By Dr. H.A. Hellyer
23 Dec, 2014
“Egypt Killed Islam in the West”: Revolution, Counterrevolution and Western Muslims
“Egypt killed Islam in America,” said one Muslim-American of Egyptian origin, who had been involved in Muslim civic activism for years. He was responding to a question I had about Muslim-Americans’ reactions to the various twists and turns of the Egyptian revolution, after the well-known Swiss-Egyptian academic, Tariq Ramadan, had declared that he would boycott a gathering of Muslim activists in Canada, partly due to political differences over Egypt.
The activist’s answer was flamboyant, and likely overestimated the impact of the Egyptian revolutionary uprising and its aftermath on the development of a specifically Muslim-American consciousness. There are a number of different issues in the international arena that mobilise or interest Muslim-Americans, and there have been for many years – Egypt is certainly not the most critical one. But he had a point in noting that Egypt, before and after former president Mohammed Morsi had been ousted, had created two sharply opposing political camps in the Muslim-American community. That point has some currency far beyond the United States, in Canada as well as a number of European nations. In all of them, large numbers of Muslims are discussing the tensions arising from the Arab uprisings that began in 2011—and Egypt is a big part of that discussion.
The stances of those two camps are not only polarising—they are also inconsistent on the issue of speaking truth to power, in the midst of a multifaceted proxy war that remains deeply energised in the Arab world, and against the backdrop of clear positions on the normativity of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamism.
Taking Sides In – And On – Egypt
In the lead-up to the Egyptian presidential vote in 2012, many Muslim community leaders in the West chose sides: backing either the current leadership of the Brotherhood, or well-known opponents of the same. That, it ought to be noted, did not always mean the Egyptian Army, with whom the Brotherhood itself strategically—and eagerly—aligned for much of 2011-2013. In 2012, for example, Ahmed Rehab, the director of the Council for American-Islamic Relations in Chicago, publicly backed a more left-wing, perhaps post-Islamist figure, Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, for the Egyptian presidency. Others, such as the Muslim American Society, made clear their support for the Brotherhood and its associated Freedom and Justice Party. In the United Kingdom, the Cordoba Foundation, led by Anas al-Tikriti, lobbied, and continues to lobby, heavily in support of the Muslim Brotherhood. Others, on both sides of the Atlantic, albeit more privately, argued that such public stances were not in the interests of Muslim communities in the West in any event. The divisions caused some tension within these communities—and while that strain has not resulted in a major, open and public debate among leading figures, it remains, if mostly behind closed doors.
I had seen this split before, albeit in a different manner, in Egypt itself. I had been in Cairo when the uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak began in 2011, and after the military’s takeover in 2013. The schism within Egyptian society is tremendous, particularly since Morsi’s removal—and the price for cohesion is also high. There were those who refused to partake in the polarization, preferring to criticize all actors regardless of political affiliation. Yet, they were few and far between, and increasingly came under fire from both the Brotherhood-led camp and their main opponents. If the space for less partisan positions was small in Egypt, where they mattered the most, it is perhaps unsurprising that outside the country, the proportional equivalent was even rarer.
Outside Egypt, those who rejected what they saw to be a false choice between the bad and the ugly were even more rare—whether before, or after, Morsi’s ouster.
Pro-Morsi Activists vs. Pro-“Stability” Quietists
The first camp, arguably more dominant within that portion of the Western Muslim community that has, even marginally, an interest in Egyptian affairs, essentially supports the “pro-Morsi” position. It is often described as “anti-coup,” an admittedly problematic label considering that the narrative of this camp is more about Morsi’s being driven from power, than opposing the military’s intervention in Egyptian political life per se. As mentioned above, the Brotherhood was more often than not aligned with the military in 2011-2013, and opposed other Egyptian forces that were consistently critical of the military.
The narrative of the pro-Morsi camp is clear—the uprising begins in 2011, continues to parliamentary elections where the Brotherhood won a plurality, is followed by the presidential vote that leads to an Islamist democrat taking office, culminates in a catastrophic military coup¬, and is followed by the massacre at pro-Morsi sit-ins, particularly at Raba’a, some six weeks later. In general terms, this narrative of post-2011 Egyptian politics has been promoted throughout Western Muslim communities by pro-Morsi sympathisers, who seek to reinstall Morsi as president.
The second narrative, perhaps best described as “pro-military,” is not precisely the Egyptian state narrative—but is one that ties in well with that standpoint. This view presents the Muslim Brotherhood as a radical force, meaning repressive measures against them might be regrettable, but excusable. Other restrictions among non-Brotherhood actors, in the midst of the Egyptian “war on terror,” which is the key driver in this narrative, are less so, according to this narrative—but still, fairly understandable.
For a while, these two narratives operated in parallel in Western Muslim communities—not engaging with each other, but with simmering tensions just under the surface. The inevitable eruption came in 2013, at the ‘Reviving the Islamic Spirit’ conference in Canada, the first major Western Muslim gathering after the Raba’a massacre in Cairo, where around 1,000 protesters were killed as the security forces forcibly cleared a largely unarmed sit-in calling for Morsi’s reinstatement. Human Rights Watch and others described it as the largest civilian massacre at the hands of security forces in modern Egyptian history.
Tariq Ramadan, the founder-director of the Research Centre for Islamic Legislation and Ethics in Qatar, fired the first proverbial shot. Ramadan, a Swiss national of Egyptian origin, and grandson of Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna, expressed his opposition to the political stances of Ali Gomaa’, the former grand mufti of Egypt. Gomaa’ had shown full support for the post-Morsi road-map imposed by the military, and would become an open backer of the military’s head, then General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Nevertheless, Gomaa’ also had a large following among American Muslims, particularly those who advocate following a more normative Sunni traditionalism, reliant on the extant schools of law, the traditional theological approaches and the Sufi orders. For years, considerable numbers of Western Muslims had studied under him or his students, and viewed him with a great deal of respect as a prominent Azhari scholar who promoted the methodology of that traditionalism. In that regard, Gomaa’ was an example of how religious leadership has become somewhat subject to the phenomenon of globalization—even more so, due to the internet.
Nonetheless, a significant number of Western Muslims (as well as Egyptian Muslims) who had previously supported Gomaa’ for his religious orthodoxy began to oppose his political positions from 2011 onward. Those who remained convinced Gomaa’ still had to be supported recoiled at Ramadan’s criticisms, leading to more tensions within that particular segment of the Western Muslim community. On the flip side, those who already opposed Gomaa’s religious approach, preferring ideologies such as reformist Salafism (the root of modernistic Brotherhood ideology) or purist Salafism (which many call Wahhabism), agitated against him even more on account of his politics.
Nine months later, Ramadan forced the issue again in an open letter declaring that he would boycott not only the next RIS conference, but also the Islamic Society of North America conference due to take place in August 2014. ISNA is one of the largest Muslim socio-religious organizations in America, and Ramadan critiqued what he viewed as ISNA’s flawed silence on a number of political issues. When it came to RIS, however, Ramadan’s criticism centered more specifically on Egypt, and what he identified as certain approaches that responded to the military’s takeover.
He referred to those promoting a “so-called ‘Sufi’ and ‘apolitical’ trend” that was in fact “highly politicized and too well adjusted to the boots of the State.” No state was mentioned, but it is reasonable to assume that Ramadan was referring primarily to Egypt. Gomaa’ was not mentioned this time, but it was clear that Ramadan was referring to a larger tendency, beyond Gomaa’.
A number of Western religious figures in the Muslim community lined up behind Ramadan’s criticisms, although few of them would take up his position on boycotting RIS and ISNA. Many other community leaders in the United States wrote to Ramadan privately to ask that he take his concerns offline, and privately discuss his concerns with RIS and ISNA. Many did not reply to Ramadan, preferring to prioritize efforts to unify the Muslim community in North America, which would mean having the Egypt issue debated privately. These two conferences remain, for the time being, somewhat contentious, as long as this split on Egypt remains.
While the pro-Morsi camp interprets its perspective as one that is essentially about “speaking truth to power,” particularly with regard to Egypt’s new military-backed government, their opponents have their own critiques.
Opponents argue that the region faces a larger conflict that pits traditional Sunni beliefs against those favouring radical ideologies. Those latter forces find their roots in the modernist Salafism of the Brotherhood, as well as the more purist and radical interpretations of a type of Saudi-style Salafism that informs the Islamic State movement (formerly ISIS or Da’ish) and others. In this perspective, pro-Brotherhood countries like Turkey and Qatar are pushing in a dangerous direction with their support of Islamist movements, while the United Arab Emirates and the current Egyptian authorities are safeguarding the general direction of Sunni Islam in the region, while simultaneously viewing little difference between the likes of the Brotherhood and Da’ish. The critique leads to the second aspect of this division: speaking truth to power in the midst of a proxy war.
Middle East “Proxy War,” Inconsistency, And Geographical Spill-Over
These two camps mentioned above, pro-Brotherhood and anti-Brotherhood may hold their positions quite genuinely—but neither is particularly consistent. Their positions are not unprejudiced, nor are they objective. Rather they flow from clear biases, as opposed to principled independence. They might claim they “speak truth to power,” but the record of the past few years does show a certain partiality.
When the Brotherhood ascended to a more dominant position in Egypt, having won elections and established an alliance with the military in 2011-2013, there was little, if any condemnation of Brotherhood rule from what became the pro-Morsi camp in the West. Nor were there particularly strong objections to Qatari or Turkish foreign policies in the region, which backed pro-Morsi forces in the region.
Returning to the Brotherhood’s normativity and critique of its record: Ramadan’s criticisms, for example, of Gomaa’, the pro-Sisi former grand mufti, are well recorded. His critique of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, however, the Doha-based Brotherhood-linked preacher, remains far more muted. For Ramadan, Qaradawi, despite a number of highly problematic positions, is a fundamental reference point for Western Muslims at large. That is a claim that might fit well within a narrative that posits the Brotherhood as somehow embodying a norm for Muslims. Yet, even though it is true that religious leadership has become somewhat globalized, in a particular way, Qaradawi’s standing in this fashion is not a given for all, or even the majority, of Muslims in general, nor Western Muslims.
Ramadan’s public criticisms of the Muslim Brotherhood between 2011 and 2013 related to what he viewed as tactical errors and imprudent strategies, rather than a denunciation of any malicious actions. He disapproved of the Brotherhood taking a dominant role in the political arena by fielding a candidate in the presidential election in 2012, describing it as a “trap,” and criticised their neoliberal economic policies. Yet, Ramadan did not publicly condemn Morsi’s extrajudicial decree in 2012, the Brotherhood’s sectarianism, or the permissive attitude toward public incitement to violence in and out of power. These shortcomings are critical not only to understanding how Egypt developed between 2011 and 2013—but were also deeply unethical actions. But while his record suggests Ramadan would not have supported the moves, he did not publicly censure the Brotherhood for them.
Ramadan has been far more balanced than many other figures, and is not unique in being caught up in the midst of these regional and ideological divides. Gomaa’, for example, is at least as politically skewed, albeit in a different direction, and far more prolific on these points. There are many other figures who have audiences in Western Muslim communities who are part of the pro-military leadership camp. As part of this proxy war, they are not known to criticize the Emirates’ policies in the region, whether in Egypt or elsewhere. On the other side of the coin, many figures from the pro-Morsi camp receive financial support from government sources in Qatar and Turkey. Certainly, they do not distance themselves from the Qatari and Turkish orbit.
All of these different characters may genuinely believe in their positions. Yet, those positions are difficult to characterize as independent, and certainly inconsistent, unless viewed against the backdrop of a regional proxy war between certain states, such as the U.A.E. and Qatar, as well as particular ideological groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Have prominent supporters of the pro-Morsi cause criticized Qatar for its treatment of labourers, many of whom have died, in the World Cup preparations? Have backers of the Egyptian Army critiqued the Emirates for its recent proscription of several Muslim Western nongovernmental organizations as “terrorist groups,” although evidence has yet to be provided for those designations, beyond past links to Islamists?
Going beyond Ramadan and Gomaa’, the inconsistencies become particularly and very vividly religious, leading to the politicization of religion for partisan ends by both these camps in Egypt. The Brotherhood earned the label of as ‘Tujjar al-din’ (merchants of religion), who would essentially sell religion for political gain, throughout the last four years. Yet, while such politicization of religion was abhorrent to anti-Islamists during Morsi’s era, many anti-Islamists, including religious preachers, shored up support for the new authorities in much the same manner. While the pro-Brotherhood camp arguably used such politicization to more effect and more often, neither side could claim to be immune to the temptation to instrumentalise religion for partisan purposes.
Such partisanship on political issues continues to spill over into Western Muslim communities as well—whether it relates to Egypt, or many other Muslim majority countries.
Speaking Truth to Power and Religious Doctrine
Against this backdrop, one can understand why that particular Muslim-American activist might say “Egypt killed Islam in America.” The claim may be hyperbolic—there are many other foreign policy issues that matter to Western Muslims communities, and often far more so than Egypt. But, perhaps, the real point is that Egypt laid bare particular fault-lines long festering within Western Muslim communities.
There are two particular questions that divide Western Muslim communities, particularly its intelligentsia. The answers to these questions define their political approaches on Egypt, as well as many other political issues. The first is: How normative or ideal, on a doctrinal level, is the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood? Second: What is the appropriate, ethical relationship between religious figures and political power?
The first question is rather straightforward. The intellectual inheritance of the Brotherhood comes through a reformism, formulated through Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, and Hasan al-Banna in the early to mid-20th century in the Arab world. This inheritance is a very specific reaction to the dominant Azhari and traditional Sunni approach to the Islamic sciences. If one accepts the premise that the reaction is correct, then the Brotherhood’s religious approach is the norm and the ideal —in which case, the Brotherhood’s Islamism ought to be considered as Islam in politics, and their religious exponents, such as Qaradawi, are normative religious authorities, who must be treated with respect. If, however, the premise is rejected, then the Brotherhood’s political approach might be treated as any other political ideology, rather than endowed with normative Islamic authenticity. Depending on one’s attitude to the premise, one might have very different attitudes toward the Brotherhood on a variety of levels.
Moreover, even if one does start at that premise of accepting the Brotherhood as somewhat normative, that does not necessarily mean the assessment remains practically applicable in the same way indefinitely. Indeed, many of the early immigrant-established Muslim civil society organizations in North America and Europe were established by those rooted in Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood of the Arab world and Jamaat-e-Islami of the Indian subcontinent. Yet, much of their membership has also departed from such origins. Moreover, there were—and are—other groups that are established on very different religious foundations.
The question of the correct relationship between religious figures and power, however, is far more difficult.
Historically speaking, the Islamic tradition identifies two approaches as normatively acceptable when engaging with power. The first, typified by Imam Hasan, is a forbearing position, designed to avoid a great disaster for the community at large, by engaging in prudent silence in the face of an unjust ruler. In contemporary times, we have seen this approach applied by Indonesian ‘ulema for 31 years, even during the uprising against President Suharto in 1998. This approach was also the one that many Syrian ‘ulema believed they were acting upon with regards to President Bashar al-Assad, for quite some time after the unrest in Syria began.
But there is also the model of Imam Husain, which many Syrian ‘Ulema switched toward as the conflict raged on. This approach sees, at times, that being silent and allowing injustice to fester will actually create far more injustice. That position is an exceptional one, taken by Imam Husain in a very profound manner, and is characterized by vocal opposition to power when power is tyrannical.
Beyond these two approaches, there are harsh warnings in classical Islamic texts about the ‘Ulema al-sultan’ (scholars of the ruler), ingratiated with—and reliant upon—the circles of power, even when the powerful do wrong, with insincere motives. The modern expression of ‘Tajir al-din’ (merchant of religion) may not be the contemporary equivalent, for sincerity may yet be present: but the partisanship of both phenomena is clear. Religion’s instrumentalisation for partisan purposes, regardless of which party it is meant to empower, is fundamental to that expression.
Over the past four years, few people have exemplified the Husaini model of speaking truth to power in the midst of the Egyptian revolution. One prominent example was Emad Effat, a jurist from the Dar al-Ifta, or “the Abode of Verdicts”. Ironically, he served at a time when Ali Gomaa’ was head of the institution. Effat disagreed with Gomaa’s politics—but loved and respected him dearly, according to numerous accounts by his students and colleagues. Reports at the time indicated that military forces killed Effat in clashes with protesters in November 2011. Effat was opposed to the return of the Mubarak regime, deeply critical of the military council of the day, and simultaneously had antipathy to the Muslim Brotherhood. When he died, he earned two titles – Shaheed al-Azhar (the martyr of the Azhar), and Shaykh al-Thawra (the Shaykh of the revolution). Since his passing, no one else has taken up that banner.
No one could. In the years running up to the outbreak of the revolutionary uprising in Egypt in 2011, Effat wrote to his student and revolutionary figure, Ibrahim al-Houdeiby. The contents of that message show clearly how rare the likes of Effat were – and are:
“There are all these good words about respect for Shaikhs, giving them leeway and excuses, but where is God’s right to His own religion? Where is the right of the public who are confused about the truth because Shaikhs are silent, and your own silence out of respect for senior Shaikhs? What is this new idol that you call pressure; how does this measure to Ahmed ibn Hanbal’s tolerance of jail and refusing to bend and say what would comfort the unjust rulers?”
“What is this new idol you invented? The idol of pressure! If we submit to these new rituals, to this new idol, we would then tolerate everyone who lies, commits sins and great evils under the pretext of easing pressure and escaping it. Oh people, these pressures are only in your head and not in reality. Is there a new opinion in jurisprudence that coercion can be by illusion? Have we come to use religious terms to circumvent religion and justify the greater sins we commit? So we use legitimate phrases such as pros and cons, the lesser of two evils, and pressure to make excuses for not speaking up for what is right and surrendering to what is wrong!”
Western Muslim Communities Today
Both the Hasani and the Husaini approaches are persistent refusals to apologize for those in power. There may be times when silence is prudent and other times that call for activism against injustice. In both cases, actively and vocally supporting the unjust ruler is, at least against the backdrop of historically normative Islamic precedent, a priori, and definitively, rejected.
Egypt remains a deeply controversial issue within Western Muslim communities—and the broader Middle Eastern proxy war between Qatar, Turkey, Egypt and the U.A.E. is likely to remain for years to come. While Saudi Arabia was the country that used to fund Muslim communities in various fashions in the West, its support of Western institutions and leaders has diminished tremendously. New infusions of financial support, however, are entering, particularly via Turkey, Qatar and the U.A.E. —and so the effects of the proxy war continue.
Arguably, Western Muslims are not generally given the choice between the Hasani and the Husaini models of activism, past a few exceptions. Rather, more often than not, they are being provided the choice between different types of models of partisanship. As Muslim history makes clear, there are different paradigms to choose from. Rather than choose between the “bad” and the “ugly,” there is still the option of the “good.”
That “good” option would be what Cornell West describes as “prophetic voices,” ensuring a sense of “prophetic pragmatism” whose praxis is “tragic action with revolutionary intent, usually reformist consequences, and always visionary outlook.” All people of faith can recognise the power of that position, regardless of religion. This position would restore Muslim Western communities to that historically normative choice between Imam Hasan’s approach and Imam Husain’s – neither of which means apologizing for power. Rather, it means, above all else, consistency in critique and consistency in speaking truth to power, irrespective of consequences, and absent of partisanship.
Historically, choosing the “good” has not been an easy option, as the histories of Imam Hasan and Imam Husain, as well as many others in history, both non-Muslim and Muslim alike, make clear. In Egypt itself, simply calling power to account, regardless of who is in power, has been limited to a rare minority. Few people stood against the excesses of military rule in 2011-2012, criticized the rule of the Brotherhood in 2012-2013, and now also censure the new authorities in an attempt to hold them to account.
But there is an argument to be made that such an exceptional minority provides a better model for Muslim Westerners to follow in the context of Egyptian politics – and more wider afield. Arguably, it is this model that comes closest to the historically normative religious position of speaking truth to power—always, regardless of whose power politics it interrupts.
Perhaps Egypt did deal Islam in the West a bit of a wound—but perhaps it is a wound that will lead to stronger, more principled communities in the West. What remains abundantly clear is that good examples are rare indeed. Effat, Shaykh al-Thawra, expressed this sentiment best when he wrote:
“Shaikhs of Al-Azhar used to leave their resignations in the drawers of their secretaries and told them: if you see us submitting to pressure then hand over the resignation to the press. When they are honest to God, He makes them victorious and cherishes them.”
If Western Muslim communities can remind themselves of such examples, they would surely be doing many of their religious brethren much farther away a great service, as well as their compatriots in their countries in the West. In that regard, perhaps Western Muslims would start more positively influencing their counterparts in the Muslim heartlands, rather than being negatively affected the other way around – and they can be that creative community of ‘prophetic voices’ at home.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer is non-resident fellow at the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, associate fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and research associate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The author of “Muslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans,” published by Edinburgh University Press, he is a prolific commentator on the politics of the Arab world, Muslim Western communities, and the interplay between Islam and modernity.