Flame-Out of the Muslim Brotherhood

by Dr Robert Dickson Crane

Options for the Future

The intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the Muslim Brotherhood’s old guard and the killing of some of its more enlightened youth leaders by the military and police in the summer of 2013 threatened to further polarise society by marginalizing the so-called “moderates”.

Talk of “post-Islamism” raised the question whether the search for justice as the source of freedom and democracy can continue within a redesigned structure of the former Muslim Brotherhood or at least within its informal socio-economic bases, which were the source of its power under the old Mubarak regime. Alternatively, must the search for compassionate justice start all over based on new paradigms of thought in response to the flame-out of “political Islam”.

The extreme pessimism of what remained of the “moderates” led many to conceive of only two possible options. The first was the utopian but essentially pessimistic hope that the economy would deteriorate so badly that another revolt would begin within a year and perhaps this time advocate reform rather than revolution. The second option was the thoroughly fatalistic and pessimistic prediction that another chance for institutional reform within a civil government based on a civil (rather than an overtly religious) constitution, as in Tunisia under Sheikh Rachid al Ghannouchi, would not come for another decade or two.

From the very beginning of the “Arab Spring” in 2010—2011 some pessimists pointed out that the Muslim Brotherhood in its various incarnations had failed over a period of almost a century to achieve meaningful justice for two major reasons. First, the entire Arab world had been close to the status of a failed state, because it failed to absorb the best of the West into something better; and, second, because the confrontational approach of its Muslim leaders was bound to backfire. This approach resulted from the shift in leadership from Hassan al Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 as a Sufi-like movement for reform through education, to Syed Qutb, who was horrified by what he perceived as the diabolical secularism of America from his studies there during the late 1940s, and was equally horrified by the Westernised government in Egypt, which imprisoned him for three years from 1961 to 1964, including torture. These two experiences led Syed Qutb to invent what later became known as the “clash of civilisations” as a paradigm for radical confrontation.

The confrontation between the strategies of peaceful engagement and conflict management reached its peak twice. The first was when The Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brothers, Hassan al Hodeibi, published a book in 1969 while in prison dissociating the MB from opposition to the “Free Officers State” inaugurated by Gamal Abd al Nasser in 1952. Instead he called for recognition of the Egyptian government as Islamic but in need of gradual reformation to enhance the reformation of Egyptian society as a whole. Perhaps the best analysis available on the Arab Spring as of its publication on September 12, 2013, in The London Review of Books is Hugh Roberts’ lengthy essay, entitled “The Revolution That Wasn’t”. He writes that for decades after 1969, “The Brothers adhered to their non-violent strategy and behaved with prudence as well as stoicism” in order to avoid a repetition of Nasser’s near annihilation of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954.

The second great confrontation resulted in the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohamed Mahdi Akef in 2009, who was the first Supreme Guide in the 80-year history of the Muslim Brotherhood not to hold office for life. Shortly after his election in 2004, Akef announced a strategy to avoid a direct and personal confrontation with President Hosni Mubarak by accepting the possibility of a succession by Mubarak’s son, and instead to promote the redistribution of power towards the legislative branch by advocating a constitutional change designed to make Egypt a parliamentary republic. This would have appealed to the “liberals” both within and outside the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as to the military descendents of the Free Officers coup of 1952, who opposed Mubarak’s marginalization of the army in favour of his own personal power.

In January, 2010, the conservative wing took over in the person of Mohamed Badie, and many of Akef’s followers, including perhaps the most able, Abdul Muneim Abdu Futuh, left the Muslim Brotherhood in 2011. In the words of Hugh Roberts, which well summarise the major cause of the Muslim Brotherhood’s flame-out, “From then on it was the conservative and inward-looking wing of the Brothers that made policy. Less politically skilled and self-confident, clumsy and rigid in debate because less at ease with other points of view, inclined to be suspicious and invite suspicion in return and very much disposed to seek a deal of some kind with the regime as the precondition of everything else, the new leadership was to prove incapable of handling the endless challenges of the post-Mubarak era”.

This political dead-end in the Arab Spring led some of the leading moderates to ask whether those concerned with justice through reform should rebrand the Muslim Brotherhood in pursuit of Tariq Ramadan’s and Ghannouchi’s call for a civil state based on global ethics, not in Hans Kung’s sense of personal reformation by individuals, but in the sense of the higher principles of Islamic jurisprudence found in the transcendent essence and purpose of all the world religions and best articulated in the classical Islamic thought of the Maqasid al Shari‘ah.

This, in turn, led to my position paper, entitled “The Global Awakening, Part I: Developing a Consensus Paradigm through a Common Language of Normative and Compassionate Justice, and Part II: Mimetic Challenges to Developing a Common Language”, and Part III: The Challenge of Disunity and the Response of a Paradigm Spring”, which were published on June 1st and 5th, 2012, in The Journal of America, an organ of the American Institute of International Studies.

The key challenge is how to design policies for both the short and long run so that they do not detract from each other in empowering the poor, while not disenfranchising the rich. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood had no policies of any kind other than buying the support of the corrupt military by protecting its monopoly ownership of Egypt’s productive wealth. At a minimum for political purposes the MB should have adopted capital homesteading as a popular strategy to address the growing wealth gap, while introducing emergency programs to sustain human dignity until institutional reforms could begin to make a real difference. The internal discussions in the Muslim Brotherhood apparently did not even include reference to its establishment of employee-owned industries more than sixty years ago at the micro level, which were so successful that Nasser either exiled or executed all their CEOs as threats to socialism.

The three keys to economic justice are the right to produce wealth by contributing one’s own labour and capital, and the right to the distribution of profits accruing from this contribution, as well as governmental supervision to assure the transparency of this input-output principle. Contributive, distributive, and harmonic justice should be the key to all economics, especially in Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.

Equal opportunity to acquire and democratize capital ownership does not and should not aim at equal results. All the world religions recognize that there will always be a minority of rich in society, but they teach that there is no need for anyone ever to be poor, and that charity by the rich to the poor is commendable but will never be enough to assure justice. Justice requires that at a minimum the opportunities to gain access to property ownership should be equal for everyone, but that those who have worked hard and invest wisely deserve more than those who don’t.

The key distinction is between distributing or broadening capital ownership from the bottom up and re-distributing such ownership from the rich to the poor. Such re-distribution violates the fundamental Islamic principle of haqq al mal, which is respect for private ownership in the means of production within a free-market economy.

This distinction has a long history in America, highlighted by the populism of William Jennings Bryan and Senator Huey Long, respectively in the 1890s and 1930s, and Louis Kelso’s “binary economics” in the 1960s. Former Secretary of State Bryan was chosen three times as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate but lost the presidency every time. Senator Huey Long’s “share the wealth” platform back in America’s Great Depression seventy-five years ago relied on redistributing the wealth from the rich to the poor by limiting personal incomes to what today would be about $50,000,000 and giving the surplus to the poor for food, housing, and education.

In his speech inserted in The Congressional Record on March 7, 1935, Senator Long noted the deplorable wealth gap in 1916, when a committee appointed by Congress found that two percent of the people owned twice as much as all the remainder of the people put together and that 65 percent of the people owned practically nothing. Fourteen years later in 1930 a study by the Federal Trade Commission found that one percent of the people owned 59 percent of the wealth, which was twice as bad as in 1916. In recent years the concentration of capital ownership has become even worse.

Long’s solution was designed to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor in order to address the urgent problems of the wealth gap during an interim period of a few years. Louis Kelso, on the other hand, was more politically sophisticated, because his strategy was designed to broaden capital ownership by government sponsored pure credit available interest-free to every person based on future profits rather than on past wealth accumulation, which does not involve taking any property away from anyone, though it might take a decade or more to produce a just society.

What is now known as Kelsonian capital homesteading, modelled after Abraham Lincoln’s land homesteading in the 1860s and called industrial homesteading by President Ronald Reagan, gradually expands the relative share of national wealth owned by the formerly propertyless but does not reduce by theft the absolute wealth of those who already own the wealth of society. This approach, today known as The Just Third Way and developed in many books by Norman Kurland’s Centre for Economic and Social Justice and in practice by its investment arm, Equity Expansion International, provides an alternative to authoritarian socialism and monopoly capitalism, as first proposed at a theoretical level by Tunisia’s Grand Mufti Ibn Ashur in his classic book published in 1946.

Socialism and monopoly capitalism have produced a vicious cycle of oppression and chaos, so a Just Third Way is essential. This has never been tried at a macro level, but it may be all that is left after all the other strategies to promote peace, prosperity, and freedom in a Global Spring or Global Awakening have failed.

This option for the future after the flame-out of the Muslim Brotherhood could be an effective means to pursue the vision and mission of Sheikha Moza, who heads the world’s largest think tank, the Qatar Foundation, and is trying to bring together the best of all civilisations and religions to universalise their spiritual awareness and plurality of wisdom by interfaith cooperation in pursuing the vision of peace, prosperity, and freedom through the interfaith harmony of transcendent and compassionate justice for everyone.

Within this Qatar Foundation is the Centre for the Study of Islamic Thought and Muslim Societies, one of six centres in the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies. The formal mission of this Centre is to explore the past, present, and prospective future of religion as a definitive part of every society’s nature and identity, especially as seen through the successes and failures of efforts to translate the dynamic pluralism of classical Islamic thought into practice.

– Dr Robert Dickson Crane

Full Professor and Director,
Centre of the Study of Islamic Thought and Muslim Societies
Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies
Hamad Bin Khalifa University