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Why the Muslim Brotherhood will not die

The hegemonic influence of Islam in the Arab world makes efforts to eradicate Islamist parties impossible

May 29, 2014 1:15AM ET

On May 17 the commander of a breakaway Libyan military force, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, vowed to purge the Muslim Brotherhood from the country. His comments echoed a growing disdain for Islamist political parties across the region. Since former President Mohamed Morsi’s removal from power last year, Egypt’s military regime has attempted to root out the Muslim Brotherhood by killing protesters, jailing the group’s leaders and activists, declaring the movement a terrorist organization and freezing its assets.

The low turnout in Egypt’s presidential election, held May 26 and 27, indicates that crushing the Muslim Brotherhood did not translate into political credibility for candidate and former army chief Abdel Fattah El Sisi. After nearly 11 months as interim military leader, Sisi has presented himself in this election as the only viable political actor capable of steering Egypt out of the current turmoil.

The military justified the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood as a way to stop the Islamicization of Egypt. But references to Islam as the religion of the state and to Sharia as a source of legislation, as seen in the 2012 constitution and under previous regimes, are still present in the new constitution. As long as Islam remains a significant feature of the state, Islamist parties will continue to present themselves as political alternatives to secular groups. It is therefore improbable to think that the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, and political Islam in general, will be eradicated.

Besides, the influence of the Brotherhood is not limited to electoral politics. It is first and foremost seen as a social movement. In the last half century, in addition to political agencies, the Muslim Brotherhood built social networks, associations and educational, cultural and welfare programs across the region. In Egypt, when the Brotherhood created the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, with a renewed focus on electoral contests, the party’s younger members warned against the risks of losing the movement’s holistic approach. Their fears proved justified. Once in power, the FJP failed to gain the trust of other Egyptian political forces. Its leaders looked more eager to secure their political position than to advance the causes of the revolution.

Muslim democracy

Despite such growing skepticism about its political agenda, the Muslim Brotherhood remains deeply embedded within the fabric of Egyptian society, and no military repression can crush sympathizers as easily as it crushes a political movement. Even after outlawing the group, jailing its militants and continuously repressing its activities, previous Egyptian leaders including Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak could not eliminate the Brotherhood. There is little probability that Sisi’s military regime will. As it did in the past, a heavy-handed crackdown on the movement’s social networks would make them martyrs, inadvertently benefiting the group.

In addition, in the Arab world, political Islam is not the monopoly of Islamic parties but also a foundational element of nation-states. Although most of the founders of Muslim-majority countries were secular, they all included Islam in the state apparatus, spurring its politicization by turning it into a modern national ideology, which operates as a common denominator for all political forces, secular or otherwise. As such, political Islam should be understood in a broader context that goes beyond Islamist political ideology or Islamic parties.

In my recently published book, “The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity and the State,” I argue that both the state and the Islamists have been instrumental in politicizing Islam. Political Islam, broadly defined, includes the nationalization of Islamic institutions and personnel under state ministries and the use of Islamic references in law and national education. 

Until all political actors start questioning the hegemonic status of Islam within their states, there is no reason to predict an end to political Islam.

Contrary to its manifestation in the West, modernization in much of the Arab world did not lead to the privatization of religion. Rather, the creation of national identities resulted in the politicization of Islam in ways unprecedented in premodern Muslim societies. In other words, modernization within Muslim states did not backfire because Islam does not separate religion and politics. Instead, the nation-states that were built upon the political ruins of the Ottoman Empire included Islamic tradition in their state-building process. For example, Turkey is the outcome of Kemal Ataturk’s authoritarian homogenization project associating former Ottoman lands with the Turkish language and the Sunni branch of Islam. While Ataturk secularized the public space by removing all Islamic signs and the inscription of Islam from the constitution, Christian groups were not acknowledged as legitimate components of the new nation and therefore did not benefit from state funding for clerics, places of worship and education in ways that Sunni Muslims did. This fusion between national identity and Islam, although multiform, characterizes the majority of Muslim countries.

In the process of state formation, political leaders redefined Islam, creating what I call “hegemonic Islam,” in which one dominant religion is given exclusive financial, material and political privileges that are denied to all other religious groups. This discriminatory use of law and connection between Islam, nationality and citizenship deeply politicized Islam. In all Muslim countries except Senegal and Indonesia, places of worship, clerics and Muslim institutions are all state-owned and -controlled; other religions are at best ignored and at worst persecuted. Laws are passed to limit conversion. While criticism or even the questioning of Islam is seldom tolerated, sanctions for blasphemy vary from a fine in Turkey to a death penalty in Iran.

Scholars and pundits often blame Islam for the lack of democracy in Muslim countries. However, it is important to understand that hegemonic Islam is not the only or even the major cause of stalled democratization within Muslim societies. Education, economic underdevelopment, unemployment and urbanization are among the factors fueling political grievances in the region. Still, the hegemonic influence of Islam must be acknowledged and confronted during any consolidation of democratic advances. Ironically, hegemonic Islam rarely forms the basis of contentious disputes between Islamists and secular politicians. As such, until all political actors start questioning the hegemonic status of Islam within their states, there is no reason to predict an end to political Islam. 

Jocelyne Cesari is a senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University; the director of the Islam in the West program at Harvard University; and the author of “The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity and the State.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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