The Brotherhood is a popular movement of Islam founded in 1928 by Hasan al Banna, the most prominent representative of what is sometimes referred to as Islamism. For al Banna, whatever ails the Muslim world – the umma – can be addressed by the simple sentence: “Islam is the solution.” Religious law – Shariah, or “The Way“ – is to be restored to its central place as an organizing principle for every sphere of life.
From the Muslim Brotherhood’s point of view, whatever ails the world can be traced to the West’s pernicious influence. The West stole scientific secrets, deprived Muslims of their religious faith and converted them into docile subjects. While resentment is the main current of Islamism, it has curiously united with modern mass media to spread the faith. Similarly, while the West is deplored, the technical achievements of the West are often welcomed, and even aspects of democracy – such as the civil code – which can be exploited to advance Islam, are admired. The Brotherhood openly calls for free elections, but only as a way to gain and legitimate its authority. This duality is what confuses the detractors of Islamism. Hoping for the best, some critics rely on their assertions of what we would like to believe, that the Muslim Brotherhood is indeed “moderate” and “largely secular.”
In the recent Egyptian elections, journalists distinguished between the “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood and the extreme Salafists — without noting that al Banna considered himself a Salafist, as apparently do most of the members of the Brotherhood. The Islamist synthesis of modernity and tradition is attractive to those torn between these two ideological perspectives. But make no mistake, the Muslim Brotherhood accepts modernity only to the extent it confirms an uncompromising commitment to religious dogma and imperial political designs.
According to the Islamist world view, Allah has vouchsafed to mankind a full and perfect doctrine of human behavior. And to the extent the political order is predicated on divine decree, there isn’t room for rejection, whether it be in the name of democracy or individual rights. Laws cannot be passed that explicitly challenge the commands of Allah. If people can be permitted to do what Allah has forbidden, Shariah law can never be compatible with liberal democracy. If the Koran, written by the Archangel Gabriel, at the behest of Allah, says the consumption of alcohol is forbidden, there is no authority that can grant legislative sanction. In this case, as in so many others, the religious value system guarantees “civilized” behavior. So when Islamists say they want representative government, what they mean is legislation compatible with the Koran.
Who is the ultimate arbiter of state-based legislation? The imams who reflect the wisdom and compassion of Allah. For the Brotherhood, there must be absolute loyalty to fixed and eternal rules, a condition that inevitably suffocates research, free will, science and art.
Egypt is now caught in a web woven by the Muslim Brotherhood. Democracy without the Brotherhood is inconceivable, and democracy with the Brotherhood is impossible. The movement cannot be denied if free elections are permitted, but the infrastructure of democracy cannot be created so long as there is a formal adherence to Shariah.
Yet ,in most Arab countries the Muslim Brotherhood is the best organized group. This grants it an advantage over liberal rivals that are splintered into many fractions. If the West confronts the Brotherhood’s leadership, it merely confirms the belief that the conspiracists are right in theor beief that the West is trying to undermine Islam. If the West does not confront the Islamists, the liberals are bound to be defeated. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t. In a Kantian sense, democratic impulses should – at some point – rise to the surface, especially if Brotherhood policies do not produce jobs or adequate food supplies. Dictatorships have a way of destroying themselves when the “eternal verities” that they hold onto cannot yield the basic human needs that have been promised. It is one thing to be a good Muslim who prays five times a day; it is quite another thing to rely on one meal a day for sustenance.
Herbert London is president emeritus of Hudson Institute, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book Decline and Revival in Higher Education (Transaction Books).