Wednesday, February 09, 2011

About the Muslim Brotherhood

cross-posted at Dagblog

The protest movement in Egypt has suddenly alerted many Westerners to the existence of the Muslim Brotherhood, a newish group who did not emerge in Egypt until almost the end of the Coolidge Administration. Furthermore, this fast-breaking development has alerted Western pundits, bloggers, and politicians to the urgent need to say something about the Muslim Brotherhood. And so they've starting intoning their opinions on every news medium known to man, telling us how the Muslim Brotherhood are indistinguishable from al-Qaeda, or else a group of sedate and peace-loving moderates, or else again that they "are" some other, scarier Islamist group that formed outside Egypt over the last 82 or 83 years, because that non-Egyptian group originally looked to the Brotherhood for inspiration. (By this standard, the United States "is" Liberia.)

The big question almost everybody winds up with, explicitly or implicitly, is how much we should allow the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in Egyptian politics. When you're asking yourself the same policy questions that Hosni Mubarak spent the last thirty years asking, you're not paying attention to events.

Let me lay my own cards on the table: I have spent about a week and a half of my life thinking about the Muslim Brotherhood, more than twenty years ago, and haven't thought much about them since. I won't pretend that they got my undivided attention back then. I recall writing a brief undergraduate paper about a manifesto by their founder, Hasan al-Banna, but I couldn't for the life of me tell you anything that that paper said and for most of the last two decades I've been referring to al-Banna as "Hasan al-Basra," a mistake like mixing up Martin Luther and Martin Luther King but worse. (I was off by about twelve hundred years). All of which is to say that I don't know jack about the Muslim Brotherhood. I would be embarrassed to pretend that I did.

On the other hand, it's painfully obvious that many of the people opining authoritatively about the Brotherhood haven't spent even one day in their lives thinking about the Brotherhood, and that they haven't actually started now. They're just repeating whatever they've been told recently, using their most serenely confident voices, and they aren't embarrassed in the least.

I don't know what role the Muslim Brotherhood will play in post-Mubarak Egypt. No one pontificating about it on cable has any idea, either. Maybe they'll stay committed to a civil process, as they seemed committed to peaceful participation in the last parliamentary elections. Maybe they won't. Maybe they'll be content to participate as one party among many. Maybe they will demand some "guardianship" role that puts them in charge for good. Maybe their moderate wing will predominate, and maybe their radical wing. I don't know, and I don't believe the Muslim Brotherhood themselves know yet how things are going to shake out.

But here's my question: if the Muslim Brotherhood ends up operating as a peaceful political party, content to win and lose like other Egyptian political parties and take its turns in and out of power, what's the problem? If an Islamist party can actually live by the rules of peace and democracy, how is that not a victory for Western values?

Don't get me wrong. I don't agree with the Muslim Brotherhood on almost anything. I don't believe any country should be governed by strict religious laws, I don't share the Brotherhood's particular religion, and I'm so far from being anti-Western that I'm an actual Westerner. If the Muslim Brotherhood participates in free and fair elections, I will root for them to lose every time. I think they are backward and wrong-headed in many different ways. I think most of their policies would stink. But that doesn't make them any different from other parties, in other countries, that I would also like to see lose. The fact that I, or you, or most North Americans who've heard of the Muslim Brotherhood want them to lose elections does not mean that they should not be permitted to run in the first place.

Some liberal and progressive bloggers like to deride Christianist voters and politicians as the "American Taliban," which is not quite fair. The Taliban is not only an Islamist party, but an authoritarian Islamist party that has no use for genuine elections and wants to impose its version of Shari'a law by force. The only people in America who could be justly compared to the Taliban are the people who commit or support violence against abortion clinics and against doctors like George Tiller. But if the Muslim Brotherhood becomes a non-violent party focused on promoting their version of Islamic values through legal and democratic means, they would become something very much like the American Christianist movement. In fact, they'd probably share some policy goals with American Christianists.

Some people run for office in the United States on a platform that involves banning the teaching of evolution in the schools, or limiting access to contraception. I absolutely oppose those candidates and their platform. But there is no question that they should be allowed to run for office. If someone runs for the House or Senate promising to help restore America as a "Christian nation," they have every right to do so, even if I happen to think they're wrong about everything. Banning Christianists from politics would obviously be the wrong thing to do.

Neither would the Muslim Brotherhood, if they submit to a democratic process, be meaningfully different from the various ultra-orthodox religious parties in the Israeli Knesset, who are explicitly dedicated to promoting their religious teachings through legislation (and who have a disproportionate influence on Israeli politics because of Israel's proportional-representation system). Those parties are every bit as stiff-necked, confrontational, and anti-modern as any parliamentary Muslim Brotherhood faction could be. Would a Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition complicate the Israeli/Palestinian peace process? Probably. But on the other hand, it's not like Shas has been especially constructive.

Now, if the Muslim Brotherhood decides to only participate in the democratic process when it wins, or if it decides to rig things so it never loses, then all of the above is moot. (Also, if the Brotherhood splits into two groups, one of them playing by the rules and one not, the above is true for the group that lives by the rules and not for the group that doesn't.) Any party that won't play by the rules of civil society has to go. The crucial thing is that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt submit to the same political process that every other Egyptian party does, in the same way that the American religious right and the Israeli religious right and the Hindu religious right do. People have the right to vote for these parties as long as they also have the right and the opportunity to vote against them.

The important distinction to make is between Islamism and jihadism. The first is a political ideology that I despise and oppose, but others might choose to support. The second is a violent version of Islamism, that relies on force and permits no choice by the people and is no therefore no different from any other flavor of authoritarian rule. Jihadism can never be acceptable, because it refuses to accept any viewpoint but its own. But if the United States decides that peaceful and democratic Islamist parties are still unacceptable to us, Egyptians will perceive that as a simple expression of bias against Islam. And the Egyptians will have a good case.

If the Muslim Brotherhood can manage to reinvent itself as a conventional right-wing political party but we try to prevent it from doing so, we will be the enemies of democracy and our moral case for opposing international jihadism will be undermined. We, and not the jihadists, would be the ones refusing to let the people choose for themselves. It would be stupid in any case: the Muslim Brotherhood has been banned in Egypt more or less since it was founded, and it hasn't gone away. Banning it again won't make it go away, or make it less popular. If we try to have it banned, or lean on third parties in Egypt to ban it for us, we will be playing the same losing game that Mubarak has just lost. I'd like to see the Muslim Brotherhood shut out of power forever. But the only people who can do that are the Egyptian voters themselves.

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