What Do We Expect From the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists?

Either your understanding of religion drives you to insist on the right thing and to defend the rights of those who are wronged, or it makes you see your opponents as atheists, degenerates and mercenaries undeserving of rights.
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Tarek el-Bishri is a distinguished judge and a great historian. From his books we have learned the modern history of Egypt, but he belongs to the Islamist school of thought. Bishri knows, of course, that when a revolution succeeds in overthrowing a system of government the revolution has to draft a new constitution that fulfills its objectives. Yet in in the aftermath of the revolution and the overthrow of Mubarak, we find Bishri obeying the military council and accepting the chairmanship of a committee formed to make limited amendments to the 1971 constitution, instead of insisting on a new constitution. The military council asked Egyptians to vote in a referendum on the amendments recommended by Bishri's committee. The council has since turned against the referendum result and declared an interim constitution of 63 articles. Bishri's cooperation with the military council deprived Egypt of a new constitution that might have put us on the right track. Instead we have been led down a dark tunnel of which, a full year later, we are trying, and failing, to get out. The question is: How can a man as learned, upright and patriotic as Bishri take on such a task? Bishri wanted to ensure the political dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which he belongs. He believed that service to the Muslim Brotherhood would be in Egypt's interest.

Police and soldiers have committed horrendous abuses against demonstrators in three successive massacres -- Maspero, Mohamed Mahmoud and the cabinet offices. They killed demonstrators with live ammunition, blinded them by firing shotgun pellets into their eyes, dragged women along the ground and molested them. The tragedy culminated in the scene of a woman dragged along the ground, stripped of her clothes and kicked by the boots of the police and military. Although this brutality brought worldwide condemnation, a well-known sheikh appeared on a religious channel with two Salafi sheikhs and the three of them thought that this was so funny that they had trouble controlling their laughter.

When Dr. El Baradei issued a statement condemning the abuse of female demonstrators, the television sheikh commented in jest: "A true believer! They [meaning the liberals] are all acting pious now." And when the newspapers reported that a woman wearing the niqab had been dragged along the ground and trampled by soldiers in army boots, the television sheikh said, "Do we know who put a niqab on this woman? She might have been infiltrated to drive a wedge between the Salafists and the army."

The idea is clear and important. The television sheikh makes a big scene if the police prevent a woman wearing the niqab in some Western country but doesn't lift a finger if an Egyptian woman in niqab is molested, because she doesn't belong to his group. The television sheikh can't imagine that virtue exists outside his group. In his opinion you can't have a conscience and condemn abuse unless you're pious, and you can't be pious unless you're Muslim, and you can't be pious unless you belong to the Brotherhood or the Salafists. Any injustice or violation of someone else's humanity doesn't much interest the sheikh.

In a spontaneous reaction to the molestation of Egyptian women by policemen and soldiers, women staged a march under the banner "Free Women of Egypt". The head of the women's section of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, Dr. Manal Aboul Hassan, accused the demonstrators of being financed from abroad and of having foreign agendas (the same charge Mubarak made against his opponents). Dr. Aboul Hassan went even further, saying the women who staged sit-ins in tents were "wallowing in ritual impurity".

It's the same logic. Dr. Aboul Hassan is not at all interested in the fact that women are being dragged along the ground and molested because they are not members of the Brotherhood, so she has no scruples about accusing tens of thousands of women demonstrators of treason, of being mercenaries and of ritual impurity, because their demonstration could delay the process of the Brotherhood reaching power.

A few months ago I wrote an article in Egypt saying that Islam had defined the general principles of good governance, which were the same as the principles of democracy: freedom, justice and equality. But I also stated that Islam had not set out a specific form of government. As soon as the article was published I received dozens of messages full of slanderous insults, and one of the religious channels devoted a whole program to insulting me and detracting from my faith and my patriotism (it still amazes me how people who claim to be religious can descend to such obscenities). Last month the fatwa committee at al-Azhar issued an official report affirming my position and saying precisely that Islam has not prescribed a particular form of government. No one objected to the fatwa committee's ruling and no one insulted the sheikhs of al-Azhar.

Some Islamists judge the truth according to the person who's speaking, instead of judging people by the truth. The phenomenon is regrettable: Many Muslim Brothers and Salafists apply double standards. They turn a blind eye to facts and take positions incompatible with what is right. They do that either because of their deep hatred for those who oppose them or because of their desperate desire to obtain power. Many people are accustomed to call such behavior opportunism but in my opinion that is not an adequate explanation.

The problem starts with the way the Brothers and the Salafists see themselves. They believe that they alone are working to ensure that the word of God prevails, and so their battles are not political but rather like a religious war. This arrogant and aggressive concept explains to us why the Muslim Brotherhood has always broken with the national consensus and allied itself with despotic authority against the will of the people. Why did they make an alliance with Ismail Sidki, "the butcher of the people", and support King Farouk, shouting "God is with the king"? Why did they support Abdel Nasser when he put an end to the democratic experiment and abolished political parties, while their own organization was exempted from the abolition? Why did their leader say in 2005 that he supported Hosni Mubarak? It's not just a question of opportunism but a result of practicing politics with the sentiments of religion. The Islamists have no qualms about making alliances with any power, however despotic or oppressive it may be, in order to enable them to set up what they believe to be divine governance.

To be fair, this does not apply to all Muslim Brothers and Salafists. There are some prominent figures in the Islamist movement who see what is really right and defend the truth valiantly regardless of their political interests and whatever the consequences: Dr Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh (the best national personality the Muslim Brothers have produced for decades), Sheikh Hazem Abu Ismail and Sheikh Wagdi Ghoneim, although I disagree with some of their hardline opinions. These three are independents who are far from holding any executive positions and who represent only their own points of view.

Political Islam requires that you practice politics with a religious sensibility. Either your understanding of religion drives you to insist on the right thing and to defend the rights of those who are wronged, or it makes you see your opponents as atheists, degenerates and mercenaries undeserving of rights.

This is the choice now faced by the Islamists -- the most difficult choice in their history after winning a majority in parliament and coming to power. For a full year the military council that Hosni Mubarak appointed has done everything it can to preserve the Mubarak regime and, through artificial crises, to put pressure on Egyptians so that they turn against the revolution. But the winds have brought things the military council did not want. On the first anniversary, millions of Egyptians came out in demonstrations to assert their loyalty to the revolution they made with their blood.

For that reason, the attitude of the Muslim Brotherhood in parliament is delicate. They have to choose whether they will remain inflexible bigots who believe that they alone represent true Islam. In this case they will replace the objectives of the revolution with a moral agenda as in Sudan, Afghanistan, and Somalia, and distract themselves with banning films and pursuing women who wear trousers or swimsuits. In such an intellectual vacuum they will placate the military council and ignore the aims of the revolution.

The other option is for the Brotherhood and the Salafists to evolve in a way that enables them to respect those who disagree with them and to realize that what they offer is an interpretation of religion rather than religion itself. Then they would adopt the aims of the revolution and work to fulfill them, however much that upsets the military council. If they take that option, the revolution will fulfill its objectives and history will recall that it was the Islamists who set up the democratic, modern Egyptian state.

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