'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
This blog is a source for intellectual exploration. It includes a list of alternative resources and a source of free books. The placement of an article does not imply that I agree with it, merely that I found it thought-provoking. There are also poems and book reviews. Texts written by me are labelled. Readers are free to re-post anything they like.
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Hazem Kandil - Inside the World’s Largest Islamist Group
A reputation established over eight decades collapsed in less than eight months. Islamism, an ideology that carved its name from Islam, had always been synonymous with it in the minds of many. The Egyptian Muslim Brothers, who had invented and embodied this ideology since 1928, were perceived as fervent believers who went beyond practicing religion to promoting and defending it. But a gathering rebellion against the country’s first Brotherhood president changed all that.
On the eve of the 2013 popular uprising against Muhammad Morsi, Brothers organized preemptive sit-ins in several locations around the country. The biggest crowd camped around Cairo’s Raba’a al-‘Adawiya mosque. For forty days, unsuspecting Egyptians tuned in (some even strolled in) to witness for themselves what Brothers said and did. It was a rare opportunity to eavesdrop on this exceptionally discreet group. And what they saw and heard was quite different from what they were used to from the usually minted Brothers: political competitors were religiously condemned; images of Prophet Muhammad’s epic battles were conjured; biblical stories, from David and Moses to Armageddon, were invoked; allegations that Archangel Gabriel prayed at the Islamist campsite were flaunted; and sacred visions were relayed on stage night after night. This was not the vocabulary Brothers typically employed. Almost overnight, many Egyptians panicked. Who were these strangers, they wondered?
Little did they know that Brothers were equally confused. Popular hostility was certainly frustrating after decades of successful advancement of the Islamist cause. But there was more: Brothers were visibly shaken by the absence of divine intervention. In their mind, everything was set in place for their divine empowerment (tamkin); and God would never desert His soldiers. The fact that the sit-in coincided with the holy month of Ramadan, which featured Islam’s early victories, was quite suggestive. Brothers held constant vigils, fasting during daytime, and praying from dusk till dawn to make themselves worthy of divine favor.
As the political showdown approached, the daughter of the Brotherhood’s effective leader was caught screaming on television: “God will part the sea for us! Just wait and see!”She was echoing one of many omens circulated during the sit-in: that the soldiers of Pharaoh had trapped the Brothers just as they had done with the ancient Hebrews, and if they kept faith with Morsi, as their predecessors did with Moses, a miracle was shortly at hand. Brotherhood preachers even determined the date for the metaphorical drowning of the soldiers. But the sea remained as calm as ever, and the cornered believers were mercilessly slayed. Those who saw their campsite laid to waste muttered in shock and denial: why would Heaven forsake us?
My new book, Inside the Brotherhood, attempts to answer these two questions: Who are the Muslim Brothers? And what sort of relationship do they believe they have with the divine? The answers are based on years of participant observation with Brothers, extensive interviews, previously inaccessible organizational documents, and dozens of memoirs. My ultimate goal was to investigate the Brotherhood from the inside: how the movement governed members, and how members interacted.
One cannot choose to join the Muslim Brotherhood; one has to be chosen. Fayez, a lawyer who was recruited in his village mosque when he was only eleven, said he did not remember embracing the Brotherhood like one would embrace an intellectual faction or a political party. It was movement that decided. Mahmoud, a hot-blooded Alexandrian journalist who had dwelt in Brotherhood circles since he was five, remarked with some amusement: “I was actually born to find myself a Brother.” And even though Rida, a shopkeeper and lifelong Cairo resident, made it to the ranks a bit later (at elementary school), he did not remember making a conscious decision to join; “You simply slid in.”
Brothers constantly vet relatives, neighbors, colleagues, and—the most yielding pool—mosque attendants for potential recruits. Candidates pass through an average three-year probation period, typically without their knowledge, before being invited to join. They are encouraged to pray regularly at the mosque and participate in its activities, especially Qur’an-reading groups (maqari’). They are also advised to limit their interaction to pious individuals of their own age and gender. After this exceptionally long screening period, nominees are finally informed that they are being considered for Brotherhood membership. Only a tiny fraction refuses to go along after this extended courtship. And in that case, they are asked to support the cause without official membership.
As for the willing majority, the recruitment process concludes with invitations to Brotherhood day trips and informal gatherings for inspection by more experienced eyes. Those who receive the stamp of approval are designated as devotees (muhibin) and assigned to apprentice groups to test their diligence and familiarize them with the organization. Successful devotees are next enrolled in a grueling three-month elevation course (dawrat tas’id), which provides a crash introduction on the founding history of Islam and Islamism, followed by qualifying exams (mostly in the form of questionnaires). If all goes well, devotees are asked to swear an oath of allegiance (bai’a) to the General Guide (al-Murshid al-‘Am)—an oath historically reserved for caliphs, but temporarily appropriated by Brothers as the provisional leaders of the community of the faithful until a new caliphate is established. This intensely ritualized oath transforms a devotee into a Brother.
Still, elevation to entry-level membership is only the first step in another long journey through the five ranks of membership. Promotion from beginner to full member is subject to a complicated set of monitoring mechanisms centered on the process referred to as cultivation (tarbiya). When ‘Umar al-Telmesani, the third general guide (1974-1986), was invited to join the organization in 1933, his recruiters were curious to know how he spends his spare time. “I breed chicks,” he replied. His recruiters smiled knowingly and retorted: “There are creatures more in need of breeding than chicks. . . . There are Muslims who have turned away from their religion.”
One of the first lessons imprinted on the mind of Muhammad Habib, who joined in 1969 and rose to become the general guide’s first deputy (until 2009), was that cultivating the right type of Muslim is what will eventually bring Brothers to power. It is no coincidence that the Brotherhood’s first and second founders, Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, were educated at the Teachers College and graduated as primary schoolteachers. In their writings, cultivation is treated more meticulously than anything else. For while this process might strike the casual observer as simple indoctrination with a religious flavor, it is actually an elaborate activity that borrows from at least four different schools: it instills a transformative worldview in the minds of members, as communists do; it claims that converting into this worldview is contingent upon a spiritual conversion, as in mystic orders; it presents this worldview as simple, uncorrupted religion, as in puritan movements; and it insists that this worldview cannot be readily communicated to society because it is not yet ready to handle the truth of the human condition, as in masonic lodges. The ultimate aim, therefore, is not to win over more believers, but to produce a new kind of person: the Muslim Brother. This is a person striving for a new world through a spiritual struggle that reproduces the experience of early Muslims... read more: