- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

With eruption of public protests in Egypt against and the government’s antidemocracy crackdown, public attention has focused on the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood is a transnational organization, established in Egypt in 1928, which aims to take over the Islamic world. Its goal is establishing a Caliphate, a religious militarized state, as the base to wage war against the “infidel” West. The Muslim Brotherhood today is the best-organized political force in many Arab countries.

The hasty promotion of democracy may bring the Brotherhood to power in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and elsewhere. While some in Washington are ready to accept this risk, it may entail dangerous unintended consequences.

It is important to understand the political thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood, in hopes of shedding some light on an issue many people in the world need to understand.

Unlike Western democracies, which guarantee the political participation of all citizens regardless of ideology, opinion or religion, the Brotherhood makes political participation of individuals in society subject to the principles of Islamic holy law (the Shari’a). While in the West, the legislative and judiciary branches of government monitor state actions to ensure they conform to democratic rules, the actions of the state would be monitored by the Brotherhood to ensure they conform to the rules of Shari’a.

The Brotherhood guarantees freedom of belief only for the followers of the three revealed (Abrahamic) religions. The Brotherhood’s position on religious minorities can be summed up by its insistence a non-Muslim can never become president and non-Muslims will be subject to the Shari’a principles on which the entire legal system will be based.

While Western democracies guarantee absolute freedom of the individual as long as it does not impinge on the freedom of others, the Brotherhood limits the freedom of thought within the strict parameters of a code derived from the Shari’a. The Brotherhood calls for restoring hisbah, which allows a private citizen to prosecute any individual who commits an act he considers a breach of the Shari’a even if the plaintiff himself was not personally injured by it. The right of hisbah was recently exercised by a private citizen in Egypt against respected intellectual Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, whose writings he considered counter to Islamic teachings. The court found for the plaintiff, ruling Abu Zeid an apostate and ordering him to divorce his wife.

In Western democracies, women enjoy the same political rights as men. But as far as the Muslim Brotherhood is concerned, women’s political participation would be limited to municipal elections. There is no question, for example, of a woman ever becoming head of state. To further marginalize women and exclude them from any meaningful public role, the Brotherhood calls for educational curricula to include material appropriate for women, tailored to suit the female nature and role and insists on complete segregation of the sexes in classrooms, public transportation and the workplace.

The organization calls for an economic system based on respect of private property. At the same time, however, it insists the system be based on the principles of Islamic Shari’a, which criminalizes charging interest on borrowed money, as by banks. They also call for state ownership of public utilities.

Contrary to the democratic governmental system, based on peaceful rotation of power by elections, the Brotherhood calls for a government based on the principles of Shari’a and the revival of the Islamic Caliphate.

The freedom of association enjoyed by civil organizations in a democracy would, in an Islamist system, be conditional on their adherence to the strictures of Shari’a.

The Brotherhood opposes the notion of a state based on democratic institutions, calling instead for an Islamic government based on the Shura (consultative assembly) system, veneration of the leader and the investiture of a Supreme Guide. In this, they are close to the model established by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran, which enables diehard conservatives (a group to which the Supreme Guide belongs) to nip any reform or renewal in the bud.

Over the last 57 years, the Brotherhood has opposed all attempts for a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The organization will never recognize the legitimacy of Israel.

The Brotherhood calls for a constitutional and legal system based on the principles of Shari’a, including cruel corporal punishments in the penal code (stoning, lashing, cutting off the hands of thieves, etc.). The Muslim Brotherhood has never condemned use of violence against civilians, except when directed against Muslims.

Finally, modern progress is realized by two tools, science and modern management. These are two disciplines of which the Brotherhood has not a vaguest idea. Instead, it promulgates a retrograde ideology, which can be deadly for sustainable economic development, growth in investment, and equality.

Promoting democracy in the Middle East is an imperative necessity for all humanity. Given the right steps, the peoples of the Middle East (as Professor Bernard Lewis repeatedly expounded) are capable of flourishing democratic societies. However, a hasty transformation is likely to be disastrous for the forces of progress in Egypt and in the Middle East.

Tarek Heggy is a political analyst in the Arab world and an international petroleum strategist.

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