The following was originally posted on Friday, April 8.
Feisal Mohamed deserves praise for taking a shot at the under-asked question of how frightening the Muslim Brotherhood really is for Egypt?s future. Categorizing the Muslim Brotherhood, and anything remotely ?Islamist,? as an indisputable boogieman seems to be much more popular these days than inquiring into the complex realities of the Middle East. Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood have meant different things in different places and times. Discussions such as Mohamed?s, which explain the intricacies of the situation, are a vital step toward identifying who the Left should support in Egypt moving forward.
Mohamed?s conclusion is that the Egyptian Brotherhood does not pose as significant a threat as we might think, because its internal divisions are likely to make it somewhat progressive. I say ?somewhat,? because Mohamed defines the Egyptian Brotherhood as progressive with two main positive qualities in mind: it is likely to attempt to address poverty and corruption, and it rejects the idea of leadership by a fundamentalist caliphate. In other words, the Brotherhood will probably not create a shady, pan-national theocracy. But if the Brotherhood is going to play a serious role in a new Egypt, I want to know more about what this will mean for minorities and women. Mohamed only briefly mentions these groups and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood?s discriminatory practices toward them. He does praise the Brotherhood youth branch for rejecting the declaration that Copts and women would be ineligible to run for president. However, for me, as a woman, as a Leftist, equal citizenship and minority rights are the central issues in the discussion of a religious political group coming to power, and a cursory treatment of these concerns is unjustified.
Another of the Brotherhood?s supposed progressive qualities is its use of the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a model of liberal Islamism. Should we be happy if the Brotherhood indeed models itself after the AKP? Let’s take a closer look.
Since it first came to power in 2002, the AKP has adopted a more pragmatic stance than the Turkish Islamist parties of the past. In fact, many Turks would not call the AKP an Islamist party at all, as it more often acts in line with the Turkish center-right tradition. The party itself resists the Islamist title, especially when it is in their electoral interest to do so. The AKP maintains a generally pro-democracy and pro-EU stance, having enacted significant democratic constitutional reforms over its two terms, which bring the country more in line with EU accession standards. The most recent constitutional amendments, which passed by referendum in September 2010, transfer some judicial power from military to civilian courts, establish a basis for an ombudsman, and facilitate public sector unionization.
However, the AKP comes up short in the same areas Mohamed glosses over in his assessment of the Muslim Brotherhood, such as freedom of speech and assembly, minority rights, and women?s rights. The AKP has allowed Kurdish language newspapers and radio to exist in Turkey for the first time as part of its “Kurdish Opening,” although the Turkish government still does not recognize Kurdishness as a distinct ethnicity. The AKP has an even more tarnished record regarding the Alevis, a minority sect of Islam that comprises approximately 10 percent of the Turkish population (almost all other Muslims in Turkey are Sunni); they ask for exemption for their children from mandatory Sunni religious classes in public schools, as well as recognition of their houses of religious worship as such. The AKP has ignored their requests on both of these problems. Many had hoped the most recent constitutional reform package would lower the 10 percent threshold for Turkish parliamentary representation?criticized by many as an obstacle to minority representation in government?but this did not happen. Statistics also report that women?s rights in Turkey have declined under the AKP, particularly in regard to ?honor killings? and domestic violence, although some argue this can be attributed to an increase in reporting rather than a substantive rise. All in all, the AKP looks shiny when compared to Turkish Islamist and secular parties of the past, but it is no beacon of progressivism, and a Brotherhood modeled after it is still cause for concern.
We also can?t forget that the particularities of Turkish history have shaped and constrained Islamism in Turkey, making the AKP progressive in the ways it can be called so. Even if Turkey were exemplary, this doesn?t mean it is a realistic model for the Brotherhood, simply because Egypt is not Turkey.
The Turkish Republic emerged in 1923 as an authoritarian society with strictly secular civil codes and constitutionally enshrined equality for the sexes. Many of the particularities of the Republic were circumstantial: the founders of Turkey romanticized modernity in its Western incarnation of secular nationhood as a seemingly stable alternative to the fallen Ottoman empire, and as a defense from the foreign domination encroaching on its neighbors. Until the 1980s, Turkish center-right parties maintained a tradition of refraining from explicitly religious language, despite their pious constituencies, in order to appease the secular-nationalist sentiments of the populace. After the 1980 coup, the military created a new constitution, which for the first time explicitly used religious language in its definition of Turkishness, in an attempt to lessen rampant ethnic conflict. This deployment of religion in politics allowed religious political groups to raise their voices with more confidence, and various Turkish Islamist parties subsequently arose in the 1980s.
Since the 1960 military coup, the military-led Turkish Constitutional Court has had the power to force a party to close if the Court merely suspects it of ?anti-secular activities.? This less-than-democratic institution has kept the Turkish Islamist parties weak by simply banning them; such was the fate of the Welfare Party (RP) in 1998 and its successor the Virtue Party (FP) in 2001. The Turkish Islamist voting block lost steam going into the twenty-first century because of the perceived failure of political Islam both in Turkey and abroad, corruption within the FP, and divisions within the Turkish Islamist movement itself. Previously active political Islamists became disenchanted and turned away from the Turkish Islamist parties and the transnational Muslim movement. The AKP emerged out of this climate in 2001. Many of the AKP leaders, including Prime Minister Erdoğan, are previous FP members and leaders, but they make a point of distancing themselves from the Islamist tradition for pragmatic reasons, namely in order to avoid closure by the Constitutional Court and to attract disillusioned former Islamists.
This quick look at Turkish history reveals that the AKP?s liberal Islamism is closely tied to the circumstances of Turkish history, including the authoritarianism of the Turkish secular Left. An Egyptian Brotherhood modeled after the AKP would be unlikely to follow the same path, as it is unclear what, if any, equivalent (preferably more democratic) constraints will exist in Egypt. Furthermore, even if the Brotherhood were able to copy Turkey, the AKP standard is again less than encouraging for minorities and women.
I fear very much any group that doesn?t believe in equal citizenship rights for all. Of course, in today?s world, that benchmark can leave a person constantly angst-ridden. I might (and do) raise similar criticisms, for example, against contemporary governments in Europe. And the Egyptian National Democratic Party may even be worse than the Brotherhood, when held up to similar scrutiny.
Even though I?ve watched the protests in Egypt and elsewhere unfold with hopeful goggles, my idealized vision of a truly progressive Middle East (and world) is unlikely. What I think I can reasonably advocate for is that, in an analysis of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, we consider what an empowered Brotherhood means for minorities and women, and not just as an afterthought. We must continue to raise our voices loudly for people anywhere?whether they are religious individuals or minorities or women?whose desires are left behind in the wake of revolution. These cannot be secondary issues for leftists; they are central concerns and must be treated as such.