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The Muslim Brotherhood: Who Are They Really?


By Stephanie Pedersen 

October 17, 2012

The Muslim Brotherhood has received increasing scrutiny globally in recent years, partly for their non-secular approach to politics, as well as for their participation in such monumental political developments as the Arab Spring.

But Who Are They Really And What Do They Stand For?

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) advocates for the principles within the Qur’an as being a means to organize social and political life. Previously banned and repressed in several Middle Eastern nations such as Egypt, the MB has served as a driving force behind political overhauls such as those which composed the Arab Spring and indeed provided a winning a platform for the first democratically elected president in Egyptian history.

Who are they and what are their beliefs?

Founded in 1928 in Egypt by cleric Hassan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood has grown rapidly in recent years and has solidified its position in the emerging democracies of many Middle Eastern nations. While the exact number of the Muslim Brotherhood’s membership is unknown, it is known to have members in 70 countries across the globe.

The MB is both a political and social movement that advocates moving away from secularism and toward a political and civil society that is organized by the principles outlined in the Qur’an, including the implementation of Shariah law.

Louay M. Safi wrote an article for The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences in which he describes Shariah law as, “a comprehensive system encompassing the whole field of human experiences. It is not simply a legal system, but rather a composite system of law and morality.”

Shariah law regulates and guides all aspects of life from politics and economics to personal issues of marriage, family, diet and hygiene and is meant to provide a guide for all things concerning morality.

Egypt’s new President Mohamed Morsi has promised to implement Shariah law as his, “first and final” objective.

But as noted in an article by Tom Perry for Reuters, “he has seldom spelt out what that would mean for Egypt, where piety runs deep and the constitution already defines the principles of Islamic law as the main source of legislation.”

As such, Morsi has recently been under fire by religious conservatives for being too lenient on important issues, the most recent being his decision to agree to a $4.8 billion IMF loan. Controversy surrounding the loan emerged as Islamic law prohibits loans which have interest as being forbidden. The Salafist critics question that if Morsi is willing to ignore this important aspect of Sharia law, what else is he willing to forgo?

Application of Shariah law is also controversial in and of itself. A 2008 report posted on the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s website submitted to the United Nation’s Human Rights Council states that, “Under Shariah law, Muslim women and non-Muslims are not accorded equal treatment with Muslim men. The Shariah, therefore, fails to honour the right to equality guaranteed under the UDHR [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] and the international covenants, and thus denies the full enjoyment of their human rights to those living in States which follow Shariah law.”

The Muslim Brotherhood has cited Turkey, a more liberal Muslim state, as a prime example for what Egypt should try to achieve. Turkey is a Muslim majority that also has a strong economy with Western ties and high Islamic piety. President Morsi made a trip at to Turkey the end of September to discuss building stronger economic ties between the two countries.

However, Dina Zakaria, a member of the foreign relations committee for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, recently told NewsMaxWorld that, “There are things Egyptian people won’t accept,” referring to the secular nature of Turkey’s Constitution.

Furthermore, while President Morsi has previously encouraged and supported freedom of the press, there have been recent crackdowns on members of the press that have spoken out against or criticized Morsi.

In fact, the end of August saw Morsi arrest and charge two journalists with insulting him and inciting the Egyptian people to overthrow the government. Furthermore, the newspaper al-Dostour is being charged with fueling sedition.

The Muslim Brotherhood has also been the target of allegations claiming ties with terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda exist. Several members of al-Qaeda have been outspoken in their condemnation of the Muslim Brotherhood for the group’s staunch support of the democratic process however, disabusing these claims.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s English website published an article in 2010 by Marwan Bishara about the differences between the MB and al-Qaeda stating that, “al-Qaeda leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri, formerly of the Egyptian Jihad, accused the Muslim Brotherhood of betraying the cause of Islam and abandoning their ‘jihad’ in favour of forming political parties and supporting modern state institutions.”

Role in Developing Social Programs

Whilst emerging as a political force in the Islamic world, the Muslim Brotherhood has also actively engaged in a number of public works and charity projects. They have run banks, schools, hospitals, social clubs and facilities for the disabled, while at the same time adhering to principles of transparency and accountability.

In Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood recently won their first democratic election via the Freedom and Justice Party, they have been actively working with officials from Cairo’s Catholic Coptic Church to promote charitable programs in the areas of Cairo in which the Coptic Church operates.

However, while members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been working with the Catholic Coptic Church, conflicting reports also indicate that there has been a rise in the number of court cases against members of the Coptic Church that have been charged with contempt of Islam. Most of these charges were based on accusations stemming from postings on Facebook or Twitter of Muslim cartoons deemed to be insulting to Islam.

This kind of reaction, backed by many of the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters, also drew headlines internationally last month with response to an incendiary anti-Islam film trailer posted on YouTube breaking into scenes of deadly violence on the streets of Cairo, among other major Islamic cities.

Elsewhere though, women’s rights have been an issue that the Muslim Brotherhood has actively been working on reforming.

An article published on the Muslim Brotherhood’s English website written by Julie Elisabeth Pruzan-Jorgensen for the Danish Institute for International Studies states that, “Islamic women’s activism may appear as a contradiction in terms to Western audiences used to presentations of Islam as counterproductive to women’s empowerment. Yet, in the Arab world many different actors work to enhance women’s participation, agency and authority based on Islamic arguments and references – be that as scholars, as charity and welfare providers, as religious activists or as politicians.”

The results of this can be seen in Egypt where there are currently eight female MPs. While the number is only eight out of 508, which accounts for 2% of the membership and is down from the 12% of MPs that were female in Mubarak’s legislature, these female MPs were elected after the quota laws were removed. This can be seen as a real victory for women’s rights as Egyptian politics has traditionally been male-dominated and these women were able to garner enough political power and support within their constituencies, independent of gender equality legislation, to be elected.

Growing Numbers of Support

The somewhat rocky past of the Muslim Brotherhood has been well documented. Early splintering within the organization led to the assassinations of two important political figures; Hassan al-Banna in 1949 and Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmoud an-Nukrashi Pasha in 1948. The splintering of the organization also resulted in smaller, more extreme groups, such as Hamas and al-Qaeda, breaking off to abide by their own agendas.

However, Ed Husain, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations is quoted on their website as stating that it is wrong for people to make the Muslim Brotherhood “responsible for the actions of its intellectual offspring,” as is often done.

The Huffington Post recently reported on a Gallup poll that showed that Muslim women are just as likely as Muslim men to support Shariah law in countries such as Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Syria, Libya and Bahrain.

Support for Shariah law comes interestingly in conjunction with a 2008 Gallup poll indicating that large majorities in Muslim nations want democracy, specifically 94% in Egypt, 93% in Iran and 90% in Indonesia. Almost all respondents in that poll wanted Shariah law to be one of the sources of law. Significant majorities in the polls from Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh even stated that they wanted Shariah law to be the only source of law.

This would indicate a clear rise in support for non-secularized democratic government; the brand of governance that the Muslim Brotherhood offers to its constituents. The organization appeals to many as a moderate organization that will allow Muslims to participate in political life, but also support and advocate for non-secular issues.