East Africa,  Egypt

Colour-coded Politics

This is a guest post by Adam Barnett

The Guardian newspaper has published an ‘exclusive’ interview with Essam el-Erian of the Muslim Brotherhood, which includes a profile of the group.  While we await the publication of their interviews with other opposition groups and leaders, (as it would be odd of them to have travelled to Egypt and neglected the secular opposition), a piece on the world’s largest Islamist group is welcome. Now that the existence of such groups can be acknowledged without cries of ‘Islamophobia’, (perhaps a temporary situation), it is well worth scrutinising their mothership, especially since it’s suddenly the talk of the town (or ‘global village’).

Unfortunately, the article’s non-committal title ‘The Muslim Brotherhood Uncovered’ is a misnomer, as the piece is barely superficial. (The title also raises the question of who the group was previously ‘covered-up’ by, and with what.) Its history of the Brotherhood omits facts which may have been of interest to its readers.

Founder Hasan al-Banna’s admiration for Adolf Hitler, for example, might have been included.  A sentence dedicated to Sayyid Qutb’s huge influence on violent Islamism may have added colour.

(Qutb is mentioned nowhere in the article, but features in its accompanying photo album, where he is described as ‘an important theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood’.)

Perhaps a word on the Brotherhood’s favourite contemporary cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, could have made the final draft. (Qaradawi infamously supports suicide-murder and the killing of homosexuals, sanctions wife-beating, ‘recommends’ female genital mutilation and believes the Holocaust was a punishment from Allah.)  Then again, the piece does flow nicely along without this information.

However, included in the article is the assertion that ‘it was Britain’s presence in Egypt that led to the Brotherhood’s creation’, and some euphemisms regarding the Ikhwani project:

‘Banna argued that Islam provided a complete solution, with divine guidance on everything from worship and spiritual matters to the law, politics and social organisation. He established an evening school for the working classes which impressed the general inspector of education and by 1931 the brotherhood [sic] had constructed its first mosque […]

Banna was offering a religious alternative to the more secular and western-inspired nationalist ideas that had so far failed to liberate Egypt from the clutches of foreign powers, and the popular appeal of his message was undeniable: by 1938, the movement had 300 branches across the country, as well as others in Lebanon and Syria.’

The article also proclaims that the Brotherhood ‘has long since renounced violence as a political means in Egypt’. The delicious proviso ‘in Egypt’ betrays a certain insecurity, perhaps due to the actions of the Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch, which in its rule of Gaza practices many of the evils of the Mubarak regime.

Or maybe the author was conscious of the Brotherhood’s support for ‘resisting the occupation’ in Iraq, as expressed by spokesman Mohammed Mursi in 2007,  who incidentally had a P.R. statement published by the Guardian this week.

The article goes on to claim that the Brotherhood is gaining a respect for ‘human rights’, though, it concedes, not for everyone:

‘Years of repression at the hands of the Egyptian authorities have made the brotherhood more interested in human rights than many might expect from an Islamist organisation. When the European parliament criticised Egypt’s record in 2008, the Mubarak regime responded with fury, while Hussein Ibrahim, the brotherhood’s parliamentary spokesman, sided with Europe.

‘The issue of human rights has become a global language,’ he said. ‘Although each country has its own particulars, respect of human rights is now a concern for all peoples’ – though he specifically excluded gay rights.’

It would be bad enough if this was simply a case of the Guardian bypassing other opposition groups in Egypt. However, all of this raises the question: why is the most reactionary movement in Islam being portrayed as the most progressive? Why is there such a difference between coverage of the Muslim right in North Africa and, say, the Christian right in America?  Why don’t we need to guess how the rise of the Israeli right would be written about in centre-left papers?   Why is it that to make the tyres screech to a halt in the heads of supposedly ‘left-wing’ people, one need only ask them: ‘what if Pat Robertson had dark-coloured skin instead of light?’

Sadly, far too many people still make the mistake of thinking that politics is colour-coded, and that the terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ only apply to white people. This is now causing real problems in the coverage of the Egyptian revolution, and risks disarming the people who need our support.