Is Religion One Thing and the State Another? Egyptian Islamist Organizations and the Question of Institutional Political Involvement

[This is the fourth in a series of my notes on the 2013 International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Islamic Reform Movements After the Arab Spring held in Herndon, VA. These notes have only been lightly edited and represent my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone. Names of participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the organizers.]

“Is Religion One Thing and the State Another? Egyptian Islamist Organizations and the Question of Institutional Political Involvement”

Jonathan Brown, Georgetown University

If an Islamic group directly involves itself in politics, have they tainted their religious credentials? Does that make people have a more or less negative view of Islam in society? Is it possible for an organization involved in religious preaching and social services to participate in politics without compromising the rest of its mission? Iranians are asking if their decision to get involved in politics has adversely affected the perception of Islam.

From the beginning the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has had an ambiguous relationship with politics. In 1984 they began to run candidates as independents and did very well. A referendum on Article 2 (“Islam is the Religion of the State, Arabic is its official language, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence”) passed a referendum with about 70% of the vote. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fatouh was opposed to forming Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) as an arm of the MB. He lost that discussion and left the MB. Hisb al-Wasat wanted the party to be completely distinct from the religious movement and recruited Christian members. It does not identify itself as Islamist, but it embraces Islamist values.

In Jamaat Islamiyya, Dr. Ibrahim argued that violent activities had adversely affected their religious calling and argued on similar grounds against forming a party, but they did. While FJP is formally independent of the MB, no one disputes the influence of the MB’s Guidance Bureau. The options were to be coterminous organization (a political wing, formally separate but heavily influenced), or completely separate but drawing on one another. The Nour Party chose sufficient independence so that if things turned out badly it could be ejected without harm to the mother organization.

The fact that the Egyptian public square is filled with anti-Muslim vitriol indicates that no one distinguishes between the FJP and the MB Guidance Bureau. What is surprising is that the downturn in MB popularity is not as great as generally propagated. According to Pew, favorable ratings dropped from 75% in 2011 to 63% now. This is not great when one considers how difficult things have been. Francois Hollande’s ratings have fallen much further.

Emad Abdel Ghafour left the Nour Party to form his own party. Of all the major presidential candidates Abol Fatouh has the highest favorable and lowest unfavorable ratings. Wasat has proven influential since the elections.

A large number of Egyptians are unhappy about the role of Islam in politics. The percentage want the Qur’an playing no role in law has doubled.



Mohamed Mosaad Abdelaziz Mohamed, Northern Arizona University: I liked Brown’s paper. People do not split over ideology, only over personal things. I agree that Morsi has to appoint Muslim Brothers, but they must be qualified.

Brown: I refer you to the second Bush administration.

Mohamed: Maybe I’m wrong. I agree completely with the second paper except, there is both the written and the oral. Someone told me there is huqm and there is fatwa so the land must be all Muslim, but there must be compromise and the Palestinians will get WB and Gaza, yet only days later in print he said there will be no compromise with Israel and there must be war to liberate all of Palestine. As an orthopedist I took people’s statement literally. As a psychologist I ask “What do they mean?”As an anthropologist, I don’t care what they say; I watch what they do. Arabs do not exchange statements of truth, they exchange propositions. If you don’t believe me watch Arabs discussing whether they want a cup of coffee. It is true they do not say how to harmonize their goals, but thatis because they do not know.

Abadir Ibrahim, St. Thomas University School of Law: Will this paper move beyond analysis to facts? It is a problem when people vote on ethnicity (or sect) rather than on issues.

Brown: I agree that personally clash is more important than ideological disagreements. That’s why Shattir couldn’t stomach Aboul Fattouh to be in charge. Those that have made clear distinctions between their religious and political organizations have done better than those that haven’t.


Q: We have always had a mixture of ideology and politics. We do not oppose religion to civil society. We oppose military to civil society. If we adopt the minimalist definition of democracy we can let the people choose.

Brown: Pre-modern civil society did exist. Pre-modern states didn’t do very much. It is the modern state that has expanded into every aspect of life. I would not dispute that the MB has made one bad decision after another. I am bothered by the notion that broken promises by politicians is something without precedent.

Q: When the Prophet went to Medina he established a civil society in Medina.

Q: Islamic movements are often accused of hate speech. In Egypt there is a hate speech directed against the Islamists. How many have been killed by mobs?

Brown: I’m stunned at people I’ve known for years who suddenly sound like they’ve taken some terrible drug. These are normal people, not [bigots] who adopted extreme rhetoric overnight. I would love to hear an explanation.

Q: Somehow in Muslim society more than in others people look funny at religious leaders. Because I pray people call me an ikhwani. We are religious yet mistrustful of religious leaders at the same time.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute






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