Irrational fear of the Muslim Brotherhood


Muslim Brotherhood

Dr Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first elected president since independence, was not perfect. He inherited a basket case economy dominated by family and friends of Egypt's top army brass, among them former dictator (and ally of both the United States and Israel) Hosni Mubarak. Morsi tried and failed to unite various elements of Egypt's civil society, even failing to get other religious parties (such as Saudi Arabia's salafist allies) on board.

Morsi wasn't the most polished performer overseas. At home, he was viciously lampooned by satirists on TV, radio and in print. In his clumsily fitting suit and poorly-trimmed beard, he looked more like Yogi Bear than a statesman.

Egypt has been longer a home of Christianity than Islam. Six decades of military rule haven't made Egyptian Christians feel safer, especially with allegedly secular military strongmen using their power to spread anti-Christian hatred to deflect attention and manufacture religious scapegoat. This isn't a peculiarly Muslim or Egyptian phenomenon. Billy Hughes and John Howard each had pieces of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak in them.

But to many of Morsi's opponents inside and outside Egypt, his biggest imperfection was his affiliation to the Egyptian branch of the pan-Arab social movement calling itself al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (the Muslim Brothers or MB). The exact extent of his affiliation isn't very clear. Was he as close to the MB spiritual leadership as, say, Tony Abbott was to Cardinal Pell or the late Bob Santamaria? Or was he just one of those leaders who liked rewarding his political allies with cushy jobs, again something hardly unknown to Australian readers.

Some may find such comparisons offensive. They will insist there is a huge difference between Islamic chalk and Christian cheese. Christians don't declare jihad on other countries, nor do they seek to impose their theocratic politics on others. The MB is an Islamist organisation, much like to other Islamist organisations such as al-Qaida and Hezbollah and the Indonesian JI. Islamists aren't really committed to democracy. Islamists are theocrats at heart.

It's little wonder that those insisting on such reasoning will have little sympathy for any group meeting their label of Islamist. Which leads me to wonder: on what basis do we label individuals or groups 'Islamist'? Or 'fundamentalist'? Or 'extremist'?

How many times need it be said that it is impossible to have a monolith amongst a set of congregations making up almost one quarter of the world's human population? Further, when will anti-'Islamists' recognise that the history and politics and economics of Muslims is just as complex and complicated as the variations of history and politics and economics of Catholic communities? Political Catholics (or Catholic politicians, whatever) in El Salvador has different priorities to those in Germany to those in East Timor to those in Australia.

So if we want to get an understanding of why we should all be concerned with events in Egypt, let's start by removing our sectarian blinkers. This applies not just to anti-'Islamists' but also to the many Shia Muslims that perhaps regard Morsi as a Sunni sectarian fanatic for his opposition to Iranian and Lebanese Shia forces supporting the Syrian government. It applies also to other sectarian and political groupings across the Muslim world who have been fervently critical of Morsi and his government.

It also applies to people like me, people who were once 'radicals' and who once supported 'Islamic' movements (of which MB was one) largely because we were taken in by the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. We then became disillusioned with MB-style politics after seeing movements becoming embroiled in the Afghan civil wars that erupted after the Soviets withdrew and the American cash dried up.

In Egypt, many 'Islamists' also became disillusioned with and left the MB. But groups like MB never left their communities. Even when they ceased their political role, successive Egyptian dictators saw the MB as useful for providing social services – medical clinics, legal aid services, etc.

The MB has been performing this role for decades. Its grass roots outreach is stronger than any purely political secular grouping in the country. Little wonder one of its allies won the presidential election.

When an elected government proves unpopular and incompetent, we only expect the army to intervene and a coup to take place if the country involved is Pakistan or Bangladesh or a central African nation. Indeed, these days it is rare even in Pakistan, Bangladesh and many parts of Africa. So why should our leaders speak almost approvingly of such a process taking place in Egypt?

It must seem hypocritical to the average person from a Muslim party, to the average cadre who would otherwise be volunteering in a health clinic or legal aid centre in downtown Cairo or Karachi or Jogjakarta. Or indeed Baghdad. The West can encourage democracy. It will even force-feed democracy (as in the Gulf War). It will jail hundreds of innocent people in Guantanamo Bay and in secret camps to protect what is left of its own democracy.

But woe betide any vaguely 'Islamist’ group which tries to democratise itself and its nation.

Irfan YusufIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney based lawyer and blogger

Image: Mohamed Elsayyed /

Topic tags: Irfan Yusuf, islam, Muslim Brotherhood, extremism, fundamentalism, democracy



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Existing comments

The Muslim Brotherhood began life as an aid organisation. It worked with Nasser in an attempt to bring democratic reform to Egypt. Nasser then turned around and with the tacit support of the meddling West outlawed the Brotherhood and imprisoned, tortured and executed its leaders. The current slaughter is a continuation of that process. Foreign powers with commercial and political interests in the region may mildly criticize the killing but quietly give the nod to the Egyptian military to continue it.
Gazza | 20 August 2013

As part of a small group of five Australians, I visited Egypt in May. I will be honest and say that I found the visit confronting on a number of levels. We could see that tourism, a great source of revenue for Egypt, was struggling. We were accompanied at all times in public by our guide and driver. Cairo is a chaotic city, and he who drives a car there is a very brave person. Clearly, the majority of people are aggrieved enough about the mixture of politics and religion to take to the streets and demand a change. That the situation has escalated dramatically into violence reveals great underlying tension and efforts to resolve it are failing. The 'meddling' West may do well to back off.
Pam | 21 August 2013

I think the situation in Egypt is more complicated than you think, Irfan. Robert Fisk of the Independent is particularly perceptive on this. But then he has lived in the Middle East for the last 30+ years. His recent reports and analysis of what is happening make one think. Chilling is his comment that, if the US stop financially supporting the current government, the Saudis will step in. The Saudis support the Salafists of the Noor Party, who are far more conservative than the Brotherhood and won 24% of the vote at the recent elections. Noor also pulled their support from Morsi at the time of Sissi's coup. Fisk thinks that the current crackdown is likely to alienate moderate Muslims who were becoming disenchanted with Morsi's rule and the ways of the Brotherhood. It is a pity that Senator John McCain's suggestion the US cut off aid to Egypt until civil government is restored is thought too difficult. It would send a message to the Egyptian military. It is time the rest of the world see that "the West" does not necessarily support military dictators as a first option. I suspect, as in Turkey, the average Egyptian will clearly demonstrate, as has already happened, that they don't want an "Islamicist" government (read authoritarians masquerading as "religious" leaders).
Edward F | 21 August 2013

If you can sort this out, good luck. On the one hand you have an elected government that was incompetent, sending the country broke and leaning towards an Islamist rule. On the other hand is a whole lot of people who were disenchanted with this state of affairs and who wanted to change the elected government. Does this warrant an intervention by the country's army? I don't think so. At least not on the terms we are seeing now. In the end, it may have been better to let the government of the day run the country down until it was forced to recognise it needed help or could not do the job. As it is, we have a country heading for possibly years of uncertainty, unrest, rebellion or worse. In the meantime any of us who have friends or family there can only hope and pray for their well being.
Tony Burnell | 21 August 2013

Many Muslim Egyptians and also nearly all Coptic Christian Egyptians fear and oppose the Muslim Brotherhood- its policies and its behaviour. Coptic Egyptians who now live in Australia are puzzled by mainstream media editorials and journalists who report sympathetically on the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and protestors.
Mike James | 21 August 2013

"Which leads me to wonder: on what basis do we label individuals or groups 'Islamist'? Or 'fundamentalist'? Or 'extremist'?" Speaking for myself only, I would label them such if, as has been reported numerous times and again recently in Egypt with the destruction of 12 Christian churches by mobs, they are intolerant of and persecute non -Muslims to the point of murder, rape, forced conversion, forced marriage, destruction of property, and similar unjust actions.
Frank S | 22 August 2013 Or make that 58 churches. I would say the fear is not irrational.
Frank S | 22 August 2013

The following link goes to an article by a Jesuit priest who is living in Egypt. He challenges that notion of Irfan Yusuf that the fear of the Brotherhood is irrational.
David O'Shea | 23 August 2013

The real, as against imagined, situation in Egypt has, once again, changed. Barak Obama, because the US has put a stop to some funding and a joint military exercise, is now caricatured by the Copts, some of whom think he has a Muslim brother, as a supporter of the Brotherhood. BTW, for those who lump all Christians into one basket, the Copts, the original inhabitants of the country, are by and large Oriental Orthodox and deeply sceptical of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria (Greek); the Catholics and Western Evangelicals. The Greek Patriarchate is fawningly subservient to the authorities and the Catholics and Evangelicals suspected of attempting a takeover. The Copts - despite not being affiliated with powerful groups outside - have retained their religion and identity since the Arab Conquest of Egypt despite enormous pressures. At 10% of the country's population they are by far the largest Christian group, native or foreign, in the Middle East.
Edward F | 23 August 2013


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