The Society of Muslim Brothers is Egypt’s largest and most well-organized group. Its activities are divided between social services, political advocacy and religious reform. The Society is admired by some, feared by others and, now that Hosni Mubarak has resigned the Egyptian presidency, analysts will be taking a closer look at the hitherto banned organization and seeking to understand its political agenda.
Sharia is a collective group of laws which governs all aspects of Muslims’ lives, from marriage and family life to conduct in society and business. Based both on the Quran and the customs and sayings of the Prophet and other early Muslims, Sharia varies by region; in some countries, it is the basis for all laws. Other countries have adapted and blended it with secular legal systems.
On its English-language website, the Brotherhood states that the Western concept of “secular liberal democracy” is undemocratic, because it rejects religion in public life. In its published guidelines, the Brotherhood states goals that include spreading Islamic teachings, bring Islamic sects closer together, improve the lives of the poor and otherwise marginalized; and secure the Islamic state against foreign rule and internal enemies.
Nathan J. Brown is a Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and Director of its Institute for Middle East Studies. He has written extensively about the Muslim Brotherhood. He says that since the group’s founding more than 70 years ago, it has been committed to seeing Sharia implemented in Egypt. However, their ideas about Sharia have evolved over time: The group has clearly come to terms with political rights—that is, freedom of expression, freedom of the press and free and fair elections--however, the Brothers have not yet come to terms with what Brown calls “social rights”—or freedom of expression in the "artistic sphere."
“When it comes to women and non-Muslims, they are increasingly comfortable with the idea of citizenship,” Brown said. “If you are a member of the Egyptian community, you’re a full member—with one very important exception, perhaps a symbolic one, but one that is important in Egyptian debate, and that is the position of head of state; the Brotherhood still says that if you want their support to become a head of state, you have to be a Muslim male.
What about that other controversial and confusing concept of Islam—jihad? Muslims have alternately used the word to describe the struggle for spiritual enlightenment or perfection--or a holy war against enemies of Islam.
There’s no doubt, says Brown, that the Brotherhood has historically talked about jihad and used military metaphors to present itself—for example, the movement’s official symbol consists of two swords crossed under the image of the Holy Quran. Exactly what jihad means, Brown said, is not clear.
“Is it supposed to be peaceful?” Brown asked. “When is it okay to use force? Who has the authority to use force? Is this something that individual Muslims or a group has the right to do? All those are places where there’s considerable ambiguity.”
Brown says the Brotherhood believes that the best path to change in a Muslim society is that of peaceful change and talk, not force. But the group also believes that jihad is legimate in cases of foreign occupation. Thus, he says, the stronger the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the worse for Israel.
“That said,” Brown said, “I think that anybody who has studied the Brotherhood in recent years knows that the Brotherhood is not in a position to rule Egypt by itself, and it doesn’t even seem interested in making a move in that direction. What the Brotherhood wants to do is participate in politics and to have a voice.”
Rashid Khalidi is Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University in New York. He's also the author of Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East. He believes the West has allowed fear and misunderstanding of Islamic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood to justify their support of repressive regimes
“We are sleeping in the bed that decades of mistaken policy have made for us,” he said. “We were sold a bill of goods by Arab regimes which told Americans and the world that they were the only bulwark between their countries and unrestrained fanatical Islam, that if you did not support dictatorship, repression and systematic violation of human rights, you'd have bearded fundamentalists raving from the top of every minaret in every one of these countries--and taking over.”
Khalidi points out that regardless of how one feels about the Muslim Brotherhood, the group has a valid role in Egyptian history and society. He says it would be arrogant for any outside government to work to keep the Brotherhood out of power in Egypt - if in fact they should ever make it that far. “The last thing that the Egyptians would tolerate would be any form of foreign interference.”
"One is either in favor of democracy and allowing people to make choices or not,” Kahlidi added. “Whether they are wise ones is another matter.”