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Edition 9 Volume 2 - March 04, 2004

75 years of the Muslim Brotherhood

Iran, Egypt and the Ikhwan  - byOlga Davidson and Mohammad Mahallati
No intellectual Arabic thought impressed Iranian counterparts as much as the Muslim Brotherhood during the twentieth century.

From society to political party  - an interview withMustafa Kamal al-Sayyid
Since it was inspired by the word of God, it was above political parties.

Lessons learned and lost  - an interview withGhazi Hamad
The seeds of jihad and the armed struggle are found in its principles.

Faith, freedom and democracy  - an interview withAbdallah Nimr Darwish
The Brotherhood in opposition is not like the Brotherhood in power.

Iran, Egypt and the Ikhwan
by Olga Davidson and Mohammad Mahallati

One of the main themes of the Quran, the holy book of Muslims, is an unequivocal invitation to learn from history across all geographies and cultures. Surprisingly, this is the most neglected lesson among Muslim societies, showing in retrospect why it has been so emphasized in the Holy Book. Governments are perhaps too busy to pay attention to the roots of their own calamities. But one expects that a long lasting organization such as the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood, with all its ups and downs, experiences and zealous care for teachings of religion, should be in a good position to read its own and other Muslims’ history and, while ridding itself of ideological vicissitudes between Left and Right, approach the future through reason and critical revaluation. A brief look at the modern history of Iran-Egypt relations, entangled with various traits of radicalism, will show what a huge asset of experience the Ikhwan has access to.

Iran and Egypt have a long modern day history of political and intellectual relations, almost always to the extreme of passion or revulsion. At the political level the extreme relationship started with the marriage of the last monarch of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah, with Fowzieh, the sister of the last king of Egypt, Farouq, followed by the marriage of the Shah's twin sister, Ashraf, with an Egyptian military officer in the mid-twentieth century. Both marriages failed.

The next leader of revolutionary Egypt, Gamal Abd al-Nasser, fell in political love with Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq, Iran’s popular prime minister, whose policy of oil nationalization in the early 1950s made him a role model for an international movement within the developing world: the non-aligned movement. The next phase of Iran-Egypt relations was colored by the extreme hatred between Nasser and Mohammad Reza Shah after the fall of Mossadeq, followed by a political brotherhood between both countries once Anwar Sadat understood the depth of the hollow promises of relations with the communist bloc. The last Iranian monarch landed in Egypt for good, providing one of several excuses for turning the relationship between Sadat and the new revolutionary regime in Iran into such bitter hatred that even the next generation of leadership in both countries is still bound by it.

This extreme history also had its echoes among the intellectuals of Iran and Egypt from the early twentieth century. Not only did the Egyptian movies go to Iran sooner than the western cinema. Mohammad Abdu and Hassan al-Banna (the son of Abdu’s student and follower), two of the most prominent pioneers of the Islamic movement in Egypt, were highly impressed by the ideas of the Iranian Seyyed Jamaleddin Assadabadi (al-Afghani), known to be the father of Islamic revivalism in modern times, who lived and commenced his political and intellectual activities in Egypt in the course of a few years in the late nineteenth century. No intellectual Arabic thought impressed Iranian counterparts as much as the Muslim Brotherhood movement did during the twentieth century. Fi Zalâl al-Qur’ân, the Quranic exegesis of Seyyed Mohammad Qutb, a prominent mentor of the Ikhwan, became more popular in Iran than any other exegetical work by modern Arab authors. Taha Hussein was well read in Iran as well. And Fadaian Islam, the Islamic fundamentalist organization active in Iran in the 1950s and 60s, was highly impressed by the Ikhwan of Egypt.

Above such a fluctuating and extreme relationship at the political, religious and intellectual levels lies an important truth: it is the heavy cultural and intellectual weight of both parties that makes them inevitably and permanently attractive, interesting and challenging to one another. They simply cannot remain neutral and indifferent. If this is the case, why can’t they learn from each other’s experience--something non-existent among Islamic countries that have so persistently missed the opportunity to look at and learn from their own and their neighbors’ past as well as the experiences of other nations?

The Ikhwan of Egypt has just turned 75. It has been affected by and has influenced Iranian Islamic revivalism. Will it learn from the profound Iranian experience or is it doomed to follow Iran's trials and errors, and continue to fall prey to the web of ideological and emotional politics? The new Ikhwan leadership is well positioned to respond to this question.-Published 26/2/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Olga Davidson is an adjunct associate professor in women's studies at Brandeis University. Mohammad Mahallati is a scholar at McGill University; as Iranian ambassador to the United Nations in 1988 he helped terminate the Iran-Iraq War.

From society to political party
an interview with Mustafa Kamal al-Sayyid

BI: How would you describe the development of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?

Said: The psyche of the Muslim Brotherhood was established 75 years ago in the city of Ismaili in 1928. The organization was never considered a political party because its founder believed that it should remain an association. The late Hassan al Banna, the first Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood, thought that the Brotherhood should include the largest number of Muslims possible. Since it was inspired by the word of God, it was above [the realm of] political parties. Thus, throughout the world, and in Egypt until 1952, the Brotherhood remained a society.

In 1948, it began to represent a threat to the security of the country because its members returned from the Palestine War with guns in their hands. This prompted the government to be quite concerned about what the Brothers might do. For this reason, the organization was involved in a confrontation with the government that led to the assassination of the prime minister and then the assassination of the Supreme Guide by people close to the government.

In a sort of compromise, [the Brotherhood] was able to gain back its legal status. Leaders of the Brotherhood were quite close to the army officers that overthrew the monarchy in 1952, but immediately after the success of the coup, a clash broke out between the Brotherhood and the Free Officers. The Brotherhood wanted, in fact, to have a say in the decisions made by the leaders of the coup in the Revolutionary Command Council, the leading organization of the Society of Free Officers.

BI: When and why was the Brotherhood banned?

Said: The clash with the Free Officers led to the banning of the society in 1954 when the organization was accused of a plot to assassinate President Gamal Abdel Nasser--something that the organization denied. That decision remains in effect today. The society continues to be able to mobilize a great number of people and would like to become a legal political party, but the government practices a policy of being more lenient at times, and other times, cracking down on the organization. The government uses this illegal status to maintain a policy that is flexible and suits its needs.

BI: Why did the Brotherhood change its position about becoming a political party?

Said: The Brotherhood saw that becoming a legal entity would allow it to organize and hold meetings, spread its ideas in the open and distribute leaflets, and therefore to gain more influence.

BI: How has the Brotherhood affected other Islamist movements around the world?

Said: In the wider world, I would characterize the Muslim Brotherhood as moderate--as much as I don't like to use that world. While some organizations view the Muslim community as having strayed from true Islam and therefore something to be fought against, the Brotherhood views Egyptian society as a Muslim society and works inside the society to try to guide these Muslims towards what it see as the true path of Islam.

It must be said that the Brotherhood is the parent organization of most other Islamist groups that exist today. The teachings of al Banna and the early leaders have deeply influenced the way Islamist organizations approach their separate struggles.-Published 4/3/04©bitterlemons-international.org

Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid is a professor of political science at Colgate University. He is also the director of the Center for the Study of Developing Countries at Cairo University.

Lessons learned and lost
an interview with Ghazi Hamad

BI: How did the Muslim Brotherhood affect the development of Islamist movements in Palestine?

Hamad: The Muslim Brotherhood was established in the area as small branches in Jordan, Gaza, Hebron and other places. While the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine succeeded in widening its activities to become the only Islamic movement, it was still not as prominent as the surrounding nationalist movements. This was the 50s and 60s when nationalist trends were stronger and the Islamist trends had been weakened by the activities of [Egyptian President] Gamal Abdel Nasser against the Brotherhood in Egypt and Palestine. The seeds of the Muslim Brotherhood grew very slowly in Palestine.

In 1987, 14 days after the start of the first intifada, the Majlis il Sura of the Muslim Brotherhood held a special meeting to announce the creation of a new body called "Hamas." This was to be the "strong arm" of the Muslim Brotherhood to execute daily activities against the occupation: confrontation, jihad and mobilizing the people against the occupation. But as time passed, Hamas became more prominent and more involved in armed struggle, filling the media and attracting international attention.

BI: Founder Hassan al Banna taught that the Muslim Brotherhood should be an association, not a political party. How is that idea reflected in the group's presence today?

Hamad: The main principle of the Muslim Brotherhood is that they believe in all aspects of Islam. Hassan al Banna wrote in his books of a comprehensive movement, a movement of religion, of sport, of education, a movement for a peaceful solution, a movement of Quran, and so on.

Because of this, the first movement to fight against the British Mandate in Palestine was the Muslim Brotherhood. Gamal Abdel Nasser recognized this. I think that the seeds of jihad and the armed struggle are found in the principles of the Muslim Brotherhood, but at the time of Hassan al Banna, the focus was on education, on teaching people, and in guiding people to understand Islam.

BI: How do you view the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian government?

Hamad: In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has had very painful experiences because it was constantly been targeted by presidents Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, and by the present government--all of them wanting to sideline the Brotherhood.

But the Brotherhood has a clear policy of not opposing the government, and instead acting as a political party and [advocating] participation in elections. The Egyptian government opposes this--perhaps it is afraid of Islam or the Islamic movement and this is why it tries to prevent their meetings and the distribution of their writings, as well as putting them in jail.

Yesterday, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt announced a comprehensive initiative towards reform in Egypt. But I don't know if the government is ready to listen. I don’t think so. I think that Egypt is worried about its relationship with the United States and wants to demonstrate that it is a "moderate" country. This is a mistake and I think that the Muslim Brotherhood can be brought into the political game in Egypt.

BI: Are there specific things that Hamas has learned from the Muslim Brotherhood?

Hamad: Definitely. The problem is that Hamas has become the prominent movement. The reputation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza and the West Bank is in retreat. Perhaps this is a mistake on the part of Hamas. In Jordan, there is the Islamic Labor party, which participates in political life, elections and government, coexisting with a strong body of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Palestine, Hamas has taken over all these roles and the Muslim Brotherhood is minimized. It is a new philosophy for Hamas to take responsibility for such a range of activities. In addition, Hamas has an unstable relationship with the Palestinian Authority. Despite having respect for one another, the two have not succeeded in achieving comprehensive mutual understanding on all the issues--especially the armed struggle and how to fight the occupation.-Published 4/3/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Ghazi Hamad is a Hamas official from the Gaza Strip.

Faith, freedom and democracy
an interview with Abdallah Nimr Darwish

BI: Was the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood, a role model for your Islamist movement in Israel?

Sheikh Nimr: I think the Ikhwan was part of a broader movement that began with the spiritual fathers [of Islamism], Muhammad Abdu, Rashid Riba and al-Afghani, who were my spiritual fathers. They developed modern Islamist thinking among the elites. Hassan al-Banna took these principles into the field, to the street. Anyone who wants to form a popular movement will learn a lot from al-Banna. His methods were so successful that many movements, including nationalist movements, applied them. I mainly learned how to handle myself in the field, how to enter a cafe, how to preach in a mosque, how to debate with intellectuals.

BI: Did you draw lessons from the Ikhwan's clashes with the law?

Sheikh Nimr: In all honesty, anyone who wants to be persuaded by global experience that competition with the regime and its laws does not pay can look at the history of the Ikhwan. A revolutionary who wants to change the world can lead a bunch of rebels. But whoever wants to change society must not make haste. Clashes with the law derive from haste, and shatter the movement.

Had there been a reconciliation between the Egyptian regime and the Ikhwan, Egypt would look different, better. A head of state must consider the interests of the state. A Hamas leader from Gaza can think as an individual about Palestine from the river to the sea. But as a leader he must not think demagogically, but rather cause bridges to be built.

BI: Before turning to Hamas, what about the Ikhwan and Israel?

Sheikh Nimr: As I understand it, the ideology of the Brothers does not oppose building bridges and links with any state but Israel. It's easy to talk about links with Europe and Russia, but hard for them to talk about contacts with Israel. When in power they will see the reality differently; as [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon said, things you see from here you don't see from there. The Brotherhood in opposition are not like the Brotherhood in power.

For example, the prime minister of Turkey is versed in all the values of the Ikhwan. Before taking power I know that he opposed Israel. Now as prime minister he wants to mediate between Syria and Israel. Or Jordan: the Wadi Araba peace agreement [with Israel] was approved by a parliament that included the Brotherhood. They assumed responsibility and behaved logically. And the Saudi peace initiative came from Mecca, center of the Islamic world. So Israel can relax [on this account].

BI: Can you relate to any special issues connected with founding an Islamic movement in a Jewish state?

Sheikh Nimr: In the 1980s there was an illegal attempt to organize that ended with jail terms. Since then we've been born again; we know that a minority must adhere to the law because the law protects minorities.

BI: The Palestinian Hamas movement emerged from the Egyptian Ikhwan. How does this affect the two movements' present and future relations?

Sheikh Nimr: It's no secret that all the movements, large and small, that have been involved in guerilla warfare somewhere--Chechnya, Syria--learned in the school of the Ikhwan. But once they began organizing independently they formulated a separate platform. Hamas began as a military wing of the Brotherhood in the West Bank and Gaza. Then it became independent and political, with Ez a-Din al-Qassam [Brigades] becoming the military wing. Under these circumstances the Ikhwan ceased to influence Hamas.

Hamas argues that it is under Israeli occupation, and is struggling the way the Brotherhood struggled under British occupation. That's why we have also begun to hear [Hamas spiritual leader] Sheikh Yassin talk of a ceasefire for ten years and a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.

If the Brotherhood again become close to these movements they will moderate them, because they do not allow opposition to the regime even when the regime does them ill. The Brotherhood want to be a popular parliamentary movement, and the Egyptian government is considering legitimizing them. If this happens it will serve the entire region. It is no secret that it is the Egyptians who are currently debating with Hamas and moderating their positions, because Egypt is where they all studied.

BI: How do you judge the success of those Islamic movements that have actually gained power?

Sheikh Nimr: The basis for success is faith, freedom and democracy. In Iran they took power, in Sudan partially. In Iran and Sudan the regimes served the poor and the weak, but democracy has not yet developed as it should. Failure in these countries derives from the attempt to strangle opposing views--in Iran the extremists are strangling the reformists--and not maintain the principle of pluralism.

In contrast, in Turkey the movement succeeded and expanded because it knew how to behave with all sectors of the public.-Published 26/2/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Sheikh Abdallah Nimr Darwish is the founder of the Islamic movement in Israel and chairman of the Center for Intercultural and Religious Dialogue in Kafr Qassem.

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