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Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faces a dilemma: Religion or politics?

- June 20, 2016
Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo in 2014. (Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

The audacious decision of Tunisia’s Ennahda movement to separate politics and religion has raised the question of whether Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood would follow Ennahda’s course. Pundits think the current crisis of the Brotherhood might prompt its leaders to consider taking a similar move and separating the two realms. Furthermore, while some of the Brotherhood’s exiled figures highlighted that they are weighing the idea of separating political and religious activities, others reject it as not viable or realistic. No matter the outcome of the Brotherhood’s ongoing discussion over this issue, assuming it exists, the movement faces many hurdles that preclude reaching a decision similar to that of Ennahda’s.

Calls for separating religion and politics in the Brotherhood are not new. Many Islamist figures, including Mohammed Salim El-Awa, Tariq El-Bishry and Abduallah Al-Nofaisy, urged the Brotherhood to leave politics and focus on da’wa (religious preaching) and tarbiyya (education). The prime reason behind the split of Al-Wasat Party from the Brotherhood in 1996 was to morph the movement into a political entity. As Abu Ela Madi, the chairman of Al-Wasat Party, put it in a recent interview, “The Brotherhood’s activity should be limited to da’wa.

A key hurdle that faces the Brotherhood is what I call the “founding defect.” Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Brotherhood, envisioned his movement as not a merely religious or preaching organization but also as a political actor. He defined the Brotherhood, among other things, as a “political association.” In fact, a key motivation for al-Banna to establish the Brotherhood in 1928, instead of joining one of the many Islamic groups existing at the time, was to change the political and social order to something more Islamic.

Since the 1940s, the Brotherhood has immersed itself in everyday politics. Blending religion and politics is not peculiar for the Brotherhood’s members, as it might appear to outsiders. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. The Brotherhood takes pride in mixing religion and politics as part of its comprehensive ideology. Islam was for al-Banna and is for the Brotherhood’s members a comprehensive religion that encompasses all aspects of life, including the political.

As I discuss in my book, the idea of shumuliyyat al-islam (comprehensiveness of Islam) is embedded in the Brotherhood’s ideology and constitutes an integral component of its collective identity. Members join the Brotherhood not only because of its religious character, but also because of its social, political and educational activities. Put differently, politics constitutes a chief component of the Brotherhood’s DNA, impossible to remove without changing the nature of the movement.

Another hurdle is the Brotherhood’s ideological indoctrination. Unlike quietist Islamist groups, the Brotherhood adopts a highly politicized platform that keeps members engaged in everyday politics. The indoctrination programs within the Brotherhood promote certain values that go beyond religion and help create politicized identity. Moreover, the Brotherhood trains its members not to be not only preachers but also social activists and politicians. Forsaking politics would mean a fundamental change in the Brotherhood’s indoctrination and socialization programs, something the movement cannot afford to do.

The third hurdle is the organizational structure of the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is usually praised for its tight-knit and disciplined structure, which enabled it to survive regime repression for decades. However, this structure can be counterproductive. After the January 2011 uprising, the Brotherhood created the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) which was mainly a “Brotherhood” entity with little evidence it included non-Brotherhood members. The nascent party relied heavily on the Brotherhood’s structure, recruitment and mobilization tactics. For example, the Youth Division within the FJP was mainly created by the student office as scores of the young Brotherhood members moved from the movement to the party with no genuine distinction or separation. The lines between the Brotherhood and the FJP were blurred, and the latter acted as a political arm to the former with no real autonomy.

If the Brotherhood decides to become a religious group only, it will lose its edge in the religious market. When I wrote about the Brotherhood in 2007, many members rejected the idea of having only a religious role. Some of them expressed distress at the idea of separating religion and politics and considered it a form of secularism. These members joined the Brotherhood because of its comprehensive character. Separating religion and politics would alienate many of the Brotherhood’s members, particularly in rural and suburban areas.

The final hurdle the Brotherhood faces is its current crisis. The movement is struggling not only to survive one of the most eliminating and repressive campaigns in its history but also to remain united. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi’s regime has put the movement under unprecedented pressure, with no communication between the leadership and the grass-roots organizers, which has led to significant differences and divisions within the Brotherhood.

For the first time, the movement has two sets of leaders, inside and outside Egypt. They disagree over almost everything, from policy to tactics. With such a hostile and divisive environment, any decision to separate religion and politics would create more divisions and problems — and might even shatter the movement.

To envision a Brotherhood without political activity is a delusion. The debate inside the Brotherhood is not over separating religion and politics but instead over separating the preaching activity from party politics. As an ex-Brotherhood minister living in exile, Amr Darrag points out, “[T]he Brotherhood should not abandon politics or withdraw from the public sphere, but rather avoid political competition with other parties.” Darrag and other Brotherhood figures who share his view reflect a small faction within the Brotherhood and don’t have real power over the movement.

Any attempt to genuinely separate religion and politics would require fundamental changes in the Brotherhood’s organization, ideology and socialization programs, which seem unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.

Khalil al-Anani is an associate professor at Doha Institute for Graduate Studies in Qatar. He is the author of “Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity, and Politics” (Oxford University Press, 2016).