Notes on the Muslim Brotherhood

(I’m pretty much starting from scratch)

Sayyid Qutb lived from 1906 – 1966. He was an Egyptian writer, thinker, and leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was executed in 1966 for plotting to assassinate the Egyptian president, Nasser.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded back in 1928 by Islamic scholar Hassan al-Banna. Its goal is to instill the Quran and the Sunnah as the “sole reference point for … ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community … and state”;[13] mottos include “Believers are but Brothers”, “Islam is the Solution”, and “Allah is our objective; the Qur’an is the Constitution; the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; death for the sake of Allah is our wish”.[14][15]

As of 2015, the MB was considered a terrorist organization by Bahrain,[7][8] Egypt, Russia, Syria, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.[9][10][11][12]

The MB’s philosophy is pan-Islamist and it wields power in several countries:

323/354 seats in the Sudanese National Assembly,
74/132 seats in the Palestian Legislature,
69/217 seats in the Tunisian assembly,
39/249 seats in the Afghan House,
46/301 seats in Yemen,
16/146 seats in Mauritania,
40/560 seats in Indonesia
2/40 seats in Bahrain
and 4/325 and 1/128 in Iraq and Lebanon, respectively

In 2012, the MB sponsored the elected political party in Egypt (following the January Revolution in 2011,) but has had some trouble in Egypt since then.

The MB also does charity work, runs hospitals, etc., and is clearly using democratic means to to assemble power.

According to Wikipedia:

As Islamic Modernist beliefs were co-opted by secularist rulers and official `ulama, the Brotherhood has become traditionalist and conservative, “being the only available outlet for those whose religious and cultural sensibilities had been outraged by the impact of Westernisation”.[37] Al-Banna believed the Quran and Sunnah constitute a perfect way of life and social and political organization that God has set out for man. Islamic governments must be based on this system and eventually unified in a Caliphate. The Muslim Brotherhood’s goal, as stated by its founder al-Banna was to drive out British colonial and other Western influences, reclaim Islam’s manifest destiny—an empire, stretching from Spain to Indonesia.[38] The Brotherhood preaches that Islam will bring social justice, the eradication of poverty, corruption and sinful behavior, and political freedom (to the extent allowed by the laws of Islam).

Back to Qutb:

In the early 1940s, he encountered the work of Nobel Prize-winner FrencheugenicistAlexis Carrel, who would have a seminal and lasting influence on his criticism of Western civilization, as “instead of liberating man, as the post-Enlightenment narrative claimed, he believed that Western modernity enmeshed people in spiritually numbing networks of control and discipline, and that rather than build caring communities, it cultivated attitudes of selfish individualism. Qutb regarded Carrel as a rare sort of Western thinker, one who understood that his civilization “depreciated humanity” by honouring the “machine” over the “spirit and soul” (al-nafs wa al-ruh). He saw Carrel’s critique, coming as it did from within the enemy camp, as providing his discourse with an added measure of legitimacy.”[24]

From 1948 to 1950, he went to the United States on a scholarship to study its educational system, spending several months at Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado) in Greeley, Colorado. …

Over two years, he worked and studied at Wilson Teachers’ College in Washington, D.C. (one of the precursors to today’s University of the District of Columbia), Colorado State College for Education in Greeley, and Stanford University.[30] He visited the major cities of the United States and spent time in Europe on his journey home. …

On his return to Egypt, Qutb published “The America that I Have Seen”, where he became explicitly critical of things he had observed in the United States, eventually encapsulating the West more generally: its materialism, individual freedoms, economic system, racism, brutal boxing matches, “poor” haircuts,[5] superficiality in conversations and friendships,[32] restrictions on divorce, enthusiasm for sports, lack of artistic feeling,[32] “animal-like” mixing of the sexes (which “went on even in churches”),[33] and strong support for the new Israeli state.[34] Hisham Sabrin, noted that:

“As a brown person in Greeley, Colorado in the late 1940’s studying English he came across much prejudice. He was appalled by what he perceived as loose sexual openness of American men and women (a far cry from his home of Musha, Asyut). This American experience was for him a fine-tuning of his Islamic identity.”…

Qutb concluded that major aspects of American life were primitive and “shocking”, a people who were “numb to faith in religion, faith in art, and faith in spiritual values altogether”. His experience in the U.S. is believed to have formed in part the impetus for his rejection of Western values and his move towards Islamism upon returning to Egypt.

The man has a point. American art has a lot of Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol schtick.

In 1952, the Egyptian monarchy–which was pro-western–was overthrown by nationalists (?) like Nasser. At first Nasser and Qutb worked together, but there was something of a power struggle and Qutb didn’t approve of Nasser organizing the new Egypt along essentially secular lines instead of Islamic ideology, at which point Qutb tried to have Nasser assassinated and Nasser had Qutb arrested, tortured, and eventually hung.

Aside from the fact that Qutb is Egyptian and Muslim, he and the alt-right have a fair amount in common. (Read his Wikipedia Page if you don’t see what I mean.) The basic critique that the West is immoral, degenerate, has bad art, bad manners, and that capitalism has created a “spiritually numbing” network of control (your boss, office dress codes, the HOA, paperwork), and a return to spirituality (not rejecting science, but enhancing it,) can fix these things.

Unfortunately, the ideology has some bad side effects. His brother, Muhammad Qutb, moved to Saudi Arabia after his release from Egyptian prison and became a professor of Islamic Studies,[96][97] where he promoted Sayyid Qutb’s work. One of Muhammad Qutb’s students/followers was Ayman Zawahiri, who become a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad[98] and mentor of Osama bin Laden.

Soraya, empress of Iran, (1953) has no interest in Islamic veiling rules

My impression–Muslim monarchs tend to be secular modernists. They see the tech other countries have (especially bombs) and want it. They see the GDPs other countries have, and want that, too. They’re not that interested in religion (which would limit their behavior) and not that interested in nationalism (as they tend to rule over a variety of different “nations.”) Many monarchs are (or were) quite friendly to the West. The King of Jordan and Shah of Iran come immediately to mind.

(I once met the Director of the CIA. He had a photograph of the King of Jordan in his office. Motioning to the photo, he told me the King was one of America’s friends.)

But modernization isn’t easy. People who have hundreds or thousands of years’ experience living a particular lifestyle are suddenly told to go live a different lifestyle, and aren’t sure how to react. The traditional lifestyle gave people meaning, but the modern lifestyle gives people TV and low infant mortality.

That’s the situation we’re all facing, really.

So what’s a society to do? Sometimes they keep their kings. Sometimes they overthrow them. Then what? You can go nationalist–like Nasser. Communist–like South Yemen. (Though I’m not sure Yemen had a king.) Or Islamic, like Iran. (As far as I can tell, the Iranian revolution had a significant communist element, but the Islamic won out.) The Iranian revolution is in no danger of spreading, though, because the Iranians practice a variety of Islam that’s a rare minority everywhere else in the world.

I hear the Saudis and certain other monarchs have stayed in power so far by using their oil money to keep everyone comfortable (staving off the stresses of modernization) and enforcing Islamic law (keeping the social system familiar.) We’ll see how long this lasts.

So one of the oddities of the Middle East is that while other parts of the world have become more liberal, it appears to have become less. You can find many Before-and-After pictures of places like Iran, where women used to mingle with men, unveiled, in Western-style dress. (In fact, I think the veil was illegal in Iran in the 50s.) War-torn Afghanistan is an even sadder case.

Mohammad Zahir Shah was king of Afghanistan from 1933 through 1973. According to Wikipedia:

“After the end of the Second World War, Zahir Shah recognised the need for the modernisation of Afghanistan and recruited a number of foreign advisers to assist with the process.[12] During this period Afghanistan’s first modern university was founded.[12]… despite the factionalism and political infighting a new constitution was introduced during 1964 which made Afghanistan a modern democratic state by introducing free elections, a parliament, civil rights, women’s rights and universal suffrage.[12]

Mohammad Zahir Shah and his wife, Queen Humaira Begum, visiting JFK at the White House, 1963
credit “Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston”

While he was in Italy (undergoing eye surgery and treatment for lumbago,) his cousin executed a coup and instituted a republican government. As we all know, Afghanistan has gone nowhere but up since then.

Zahir Shah returned to Afghanistan in 2002, after the US drove out the Taliban, where he received the title “Father of the Nation” but did not resume duties as monarch. He died in 2007.

His eldest daughter (Princess of Afghanistan?) is Bilqis Begum–Bilqis is the Queen of Sheba’s Islamic name–but she doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. The heir apparent is Ahmad Shah Khan, if you’re looking for someone to crown.

Back to the Muslim Brotherhood.

One of the big differences between elites and commoners is that commoners tend to be far more conservatives than elites. Elites think a world in which they can jet off to Italy for medical treatment sounds awesome, while commoners think this is going to put the local village medic out of a job. Or as the world learned last November, America’s upper and lower classes have very different ideas about borders, globalization, and who should be president.

Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood seems perfectly happy to use democratic means to come to power where it can.

(The MB apparently does a lot of charity work, which is part of why it is popular.)

The relationship between the MB an Saudi Arabia is interesting. After Egypt cracked down on the MB, thousands of members went to Saudi Arabia. SA needed teachers, and many of the MB were teachers, so it seemed mutually beneficial. The MB thus took over the Saudi educational system, and probably large chunks of their bureaucracy.

Relations soured between SA and the MB due to SA’s decision to let the US base troops there for its war against Iraq, and due to the MB’s involvement in the Arab Spring and active role in Egypt’s democracy–Saudi monarchs aren’t too keen on democracy. In 2014, SA declared the MB a “terrorist organization.”

Lots of people say the MB is a terrorist org, but I’m not sure how that distinguishes them from a whole bunch of other groups in the Middle East. I can’t tell what links the MB has (if any) to ISIS. (While both groups have similar-sounding goals, it’s entirely possible for two different groups to both want to establish an Islamic Caliphate.)

The MB reminds me of the Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on returning to the Bible as the sole sources of religious wisdom, the establishment of Puritan theocracies, and a couple hundred years of Catholic/Protestant warfare. I blame the Protestant Revolution on the spread of the printing press in Europe, without which the whole idea of reading the Bible for yourself would have been nonsense. I wager something similar happened recently in the Middle East, with cheap copies of the Quran and other religious (and political) texts becoming widely available.

I’ll have to read up on the spread of (cheap) printing in the Islamic world, but a quick search turns up Ami Ayalon’s The Arabic Print Revolution: Cultural Production and Mass Readership:

so that looks like a yes.

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