The youngest members of Egypt’s largest – but banned – party talk politics and more
The Daily Star Egypt continues its talk with the youngest members of Egypt’s largest, but banned, party about politics, jihad, and life in general in the second and final part of this series.
Click here to read Part I.
(to read the PDF version of this story, click here-pdf-ikhwan-youth-part-2.pdf) By Vivian Salama
CAIRO – With a presence in 70 countries, and a following soon to outnumber any religion, – some 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide today – the Egyptian based Muslim Brotherhood (El-Ikhwan El-Muslimeen) – outlawed; feared; followed; the root of dozens of Islamic organizations – faces a dilemma. Famed for its orthodox disciplines and fierce stance on a number of issues, both political and religious, the group has recently revealed a tamer, more tolerant and more political side as it looks to hop on the bandwagon of reform. The question remains, in the face off between politics and Islam, can the group maintain its overwhelming global influence?
“If you go to the street and you ask people their political views, without even mentioning Muslim Brotherhood, you will find people saying the exact views as us and agreeing with our position on most issues,” says Asmaa Gamal, 20, studying commerce at Cairo University. “Once you bring up the Muslim Brotherhood’s name, you will find that the people get scared. The word alone scares people – it’s outlawed by the government.”“There is a big problem facing the Islamic movements,” insists Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, 22, a senior at the American University in Cairo (AUC) studying political science. “People in the West teach from their understanding – especially when talking about fundamentalism – the root of the word. The meaning in the West differs completely from the meaning here.”
So when discussing Jihad, Islamic holy war, members of the Muslim Brotherhood agree that there is a stark difference in the way it is interpreted versus the way it is taught. In an interview with the Daily Star Egypt last June, the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Madhi Akef explained, “Jihad for Muslims starts with a personal jihad,” he said. “Jihad is against the enemy. The infidels, when they come after our land, we must jihad against them. When the Americans come into Iraq, I must jihad against them. When the Americans go into Afghanistan I go after them. To invade another’s land is a crime.”
“This doesn’t mean we’ll say, ‘America, do what you want and we’ll keep quiet,’” adds Ibrahim. “We will not hit cities when it is haram to hit them. It is haram to kill civilians to have nothing to do with the situation.”
This group, which underpinned Hamas, planted the root for Al-Qaida and now publicly endorses ideologies of peaceful reform and democracy, has combated negative publicity in this era of a global war on terrorism. In Egypt, a series of deadly bombings – in Sinai, the Khan El-Khalili market and most recently, in Sharm El-Sheikh has instilled fears in the minds of Egyptian authorities of a revived Islamic Movement. Even prior to that, a report released by the United States commission investigating the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11th 2001 revealed that the architect of the attacks, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, confessed to ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“As for whether jihad is understood by those abroad, my opinion is it is our role to make them understand,” explains Ahmed Ibrahim, 24, a medical student at Cairo University. “We should at least clear the picture, although the fact that it is misunderstood is not a mistake of Muslims.”
“There is a difference between jihad and war,” says Lubna Mohamed, 20, a political-science major at Cairo University. “Violence is different than jihad. If someone hits a place, you want to do something about it, think of strategies. But I can’t say its purpose is violence or its purpose is terrorism. Our lives aren’t about that.”
The young men and women gave details of different situations where they felt the deadly acts of a small group bared negative impact on the image of Islam worldwide. Incidents such as the July bombings on the London Underground and last year, bombings to the Madrid Metro – all acts, the group insists, which were violations against the core teachings of Islam.
“If they were Muslims, should their actions speak for all Muslims?” asks Osama Ghobish, 21, who studies electrical engineering at Cairo University. “We are Muslims trying to promote the message of Islam in the correct light.”
The group generally supports the actions of Arabs in Palestine and Iraq who are – in their words – defending their roots and homeland, not instigating violence and hatred as in the attacks on New York and Washington or to London and Madrid, or even to Sharm El-Sheikh last month. This week, as the world watched the last of 8,500 Israeli settlers withdraw from Gaza, many of them by force, these young members of the Muslim Brotherhood shake their heads in pity, calling it merely a song and dance by Israel’s Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.
“The history of this issue is as if we are all just running around after one another,” says Lubna, the others agreeing. “In a few years you’ll see, [Sharon] will reenter Gaza. I am sure of this. This is the pattern throughout the history of Israel. He wants to give them something to make them drop their guard a little bit.”
“This is the biggest change and the biggest steps taken in our region so far, is that the Jews withdraw from Gaza,” says Mahmoud Moustafa, 19, a commerce student at Cairo University, optimistically.
“Sharon did this withdrawal but from start to finish, he’s doing this for his own benefit,” rebuttals Ibrahim. “People shouldn’t believe that this is done for the benefit of the Palestinians – Sharon killed the roots of the Palestinians. This is known. Sharon is the opposite of peace.”
“The photos of Israelis crying and clinging to each other, and the image of the Palestinians celebrating, it is sending to the foreigners an incorrect picture of what is happening,” Ahmed adds.
The group is more moderate in their criticism of America, admitting that just as Americans view the Arabs in a certain light, the Arabs too will view them in their own perspective. Still, where politics is concerned, there is skepticism among the youngsters toward the unadulterated actions of US President George W. Bush and his motives for intervening in Arab affairs. With no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and a maintained affirmed ties with Israel, anti-American sentiment will only continue to grow, says the group.
“America wants to take over Iraq for their own benefits, whether it be oil or reasons yet to surface,” exclaims Ibrahim. “[Bush] wants to take over Syria. In Jordan as well, he’s got King Abdullah in his pocket. He wants to keep Israel close as well.” Osama jumps in. “There is one aspect we don’t focus on, and it’s an important one. Is [Bush] really moving in on the basis of true information or intelligence? Maybe they have convinced Americans that he has a point or that he knows what he is doing.” “Of course it needs to be pointed out that our views on American politics will likely differ completely from the views of the American citizens on their own domestic and foreign relations,” says Ahmed.
Politics isn’t the only area of varying perspectives. Even among Egyptian citizens, the degree to which Islam should play in government affairs is an issue of sharp debate. In a country which has remained comparatively liberal, critics of the Muslim Brotherhood fear that should they come to power, adoption of Islamic rule will result in the backward motion of society. It’s no secret – since the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s, a new ideology spread. Egypt became considerably more conservative, many Muslims abandoning their European fashions for a more modest and traditional garb. Young men began to grow their beards in a show of unpretentiousness; more women began veiling their hair. Is it because people have become more religious, or has religion becoming more open?
“I think it is a simple progression of time,” speculates Ahmed. “The ideas [of Islam] spread. The ideas were always there, but we repeated its teachings and we spread its blessings to people, and the people in turn adopted the message. Islam does not focus on an external or outer image, for example the tarha or beard.”
“The details of religion that have begun to surface,” adds Lubna. “People might say bad things about mohagabat (veiled women), but your image should reflect on the way you think.”
“Islam says a young person should educate himself well, respectful in his life, and pray,” adds Osama.
“A lot of people were afraid at firsts but when the idea was spread a little bit then the people really started to be interested and respect the idea,” says Mahmoud. “And it is a personal thing before anything. Just as a man would hope for a woman to wear higab and stay modest, he too should make sure to take care of himself and make sure he looks good. This is the idea of Islam.”
The message this group is communicating is that they are no different than anyone else. They have very set political and religious beliefs, but in their words, it makes them no greater or lesser threat than a communist, for example. The young men are witty and mischievous; they talk of football. The women are intelligent and polite; they discuss clothes and gossip quietly about boys. They all share dreams of having a family and living a productive life in which they might one day make a difference.
“You won’t find our dreams different from other people’s dreams,” concludes Ibrahim. “In our movement, we dream to move the people. We need to get them involved. We shouldn’t wait for someone to change things. We need to change it ourselves first to create a real difference.”