Muslim Opposition to the Muslim Religious Right Grows, from Egypt to Bangladesh

The headlines this week were full of stories from the Muslim world about Muslims attacking the Muslim religious Right, whether the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the Jama’at-i Islami in Bangladesh. The rise of the religious Right in politics is producing a backlash throughout the region. Part of the backlash comes from secularists of Muslim heritage. But a significant part of it comes from believing Muslims, who oppose the sectarian and authoritarian approach of the religious Right parties, or who are uncomfortable with some of their stances toward longstanding Muslim religious practices, such as spiritual visits to the shrines of Muslim saints (a practice condemned by Wahhabism, Salafism, Talibanism, and other religious-right currents).

Nationalism plays a role in Muslim “anti-Islamism,” since many on the religious Right in the Muslim world have pan-Muslim concerns.

Thus, the Jama’at-i Islami in Bangladesh opposed the 1971 secession of that country from Pakistan. In that bloody struggle, Pakistani troops committed atrocities and some Jama’at leaders were accused of aiding them. A vital youth movement of critics of the Jama’at has been demonstrating for months demanding trials for those accused. The sentencing this week of leading Jama’at figure Delwar Hossein Seyedee for his role in 1971 atrocities satisfied the critics of the Muslim religious Right in that country, but provoked Jama’at riots that left dozens dead.

In the United Arab Emirates, supporters of the reigning emirs have attacked the Muslim Brotherhood in that country as fifth columnists and a revolutionary threat to the prevailing order, and dozens of members are on trial for sedition. The Brotherhood in the UAE is opposed both by tribal traditionalists loyal to ruling families such as the Nahayans and the Maktoums, and by the remnants of the Arab left (Nasserists, socialists) among intellectuals. There is also a growing unease about the Muslim Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia, given that it is now associated with the Egyptian Revolution and there are fears that it has secretive cells plotting revolution elsewhere.

In Egypt in the past few months we have seen Muslim crowds attack and sometimes burn provincial headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is not clear who exactly is behind these acts, but that they are of Muslim heritage is certain.

The Jama’at-i Islami in Pakistan still suffers reputationally for having allied with coup-maker Gen. Zia ul-Haq in the 1970s and 1980s, and Tahir al-Qadri’s Sufi-based Mizan ul-Qur’an is attempting to supplant it. (He has reinvented himself as a relative liberal, condemning violence and terrorism of the al-Qaeda/ Taliban sort, while the Jama’at, though not itself for the most part violent, has been reluctant forthrightly to condemn these tendencies). Many Pakistanis vote for parties opposed to the religious Right. The Urdu-speakers of Karachi support the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which is secular-minded. Most Pakistani Pushtuns voted for the National Awami Party, a party of Pushtun sub-nationalism that opposes the Taliban and the religious Right.

I don’t like the term “Islamism,” which was promoted by French scholars in preference to the American “Muslim fundamentalism,” since they thought the latter too Protestant in inspiration (it has no exact counterpart in French, where “integrisme” is sometimes used by analogy from ultramontane, hard line Catholicism). I think “Muslim fundamentalism” is better because, as the Chicago University project on fundamentalisms showed, it allows us to see the phenomenon in the context of similar movements in other religions. Moreover, I think the term is confusing because it is too close to “Islam” per se, and I don’t agree with figures such as Gilles Keppel who see the “Islamists” as unusually “pious,” implying that they are the real Muslims. Secular-minded Muslims who are nevertheless believers, and Sufi mystics, are also “pious,” and I don’t think social scientists should be deciding who is a better Muslim.

“Political Islam” has been proposed as an alternative, but if it implies the fundamentalist groups, it is also inadequate. In Egypt the Wasat [Center] Party and now Abdel Moneim Abou’l-Fotouh’s Strong Egypt are a form of relatively liberal political Islam to the left of Muhammad Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Sufis are entering politics (many in Egypt supported Wasat).

That is why I suggest the usage, “Muslim religious Right” for righting, fundamentalist religion in politics. It seems to me to fit the major such movements, such as the Jama’at-i Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood, and it allows us to put religious politics in the Muslim world on a spectrum– from secular, to religious but liberal or progressive, to traditionalist (Sufis), to, well, the religious Right. We see the same spectrum in the US, with secular (many Unitarians), religious but liberal (the National Council of Churches), traditionalist (many Catholics, Lutherans) to the religious Right (2/3s of evangelicals, many Pentecostalists, etc.). In the US, the groups on the left of the spectrum vote for the Democratic Party on the whole, whereas those on the right tend to vote for the Republican Party. In Egypt, the groups on the left support the National Salvation Front coalition, whereas those on the right support the Freedom and Justice Party (Muslim Brotherhood) or Nur (Salafi).

Secularism, forms of ethnic nationalism, tribalism, and the religious Left and Center all serve as countervailing forces to the religious Right parties in the Muslim world, the politics of which is becoming more polarized along these lines. But the resulting struggles look familiar if compared to those in the most religious of the industrialized democracies, the United States.

23 Responses

  1. First thing of all what would he know about islam and the history of islam

  2. The important issue to realise is that Islam brothers are content to kill each other, while US and western various religious groups don’t fight each other.
    We in the UK stopped our war with Irish republican Catholics.
    However. we will probably see further religious tension escalate in Muslim countries while they re-visit the middle-ages, to air their diffences.

    • Mr. Cockayne, you must have a very limited horizon from where you are. Any idea how dark-skinned Americans are routinely treated in America? Ever heard of the loving Christian Americans who murder “abortion doctors” in the name of their notion of the Judeo-Christian God? Or a guy named Timothy McVeigh, who was one of the more successful Belief-killers in our history? On a large social scale, the “conservatives” are all about setting in place policies that will, that ARE, killing lots of their fellow citizens, by denial of health care, essentially forced labor, and a whole lot more? And is it uniformly the case that the kindly absentee British landlords of Ireland have stopped their war ON people in Ireland, or that Irish “brothers” and Scottish and Welsh “brothers” are all good and calm and living in lovingkindness with each other?

      Let’s at least be a little bit honest about what we are and what we do to one another, us “white bread” folks, and also note that in Britain, as in the US, the “conservatives” are moving us actually, economically, back to the relationships that characterized the Middle Ages — aristocracy of huge wealth, and serfdom of everyone else.

    • What absolute conceit.
      1. “We in the UK stopped our war with Irish republican Catholics” Remember the reason Northern Ireland had Protestants? They were colonists and land stealers- the sectarian difference was not the cause of the differences.
      You did not just stop.
      2. Don’t pretend you are somehow more advanced than Muslims.
      Have you never heard of WW1 and WW2? Western “christians” are the most bloodthirsty and greedy if you bother to follow the history.

    • Not so. Protestant fundamentalists in N Ireland, part of the UK, may not be revisiting the Middle Ages (they’re stuck in a 1690 mindset) but are openly demanding violence against ordinary Catholics. And Irish republican Catholics are still murdering ordinary Protestants. All that has changed is that the London-based media is ignoring the violence. Read Belfast-based papers for a radically different coverage. And most domestic US terrorism has been homegrown idiots.

    • So Christian folks are morally better because they slaughter each other over the relative power of their nation-states – all the way up to nuclear weapons? To me, it’s pretty disgusting that Protestants and Catholics kill each other in one century, and then in the next they ally with those of the other religion to wage wars over the right to form republics, and then in the next century monarchists and republicans ally to wage wars over which state coalition will dominate Europe, and finally everyone who supports the bourgoise state allies against those who espouse global class revolution.

      We must look pretty stupid to the Moslems.

  3. The other problem with using “fundamentalism” as a term for a political movement is that it conflates a theological stance with a political one. It is entirely possible for someone who believes in throwback religion to be political quietist, or even moderate when it comes to public policy. Meanwhile, one can find one’s way to religious-right politics from a mainstream, contemporary religious orientation that doesn’t not call for a return to old-style religious practice.

    • Joe, might I suggest you read Matt Taibbi’s “The Great Derangement,” if you haven’t? Maybe you have no use for Taibbi, I don’t know of course, but the book is a pretty careful description of the processes that bring people to that broad category called “fundamentalism,” and linked up from an insider’s view to what is driving a lot of the “governance” (sic) most of us Americans are suffering from. And there’s lots of actual reporting on how and why “fundamentalism” is on the ascendant in a lot of places.

  4. I believe that Abdel Moneim Abouel Futouh founded his own party, Strong Egypt and is not a member of al-Wasat.

    Many Salafis, though they disagree with his platform, prefer him to the wiley MB.

    In listening to a fair amount of Salafi discourse over the past year, I am struck by the way that they have incorporated nationalist rhetoric into the presentations. How much of this is real, how much of this is to pass muster with more mainstream Egyptians and how much of it is evolution as was their acceptance of electoral politics I don’t know.

  5. Juan, would you say that one key to understanding the “Religious Right” in the Arab and Muslim world is that it was largely “created” as a response to western imperialism and colonialism?

    Therefore, for example, the Egyptian Brotherhood largely resulted from British imperialism and colonialism.

    • Rudolph, secular Arabs were in power for many decades after the British left the Middle East. I would guess that the shortcomings of secular nationalists like Nasser contributed to the rise of the Muslim Right.

    • I think one unexamined phenonemon is that a colonial oppressor always creates a resistance that goes out of its way to hold the opposite views to the oppressor on every possible subject. Therefore it is unsurprising that right-wing European colonialists found so many natives turning to Communism, which offended them in every way.

      The people you conquer have no means to get revenge on you except to hurt you in every non-material way. If your corporations bribe and co-opt their leaders, they will embrace an ideology that abolishes property rights or subjugates them to God’s dictate. If you Westernize their co-opted elites with feminism and religious tolerance, they may wildly increase their traditional misogyny and anti-Semitism as a desperate “F**K You”.

      Whereas the best thing that ever happened to capitalism in East Asia seems to have been the end of the US propping up South Vietnam in 1975. It’s as if the day there were no Yankees to negatively associate business with, Thailand was flooded with Japanese businessmen, and making stuff to export to America became a point of national pride.

      Why is it so hard for an American to imagine that if his country was conquered by aliens, he’d go out of his way to defy their beliefs, no matter how barbaric he’d have to become? I’d sure do it.

    • “Would you say that one key to understanding the “Religious Right” in the Arab and Muslim world is that it was largely “created” as a response to western imperialism and colonialism?”

      And the centuries of imperialism and colonialism in the Arab World by the Turkish Ottoman empire?

      The Arabs and all other Muslim subjects of the Ottomans were victims of an Islamic—not Western—empire’s bureaucracy, regulations, corruption, and consequent failure to modernize, leaving them ill-equipped to meet the Western challenge when it did come.

      Compared to the centuries of Ottoman imperialism in the Arab World, that of the British and French was a drop in the bucket: Influence in Egypt beginning in 1882, and mandates in Mesopotamia (Iraq), Syria, and Lebanon beginning in 1921, lasting approximately 37 years.

    • Cultural and religious bigotry is a must have monkey wrench in the imperial tool chest and its violent and fundamentalist element are often created and nurtured by the empires or colonist purely for short term gains and often have unintended long term consequences. A little chaos to keep them relevant.

  6. Two questions:
    Why is the Muslim Brotherhood govt in Egypt flooding the tunnels which are Gaza’s lifeline?
    Do people like Mohammed Atta, alleged lead bomber on 9/11, count as Muslim fundies when they are renowned for their lack of piety?

    • Atta is a good example of why “fundamentalism” is an unhelpful term.

      What he was “fighting” for was not a religious vision, but a political vision in which religious authority was strongly established.

      There were plenty of cursing, philandering crusaders that fought in the Holy Land. What they were fighting for wasn’t Christianity, really, but Christendom.

  7. First, this is an important article that helps clarify events in the Muslim world. One hopes (rhetorically, sadly) that the Islamophobes who continually deride the Muslim world for not rejecting extremism will take note.

    Secondly, as opposed to abandoning ‘Islamist’ why not adopt ‘Christianist’ to describe the right-wing Dominionists? …just a thought.

    • Because there are left-wing varieties of Christianity-influenced politics as well. Were Martin Luther King’s politics less influenced by religion than Pat Robertson’s? Were the Catholic Workers less Catholic in their political thinking than Opus Dei?

      • False equivalence Joe for Lowell, if one accepts that “Christianist” refers to Dominionists, as “Islamist” evidently refers to right-wing Muslims (Salafists & Wahhabis), there’s no confusion. As far as the interplay between religion & politics, my take is that right wing Christians use religion to justify politics whereas MLK & Liberation Theology Catholics used religion to drive politics. It may all be relative… objects in space, etc.

  8. I agree with your review on the word usage to describe the Muslim religious right. Can’t applaud UAE’s dictatorial monarchs considering they’re pretty much cracking down on all dissent, religious right or not.

    Disagree with the rosy picture on Pakistan. Its getting worse, particularly for minorities. Its like the politicians, military, courts, media and society have capitulated to the militants. And you’re probably referring to ANP, Awami National Party, not NAP. Hagel unfortunately helped refuel the Pakistani right-wing conspiracist excuse of Indian interference for local terrorism.

    And on a nice earlier article published on the Urdu language, where the comments are now closed, please note while the language has a secular history, unfortunately its been the medium for Pakistani religious nationalist narrative which mistranslates secularism (La Dean – No religion) to kill the concept and demonize those who advocate it.

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