Sunday, January 9, 2011

Sayyet Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood. Or; It's Complicated

Claire Berlinski has started a "history of the Muslim Brotherhood" that I did not sit well with.Teleological to the maxx, it looks at the Muslim Brotherhood through history in order to explain how it got to where it was today. I was a bit discomfited by the original post and the follow up, but Ms. Berlinski was gracious enough to let me get into a formal debate. She gave me membership privileges on her site, but as you will see soon enough, I had a lot more than the 200 word limit to say. And besides, I feel that the master-pupil relationship that comments sections make for are usually inappropriate and turn what should be a give-and-take into a classroom environment. So I have posted my full response here, and I hope that, if you come here from Ricochet, you will be kind enough to read it.

Sayyid Qutb is the magic link for people concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood. It follows that, if Qutb was a Brother, and Qutb said some nasty stuff that later inspired Zawahiri and bin Laden, then the Brotherhood is responsible for Zawahiri and bin Laden. This leaves out a very important part of Qutb's life, a part that is pretty obvious from the most famous picture taken of him:

Qutb spent a long time in prison. And, to paraphrase Office Space, not nice, white-collar, conjugal visit prison (not that he would take much advantage of the conjugal visits, it would seem).

After World War II and the British Empire's decision to stop being an empire, the Free Officers Movement deposed the Egyptian King and set up a socialist republic under Gamal Abdel Nasser. I'm skipping a lot of history here, and I'm always fascinated by how the Egyptian military, fresh off of being embarrassed by the nascent Israeli state, was able to retain power, but we'll have to move on.

As one could guess, an Arab Socialist State wanted little to do with the Islamic state preferred by MB. From 1945-54, there's a whole lot of instability in Egypt, something that it is hard to absolve the Brotherhood from or to implicate them in. It all really depends on which lunatic fringe of the internet you'd prefer to read. The fact is, Brothers fought Israel, Brothers fought the Egyptian state, Brothers fought the English, Brothers fought Brothers...again, instability. It's very difficult for Americans to understand the anarchic panic of an unstable state. Say what you want, but Nasser at least brought stability. He also brought tens of thousands of Brothers into jail. Qutb was one of them.

Prison, as it goes, changes a man. Qutb was never that charismatic before, but he became morose under the beatings, torture, and general Kafka-sity of prison life. When talking about Qutb, its always fun to read his things before imprisonment:
It is necessary for the new leadership to preserve and develop the material fruits of the creative genius of Europe, and also to provide mankind with such high ideals and values as have so far remained undiscovered by mankind, and which will also acquaint humanity with a way of life which is harmonious with human nature, which is positive and constructive, and which is practicable.
On the whole this theory [Socialism] conflicts with man's nature and its needs. This ideology prospers only in a degenerate society or in a society which has become cowed as a result of some form of prolonged dictatorship. But now, even under these circumstances, its materialistic economic system is failing, although this was the only foundation on which its structure was based. Russia, which is the leader of the communist countries, is itself suffering from shortages of food.
This is the sort of stuff that would get you a pat on the head from your Sunday School teacher today.

Prison...changed things when he was sentenced in 1952. He became far more pessimistic and found a Utopian religious society to be the only way out. Needless to say, before he realized this plot, he was hanged for being part of a plot to assassinate the Egyptian President under what could charitably called a show trial. This was 1966.

There are two major gaps here: The first is that as an inmate, Qutb was unable to take part in the Brotherhood and was sidelined by MB leadership for being, well, an unstable prison-bound author. It warrants mentioning, of course, that he has no formal clerical training and really seemed to strongly dislike Imams, al-Azhar, or any form of religious life. He joined MB not as a youth, but in 1951, at age 45, as a propagandist for them. He used the MB as a political opportunity to lash out at Egypt's encroaching socialism. He was a member for less than 2 years by the time he was arrested. He would've been a footnote to history if he didn't have to go and get martyred by the Egyptian state (though writing beautiful Arabic would've certainly helped him stay in the Area Studies curricula of the universities that a certain type of Ricochet-li loves to fume about).

So how much he actually was a member of the Brotherhood is dubious. Also, remember that end date, 1966. You know what part of the 1966 world order is still relevant in 2010? Pretty much none. He didn't even get to get upset over the 6-Day War, or to see what real Islamic Revolution looked like in Iran, or to see Sunni hardliners take over Mecca.

Qutb was a writer and a philosopher. Not a politician. His works have been seized by politicians to make their points. The "Islam as an underdog locked in struggle with the West" narrative pushed by al-Qaeda makes use of his prison writings, which are full of plaintives for a better world and fumations at the world as it is. The Muslim Brotherhood also takes advantage of his writings. They cite entirely different paragraphs.

In much the same way that EVERY American politician has a favorite Founding Father, every Muslim politician (and I include bin Laden as a politician because after all, he is trying to change the political scheme of the world. Bin Laden gets lots of other titles as well, I'm sure) promoting an Islamic way of life has a favorite Qutb quote. The Muslim Brotherhood's leadership has very carefully tread between embracing Qutb and keeping him at arm's length. They published a book, Preachers not Judges which can best be said to be a very polite refutation of Qutb's writings as related to politics.

As I mentioned earlier, I would strongly, strongly, urge you to read Nathan Brown's "The Muslim Brotherhood's (and Egypt's) Qutb Conundrum"  in Foreign Policy. He is far more well-read on this subject then me. The dude knows his Islamic movements. He concludes with this:

Since its re-emergence in the 1970s and 1980s, the Brotherhood has gradually stepped up its social and political engagement, working not to create a tiny countersociety but to persuade all of Egypt to follow its path; the goal has been reform of the entire society along Islamic lines. That strategy has led to a very uneven but still quite real political maturation; it has also led to a mix of successes and frustrations. Qutb speaks to the frustrations. Those who find the society too distant from Islam are less likely to prioritize engagement in the short term. They will seek instead to focus on the faithful and perhaps to reform the society not through broad social and political work but through a more elitist approach.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a political movement, a political party. Much like how Sarah Palin and Lindsey Graham are both members of the Republican Party but speak to different wings of it, Qutb and, say, Ali Sheikh-Ahmed do similar for the Muslim Brotherhood. Qutb speaks to a part of the Muslim base that the Brotherhood wants to expand into, and they would be fools to villify Qutb. In fact, it is a very, very, powerful argument that MB adheres to a more pacifist definition of Qutb's works and brings people eager to join a violent Jihad to instead choose the Brotherhood's "Great Jihad" of charitable works. This would not be a bad thing.

So, Ms. Berlinski, what shall we cover next? The Brotherhood and Palestinian Territories? Their greater transnationalism? The role they've played since the fall of the USSR? And meanwhile, Hizb ut-Tahrir is wondering just who you have to publish in order to get an audience in the United States these days. Their branding experts are REAL upset they didn't go with a simple English translation like al-Ikhwan did.

1 comment:

  1. yo dog--gimme your take on what's going on in Egypt and moreover if the US is about totally lose the Arab world if we don't hop on board