphate and the foreign, Western occupation—were the major galvanic factors in the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood and shaped its basic ideology. In terms of the ideology, the Brotherhood sees its role as propagating Islam; their definition of what that means is very broad. I’ve worked a lot on Salafism, which is very much about the theological and legal details. The Muslim Brotherhood is not like that. I’ve spoken to leaders of the Brotherhood and asked them about specifics of their version of Islam, and they either would not or could not answer; it just is not a major concern to them. So, that’s on the one hand, their message in response to the demise of the Caliphate, and on the other hand they are very anti-colonialist, which sometimes expresses itself in anti-Western sentiments. That has been toned down a lot in recent years, but one place where this still finds expression is on the Israel-Palestine dispute, where the Brotherhood is a staunch advocate of the Palestinians.
In a nutshell, that is where the Muslim Brotherhood comes from and what it stands for.
EER: Has the ideology and goals of the Muslim Brotherhood evolved much over time? It is often said the Brotherhood wants a Caliphate, but the details of what that means and how they get there seem fuzzy: was this always the case, or is it a product of the realization that there will be a long delay before the fulfillment of any such project?
JW: Yes, to both, really: it has always been fuzzy, but it has evolved, too. The main slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood basically throughout its entire existence has been: “al-Islam huwa al-hall”; “Islam is the solution”. That, obviously, is a very vague, populist type of slogan. It gives the impression that whatever the problem is, there is an easy solution and it is always the same solution: Islam. The Brotherhood applies this whether the problem is economic, political, social, psychological, what have you, and they may really mean it—I believe they do—but it does not make for a very good political program or manifesto that can be taken to voters. So, it has always been very vague, and this meant—in combination with the fact that in the early days there were also not many other groups engaged in this kind of Islamic activism—that very diverse sets of people were drawn to the Brotherhood. This was not just in terms of class or professional occupation or educational levels; it applied to people along a widely various religious spectrum. Those who had a more nebulous desire for Islam in some form to be incorporated into the state structure and society, and those we would now call Salafists who had a very detailed idea of what this should entail, could gather under the Muslim Brotherhood umbrella, and because the Brotherhood remained in opposition for so long—experiencing serious repression, not only in Egypt, but Syria and elsewhere—it could afford to paper over these differences to keep the group together. That strategy only broke down quite recently, when some governments began engaging the Brotherhood in the political process and then over the last decade when the Brotherhood began acquiring governmental power in various states, because the Brotherhood started having to make decisions on certain issues, which exposed the fissures and rifts within its coalition.
As for the ideology, it has definitely changed. I wouldn’t say that the Muslim Brotherhood has ever really supported the resurrection of the Caliphate. If you look at the writings of Hassan al-Banna, he does talk about the Caliphate and he does want a Caliphate, but the way he describes it is very different from the Ottoman Caliphate that was dissolved in the 1924. He basically talks about a Commonwealth—to talk in British terms—of Muslim states, or a League of Muslim States. What Al-Banna definitely wanted was an Islamic state, and in the first few decades of the Brotherhood’s existence that was very much framed in terms of the old Caliphate: it was no longer a Caliphate in the sense of an Empire, but the trappings and characteristics of the old Caliphate were applied to the individual states. The Muslim Brotherhood since the 1970s has moved away from that, and since the 1990s and 2000s the Brotherhood has moved away from even the idea of an Islamic state. They now talk about a civil state with an Islamic authority, which is different in that it does not strive for the full implementation of Islamic law in the sense of the exact rulings of the shari’a; they now tend to focus on the purposes of the Holy Law. This is far broader. For example, the Brotherhood sees one intention of Islamic law as having people deal with each other in a just way, and then looks for a way to implement this. This is obviously far more vague, but this gives the Brotherhood more flexibility—there are more solutions that can be considered acceptable, and it is more ecumenical, allowing the Brotherhood to gain support for its proposals from a larger number of people. One of the things I try to do in the book is show how the ideology has changed. It is simply incorrect to view the Brotherhood through the lens of a body of work written by someone who died nearly seventy-five years ago, when the group so clearly does not value these texts so much anymore; they do not apply them and have violated several of the things Hassan al-Banna stood for. It would be like judging the modern Conservative Party in Britain by what Winston Churchill said in the 1940s; everybody would understand how ridiculous that was, but sometimes this is still done with the Muslim Brotherhood.
EER: Is the Muslim Brotherhood’s outlook compatible with liberal democracy, or is its version more majoritarian and restrictive when it comes to social and minority freedoms?
JW: There are some of its members who do not accept democracy and prefer the Qur’anic term shura, meaning mutual consultation, which is basically democracy within the confines of the shari’a. In practice this would mean that a question like drinking alcohol is outside the realm of democratic debate since the shari’a clearly bans it (though, of course, many Muslims drink alcohol). To say that that the Muslim Brotherhood has become “liberal democratic” would be a bridge too far. Most of them talk about “democracy” and “shura” as if they are equivalent, or just do not talk about “shura” any more and only talk about “democracy”.
However, your question was phrased very precisely, and there is a difference between democracy and liberal democracy. On things like freedom of the press, the Brotherhood on the one hand advocates this, but on the other hand, when it comes to issues like blasphemy or mocking Islam or mocking the Prophet they take a somewhat different view. An interesting example could be seen a few years ago when terrorists murdered the staff of Charlie Hebdo, which had published cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. The Brotherhood in countries like Jordan condemned the terrorist attacks at first, but a few days later began caveating the condemnation of violence by saying Charlie Hebdo never should have published the cartoons. A few days after that, the Brotherhood was framing the event as part of a “war on Islam”. So, when it comes to free speech—accepting commentary or caricature that hurts their feelings or offends religious sensibilities—that is something the Muslim Brotherhood has difficulty dealing with.
EER: After the Arab spring, the Muslim Brotherhood came into power in a number of Arab countries through elections and became prominent in the opposition movements, some of them armed, in other countries. What are the main factors behind this?
JW: I think it is important to point out that even in a country like Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was not the first to get involved in the opposition; in fact, it was quite the opposite. Because the Brotherhood had been repressed for decades, it adopted a “wait and see” attitude to the protests. Even after the major demonstrations in Midan al-Tahrir, Liberation Square, in Cairo, calling for the overthrow of the regime, the Brotherhood was offering to mediate between the authorities and the protesters. In Syria, the story was similar: in the lead-up to the 2011 revolution, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood had sometimes sided with the Assad regime, if only to cover its bases and avoid being the victim of mass-killing again, as it had been in the early 1980s. So, the Muslim Brotherhood was clearly not at the forefront of the protests and revolts at the beginning, but once it became clear these were not going to stop the Brotherhood went all-in. The reason they were so successful in doing this is that they had huge networks spread all over the Arab world, it had a hierarchically structured organization, it had cells and departments all over the region, there were hospitals and other clubs (down to football teams) under Brotherhood control—and all of this could be mobilized. What is crucial to note is that the Brotherhood took part in the “Arab spring” and did take part in a movement that overthrew the regime, leading some to surmise that the Brotherhood had dusted off Qutb’s ideas and put them into practice. The reality was that the Brotherhood, in protesting against a long-time repressive regime, was not doing anything different to vast swathes of other Egyptians. In the aftermath of the regime’s downfall, the Brotherhood came out on top because of its superior strength from its large networks and its organizational skill, but, to reiterate, this was happenstance, not conspiracy: the Brotherhood had been slow to get involved in the protest movement, and when it did engage, did so on common ground with their fellow nationals in the various countries, rather than for Islamist reasons.
EER: What has been the main impact on the Brotherhood—its tactics, ideology, and organizational structure—after its setbacks in recent years? Have they concluded that they made mistakes they should learn from, or that the mistake was not going further and faster when they had the power to?
JW: The answer is going to be unclear because it depends which part of the Brotherhood you’re talking about. There were some who saw the opportunity after the “Arab spring” revolts and were determined to make the best of it. This worked reasonably well for a time: in Egypt, a Muslim Brother was elected president and the organization took about half the seats in the parliament. Of course, this all unraveled in 2013. There were other Muslim Brothers who saw early that events were not unfolding as predicted and cautioned that the Brotherhood should unite with as many other reformist forces as possible and not push their specific Islamist program so that there were broad-based answers—and blame—for problems. This was very clear in Jordan, where those who took an inclusive approach may not have won, but at least they still exist, while those who took an exclusively Islamist approach were outlawed. In that sense, the Brothers who pushed for the more cooperative approach won, or perhaps it is better to say, didn’t lose.
The damage to the Brotherhood’s leadership in Egypt has created space for a new generation of leaders who, because the Brotherhood is so weakened, are basically dividing the poverty that they are left with. Ibrahim Munir claims to be the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he’s in London and his authority is challenged by others in Turkey. He does not control the finances of the organization. While the Muslim Brotherhood has always been divided to an extent, particularly since the 1970s when it started entering parliaments, the current divisions are extreme. The Muslim Brotherhood has been here before. They survived the extended crackdown after 1954 by the Egyptian government, a period they call the “mihna” or “inquisition”, and they have survived several bouts like that since. It is always too early to count the Muslim Brotherhood out, but they are definitely in dire straits right now: poor, repressed, and internally divided.
EER: The Muslim Brotherhood obviously has an international presence beyond the Middle East, including what we might call outposts in Europe. How does the Brotherhood conceive of its European bases; are they seen as having a role in attaining power in the Arab world?
JW: I think it’s important to remember that the Muslim Brotherhood did not end up in Europe intentionally, from an ideological commitment to spread their message in Europe. If you look at the writings of Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and the early Muslim Brotherhood ideologues, they were dead set against it. They just did not want Muslims to stay in non-Muslim countries. They obviously looked at the West and Europe through the prism of colonialism, and had a very negative view about the West. Their view was that Muslims should not go to the West, but if they had to, they ought to return to the Muslim world as quickly as possible. The reason the Muslim Brotherhood eventually ended up in European countries is because many of them fled there to escape repression—from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria in particular. One of the best-known examples is Kamal Helbawi who ended up in Britain. Another example is Said Ramadan, who went to Switzerland and eventually to Germany, and also helped out in Britain. There were others. Issam al-Attar came from Syria and went to Germany to set up his own network. Rachid al-Ghannouchi is another one who was not a formal member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but nevertheless ended up in Britain and led Ennahda in Tunisia. These figures were initially very much oriented towards going back home, so never thought of creating enduring institutions and certainly not proselytizing ones. Their aims were to make sure that Muslims, especially students coming from the region, had a place to stay, and that Muslims in these European countries remained “proper” Muslims—retaining their Arab Muslim Brotherhood identity and anti-colonialist nature—so that, when the time was right, they could go back home. But after a while, of course, when they started having children, and these children were being raised in Western European countries, things started to change. There was a realization that they were in Europe to stay. That moment of realization occurred at different times in different places. For example, in France, a very clear moment what the Brotherhood decided to really do something in France, to make a difference in France, was the headscarf issue, after President Jacques Chirac, in the early 2000s, banned conspicuous religious symbols—the skull cap for Jewish boys, the headscarf for Muslim girls, and large crucifixes for Christian children—at state schools. It was at that moment that a French organization affiliated with the Brotherhood really decided to assert itself as a politically Islamic group, standing up for Muslim rights and on Muslim issues, in France itself. Significantly, they changed their name from the “Organization of Muslims in France” to the “Organization of Muslims of France”, suggesting that they had in a way embraced France as their own country.
As the realization set in elsewhere, the Brotherhood groups began asking how they could use their activism—this assertively Islamic activism that has always characterized the Muslim Brotherhood—to shape the situation in a way that was meaningful to Muslims in these societies where they were such small minorities.
The Brotherhood in Europe began to take on issues relating to Muslims, particularly Islamophobia and discrimination of Muslims, those sorts of issues. Also, sometimes halal slaughter and circumcision—issues that sometimes enabled cooperation with Jews. Foreign Affairs was another issue where the Brotherhood found an ability to cooperate with others. This was particularly true in 2001, when NATO responded to 9/11 in Afghanistan, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In Britain, the Muslim Association of Britain, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate organization, cooperated with the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyite group, to protest against the war in Iraq. And obviously, the Palestinian-Israeli issue, which unites most Muslim groups and some other activists.
So, the Brotherhood in the West retains the political activism that they’re well-known for in the Muslim world, but adapts it to try to shape it in such a way that it is meaningful to Muslims in those countries. It’s the same activism applied to different issues.
EER: You would say then that the Muslim Brotherhood and its derivatives in Europe, certainly in terms of command structures, have split off from the networks in the Arab world?
JW: Yes. What I do in the book is try to describe what I think is a useful distinction between the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization and the Muslim Brotherhood as a movement.
The Muslim Brotherhood an organization is present in the Middle East and North Africa, with, at least in theory, one leader, one Murshed Aam, one General Guide, who is always an Egyptian (although the current one lives in London), and you have the local branches in Syria and Iraq and Kuwait, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, etc. These local branches have local autonomy, but when there’s an internal problem, when they need advice, they look to Egypt and the General Guide for counsel. That is a real structure into which all of these local branches are fully integrated. It is not just a common Islamist, anti-colonialist ideology and a common subculture, rooted in Arab anti-colonialist thinking.
The reason I refer to the European Muslim Brotherhood as the Brotherhood movement is because they have the same ideology and the same subculture, but they do not have that same organizational structure. Now, obviously, they have organizational structures of their own—leaders, secretaries, treasurers, and so on. These structures sometimes mimic what they saw in the Middle East. But they are not part of the same sort of overarching superstructure that exists in the Middle East, even if they have personal contacts with Brotherhood members in the Middle East. None of the organizations in the European Brotherhood movement ask permission for anything from the Middle East. The European groups do not call themselves “the Muslim Brotherhood”, and organizationally they are not part of it, even though as a movement they are definitely part of it.
EER: There are a lot of European governments, notably, Austria, France, and more recently Germany that have come to see the Muslim Brotherhood as deleterious to social cohesion and they are trying to restrict the space for its activism and for its proselytism. They are particularly focused on cutting off the international sources of funding, which I guess were mostly in Qatar and Turkey in recent years. What do you make of these laws, do you think they will have the intended effect?
JW: It depends on what the expectation is and what the Muslim Brotherhood represents. For one thing, I think Muslim Brotherhood-type organizations in Europe are actually quite small. Take Britain, for example: the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Britain are not Arabs. Most of them have their origins in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India; countries in Southeast Asia. These populations have brought Islamists with them, and there are Islamist organizations originating from those countries in Britain. The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations do not represent the majority at all. In Germany, most Muslims are of Turkish descent. Again, there are Turkish Islamist organizations, and they sometimes cooperate with Muslim Brotherhood-type organizations, but they also compete with them. The same thing applies to France, where you have all kinds of different organizations. Overall, the Muslim Brotherhood is not actually all that influential in Europe, so if governments think that by cutting off aid or restricting their activities that is going to create a lot of positive effects, I think they may overestimate the Muslim Brotherhood.
EER: A question following on from that. You mentioned that in Britain, a lot of Muslims are Pakistani, or at least subcontinental in origin, and in Germany they tend to be Turkish. There are Brotherhood-like organizations in both those countries among those populations, the Jamaat-e-Islami and Milli Görüş, respectively. You mentioned the Brotherhood both competes and cooperate with other Islamists: How would you say that balances? Are they more likely to form a common front when they find an issue that they really care about, or is the infighting more dominant generally?
JW: To take Milli Görüş as an example, there is ideological overlap with the Muslim Brotherhood, and organizational contacts. They give speeches to one another, that sort of thing, and align on certain issues. I think overall there’s more cooperation than there is competition, but the ethnic dimension is a very serious barrier. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood are usually of Arab descent, with strong sections of North African descent, who are often of Berber (Amazigh) descent. Milli Görüş is not just Islamic but Turkish, and very assertively Turkish. That’s just a completely different approach. So, in that sense, they are competing for different groups and they are competitors. There is no single answer, though, and it would vary from organization to organization.
EER: The Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed in half-a-dozen Arab countries now. Do you think this will succeed in marginalizing them?
JW: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood has always fared well if they had a common enemy, so in that sense, it may help them. On the other hand, of course, they need some sort of platform. The Muslim Brotherhood does have an international structure that was created precisely for a scenario such as this one, where they are repressed in so many countries, to give them an alternative structure to fall back on. But now they’re being repressed in so many countries. So that is definitely difficult for them. I think that the Muslim Brotherhood is really in dire straits right now because of its internal divisions, because of the fact that it’s been outlawed in several countries, because of the fact that they have not had the successes that they liked.
Just to give you two examples. These are not really literally part of the Muslim Brotherhood organization, but they are part of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Ennahda in Tunisia and the Justice and Development Party or PJD in Morocco. The PJD was very successful in several elections in the 2000s, but then in the elections last year, they lost spectacularly. The PJD had tried to reorient itself from an Islamist party to a party focusing on conservative moral values. That clearly did not work. In Tunisia, the situation is very different because in Tunisia the Brotherhood movement group, Ennahda, had come to power. Now, the Tunisian president has basically suspended parliament and the constitution. These things hamper the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood, but as I said, as long as the issues that the Muslim Brotherhood thrives on persist, then it will allow the Brotherhood to mobilize around these issues.
In general, in the Arab world, there will continue to be room for an Islam-tinged opposition, and this will mean there is room for the Muslim Brotherhood. It may be that there is less room for the Brotherhood. I don’t know. As an academic I prefer to focus on the past, rather than make predictions about the future. But I would be very, very hesitant to count the Muslim Brotherhood out precisely because they’ve been in situations like this before. They’re down but not out. Perhaps that is the best way to put it.
EER: Thank you very much for your time.