Islam in Egypt By Rachida El Diwani



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Islam in Egypt

By Rachida El Diwani

Fulbright Scholar, Chatham College

Woodland Road, Pittsburgh PA 15232

February 2003

  1. Religions in Egypt

Islam plays a major role in Egypt today. About 90% (58,500,000) of the population of modern Egypt is Sunni Muslims. There are several religious minorities, the largest of which is an indigenous Christian minority constituting the Coptic Church. The Copts represent about 9% (5,850,000) of the population and the remainder 1% includes followers of the Greek Orthodox Church (360,000), Eastern and Latin Rite Catholics (185,000), Protestants (210,000). In addition, an estimated 1000 Jews remained in Egypt as of 1990 (the eldest). This Jewish population represents a fragment of the community of 80,000 Jews who lived in Egypt before 1948.

Religious tolerance has been a hallmark of traditional Egyptian culture. The Egyptian Constitution of 1971 guarantees freedom of religion, although some tensions along religious lines have risen since 1970 (Because of political reasons, the Muslims being oppressed and not the Christians backed by the West – the Christians enjoy much more freedom of action inside their churches than the Muslims inside their mosques).

The centrality of religion in defining Egypt is deeply rooted historically. When the expanding empire of Islam incorporated Egypt, then a Byzantine province, in the middle of the 7th century [by the end of the reign of the second Caliph, Omar ibn al Khattab (634-644)], Islam found a fertile soil in Egypt where religion had taken different forms through a succession of pharaonic dynasties and foreign conquerors, but it always remained a key element of political culture.

The Arab conquest gave this inherited religious bond a distinctive Islamic form. The new faith invited Muslims as a collective body to express their faith by founding a community of believers or Ummah.

  1. Rulers and Religious Leaders

The Quran, the Word of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, and the Sunna, the traditions of the Prophet himself provided guidance for personal salvation and moral basis for a good society. Rulers were thus impelled to rely not only on men of power but also on men of intellect and faith who could mediate between the timeless revelation of Islam and the exigencies of specific times and places. Power rested with the rulers and their military supporters, but legitimacy derived from the religious scholars or “Ulama”, who emerged as the guardians of the legacy and the guarantors of right guidance. In theory, and despite deviations in practice, only Islamic law (Shari3ah) elaborated by the scholars from the principles of the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet could bind the new community while safeguarding its distinctive moral purpose.

Alongside the Ulamas, the religious scholars, came to existence other religious leaders, the “Sufi” order. Alongside the austere religious mind and laws of the Ulama arose an Islamic mysticism “Sufism”, which gave more importance to love and feelings than to laws and mind. The Sufi movement that sometimes degenerated in superstitions and too much veneration for sufi order’s saints on the expenses of the pure monotheism preached by the official Islam, attracted a good number of Egyptians.

  1. Importance of Religious Leaders

When the hold of early Muslim Empires weakened and local dynasties rose in Egypt, religious leaders retained their importance as a powerful social and spiritual force enjoying the respect and support of the population.

The Al Azhar was founded in 970 as a mosque and university and assured Cairo a secure place in the spiritual and intellectual firmament of Islam.

The Ottomans annexed Egypt in 1517 and made it part of the last great Islamic Empire. The Ulama flourished and from their base in the Al Azhar, played an important role in the Islamic life:



  1. They organized a national network of religious education preserving thus a dense Islamic culture that linked socially and morally Cairo and the provinces.

  2. The religious scholars figured prominently in the political crises experienced by Egypt. They used to intervene between ordinary Egyptians and their Ottoman rulers. They intervened also between the French of Napoleon (Campaign in 1789-1801) and the Egyptian people to prevent too much blood shedding.

  3. After the French left Egypt, the Ulama played a critical role in bringing into power Muhammad Ali, the Albanian officer who founded modern Egypt and established in 1802 the dynasty that held power until the revolution of 1952. The Ulama supported Muhammad Ali on the condition that he rules with their consultation. When he agreed, they mobilized the population of Cairo to demonstrate against the Ottoman governor, calling successfully on the Sultan to ratify the choice of Muhammad Ali as governor of Egypt. Having consolidated his power, he moved against the Ulama and limited their influence. Though weakened, the Ulama continued to exert from Al Azhar a powerful religious and cultural influence. And later on when the British, alarmed by the Egyptian military success in the Levant and by the creation of the industrial base in Egypt, defeated Egypt and made it signing the Treaty of London in 1840, which imposed weakness on the country, the Ulama assumed a renewed importance. They provided a reservoir of intellectual, cultural and religious opposition to the interference of the British with the interior affairs of the Egyptians.




  1. British Colonization of Egypt and Religious Feelings

In 1882, England occupied Egypt after having crushed the Urabi’s Revolution in 1881 against the corrupted and unfair monarchy. This occupation ended effectively in 1954. In their battle against the colonizer, the masses always felt strong solidarity with the Ulama even when they were speaking for the secular interest of the nation and they responded most dramatically to the calls of political figures when their calls were expressed in Islamic terms.

The resistance until after World War I remained securely anchored in Islamic structures of thought and civilization, while weaving together diverse patterns of anti-colonial sentiments and impulses for modernization and reform.

Gamal el Din Al Afghani represents at best this energizing thrust of blend of tradition and reformism impulse. He was an Iranian thinker with a classical Islamic learning and an impressive familiarity with the social and scientific thought of the West. He argued that reason, sciences and liberal ideas of government and social progress were fully compatible with Islam properly understood.

Al Afghani called on his students, including the Egyptian Shaykh Muhammad Abdu (1849-1905) to work out interpretations of Islam along these lines. Al Afghani was sounding everywhere in the Muslim world, the theme of defensive reform, while calling for pan Islamism unity. This call for unity was driven by his conviction that the entire Islamic world, laid vulnerable to the power of the West. Wherever they could, Al Afghani and his followers engaged in direct attack of the western imperialism especially the British one, who even before occupying militarily the Islamic countries was heavily interfering with their internal affairs. These political confrontations helped legitimate the painful conclusion that successful confrontation of the West would entail almost as much imitation as refusal.

Al Afghani’s message had a lot of success in Egypt, a big influence on the Muslim population: the educated as well as the non-educated. Resistance to the western threat had become the driving force of Egyptians and Al Azhar became an important center of resistance. Al Afghani and Abdu were exiled when the British took over in Egypt.

Few years later Abdu returned to Egypt. Things had changed and he chose not to confront the British. He concentrated his efforts on the theological, educational and cultural arenas. His modernist projects aimed to free religious thought from the shackles of Imitation (Taqlid) and to open the way to reforms that would express the spiritual power of Islam in terms appropriate to the modern world.

Abdu legitimated this reform program by drawing a careful distinction between the essential spiritual message of Islam and its elaboration in social prescriptions and laws, which can be applied in different ways to serve the changing Muslim society.



  1. Secularism in Egypt and Disruptions of Islamic Continuity

Abdu as the senior legal officer or mufti of Egypt directed his attention to the modernization of the curriculum and reform of the religious courts. He issued also a number of progressive legal opinions (fatwa) concerning the status of women and the economical institutions.

Abdu intended his compromise with colonial power and the westernizing project to assert Egypt’s identity and liberation through the reform of Islamic Laws. But the penetration of the West overwhelmed his prodigious effort. Having integrated a dependent Egypt to the British economy, the British pressed their efforts to remake the country through a web of institutional reforms in the military, the bureaucracy, the legal and educational systems. From this colonial situation emerged a new Western-oriented elite that wrested control of the national project from Egypt’s natural rulers, the Ulama, the religious scholars. The continuity of a reformed Islam, on which Abdu had insisted, faded. This continuity of a reformed Islam would have been the ideal solution for the Muslim world, which he would have developed through a modernized Islamic framework. Muslims would have remained faithful to themselves and to their identity and in the same time joining the progress of the Western civilization.

But the Western triumphant civilization did not give the Egyptians this opportunity neither the other colonized Muslims – all of them were colonized with rare exceptions, like Saudi Arabia, (with no oil then!).

This deprivation of Muslims, Egyptians or not, from their traditional Islamic institutions and Laws, and the breaking of continuity between the last 13 centuries and their present, by replacing the Islamic institutions with western ones, very different and totally foreign to the population is crucial to understand the alienation the Muslim population felt, and to understand the Islamic revivalism of this last 30 years. This alienation was caused by the western colonialism, British in Egypt, Palestine, Sudan, Iraq, India, etc… French in North Africa and Syria, etc… It was caused also by the Westernized and secularized allies of the colonizers, the local elites running the governments and the destiny of the Muslim population. This is very important to understand the non-friendly feelings of some Muslims towards the West in general, Europe and the USA especially now.

In 1919, a second national revolt stirred Egypt, the first being in 1881 followed by the British occupation. Wartime conditions had created a serious food shortages and a staggering rate of inflation. This time nationalist leader Saad Zagloul gave voice to the popular resentment toward the foreign rule aggravated by these conditions and by the fact that the British had promised Egypt independence if it would side with them in the WW1, but now they did not want to hear about that. The British rejected Zagloul’s request for an Egyptian delegation or Wafd to go to the Paris Conference to talk independence. This sparked a new wave of armed rebellion and strikes that paralyzed the country. Under the pressure of these disturbances, Egypt was declared an independent monarchy in 1922. It was in fact nominal independence. The British were still everywhere, directing the country, may be in a different way. Egypt’s new Constitution enshrined liberal nationalist secular ideas.



These events in Egypt coincided with the destruction of the Islamic Khalifat, the Ottoman Empire, which was presenting the Islamic political framework in the Middle East. The secular revolution lead by Ataturk in Turkey and the events in the new Turkish secularist state strengthened the hands of secularists in Egypt (and throughout the region). The followers of Muhammad Abdu who had responded to his call to imitate certain western ways had now an influential secularist model that pushed them decisively into the arms of the secular nationalists.

  1. The Islamist Reaction to Westernization





    1. Rashid Reda: These same ambiguities linking resistance and imitation simultaneously fostered a quite different orientation. Muhammad Rashid Reda (1865-1935), Abdu’s most prominent follower, responded to the pressures of westernization in a strikingly different manner, eventually taking events in Saudi Arabia, rather than Turkey, for his inspiration. Although Rida initially tried to hold onto both aspects of the master’s legacy, Reforming Islam and Modernism, the deterioration of the faith especially in the ruling elite and the high society, drove him to increasingly defensive and apologetic strategies. Rida became convinced that the early eighteenth century Arabian Reform movement of Ibn abd el Wahhab, which had provided the religious underpinning of the Saudi Arabia State, represented the most viable Islamic alternative to capitulation to the West. Rida noted that the Saudi Arabia that had taken shape on this basis in the early nineteenth century had never succumbed to the colonial onslaught. While working to contain influences that threatened to undermine the distinctive character of the Muslim community, Rida embraced modernist conceptions of instrumental reason and efficiency. He stressed above all, creating new forms of institutional life to reassert Islam’s social role under modern conditions.

    2. Hassan Al Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood:

      1. Why it was founded?

In 1928, Rachid Reda’s strand of Islamic Reform bore its most impressive and lasting fruit when his disciple, the schoolteacher, Hassan Al Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood. Like his master, Al Banna drew on modern institutional and communication strategies for creating a durable organization to advance Islamic modernization.

    1. A deteriorating material situation: The radical character of Al Banna’s project reflected the terrible deterioration of Egypt’s material situation. By the late twenties, it was clear that Egypt’s economy had been colonized. For more than half a century the country had been little more than an exporter of raw cotton to British factories. Direct occupation made effective resistance more difficult as the British tightened the bonds of economic dependency and prevented the industrialization of the country. Control of the Suez Canal by European shareholders continued to bind Egypt to the western global economic system. Reacting to the great depression, the Egyptian private sector mainly formed by a large foreign component, moved the country on the path of western-inspired import substitution and industrialization. The economic and political dimensions of the nation seemed now to be monopolized by the western oriented secular elite. Modernization was confused with westernization.

    2. Al Banna’s assessment of Egypt’s needs went beyond breaking the bonds of dependency in the political and economic realms: He understood that most damaging injuries from colonization were internal. Islam’s enemies, he warned, had succeeded in entering the social body, attacking and undermining the Islamic community from within and wounded Muslims in mind and soul. This was especially true concerning the Muslim elite Westernized and secularized. It was not only obvious in their personal life but also, and most important, in the decisions making concerning the country. This change, in the Muslim mind, had occurred for essentially having been told for almost a hundred years by the Western colonizers that the weakness and backwardness of Muslims came from their Islam. Islam was considered awkward by almost all the Western thinkers, especially the Orientalists, whose ideas as “the” experts of Islam, were believed to be the good ones on the issue, and whose ideas had influenced the Imperialist’s mind and actions. The colonizers were raising the banner of “the civilizing mission” and they were keeping saying so to the Muslims who were having their own old civilization, different from that of the West and presented consequently as being inferior. The Muslim elite who went to study in the West was impressed by the technical progress of the western civilization, its urbanism and its scientific advancement: Those well rooted in Islamic education like Tahtawi or Muhammad Abdu retained their Islamic identity but called for the reforms we talked about in the reinterpretation of the religious scriptures to meet the needs of the new society. But there were other members of the Islamic elite who studied in France and England but returned to Egypt with their beliefs shaken in the worldviews and capacities of Islam to provide adequate orientations to the modern society. They came to believe, like their European masters of thought, that Islam could not fulfill the needs of a modern society and consequently they should take from the West all the systems of thought and living which produced their civilization. Effectively, changes began bringing a lot of disruptions and alienation in the Egyptian society. This happened in the same way, more or less, in the other Islamic societies. Brutal disruptions were brought by the new capitalist orientation of the country, by the introduction of new institutions like the banking system with interests, alcohol, tobacco, institutionalized prostitution, free mixing of sexes, etc…

There were concepts linked to the Western thought but destroying to the Muslim mind like: Religion should be an interior and personal matter and not a way of life. It is an essential opposition with Islam which was, and still, presents itself, as a whole way of life. Some of the new westernized had also been influenced by the pseudo-scientist theories stating that God is dead, or that men are children of apes and not of God, and that civilization should put the man in the center and not God as before. Concepts like that one of the superiority of the white race had shaken the confidence of Muslims in themselves and in their centuries old heritage, in this very critical point of their Renaissance or Revival. This change in concepts and institutions was drastic and not adapted to the local situation and the spiritual needs of the population. The material needs were high-lightened at the expense of the continuity of the spiritual ideals. This big shift in ideals and in their implementation in the every day life would not have been so dangerous for the future of the Muslim societies had it been shared and accepted by the majority of the population. But it was not the case. The majority did not accept it and continued to live or wanted to live more or less according to their religious and traditional heritage that was disrupted from the outside by the colonizers and the new local western oriented elite who was monopolizing the economic and political dimensions of the nation.

Al Banna was one of this majority and one of those who had understood what was going on and wanted to react against the ongoing loss of the Islamic identity.




      1. Aims of the Muslim Brotherhood




        • An Islamic Culture: This Association presented a plausible Islamic alternative to the Westernization of the society in conflict with its Islamic identity roots and backgrounds. It saw the possibility for a culturally located mode of resistance to the daughting internal colonization of the society.

        • Social Islam: The Brothers struggled to develop an authentic social ethos consistent with Islam yet compatible with the modern world. They acted on that ethic of “social Islam” in concrete activities and services that reached a large body of Muslims especially in the urban areas.

        • Military Resistance: At the same time they moved decisively to assume the political responsibilities of resistance, earning enduring appreciation for their role in directly combating British occupation forces in the Canal Zone and the Zionists in Palestine before 1948. These militant actions helped solidify the reputation of the Brothers outside Egypt and fostered the transnational links to the larger Islamic body that later generated branches of the Brotherhood in other parts of the Muslim world. In Egypt, during the 1940s, membership of the Muslim Brothers numbered approximately one million over a population of about 15 millions.

The elaboration of a viable social Islam in Egypt proved to be the Muslim Brother’s most impressive legacy for Egyptian public life. However, from the outset a strand of radicalism, a “political Islam” prone to erupt in violence, threatened to overshadow this achievement. Initially directed at the British and Zionist colonizing agents, the militants gradually turned their weapons against the regime.

The emergence of the new mainstream of social Islam created by the Muslim Brothers and Sayyed Qutb’s radical evolution out of it can only be understood against the backdrop of the relationship between the Free Officers, which made the 1952 Revolution in Egypt, and the Brotherhood.

  1. Nasser and the Brothers

The young army officers conducted the 1952 Revolution against king Farouk, the last of the Muhammad Ali dynasty established in the beginning of the 19th century. Some members of this group of the Free Officers had known Hassan Al Banna personally and shared many of his ideas opposing the regime and the ruling class.

When Nasser and the other young colonels first moved to curtail political parties, the Brotherhood was exempted as a social charitable organization and not a political party. In the critical early days of the Revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood supported the Military as they moved against the old secular elite. Later, echoing the fate of the traditional Ulama at the hands of Muhammad Ali, Nasser turned against the Brothers as he moved to consolidate his own power and to get rid of any opposition to his own ideas. The one-man show began and the conflict that emerged was essentially caused by these power considerations.

The task of subduing the Brothers did not prove to be easy. On two separate occasions, roughly a decade apart, the regime launched murderous attacks on the Brothers. In 1954, at a time when Nasser was manufacturing incidents to create a climate of general disorder that would be a pretext to strengthen his hold over the country, an alleged attempt to assassinate him occurred. The Brotherhood was accused of high treason and the regime moved to crush the one remaining organization capable of challenging state power.



  1. Sayyed Qutb and Militant Islam

Within their prison cells where they were brutally tortured, and in exile, the Muslim Brothers and especially Sayyed Qutb, who became their theorician, developed a compelling critique of the Nasserite experience. Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s had drifted from Islam as its mediating device. At the heart of the military regime the Brothers saw a void. The Brothers charged that for all the surface movement on economic, political and foreign policy issues, the government had no clear sense of where Egypt was going and the rulers were chasing other people’s modernity at the price of their own spiritual and cultural integrity.

Qutb developed such ideas in the context of terrible personal suffering. Qutb had spent about three years in the United States studying Western methods of education from 1948 to 1951. He had begun this trip from a pro-western position, attracted as a young man by the Western civilization. But he was shocked by the American racism, the anti-Arab prejudice, the pro-Zionist bias and what he perceived as a sexual permissiveness. When he returned back to Egypt, he joined the Muslim Brothers and was a friend of Nasser. He became a key liaison between the Brothers and the Free Officers and was the sole civilian to attend meetings of the Revolutionary command council after their seizure of power. He was an advisor to the Revolutionary Command Council and briefly headed the Liberation Rally, the government sponsored mass-mobilization Organization. But the relations deteriorated between the Brothers and the Free Officers because of the opposition of the Brothers to the new political decisions and the alleged conspiracy against Nasser. Qutb was imprisoned with the others and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The brutality of the Nasser Regime and his Western experience provided Qutb with the impetus for the elaboration of a new militancy. Qutb was arguing that while there were millions of Muslims in Egypt, the system under which they were forced to live was fundamentally un-Islamic. He condemned the Egyptian Regime as un-Islamic and urged the formation of a vanguard of true believers who would mount militant and armed resistance that alone had a chance to succeed.

The regime recognized the direct and dangerous challenge that Qutb’s thought represented: He was executed in 1966 and the broad Islamist movement was smashed again brutally as the regime moved to consolidate its leftist support.

A year later was the devastating defeat by Israel in the 1967 war, which coupled with a financial crisis, ended effectively the Nasserite experiment.

From these momentous events, many Muslims read the message that neither the liberal nor the socialist face of the western project had much to offer Egyptians.

The way was opened for those, whether moderate or radical, who claimed to speak for Islam.




IX. Sadat and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The death of the defeated Nasser and the succession of Anwar el Sadat in 1971 paved the way for another return of the Muslim Brothers. As Sadat moved the regime to the right on all levels, he turned to the Islamist current to contain the old Nasserites and other elements on the left. Less than five years after Sayyed Qutb’s martyrdom, the Muslim Brotherhood reemerged to play their most important role in the Egyptian public life since the 1940s.There were important differences: no single leader emerged with the stature of Hassan el Banna. Equally important, although not initially noticed, the moderate mainstream that returned to civil life was haunted by the shadow of the militants, hardened in concentration camps and inspired by their selective readings of Sayyed Qutb .The mainstream Brothers found themselves caught in a new way between the regime and the violent militants who had emerged from the abused Islamist body.

In this difficult context, the Brothers served as a reservoir from which a variety of competing strategies emerged. In this sense, the Brothers gave rise to both the most moderate and the most militant voices for Islam in the 1980s and 1990s. The main stream, under the stable leadership of Umar el Telmesany, compromised with the Sadat regime and that of Hosny Mubarak. Adopting the conscious strategy of working within the existing order, the brothers took advantage of every opportunity to play as large a role as possible in the emerging civil society. With official Islam diminished by the Nasserite authoritarianism and the Sufi orders brought into the same network of control, the brothers constituted a quasi independent Islamist stream that inspired a whole network of Islamist institutions and new forms of Islamist political and social actions. Social Islam took on concrete forms. The Islamists gave the population all kinds of services: Health, learning, working opportunities, etc…all services needed by the population but the government being unable to provide for them. These kinds of services widened the Islamic appeal and more and more Egyptians were attracted to the Islamic awakening and became more engaged in the Islamic Revival.

For a time the compromise with the Sadat regime worked. The Brothers genuinely threw themselves into the officially orchestrated Denasserization campaign with attacks on Marxism and authoritarianism. But when the full implications of Sadat ‘s reorientation became clear in the late 1970s,especially in the form of the separate peace with Israeli, in 1979, the tacit alliance came undone. As even the mainstream moderate Brothers saw it, Sadat’s break with Arab and Islamic ranks sacrificed Jerusalem and the Palestinians for narrowly conceived Egyptian interests. The United States failed to hold Israel to Camp David commitment to do something for the Palestinians, and the social gap in Egypt widened under the liberalization policies. The Sadat regime’s promise of peace and prosperity collapsed. Criticism mounted and that one of the Islamist was sharp. Sadat cracked down and crushed the opposition, mainly Islamist. About two thousands of them were put in prison without trial. In October 1981 Islamist militant assassinated Sadat as he was reviewing a military parade Martial laws were declared and are still there up to this day (2003!).
X. Mubarak and The Islamists.
Mubarak the vice President, backed by the army, became the president. He began with a commitment to continue the policies of Sadat, including reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, not implicated in the Sadat's assassination. In some ways Mubarak initially deepened the democratization process that Sadat had tentatively begun. He certainly continued to strengthen the presence of Islam in public life.

By the end of the first decade of Mubarak’s rule, the Islamist current in Egypt had assumed an impressive array of forms. Islamic parties not being allowed to exist, Islamist had to find out other ways to express themselves. They made alliances with “legitimate” political parties. These alliances allowed prominent Islamists seats in parliament, a leading role in the major professional syndicates, and many publishing houses. At the same time, the mosques expanded their functions to include not only religious activities but also medical clinics and social services facilities that offered high quality services at low prices. But despite these impressive advances of social Islam, the Islamist radicals cast a threatening shadow.



a. Militant political Islamists

Militant political Islamist, fragmented into small and often violent groups, continued to absorb the regime energies in increasingly deadly duels. While the broad moderate Islamic current draws support from all social classes, the militants were not, and were even sources of problems for the already burdened Egyptian people. They originated predominantly from the lower, deprived and unemployed middle class. The Islamist groups in Egypt either are offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood or share its general goal of Islamic Reform and implementation of Shariah (Islamic Law).

The Islamists groups differ mainly in tactics not goals. Many advocate violence and militancy, although the Brothers and other groups, since the1970s, have advocated gradualism and working within the system in order to change it.

The Extremist splintered over their assessment of the appropriate target of their violent anger: is it the regime or the society as a whole? They disagreed also on strategy, with some militant groups such as theTakfir wal Hijrah urging withdrawal from society to preserve their purity. As the vanguard of a genuine Islamic order, and others such as AL Jihad favoring shock attacks and assassinations designed to undermine the Mubarak regime and produce the social chaos that would create the opening for a militant takeover.



b. Moderate Islamists

In some ways, the regime’s most impressive weapon against the violent Islamist radicals was the moderate Brothers. On one hand, the Brothers were given increasingly widened scope for their own activities, on the other, they were encouraged by the regime to cooperate in containing more militant elements that might challenge their own leadership.

Not surprisingly, some of the most creative and original minds in the Egyptian Islamist current found the institutional confines of the Brotherhood too limiting. Lately, some of the most impressive figures moved out to play a role as independent Islamist figures, although frequently maintaining loose ties to the Brotherhood and always acknowledging the historic role of Hassan Al Banna and social Islam.
c. Islamic Centrists [Non Violent Islamist Activists]

In Egypt today, a number of groups of non-violent Islamist activists have arisen. The defining marker for the radicals is easy enough: they resort to violence. The recognition of the Islamist centrists or Wassittiyah who speak as one voice from civil society and on behalf of its reformist stance poses specific difficulties. What we are talking about is a fluid center that defines those who have responded with moderation to the violence of their age, drawing on the cultural and religious heritage of Islam to do so. While the legacy of the Muslim Brothers is important to all such groups, the Brothers cannot be assumed to exercise any constant authority or control over those who see themselves as Centrist. Moreover, the coordination among the group is episodic and spontaneous.

The identity as a Centrist ”emerges” from the presence of some combination of the ways of thinking and forms of behavior we are going to mention now.


  1. Advocacy of change through dialogue and debate rather than violence.

  2. Support of the civil society against the authoritarian state.

  3. Devaluation of the role of a single figure in favor of collective leadership.

  4. Marked tolerance for diversity of viewpoints at both the elite and mass levels.

  5. Enlargement of consciousness that transcends traditional, national, sectarian and other divisions.

  6. Encouragement of social action with a populist thrust and a broadly social, rather than narrowly religious, cultural or political agenda.

  7. Bestowal on politics of a sacred character, a spiritual dimension, that expresses itself through the building of the good Islamic community.

  8. Translation of ethical and religious duties into principles of social responsibility and participation.

  9. Definition of the sphere of significant social action as both local and transnational.

  10. Openness to a global dialogue that seriously engages such questions as cultural authenticity, democracy, human rights and the health of the planet and the welfare of all humankind in the late twentieth century.

We will now consider three groups of non-violent Islamist activists. They will give us a sense of the variety of groups that are recognizable by these “family resemblances” we talked about.



1. Alshaab group: This first group is composed by the intellectuals and anti-Western young militants, many of whom were formerly on the left, who gravited to the newspaper Alshaab [the people]. When the Labor Party adopted an Islamic orientation, the party paper became a powerful voice of Islamic opposition under the energetic and frequently strident leadership of Adel Hussein, in partnership with party leader Ibrahim Shoukri.

The most militant and uncompromising of the three clusters considered here, the Alshaab circle, has provided a high profile platform for sharp attacks on the Egyptian role in the US sponsored Israeli-Palestinian process and the Middle-East market concept, as well as a more general warning about economic and cultural dependency. During the Gulf crisis, Alshaab pounded away at the Egyptian official failure to advance an Arab alternative to the US commitment to a military strike against Iraq. As the crisis unfolded, the editor of the Alshaab, Adel Hussein emerged as the most active, vocal and effective critic of government policy from an Islamist perspective. He ended in the prison for a brief period in the winter of 1995.


2. Professional Associations: This second group is composed by the more varied constellation of Islamist activists who, following the path laid out by the Muslim Brothers in the 1970s,opted to work within the professional associations and other civil society institutions to realize their dream of a more humane Islamic society in Egypt. More of the traits of the centrist trend can be seen in the impressive social action of this larger and more diverse group.

Their peaceful brand of social activism grows out of the strategic decision of the Brotherhood in the Sadat years to work within the structures of state and civil institutions. Denied direct access to the political arena, they have made the professional syndicates the most vibrant institutions of Egyptian civil society. The Islamists worked to extend medical insurance to syndicate members and their families, establish social and recreational clubs and not just in large cities, increase the stock of housing available to members at lower prices, and assist the families of those members arrested or otherwise detained by the regime. By such actions, the syndicate activists have renewed the legacy of social Islam, pioneered by the Brothers, for a new generation of Egyptians.

Essam Eryan, the head of the Medical Association, had been instrumental in making the Association a national platform for dialogue and discussion of all key issues that confront the nation. Frequently providing a platform for centrist intellectual figures, forums held in the syndicate on such key issues of cultural politics as Islam and Secularism, or on such pressing political concerns as the Egyptian role in the Gulf war have captured national attention.

In the process, the Islamists have significantly transformed the associations themselves, making them the vehicle to extend the message of social Islam and to define its larger vision of centrist Islamic elements for Egyptian society. The extraordinary earthquake relief effort, spearheaded by syndicate activists in 1995, proved so effective that the government felt called upon to criminalize relief efforts over which it did not exercise direct control, forcing the Islamists to lower their visibility.

But one should not exaggerate the autonomy of the social space the syndicate activists have carved out. The lines between civil and state institutions are blurred in Egypt, and the regime retains substantial power to manipulate and control the syndicates. Recent changes in the electoral laws in the syndicates were designed blatantly by the regime to curtail the Islamists, not to mention the arrest of Essam Eryan in the winter of 1995. And then all the “Islamist” professional associations were put under sequestrations.
3. The New Islamist Trend (The New Islamist Thinkers): The third group, is a small but enormously creative and outspoken group of religious intellectuals who have organized themselves loosely as a “School”, with the aim of providing non-authoritarian “right guidance” to the varied groupings of the Islamic body, including both the Alshaab and Syndicate Clusters. Muslims in the New Islamic Trend, as these intellectuals call themselves, are a remarkable and diverse group of prominent religious intellectuals who have emerged as the most critical intellectual force in defining the Islamic Centrism. The major figures of the New Islamic trend are Yusuf al Qaradawi, Kamal Aboul Magd, M. Selim al Awa, Fahmi Huwaidy and the late Muhammad Al Ghazzali. As a group, these figures have authored an entire library of books and articles – Texts whose cross-references provide an effective web that binds them together and creates an intellectual and cultural space within which their adherents move. At the same time, several of the key figures in the group have a large mass following. When Qaradawi or Al Awa speaks publicly, they draw crowds at times reaching over a quarter of a million.

In addition to their intellectual and cultural leadership, the New Islamists have either created or inspired a host of organizational innovations that have enriched the broad Islamic Trend. From their fluid definition of their own group as an intellectual school, thus avoiding official attach as a party or faction, through their active involvement in the expanded public spaces created through the syndicate networks (where young and educated Islamists become acquainted with their thinking), to their own practice of issuing “statements” to the wider public on such pressing national issues as communal strife or Egypt’s role in the Gulf War, the New Islamists have been creative agents in expanding the scope and richness of the legal political sphere. While their influence cannot be quantified, it is obvious neverless, that when the group of Young Moderate Islamists tried to form in 1996 a party called “the Islamic Center” in the wake of the depressing 1995 elections, their platform and initial statements bore the unmistakable imprint of the New Islamist thinkers of such crucial issues as the joint role of Christians and Muslims in the Islamic civilization project and the need to democratize the political order. And when the government ended this brief chapter of moderate and legal initiative by arresting the leaders of the Hizb al Wasat on the absurd charge of “conspiring” to found a party, it was the New Islamist Selim al Awa who offered the boldest condemnation of the government repression.

This intellectual school in moderate Islamic thought has several major characteristics: It relies on a rational interpretation of the religious texts, the Quran and the Sunnah and the large body of legal, social and political thought in the Islamic tradition. But their orientation is not just textual. The New Islamist Trend is characterized by a deep concern for the plight of modern Egyptians and Muslims in areas related not only to their beliefs and religion, but also to their social, political, cultural, economic and psychological well being. At the same time, they regard the improvement of the plight of Egyptians and Muslims as linked equally and integrally to both a true revival of Islamic ideas, spirit, and way of life, and to a clear, rational knowledge and understanding of the modern world and the prerequisites for survival and success within it.

In our troubled age, the New Islamists are convinced that the Islamic revival does have a message of universal importance, and they extend the invitation to a global dialogue on behalf of the humane principles that, in their view, all the great religions and cultural traditions share. The New Islamist believe strongly that it is the duty of all Muslim leaders, thinkers, and intellectuals to face this challenge with creative solutions that embody the correct Islamic rules and principles. They believe that creative resolutions to various problems challenging contemporary Muslim societies do not necessitate the complete overthrow of existing institutions and laws. Many of the laws in Egypt, for example, do not contradict Islamic law in the judgment of the New Islamists. Furthermore, the New Islamists insist that those areas where changes must occur can and should be approached consistently and gradually, to avoid creating even greater havoc in society. In their public role and their most important publications, they articulate a strategic vision for a moderate and centrist orientation, deepening in the process their strong appeal to a mass following.



XI. New Repression of the Islamists

But shadows hung over their achievements and by mid-90, these possibilities were overwhelmed by a climate of violence and repression. Violent extremists struck murderously at both civil society and the regime to disrupt the emerging national dialogue. The regime, for its part, adopted a policy of sweeping repression. But the target was not simply the extremists. Seizing on the violence of the radicals as justification for a strike against the force that can effectively challenge its legitimacy – Moderate Islam - the regime struck at the Islamic Awakening in all its manifestations. The New Islamists too were targeted in a policy that limited their access to television and censored their writings in the mass press. Ominously, the charge is renewed by the regime that there is no real difference between Moderates and Extremists.

When the Moderate Islamic groupings rather that the violent minority became the focus of attention, the startling conclusion unmistakably emerges that the real target of regime repression in Egypt is precisely these clusters of non violent Islamists who make a plausible claim to speak for the Islamic Centrism, rather than the terrorist minority. A security perspective that blurs all distinctions within the Islamic wave screens the anomaly of the assault on the Moderate. From the contrasting globalist perspective, with its interest in values other than simply order and stability, these centrist Islamic groups emerge as the carriers of a project quite distinct from that of the criminal minorities who also carry an Islamic Banner.

Why has the regime targeted them so deliberately? The answer is evident: The well publicized radical assault, however deadly to the individuals caught in the crossfire, can be contained by the regime at relatively low cost, at least in the short run. Much more damaging to a dependent, corrupt, and unimaginative political order is the emergence of a social and political force, grounded in widely shared religious and cultural values that by its very presence in the public arena constitutes a devastating critique of the existing system. To strike at the radicals, the regime argues, it must dry up the broad sources of the religious renewal in Egypt. In this was, a strategy of “drying of the springs”, ostensibly aimed at the radicals, and in fact legitimates an assault on the peaceful challenge represented by a Centrist Islamist Alternative that dramatizes regime failings and lack of legitimacy.


XII. Moderate Islamists and the US
These Moderate Islamists are not known in the US while Ben Laden is, and before him Umar Abdel Rahman, that extremist Islamist inspirational leader of a criminal minority in Egypt, received asylum in the US and was accused later on of being the instigator of the first blowing up of the World Trade Center in 1993. These extremist figures are presented by the American Media as the symbols for Islamic Groups worldwide.

It is a lopsided knowledge of the Islamic Awakening pointing to a general failure of the decision makers in the US, of the opinion leaders in the Media and academia who continue to rely on an outmoded realist perspective, tied to the international state system.

It does make a difference though if the unavoidable distortions in the US make the minority of radical and violent, fanatical elements the global icon for the twenty-first century Islamic social movements rather than the majority of radical, yet creative and non-violent, centrists. Dominant realist perspectives on international politics – US centered and focused on the “security dilemma” – have for the most part yielded characterization of Islamic movements that are little more than incitement to violence against them. Alternative perspectives – world oriented and anchored in human – centered global values like peace and social justice would find at the center of the worldwide Islamic awakening a moderate and humane vision that defies both the ravages of an imitative modernism linked to the violence of the worldwide revolution of Westernization and the even more destructive reactionary Islamic extremism that has coevolved with it.

The realist perspective in the US insistently directs the public attention to those violent elements and groupings of the Islamic wave that pose a threat to western interests. When the Western or American people think of themselves locked in deadly combat with a superpower adversary out to “bury them”, the realist focus on the security dilemma appeared to make good sense.

While realism continues to dominate US foreign formulation, most foreign affairs issues are now debated increasingly in terms of the clash of realist and globalist perspectives. A curious exceptionalism, noted but not explained, marks Western and especially US perspectives on the issue of their relationship with the Muslim World. Even the most lively and productive debates center on the security issue rather than on alternative ways of understanding Islamist Movements.

The present consternation in the West with the perceived advance of Islam has deep historical roots. The world revolution of Westernization has always found in Islam a peculiarly recalcitrant opponent. As an Orientalist states it, (Wilfred Cantwell Smith): “Until Karl Marx and the rise of communism, the Prophet organized and launched the only serious challenge to Western Civilization that it has faced in the whole course of its history”, (Islam in Modern History, NY, 1957, p.110).

Today, that communism had crumbled, Islam, as a civilization challenge looms large once again in the Western consciousness. Samuel Huntington has recovered this animus toward Islam, deeply embedded in the Orientalist tradition (represented by Bernard Lewis in the US) and harnessed it to his influential thesis that this present century will be marked by a “clash of civilizations”, with special attention to the danger coming from the Muslim World.

Huntington uses this recycled formulation to argue for an aggression and interventionist strategy to protect American interests – and by direct implication, the security states linked to the US in the Arab World – from the destructive Islamist tide. Huntington’s reworking of the State security perspective offers critical support to the repressive, pro US-Arab State System, now justified by its role as a bulwark against “the return of Islam”.

National security analysts, both in the US and the Arab World, have presented the Islamic threat along these lines. Egypt’s story, told in such way, stands for the rest. According to this view, the Egyptian regime, facing that threat, has to slow down the move to democracy, in order to contain the Islamic threat, while the Americans are “forced” to curtail their enthusiasm for the democratic experiment and instead of supporting democracy their funds go to the officer corps to ensure their loyalty to the government. With this view of the Islamic threat against the national security regime, the realist perspective of the West has an easy time tolerating state violence and human rights violation.

This kind of backing of the US to the Islamic repressive regimes against their populations, added to the direct or indirect intervention of the US in the affairs of the Islamic countries and especially the strong backing to the Israelis against the Palestinians would explain somehow the hostile feelings against the US foreign policy in the Islamic World, accompanied sometimes by violent desperate actions. Violence only generates violence.









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