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Analysis: The political theology of the Muslim Brotherhood

May 18, 2014 3:12 P.M. (Updated: May 21, 2014 9:57 A.M.)
By: Sarah Eltantawi
Sarah Eltantawi is a scholar of Islamic studies, writer and political analyst. She is currently a postdoctoral EUME fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin and is an incoming assistant professor of comparative religion at Evergreen State College. Follow her on twitter.

Elections in Egypt are fast approaching, and potential results are more interesting than meets the eye.

A new poll recently released by Baseera, one of Egypt's most reliable polling outfits, reveals that 59 percent of eligible voters are undecided about their choice for president -- a far cry from Sisi's supposed cake walk to the presidency. Eighty-four percent of the populace plans to vote, while 16 percent leans toward boycotting.

Though the number who are planning to boycott is much lower than even I expected (and I have believed for months that the Muslim Brotherhood allies and revolutionaries have exaggerated this number), there is still an understandable sense that these elections are compromised because of the exclusion of Islamist political forces.

Without getting into the specifics of this present political problem, I want to share in this column some of my ongoing academic research on the problematic of the "political theology" of the Muslim Brotherhood. Since the Muslim Brotherhood is the "mother" organization for almost all Islamist offshoots, it is worth exploring in more depth where for them the political ends and the theological begins.

I have noticed in sifting through the reams of scholarship that has been produced about Egypt in the past few years that with respect to analyzing political Islam's fortunes, it makes a big difference if you approach the material from the point of view of a historian of Egypt or as a historian of religion or Islam.

What I have noticed broadly speaking among historians is a tendency to take for granted that the Muslim Brotherhood is simply a political group that draws some loose organizational inspiration from Islam -- rather like communism has drawn from an ideology or even, if you wish, a "theology" -- and therefore the Muslim Brotherhood can be usefully compared to, for example, the Christian Democrats in Germany.

This is a reflection, I think, of a sort of default materialist methodology.

I used to think basically along these lines but, after some observation and study have come to find this framing insufficient and have found it useful to put on my "Islamic studies scholar" hat to better understand what is going on. The reason I find this insufficient is because I am convinced that many Egyptians opposed the Brotherhood last June on cultural grounds that include a competing sense of Islamic identity, a differing sense of the proper place of Islam within the state, and the nation as an imaginary.

I found this attitude to be so widespread among "traditional" "conservative" Muslims that I feel compelled to take much more seriously the "theological" aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood's organization, platform, and political behavior.

It turns out, I think, that the "theological" in the "political theology" formulation is indeed intimately tied to the group's public proselytization, a kind of popular theology that very appropriately echoes some contemporary Christian proselytization groups, since the word "theology" as we understand it in English is really a Christian term. Another reason this makes sense is that there is ample evidence that Hassan al-Banna, who formed the Brotherhood in 1928, did so as a reaction to Christian missionary activity in Egypt and inspired by Christian educational and youth organizations.

Right away, I would expect discerning readers to ask what the relationship really is between Banna's time and the Brotherhood's early history and the political behavior of the Muslim Brotherhood in Morsi's time. It is a complex question, but I do believe a careful examination of the Brotherhood's early period is extremely important to understanding its internal logic.

A reason for this is what I am thinking of as the "sunnah dialectic," the "sunnah" being the Islamic practice of emulating the actions and words of the Prophet Muhammad. This logic prescribes a constant reference to historical origins, most importantly to the Prophet Muhammad's time. I believe this logic is operative for Islamist actors' "history within a history."

What this means, in a way, at the political level is that activism that is colored Islamic must always look backward to the Prophet's time and engage in the practice of tajdid, renewal of the faith, or to render the Prophet's time new again. Banna's founding of the Brotherhood complexifies the dialectic and introduces a new layer of reference.

So you refer to Banna's original texts to enact an ideology and behavior that is thought to deliver the deeper dialectic of tajdid, or a renewal of the Prophet's call in the 7th century AD. I think there is ample evidence to support this notion, including that Banna's writings are still read by cadres as the group's ideological blueprint, and that the group is organized according to Banna's writings.

But were the Muslim Brotherhood indeed ever really keen on taking state power? They certainly were not prepared to.

And this fact strengthens my hypothesis that the Brotherhood is in some fundamental way oppositional by nature. Its entire history is formed against something -- the encroachment of western cultural imperialism, the British crown, various Egyptian regimes, and for Sayyed Qutb, the dar al harb, or "abode of war."

I suspect we are dealing in the end with a theology of opposition and a theology of resistance. Moreover the moral behaviors associated with the group -- piety, a lack of corruption, "cleansing" politics, reference always to the akhira (the afterlife) -- make it more difficult to critique Islamist leaders when they are in opposition for, as power would have it, its occupants are often in a very dirty business that is readily available for anyone to critique.

What is the political and what is the theological?

I wonder if some of the evidence I have presented here, which understands some Muslim Brotherhood political behavior in dialectic with a larger unfolding divine religious tradition and cosmology, convinces you to reconsider religion as in part a system of meaning that can produce political effects, and whether this might in fact be closer to what political theology in the end is.

Let me end with a few points that I hope clear some inevitable confusions: despite my deep dissatisfaction with the Muslim Brotherhood's behavior in office in Egypt, I am not arguing that there is a quality inherent to Islam that makes it impossible for political Islamic configurations to succeed in a democracy.

The relative success of Tunisia's transition disproves this theory, though I think that what we can learn from Tunisia is that Islamist groups have to be willing to compromise deeply with secular forces and must de-emphasize if not abandon entirely -- as did Tunisia's Ennahda party -- any inclusion of the language of Shariah in the constitution. Islamic law, to be blunt, must be off the table.

A few weeks ago, a court in Minya has sentenced another 683 people, including Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie, to death in a mass trial. This outrage, stacked on the outrage of a few weeks ago in which some 400 plus people were sentenced to death, is an appalling stain on the Egyptian judiciary.

I therefore feel the need to emphasize that my exploration here of the political theology of the Muslim Brotherhood is not an endorsement of military rule. Successive military regimes in Egypt since 1952 have been locked in a macabre dance with the Muslim Brotherhood, and both are mainly after mainly their own power using different means, one the barrel of a gun and bullish security services, one the rhetoric of religion.

The problem for us analysts is that, in my assessment, the Egyptian public has, until now, largely picked the army over the Islamists, though it seems to me, as I write from Cairo, that a growing number are totally disenchanted with all of the above.

We will see if outrages like this latest trial reverse this trend, or, one hopes, a strong third way can continue to emerge. This, in my view, is the only real way out of this bind.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.
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