The Society of Muslim Brothers in Egypt by Brynjar Lia. Pub: Garnet Publishers, Reading, UK. Pp: 328. Price: £30.
Egypt’s Jamiyyat al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun (‘The Society of Muslim Brothers’), or more simply the Ikhwan, is the first and probably the most influential of the contemporary Islamist movements in the world, and one that has for years provoked great interest among scholars and journalists alike. Much has been written on the Ikhwan and its charismatic founder, Hasan al-Banna but, as his brother Jamal al-Banna writes in his foreword to this latest academic treatise on the subject, most of the extant literature, reflecting either a western or leftist perspective, is biased and fails to present an objective analysis of the movement. This book, as Jamal al-Banna notes, comes as a refreshing contrast, bringing with it new sources and an analysis that is both original and balanced.
Lia’s focus is on the early origins of the Ikhwan, in the 1920s, to 1942, when the movement, having expanded rapidly all over Egypt and beyond, became the victim of harsh and repressive policies on the part of Egypt’s ruling elite and their British masters. The social context within which the movement had its origins is Lia’s point of take-off for this study. He writes that Egypt in the 1920s was ripe for a movement such as the Ikhwan to take root. European aggression and Western cultural imperialism, combined with mounting economic crises and the declining legitimacy of Egypt’s aristocratic ruling elite, drew many Egyptians to movements advocating change, whether gradual social reform or radical revolution. Disillusioned with degenerate forms of a world-renouncing Sufism and with the traditional Azharite ulama who had been reduced almost to the status of mere lackeys of the Egyptian ruling class, Hasan al-Banna’s appeals for Islamic revolution struck a sympathetic chord in the hearts of many young Egyptians.
A major section of this book is devoted to an intellectual biography of Hasan al-Banna, tracing his childhood and developments in his youth, and his eventual launching of the Ikhwan in the late 1920s. As Hasan al-Banna saw it, he was not founding a new organisation of his own but simply bringing Muslims back to Islam as a comprehensive code, covering all aspects of personal and collective life, following in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad (saw). Islam was presented as a complete ideology, with its own rules about issues of governance, the polity, economy and society, in addition to personal piety. Central to this was Islam’s concern with social justice and the rights of the oppressed and the poor. This naturally brought Hasan al-Banna, as Lia shows, into growing opposition with sections of Egypt’s ruling elite, who found the Ikhwan’s calls for radical social justice a threat to their interests. It was this that was to lead the Egyptian establishment to a war-like confrontation with the Ikhwan, seeking to root it out completely by force.
Because of the Ikhwan’s concern with the socially marginalised and their rights, as well as its vast network of social projects, the organisation managed, in a mere two decades, to penetrate into almost all parts of Egypt, establishing a strong base among the lower middle classes and the poor. Its appeals to Islamic authenticity, its championing of the interests of the marginalised, its vehement denunciation of ruling class excesses and of Western imperialism, as well as its role in the Palestinian struggle against Zionism, all went up to make the Ikhwan a formidable opposition force in Egypt. Rather than seek to enter into a dialogue with it, Egypt’s rulers sought to eliminate the Ikhwanis physically, sending numerous Ikhwani leaders to prison or the gallows. But, as Lia writes, such repressive policies, which are still the usual practice of ruling regimes in much of the Arab world (tied to Western imperialist interests), have only made matters more complicated, resulting in civil war and untold suffering for millions.
In concluding his immensely readable account, Lia stresses that western states and Arab regimes both need to redefine their approaches to Islamist groups such as the Ikhwan. Dialogue, rather than confrontation, is urged, on the grounds that Islamists, far from being the bloodthirsty ‘terrorists’ that they are painted as, have an important and constructive role to play in the future development of Muslim societies. While one may not agree with all its conclusions, this is undoubtedly an excellent addition to the literature on Islamic movements.
[Y. Sikand is a Crescent International reader in Bangalore, India.]