The Intelligent American's Guide To IslamismThe Egyptian Version: The Muslim Brotherhood

The Intelligent American's Guide To IslamismThe Egyptian Version: The Muslim Brotherhood


The Muslim Brotherhood has struggled for more than 75 years to impose radical Islam on the nation.  Successive regimes - British, Royal, Nasserite and most recently that of Hosni Mubarak - have, in their own autocratic ways, successfully kept the organization under wraps.  Today's MB leadership has adopted a moderate face, including even saying Coptic Christians are welcome as members, but the Brotherhood remains true to its Islamist core beliefs.

Islamism can be defined as a movement that seeks control of government, establishment of Islam as the state religion, and imposition and enforcement of Shari'a law.  The Muslim Brotherhood, established in Egypt in 1928, is the leading Islamist group in the country.  A radical transnational organization that aims to take over the Islamic world in order to establish a Caliphate, the Brotherhood is the best organized political force in many Arab countries. Once in power, the Caliphate, which is a religious militarized regime, would be the basis of waging religious war against the infidel West.


Too hasty promotion of democracy may bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and elsewhere.  While some in Washington are ready to take on this risk, it is fraught with danger and replete with unintended consequences.  It is time Americans understood the political thinking of the MB and the threat it presents to the noble objective of establishing free and democratic societies in the Muslim world.

Unlike Western democracies, which guarantee the political participation of every citizen regardless of ideology, opinion or religion, the Brotherhood would make the political participation of individuals in society subject to the principles of Islamic Shari'a. While in democracies, the legislature writes laws to be carried out by the executive branch of government and adjudicated by the judiciary, in a Caliphate all government and civil actions of the society are monitored to ensure they conform to the rules of Islamic Shari'a.

The Caliphate guarantees freedom of belief only for the followers of the three revealed [Abrahamic] religions: Jewry, Christianity and Islam.  The Brotherhood's position on the question of religious minorities can be summed up by their insistence that a non-Muslim can never become president and that non-Muslims must be subject to the principles of Shari'a, on which the entire legal system is based.  [Even today, in Egypt, members of the Bah'ai faith, a peaceful, law abiding sect, are harassed by agents of the government.

While Western democracies guarantee the absolute freedom of the individual as long as such freedom does not impinge on others, the MB, like all Islamists, places freedom within the strict parameters of a moral code derived from the Shari'a.  This would involve the restoration of hisbah, which allows a private citizen to prosecute any individual who commits an act he considers a breach of the Shari'a even if the plaintiff himself has not been personally injured by such act.

The right of hisbah was recently exercised by a private citizen in Egypt against respected intellectual Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, whose writings he considered as running counter to the teachings of Islam.  The court found for the plaintiff, ruling Abu Zeid an apostate and ordering him to divorce his wife.

In Western democracies after decades of struggle, women enjoy the same political rights as men: they can hold public office and participate in political life without any restrictions based on gender.  However, the Brotherhood would have women's political participation limited to municipal elections.  There is simply no question, of a woman being elected to the national legislature, much less becoming head of state.

To further marginalize women and exclude them from any meaningful role in public life, the MB calls for separate educational curricula with material solely appropriate for women, tailored to suit their nature and role.  Moreover, strict Islamic code requires a complete segregation of the sexes in classrooms, in public transportation and in the workplace.  

In fact, freedom of association enjoyed by civil society organizations in a democracy would, in an Islamist system, be conditional on adherence to the strictures of Shari'a.

The Muslim Brotherhood calls for the establishment of an economic system based on the respect of private property.  At the same time, however, they insist that it be based on the principles of Islamic Shari'a, which among other restrictions, forbids bank interest and demands state ownership of public utilities.

The MB, like all Islamists, opposes the notion of a state based on democratic institutions, calling instead for an Islamic government based on the Shura [consultative assembly] system, veneration of the leader and the investiture of a Supreme Guide.  This is very close to the model established by the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, which has enabled the Islamist regime to nip any process of reform or renewal in the bud for 25 years.

The Brotherhood has never condemned the use of violence against civilians except when it is directed against Muslim civilians.  And, with respect to the penal code, they specifically call for corporal punishment including stoning, lashing, cutting off the hands of thieves, etc.

Over the last fifty-seven years, the Muslim Brotherhood has opposed all attempts to reach a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Indeed, the MB has frequently stated it will never recognize the existence of Israel as legitimate.

Progress in the modern world is realized by two critical tools, science and modern management, disciplines about which the Brotherhood has not the foggiest idea.  Instead, the MB promulgates a retrograde ideology, which as proven in Iran during the past quarter century, is deadly for sustainable economic development, growth in investment, and equality.  [Curiously, the Iranian regime has uniquely respected both science and management in the development of its renegade nuclear capability, all the while deprecating and de-incentivizing application of these fundamental tools in the private sector.]

There can be no doubt that democracy is the ultimate solution for the overwhelming ills affecting all Arab countries and most of the Muslim world.  Autocratic regimes have stifled individual freedom, limited economic growth and become bloated with corruption, with no hope for reform from within.

That said, democracies need both educated electorates and established institutions if they are to have a solid chance to become entrenched.  As a leading Tunisian reformer has said about the deliberate democratic developments in his country in the last 15 years, "You cannot parachute democracy into a country.  The foundations must be well-laid."  There are far too many examples of one-man, one-vote, one-time "democracies" that have failed their citizens owing to grossly inadequate curricula, materials and teachers and to capriciously drawn constitutions, poorly designed judiciaries and ill-defined checks on excess at every level.

It is, in short, incumbent on those who would further both the development of democracy and the demise of despotic regimes that each country's citizens as well-prepared and institutions as well-designed as possible.

Promoting democracy in the Middle East is imperative for the peace and well-being of the entire world. If the right steps are taken, Middle East people, as Professor Bernard Lewis has repeatedly argued, are capable of enabling democracy to flourish throughout the region. However, a too hasty transformation of ill-prepared populations and their governments can be disastrous for the forces of progress in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.


Dr. Tarek Heggy is a long time observer of social and political trends in his native Egypt and throughout the Muslim world.  He can be reached at [email protected] or via his website, This article was edited by ITNI contributor John R. Thomson.

Updated 6/16/05