The Muslim Brotherhood

~ of Muslim Brotherhood

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  • Age: 95 (born December 31, 1927)

The Muslim Brotherhood Facts and Information

The Rundown

Like Psy, faux-fu, and coffee-flavored enemas, the Muslim Brotherhood is constantly misunderstood. The Muslim Brotherhood especially tends to get a bad rap in America because in America religion is completely divorced from politics. Also, there is no such thing as “religious conservatism” in America.

With the recent assumption of the presidency of Egypt by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization’s heavy role in post-Mubarak Egyptian politics, and the heavy role of the Syrian version of the group (related only in name to the Egyptian branch) in the anti-regime politics of that Middle East state, it might be a good idea to tease out who the hell the MB actually is and where they came from. This is important because the demonization of the group at large obscures the nuances of the historical internal differences within the group itself with a lot of the bad shit going down being perpetrated by funky splinter groups from the original organization. Oh my dayum.

Where They Came From
The original, old-school Muslim Brotherhood, goes all the way back to 1928 when Hassan al-Banna, an Egyptian schoolteacher who was upset about the secular trends in Egypt’s intellectual circles decided to form a kind of Boy Scout-esque youth group to woo young people away from these non-religious guys. Important! Egypt was at this time a monarchy with a king who was basically a stooge of the British who controlled the country because of the Suez Canal and various other reasons. There was a lot of resistance to the British (revolts against their heavy-handed presence broke out in 1919) and within this opposition, there were a lot of different strands. What al-Banna was addressing was the void of religious groups involved in this. Al-Banna had worked and lived in northern Egypt and seen the effects of European imperialism first-hand. If the secular fools weren’t having any luck, maybe a little devotion to Allah would help move things along?

Hence, the MB. It was really a youth club with a big focus on moral and social reform and networks of information, communication, and so-on. As more and more people joined, the group, as it would later, became a substitute for all the civil society stuff that Egypt, under British dominance, lacked: charities, youth sports clubs, orphanages, schools, soup kitchens, welfare networks, etc. Al-Banna himself defined the group as pretty much an all-inclusive movement: “a Salafiyya message, a Sunni way, a Sufi truth, a political organization, an athletic group, a scientific and cultural union, an economic enterprise and a social idea”, as he put it.

But the MB stayed out of mainstream politics until 1939. Why? We need some boldface.

Important! An Anglo-Egyptian Treaty was negotiated in 1936 that was seen as, as usual, wildly unfair to Egyptians (it was). Political tensions heightened. Also, there was a major Arab revolt going on in Palestine (It wasn’t Israel until 1948, commenters. Back off.) known as the…Arab Revolt. MB members and other volunteers from Egypt made their way there to battle the Zionists, which became habit-forming. All this meant more direct political engagement since the king was seen as weak and doing nothing.
Why a religious group though? Because religion is an easy draw. The MB’s contemporary, the Zionist movement was doing much the same thing, if you want to think about it that way, so al-Banna was not doing anything out-of-the-ordinary.

By 1940, there were over 500 branches of the MB around Egypt. Their popularity was boosted by more bonehead British shenanigans. For example, in 1942 with the Germans advancing, King Farouq was going to appoint an anti-Brit Prime Minister. No, no, no, chap. The British “ambassador”, nicknamed “Actual Power”, had the palace surrounded with tanks and gave the “King” an ultimatum: abdicate or choose a pro-British PM”. Needless to say Actual Power was obeyed.

This did little to endear the Egyptian people to the British. Or the King.

Important! 1948! Israel appears! Egypt’s forces, which included MB volunteer units, get their asses kicked, partly because of shitty weapons bought by corrupt members of the government. The King is blamed and everyone wants to get rid of the dude, Nasser and MB members alike.

By this point the MB could boast half a million members, not too shabby. In keeping with his habit of rule, which meant making every bad decision he could possible think of, the King had the PM ban the MB in 1948. This Prime Minister is assassinated soon after. MB? No one is sure. In early February, in a move seen as a retaliation for the PM’s death, Al-Banna gets whacked.

This sets the tone for the next several decades of bad vibes between the MB and various Egyptian governments. Initially, though, the MB supported Nasser’s coup against the shitty King though the group didn’t play an active role in the deposition since its new leader had explicitly called for a non-violent approach.  Post-1952 coup there was a brief period of cooperation between Nasser’s government and the MB but the latter got pissed when Nasser secularized education and began a land reform, both of which disenfranchised religious institutions and landholders. After a few attempts on Nasser’s life attributed to the MB, Nasser jailed around 4000 members and executed a bunch. This continued well into the 1960s and the group was banned outright and significant figures such as Sayyid Qutb were put on trial publicly and then executed.

Important! The late 1960s, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (or the Great Israeli Walkover, as it is known) is a convenient marking-off point, saw a growing interest in religious movements in the Middle East since the humiliating Arab defeat by the Israelis pretty much revealed how lame socialist and secular nationalist alternatives actually were. Just as religious facets came to the fore in Israel at this time, calling for the settlement of biblical Judea and Samaria (the recently captured West Bank and Jerusalem), so too did religious conservatives and thinkers in the Islamic tradition begin to rethink approaches to dealing with contemporary matters. Sayyid Qutb, who definitely deserves boldface, was one of these thinkers and he became, after his execution by Nasser’s regime important. An MB member of long-standing, Qutb had spent some time abroad in the US where he was shocked by the racism there and what he saw as sexual depravity. Obviously, something was wrong with the West. He came up with the idea that the world was divided into two: real Muslims and ignorant people. He included Nasser in the second group which might have gotten him whacked in a philosophical sense. But, Qutb had a nonviolent approach in the beginning but was eventually pressured into adopting a jihadi stance by his followers before his death.

The 1970s: Nasser dies in 1970 and Anwar Sadat succeeds him. Sadat, who knew al-Banna in his youth and who had been used by Nasser to reach out to Islamic circles in Egypt, was known as the “Believer President”. He went against the grain by releasing MB prisoners and encouraging the formation of Islamic Groups. This lackadaisical approach to Islamism encouraged more radical elements following the teachings of people like Qutb to split off from the main MB group and form their own movements and begin moving violently against the government. Why?

Important! The 1970s was not all about bell-bottoms, moustaches, and awful music, it was also a period of economic zaniness and big political shifts in the Middle East. Sadat was intent on drawing closer to the United States and was going well out of his way to make peace with Israel, a quest which ended with the much-criticized Camp David peace agreements in the late 70s. There was simultaneously happening a big economic to-do in Egypt when Sadat’s government stopped its subsidies for basic necessities and the price of bread skyrocketed (all part of his economic program, called al-Infitah in Arabic)

There were riots, strikes, and Islamist splinter groups, whose numbers were always increasing since the MB was seen as wishy-washy and useless, began attacking nightclubs, movie theaters and other symbols of the West. Remember: not the MB, but the splinter groups.

Realizing that maybe he shouldn’t have released all these guys and supported the rise of political Islamism, Sadat moved against them and arrested thousands of people, took over mosques and cracked down on anti-government activities. Too late! Sadat gets assassinated in October 1981 during a military parade by members of Al-Jihad, a MB radical splinter group.

The Mubarak, or Moobie, era begins. Now, Moobie moved heavily against the MB and the radical Islamist groups, recognizing Sadat’s poor decision-making with regards to these guys. There was repression, arrests, etc., but the MB managed to hang on semi-covertly underground, which the government allowed to happen, turning a blind eye as long as nothing nasty was being planned against the regime. Remember, the MB is still basically a social-political organization, the stand-in for the civil society that Egypt didn’t possess. It remained true to these basic doctrines throughout the 1980s and 1990s, quietly extending its charitable networks and social work, growing popular with student activists and with the lower classes in general. Repression meant no real political participation, but with Moobie’s nod, some members began campaigning for seats during legislative elections. This was done as individuals, not as blatant members of the MB. That just weren’t gonna happen.

During this period, radical Islamist groups were doing bad things in Egypt, killing tourists and things like that, but all this did with regards to the MB was continue to highlight their moderation and practical approach to politics. Remember, the MB has always been a national, Egyptian organization with little interest in what was going on elsewhere. Their interest has always laid in the concerns and welfare of the Egyptian people, it was the radical splinter groups, the ones who left the MB precisely because it wasn’t radical enough, who were responsible for the violence in Egypt and elsewhere. Because of their focus on domestic issues and their extensive social and charitable work, the MB, yes, yes, yes, still a religious organization, became very popular amongst the Egyptian population.

Important! Moobie was a dictator. People did not like him. The MB was a nicer alternative. Thus, in the 2005 elections with MB folks running as independents they won around 20% of the seats in Parliament. Despite the best repressive efforts of Moobie and Co., the MB via its individual members became the first real and sincere opposition group against the Egyptian regime. They went on to surprise (mostly American) observers by being shockingly non-jihadist and extremist, mostly because they have never been, and comported themselves quite sensibly and campaigned against the lifting of Egypt’s eternal “emergency laws” and greater freedoms for the press, among other issues.

Outside the circles of official corruption and providing civil society to Egyptians meant that when the moment came, their popularity would serve them well, despite protestations against their ever-present theological foundations by states like Israel and the United States who have no conservative religious strands.

Arab Spring! Moobie is outta there. The MB is officially made a legal political party after supporting the revolution against Moobie and his evil cronies. A new political party emerged from the MB, The Freedom and Justice Party, which won about 1/3 of the votes in the 2011 parliamentary elections. And, just to show how hilarious history can be, the MB candidate for the Egyptian presidency, Mohammed Al-Morsi, won! Zounds!

There’s been a lot of hot hair expended about the MB as a radical, Islamic organization bent on turning the entire world into a giant Muslim caliphate controlled by, among others, the American president. Whatever. Even a brief look like this at the history of the movement shows its practical approach and oppositional stance to a number of dictators during its history. Yes, radical and often violent groups have emerged from the group, even now there are right-wing ultra-conservatives within the group agitating for all kinds of nasty things and they may yet split off as well, but it’s important to keep in mind that these groups split off from the main group precisely because the MB is seen as too moderate.






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