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Professional Islamists

The Muslim Brotherhood’s long march through the institutions.

Feb 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 22 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, or al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun, is more than a radical network, comparable to al Qaeda; more than an ideological phenomenon, like the followers of Khomeini in the 1979 Iranian Revolution; and more than a political insurgency, similar to Pakistani jihadism. It is an Egyptian Islamist subculture of great depth and influence. 

Professional Islamists

Demonstrators from the Muslim Brotherhood in Tahrir Square, February 7

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It is therefore also much more than a product of political decisions made by Hosni Mubarak. The Brotherhood was powerful before Mubarak, before his predecessor Anwar Sadat, and before their elder comrade, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

But the Brotherhood today is not identical with the paramilitary Arabist-Islamist Ikhwan that functioned in the 1930s through the 1960s. After those decades, the Brotherhood underwent a social and political transformation that was both impressive in its novelty and disturbing in its effect. 

Beginning under Nasser, the Brotherhood came out of the shadows and began organizing to take over the Egyptian professional guilds of doctors and engineers. A researcher sympathetic to the Brotherhood, Amani Kandil, publishing in Arabic but cited in Western sources, has said the decision to focus on medicine and engineering was motivated by the recognition that these were the fields of aspiration where social change had become concentrated in Egypt as the 20th century ended. Universities ballooned in size and ambition, establishing new curricula in technological studies, backed by Nasser’s government. Along with them, the professional guilds expanded their membership.

But the succeeding regimes of Sadat and Mubarak could not bring about the economic growth necessary to employ university graduates in medicine (including pharmacy) and engineering. The medical and engineering guilds came under Brotherhood control, and for a time, the Brotherhood was nicknamed “the engineers’ union.” But the Brotherhood also made significant inroads in the guilds representing two other professions: law and journalism.

Radical religion’s appeal to the upwardly mobile Muslim has been observed in many countries. The fundamentalist version of Islam embodied in the faith of the Brotherhood, the Saudi Wahhabis, and the South Asian radicals is simple and does not take much from the busy life of a doctor or engineer. It does not require engagement with theological or spiritual concepts that may appear in conflict with modern, professional education. In addition, for Egyptians, local traditional Islam, with its heavy dose of spiritual Sufism, is considered a backward, rural style of observance from which the urban professional wishes to escape at any cost. A similar yearning for a basic and stripped-down religious commitment is visible among both Pakistani radicals and the Turkish middle class voters who cast their ballots for Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development party, or AKP.

But the intervention of the Brotherhood in the Egyptian medical profession also had an effect on the ordinary populace. The government could not accommodate the demand for medical services, and once the Brotherhood had taken control of the Egyptian medical syndicate, the movement began opening free clinics in poor communities. Local Islamist medical aid centers became favorite sites for activist indoctrination by the Brotherhood’s more radical splinters like al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

The Brotherhood’s turn to recruitment among the elites as well as the downtrodden had been anticipated by the best known of the Brotherhood’s theoreticians, Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), who was executed at Nasser’s order and whose writings have permeated Islamic fundamentalist groups all over the world. Qutb considered himself and the Brotherhood reformers of Islam and believed that a return to the “true” Islam he and his colleagues preached required a revival of Muslim achievement in science.

In his most famous work, Milestones, Qutb wrote, 

A Muslim can go to a Muslim or to a non-Muslim to learn abstract sciences such as chemistry, physics, biology, astronomy, medicine, industry, agriculture, administration, technology, military arts and similar sciences and arts; although the fundamental principle is that when the Muslim community comes into existence it should provide experts in all these fields in abundance, as all these sciences and arts are a sufficient obligation for Muslims (that is to say, there ought to be a sufficient number of people who specialize in these various sciences and arts to satisfy the needs of the community). 

At the same time, Qutb reflected the contradictions of Islamist ideology, which seeks to implement religious purism through social and political action combined with “principles of economics and political affairs and interpretation of historical processes.” 

The Brotherhood’s takeover of these professional institutions and its resulting influence over doctors, pharmacists, engineers, lawyers, and media personnel provided the movement with a solid constituency within Egyptian society. Qutb’s vision of Islamic regeneration in the sciences produced a political power bloc resting on the professional interests and yearning for the stability of Egypt’s educated elite. Within the Brotherhood, the move toward penetration and recruitment in the professions has produced differing opinions. Tariq Ramadan, grandson of Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, argues that the content of the Koran is specific to its historical context. Kamal al-Helbawy, a Brotherhood representative in Britain since the mid-1990s, has argued that the Koran contains all of human knowledge and that there is nothing new to be added to it. In the latter view, if the Brotherhood comes to power in any Muslim country, education and science must be brought under rigid religious authority. 

Strength in civil society is the necessary foundation for a successful transition away from authoritarianism or totalitarianism to popular sovereignty. 

In all countries, professional and other voluntary associations are a key element of civil society. In Egypt today, the Muslim Brotherhood is not merely one among many competing religious groups; nor does it command omnipotent influence in the opposition to Mubarak. But its prestige in the professions provides it with a major platform for its future ambitions. In the history of the Brotherhood, the Mubarak era is but one chapter, and little about the Brotherhood or its power today may be said to have been caused or even aggravated by Mubarak’s errors. The Brotherhood had prepared the foundation for its present involvement in Egyptian politics long before the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 and Mubarak’s accession to power.

Stephen Schwartz is the author of The Two Faces of Islam and The Other Islam, both published by Doubleday.

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