What Muslims Can Learn From Egypt
After about 80 years of social, economic and political activism, the Muslim Brotherhood has produced a president in Egypt, thus throwing into the limelight the nature of what the media likes to refer to as Islamist movements. Muhammad Morsi (born August 20, 1951) is Egypt’s new president after being elected with a 51.7 percent majority vote in a run-off poll in June 2012. Before his election, Morsi was a Member of Parliament in the People’s Assembly of Egypt from 2000 to 2005, and a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood.
He became chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party; a political party founded by Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of 2011 Egyptian revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. He contested on the FJP ticket for the May-June presidential election and won after a run-off with Ahmed Shafiq, Egypt’s last prime minister under Mubarak. However, in view of the prevailing geopolitics, especially with regard to global war on terrorism, an Islamist party coming to power in any country is likely to worry many people. But it is important to understand the history and nature of Muslim Brotherhood in order to draw some important lessons from such movements.
The term ‘Islamist’ is very controversial because many understand it to mean violent agitation for a theocratic government based on strict application of Islamic tenets. In fact, Islamism has always been equated with political agitation against Western economic, political, cultural, and military influence in the Muslim world— influence believed to be incompatible with Islam.
But the term ‘Islamist’ is indeed derogatory because it connotes an irrational opposition to modernity and democracy, yet Muslims consider their political beliefs and goals to be simply an expression of Islamic values just the way we have political parties like the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of Germany led by Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland led by Rev Ian Paisley, and whose basic ideologies are derived from Judeo-Christian morality.
In this regard, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt is a good example of how Muslims can organize themselves socially and politically in society without being antagonistic to other religious faiths. Sometime early this year, I was privileged to attend a conference on Muslim civilization held in Cairo, Egypt where I met a number of Muslim scholars, politicians, academicians and religious leaders from all over the world. In my interactions with delegates in Cairo, I also talked to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which produced the country’s newly elected president Muhammad Morsi.
It is important to point out that the Society of the Muslim Brothers (Muslim Brotherhood) is the world's most influential, and one of the largest Islamist movements. Founded in Egypt in 1928 by the Islamic scholar and schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna, Muslim Brotherhood has spread its tentacles to become the most influential political organization in many Arab states. Its ideas earned it supporters throughout the Arab world and influenced other Islamist groups with its model of political activism combined with Islamic charity work.
Although the Brotherhood's stated goal is to pursue social, economic and political affairs based on Islamic teachings, it is important to point out that Muslim Brotherhood is vehemently opposed to violent means to achieve its goals— this is why the Egyptian revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak did not witness any extreme bloody violence from civilians despite Muslim Brotherhood having a huge following in Egypt.
Because of its non-violent approach to political agitation, Muslim Brotherhood called upon its supporters to protest peacefully against the Mubarak regime. During the protests at the famous Tahrir Square in Cairo, Muslim Brotherhood shared platforms with all Egyptians of different religious and political persuasion (including Orthodox Christians) to demand the resignation of Hosni Mubarak and open up the democratic space in Egypt. However, Muslim Brotherhood at one time encompassed a paramilitary wing and its members were accused of being involved in bombings and assassinations of political opponents— notably Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmoud an-Nukrashi Pasha.
Nonetheless, it is still important to point out that because of its opposition to violence to achieve their goals, Muslim Brotherhood has been criticized by al-Qaeda for its support for democratic elections rather than armed jihad. But the reason Muslim Brotherhood has earned respect is because it started off as a social organization that invested in education, setting up hospitals and even launching commercial enterprises in order to uplift its people economically.
The Muslim community in Kenya, marginalized for decades since independence, has a few lessons to learn from Muslim Brotherhood. Instead of always blaming successive governments for marginalizing and neglecting the community, Muslims in Kenya should embark on self-driven socio-economic activities that would uplift them economically.
And to set these activities rolling, Muslims in Kenya don’t have to wait for the government to step in— all they have to do is borrow a leaf from Muslim Brotherhood and start raising contributions from the community itself and other well-wishers to set up schools, universities, hospitals and commercial enterprises.
When I look around, the biggest challenges that many Muslims in Kenya face have to do with economic deprivation, not political marginalization as some people have tended to insist. Hence, if Muslims organize themselves into well-structured and acceptable economic entities, they will earn the respect of the rest of Kenyans and become a formidable political force to reckon with just the way Muslim Brotherhood had become in Egypt.
It is important to reiterate that the Brotherhood in Egypt is financed by contributions from its members and by the time it started seeking a stake in Egypt’s politics, millions of Egyptians, both Muslim and non-Muslim, could identify with Muslim Brotherhood because of its self-sustaining socio-economic programmes that benefit millions of Egyptians without discrimination.
The new constitution provides Kenyan Muslims with immense opportunities to empower themselves economically and get out of the state of marginalization. I have in mind Article 56 of the constitution, which provides that the State shall put in place affirmative action programmes designed to ensure that minorities and marginalized groups participate and are represented in governance and other spheres of life and are provided special opportunities in educational and economic fields among other things.
From my experience with the Muslim community, I have come to realize that Muslims face the same socio-economic challenges like any other minority or marginalized Kenyans, and if the community organizes itself appropriately, it can do a lot for its people.
To solve their problems, Muslims, like other minority and marginalized communities in Kenya, do not necessarily have to mobilize themselves into a special political entity— all that is needed is a focused, innovative, and right-thinking leadership that would pursue socio-economic programmes that uplift the community from poverty and deprivation. As already pointed out, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has uplifted its people by engaging in serious socio-economic activities than engaging in abrasive politics.
The writer is the CEO of the Kenya Muslim Youth Alliance and Deputy Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM).