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The Story of the Brotherhood

The Story of the Brotherhood

Issue 98 November 2012

The Muslim Brotherhood had its beginnings in smoky cafes of Egyptian towns in the 1920s. Tam Hussein tells the tale of their rise to power.


The election victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in June this year is the story of Muslim society engaging with modernity. It is a culmination of a process where Muslim societies had to deal with foreigners, who shaped their political and cultural destinies. Whilst it created a sense of inferiority in some Muslim societies, it provoked others to look at the causes of their demise. 
By the 19th century, Muslim societies had developed various strategies of dealing with their new world. Some, who recognised Western military supremacy, opted for exile, rejecting anything associated with their adversary. Others accepted Western ascendancy as a reality and sought to discern lessons in order to survive. The Ottomans for instance tried to change their political, economic and military institutions without making fundamental changes in their ideology. This created a bifurcation of Muslim societies whereby one class followed local and cultural norms and another class ceded to European traditions. 
 The period also saw the emergence of an intelligentsia who sought to bridge this gap. Most notable amongst them were Jamal al-Din Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Muhammad Iqbal. Whilst these thinkers differed in their approaches and visions they shared some commonalities. They injected a sense of glory to their past, and reinterpreted Islamic tradition in accordance to modernity and claimed that their understanding was more pristine than the practices of the times. They demonstrated that Western ideas and technology could be embraced without Western imperialism. They called for unity and self-sufficiency. It was out of these intellectual currents and the extinction of the caliphate in 1924 that drove Hassan al-Banna to establish the Muslim Brotherhood, modelling it on the Sufi fraternities to which he was an initiate. 
Al-Banna’s movement had its beginnings in the smoky cafés of Egyptian towns, and was able to tap in to the mood of the times. Egyptian society smarted from British imperial domination and felt the impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Hungry for renewal, Egyptians found the Brotherhood’s simple message, activism, welfare programmes and willingness to fight against Egypt’s enemies attractive; so much so that they were instrumental in deposing King Farouk in 1952. However the new regime that followed was far from that envisioned by the Brotherhood. When the regime accused the Brotherhood of trying to assassinate Nasser, the organisation was banned in 1954. In spite of Nasser’s repression, so vividly captured by the Brotherhood’s leading female activist Zaynab al-Ghazali in ‘The Return of the Pharaoh’, the steady stream of intellectuals and martyrs continued to produce an organisation firmly enmeshed in modern Egypt’s consciousness.


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