Egypt’s moderate and puritanical Muslims

In recent days, some news has sputtered out of Nigeria about the horrific ongoing attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram. Many journalists have been pooh-poohing claims by the U.S. and Nigerian governments that Boko Haram is tied to al Qaeda. See, for example, this Reuters report headlined “Analysis: Nigeria’s Boko Haram ups game but no Al Qaeda.” Now that we’re learning more about the widespread coordinated attacks on Christians and other targets (the death toll is at least 162 in this Associated Press report), I sure hope to see more in-depth coverage of what’s happening there.

So it’s nice to see both the Washington Post and New York Times giving prominent coverage to the seating of Egypt’s new parliament. Both stories are good and well worth a read. The Post‘s piece is headlined “Salafists to take a quarter of Egypt’s lower house.”

Followers of a puritanical form of Islam will fill about a quarter of the seats in the lower house of the new Egyptian parliament on Monday, underscoring the political power being wielded by Islamists in the wake of the Arab spring.

Finding themselves badly outnumbered, some Egyptian liberals are weighing whether to align themselves with the moderate Muslim Brotherhood in hopes of preventing an all-Islamist alliance between the Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party will be the largest in the new parliament, and the ultraconservative Salafist Nour party, the second-largest.

I just had to highlight the use of the word puritanical. Something tells me that 16th century English Protestants had no idea that they would come to be associated with Egyptian Salafists.

As for describing the Muslim Brotherhood as moderate, I’m curious what you think of that. Certainly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt practices a more moderate form of Islamism than some, but that could be viewed as a pretty low bar for bestowing the “moderate” word. There’s also this section:

The Salafists adhere to a hard-line interpretation of Islam that advocates a staunch segregation of the sexes and forbids alcohol, and have insisted that they won’t compromise their Islamic values. A history of rivalry between the two Islamist groups makes an alliance between the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood unlikely; the Nour Party’s precursor, the Salafist Call, was born from a movement founded in the 1970s to counter the Brotherhood’s domination at the university campus in Alexandria.

But the two parties do play to an overlapping Islamist base, and the Salafists’ strong electoral showing has given new prominence to issues involving morality.

Again, I’m not sure this is entirely fair. Are these “hard-line interpretations”? Or are they tenantstenets of Islam? Do moderates or liberals believe in compromising Islamic values? Does the Muslim Brotherhood have new positions on alcohol and the sexes? Are these the best examples we have and, if so, could we learn a bit more about how the other groups disagree with the Salafists? A great story, particularly with the limited word count the reporter seemed to be working with, but I do have some questions.

The New York Times took a slightly different approach in its article headlined “Islamists Win 70% of Seats in the Egyptian Parliament.” It begins:

CAIRO — Egyptian authorities confirmed Saturday that a political coalition dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the 84-year-old group that virtually invented political Islam, had won about 47 percent of the seats in the first Parliament elected since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. An alliance of ultraconservative Islamists won the next largest share of seats, about 25 percent.

Did the Brotherhood invent political Islam or a modern incarnation of it? There has always been political Islam, since the beginning of the religion, no? Here we seem to have agreement that there’s this “ultraconservative” group but the Times doesn’t define the Brotherhood as moderate, although it gives some more specifics as to how its political means might be more moderate:

The tally, with the two groups of Islamists together winning about 70 percent of the seats, indicates the deep cultural conservatism of the Egyptian public, which is expressing its will through free and fair elections for the first time in more than six decades.

But the two groups have described very different visions and appear to be rivals rather than collaborators. The Brotherhood has said it intends to respect personal liberties and will focus on economic and social issues, gradually nudging the culture toward its conservative values. By contrast, the ultraconservatives, known as Salafis, put a higher priority on legislation on Islamic moral issues, like the consumption of alcohol, women’s dress and the contents of popular culture.

Both articles are helpful, particularly read together. The Times also gives a brief mention to how Copts fared in elections.

Image of Egyptian protesters via Shutterstock.

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  • Jerry

    I just had to highlight the use of the word puritanical. Something tells me that 16th century English Protestants had no idea that they would come to be associated with Egyptian Salafists.

    The word “puritanical” now means “Practicing or affecting strict religious or moral behavior.” so no matter what the origin, I think that’s the proper word to use.

    As for describing the Muslim Brotherhood as moderate, I’m curious what you think of that.

    They’ve said that they would govern as moderates. There have been stories about how they would follow the Turkish model. And there is a history of radical groups adopting moderate policies once in power in many nations but not universally so. Take, for example, Israel where a terrorist leader of the Irgun became Prime Minister. But basically, it’s much too early to judge that claim until we actually see what policies they promote. There are many actions they could take that would promote Islamic values in ways that would justify the moderate label. And there are many actions which would prove that the label is false. I suspect that we’ll be able to answer that question by the end of this year.

  • John M.

    “Virtually invented political Islam”? You have -got- to be kidding me. Certainly it’s hard to downplay the influence of the Brotherhood on the modern political scene in the Middle East, but the modern political scene started in 1922 when the West imposed the nation-state theory of political organization on the Middle East in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. So, let’s see, 2012-84=1928. (I know Egypt’s status as a protectorate/colony/whatever was somewhat different than, say, Syria’s, and I’d have to do more research to remember Egypt’s independence date from England, but the teens and 20′s were a period of tremendous change for Egypt also.) It’s very, very hard to take an article like this seriously with such an egregious historical mistake. It’s like claiming Jefferson invented democracy.


  • Jerry

    It looks like my “end of the year” assumption was way too pessimistic per the following story I saw today assuming developments follow this script. Of course even if the constitution is as good as it appears from this story, we’ll also need to watch how it works out in practice.

    Evident points of accord include the creation of a presidential-parliamentary government, a legal system no more Islamic than the previous one and broad guarantees of freedom of religion and expression.

    That would leave in place an existing clause declaring the principles of Islamic law to be the sources of Egyptian law. But it would not tighten that clause to refer to more specific rules of Islamic law, as some ultraconservative Islamists have sought.

    It would also leave in place the current provisions governing individual freedoms, which civil rights advocates consider adequate if enforced. The Brotherhood has also signed a declaration put forward by Al Azhar, a moderate center of Sunni Islamic learning here, that would protect broad freedoms for religious observance, artistic expression, scientific inquiry, theological dissent and civil society groups.

    The Brotherhood initially sought to move to a British-style parliamentary system, which would play to its political strengths. But leaders of the Brotherhood and the military council have recently pointed toward a French-style mix of presidential and parliamentary powers, in which the Parliament might choose a prime minister to control the domestic government, while an elected president oversees foreign policy and national security.

    Such a division of power would leave the military under a single commander in chief and could protect the Brotherhood from grass-roots pressure on vexing matters of foreign policy, like relations with Israel.