Babikir Faysal Babikir

The president of the Tunisian Ennahda movement Rachid el-Ghannouchi penned an article with this very same title, in which he intended to read the future of political Islam movements in the Arab region in the light of the removal from power in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood. After highlighting several bursts of life which, in his opinion, deny that the star of this trend is in the descendant, he made the following summation:

This so-called political Islam is not in a state of decline but is currently engaged in correcting its mistakes and preparing itself for a new phase – which will be not long in coming – for a more sober practice of government. It will not be a matter of decades before it returns to make use of the greater opportunities that are awaiting it in an era of open satellite media channels, and to confront revolutionary programs that operate shorn of the cover of values, culture and politics.

El-Ghannouchi went on to say:

The Islamic movement, in its broad lines (and barring some fanatical elements on its margins that can be found in every ideology or nation), puts forward Islam as something that perfects the achievements and virtues of civilisations, and not something that runs counter to every aspect of achievement  and modernisation, such as education for all – male and female. Nor does it present Islam as something running counter to the values of justice and equality, which are rights and freedoms that are to be made available without distinction on the basis of conscience, gender or colour. It grants everyone the right to citizenship, humanity and religious and political freedom, as recognised in contemporary democracies, under the understanding that equality of rights and freedoms are a necessary by-product of the divine ennoblement of mankind: Verily we have honoured the children of Adam [Qur’ān XVII,70].

There is no doubt that the leader of the Ennahda movement is not proceeding from statements and political ideas but from the historical practice that has informed the mentality and the spirit of the modern Islamist organisations that emerged in Egypt in 1928 under the leadership of Shaykh Hasan al-Bannā, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

El-Ghannouchi: Political Islam 'preparing itself for a new phase'

It may be that he is only representing the Ennahda movement which the present writer claims demonstrates particularities which cannot be applied generally to similar movements in the Arab and Islamic region. Such particularities are influenced by its attempts to respond to pressures exerted by the nature of the political and intellectual reality in Tunisia, which is quite distinct from that of a number of other societies.

On intellectual matters, dominating that reality has been the legacy of ‘religious enlightenment’ bequeathed by the leading enlightenment scholars of the Zaitouna Mosque such as Taher ben ʽAshour, and Taher el-Haddad, and the prevailing strong, civic political society which has been heavily influenced by the values of Western ‘modernity’. This stands in stark contrast to the rupture brought about by al-Bannā with the legacy of religious reform led by Muhammad ‘Abduh and other scholars and reformers such as Shaykh Hasan al-ʽAttār, al-Tahtāwī, Qāsim Amīn and ʽAlī ‘Abd al-Rāziq.

This decisive difference is evident in the essential concepts expressed by Hasan al-Bannā. For example, on the question of granting women the right to work and vote, we find him saying:

We reject the rights of election and the rights to a lawyer that the European propagandists and sexual libertines seek to promote since men, whose brains are more complete than women's, have not been able to handle this right themselves; how then can we expect women to handle this while they are ‘deficient in intellect and faith’[1]?

Al-Bannā wrote these lines in 1947, and only nine years later, in 1956, ratified the ‘Personal Status’ Code which became a groundbreaking document in legislation not only across the Arab and Islamic worlds but also on the global level, in that it granted unprecedented rights to women.

Proponents of political Islam steer clear of looking for ‘internal reasons’ for their failure

The Tunisian Personal Status Code was not promulgated ex nihilo, but was the result of preparatory work by an enlightened intellectual movement represented by Taher el-Haddad’s book Our Women in Law and Society published in 1929. It held that the question of women constituted one of the pillars of a country’s progress and at the same time did not conflict with its religious belief.

As for the rights to citizenship that el-Ghannouchi speaks about, Hasan al-Bannā did not believe in these at all. We find him, for example, saying the following:

There is nothing wrong with resorting to non-Muslims when necessary and when this does not concern offices of the state – it matters not what form or nature this takes, provided that it accords with the general guidelines of the Islamic ruling system.

And not only that. Persons such as the ‘Constitutional Faqih’ Dr. Hasan al-Turābī – considered by his supporters to be a great thinker – right up until very recently did not believe in the concept of citizenship. He used to say that it was not possible for a non-Muslim to become head of state, and this at a time when Sudanese society, and its various political and party forces, had already progressed beyond this axiom.

Hassan al-Bannā: 'Anyone who follows this religion must act with force'

In Egypt, however, the former leader and director of the Qutbist trend Mustafa Mashhour expressed, in a rare moment of truth, the convictions of the group when he called for Copts to pay the Jizya tax,[2] and declared that they were to be prohibited from entering the armed forces for the possibility that they would side with the Muslims’ enemies. By speaking in this manner he was expressing the true convictions of a group which continues to cloak itself with the doublespeak of taqiyya (‘tactical dissimulation’)[3], one of the requirements of the ‘empowerment’ stage that would immediately be uncovered on accession to power.

With his words el-Ghannouchi is attempting to deny that the political Islamic trend is a militant one, and confine the term to the margin, while militancy and violence form some of the basic intellectual components of this trend. In most of his books, lectures and articles al-Bannā addressed members of the group as ‘soldiers’, while the ‘military organisation’ constituted the group’s backbone. He did not deny the use of ‘force’ in achieving goals and effecting change. Just consider his following speech:

Many people wonder: does the Brotherhood have a determination to employ force in achieving their goals and aims? Are the Muslim Brotherhood preparing for a general uprising against the political regime or the social system? I do not wish to leave such people confused, and instead will seize this opportunity and unveil an unambiguous, clear answer to this – so let anybody listen who so wishes. ‘Force’ is the slogan of Islam in every system and in all of its legislation, anyone who follows this religion must act with force, and the Muslim Brotherhood must be strong with the strength of creed and faith, thereafter with the strength of unity and cohesion, and after these with the force of one’s right arm and with the strength of weaponry.

Al-Bannā doesn't stop there. Under the title The Ruling of Jihad according to the Nation’s Doctors of Law he cites a militant ruling from the author of Majmaʽ al-Anhur fī Sharh Multaqā al-Abhur[4] which declares jihad on all those who have received the call to Islam – even if they are not aggressors – without criticising this or expressing his differences or any reservations with it. The ruling states:

It is incumbent upon us to inaugurate fighting in Jihad following the communication to them of the call to Islam, even if they themselves are not fighting us. The imam must dispatch a company of soldiers once or twice every year to the Abode of War.

Experience has confirmed that al-Bannā’s view on democracy is their original, firm principle

This intolerance does not stop at the borders of ‘the Other’ who may differ religiously, but goes beyond that to any Muslim who does not belong to the denomination issuing the ruling, and expels him from the community of Islam. After explaining the creed of the group and the stages towards empowerment he goes on to say:

We declare openly and candidly that any Muslim who fails to believe in this creed or fails to act to secure its aims has no part in Islam.

Similarly, el-Ghannouchi states:

More than ever before, Islamists today stand on a more noble and solid footing, one of close cultural, conceptual and credal proximity to the people and ,as in Egypt, they bear aloft the most noble of slogans – such as, the defence of the Will of the People,  and the resort to the ballot box.

But what is the opinion of the Brotherhood’s founding Guide on the issue of democracy? In his essay Our Problems in Light of the Islamic System, al-Bannā states:

If we were to state seriously, openly and frankly our position: we are a tribe of Islamic nations – neither Communists, nor democrats and nothing else of what they claim us to be.

And he does not stop there. He goes on to describe it as something worthless when he adds in his Wednesday talk:

This call of ours is based purely on the Noble Book. You are its sole soldiers, our Noble Prophet is its sole leader; how can we compare these petty, decadent democratic, Communist or dictatorship systems with this system of ours?

Experience in practice has confirmed that al-Bannā’s view on democracy is the original, firm principle of the supporters of political Islam, and their identification with the democratic process does not indicate any belief in it beyond its ability to serve their temporary interests. For whenever they scored victory in elections their supporters were converted into defenders of the ballot box; whenever they were unable to achieve power through the vote they resorted to ‘military revolution’. The best indication of this was the experience in Sudan when they acceded to power in 1989 following the removal of the legitimate democratic government that they had themselves participated in.

Mustafa Mashhour: 'Copts to pay the Jizya tax'

It is well known that the ‘will of the people’ does not merely mean bringing a party to power just for it to tamper with the democratic process and change its rules; Hitler came to power in 1933 by means of elections, but then he began to dismantle the system from inside until he was finally able to abort it entirely, following which he turned into Europe's worst dictator.

What is most amazing is that one of the first steps that Hitler took to undermine the democratic system was to pass a law called the ‘Law of Empowerment’. This law cancelled out Parliament and granted the Council of Ministers legislative powers for a period of four years. This measure is similar to the one taken by President Morsi when he passed a Republican decree immunising his decisions from any juridical challenge.

Proponents of political Islam – el-Ghannouchi included – steer clear of looking for ‘internal reasons’ leading to their failure to hang onto power in Egypt. They exclusively resort to highlighting the cause as forces hostile to them. However one of their more open-minded younger leaders in Sudan, Prof. Al-Mahbūb ‘Abd al-Salām did take a bold, objective look into the question and analyse the reasons for the fall of the Brotherhood in Egypt. He ascribes the basis of the fall of Morsi to the domination of the current of Qutbism (after Sayyid Qutb):

Those in control of the group and its policy today in Egypt are of the Qutbist trend, headed by the guide Badīʽ, the director of the organisation Mahmūd ‘Ezzat, its treasurer and principal decision-making Khairat al-Shater, and the most fanatical of them the information officer, and son-in-law of  al-Shater, Mahmūd Ghazlān. In just a few years this current has been able to oust the broad practical current.

He goes on to add:

It has managed to surround itself with taqiyya and camouflage and survive inside the organisation until taking over complete control in the early years of the present century. Of course, those in the know do not need to be reminded that the Qutbist trend believes in the supremacy of religion, in mental isolation and in the nationality of a Muslim being his creed.

This current

adopted the worst feature of the group's heritage – its sectarianism which it imposes upon the Muslim individual and then his family and then upon the entire Muslim community through the intricacies of societal and economic relationships which, of necessity, must produce a ‘Brotherhood’ society in parallel with Egyptian society, one that has its own intellectuals, professors, workers and women proponents. Between these two there is a dialogue of the deaf.

Whenever they were unable to achieve power through the vote they resorted to ‘military revolution’

Prof. Al-Mahbūb is well aware that the group’s sectarianism is the product of its supremacist thought instilled by al-Bannā and Sayyid Qutb after him – one that equates the group with Islam and consolidates in the mind of the ‘soldier/members’ the idea that they are the chosen group. Just consider the following words of the founding Guide:

We, O People (and this is no idle boast ) are the allies of the Messenger of God; we bear his standard after him and hold aloft his banner, just as they raised it; and we preserve his Qur’ān just as they did. This is your rank and status. So do not belittle yourselves or measure yourselves against others. For you have issued a call and you have striven, and your efforts have achieved the goal. So work on, for God is with you, and he who follows us now has won the race, while sincere believers who hold back from us today will only race to catch up with us tomorrow – yet the glory will go to the pioneering ones.

To Shaykh el-Ghannouchi we would say this: if he wishes to fix these glaring errors it would require a ‘radical’ rethinking of the intellectual starting points upon which the group is founded. This rethinking will have to embrace the principle, basic starting points on nationality, democracy and the relationship with the Other (Muslims and non-Muslims). It will also require rejecting the practice of violence, extremism and exclusion and dispensing with the supremacism that has distinguished the current of political Islam right from its beginnings and up to the present-day, all of which necessarily lead to hateful sectarianism.

Until such time as these basic revisions take place the answer to the question: ‘Has political Islam truly failed?’ – is ‘Yes.’


[1] From the hadith narrated by Abu Said al-Khudri and Sahih Bukhari: "The Prophet said, 'Isn't the witness of a woman equal to half of that of a man?' The women said, 'Yes.' He said, 'This is because of the deficiency of a woman's mind'." (Ed.)

[2] See Glossary

[3] See Glossary

[4] The work Majmaʽ al-Anhur fī Sharh Multaqā al-Abhur is by the Ottoman Hanafi scholar Shaykhī Zādah Dāmād (ob.1078) who functioned as a magistrate in the military. (Ed.)