In the past several years, the Muslim Brotherhood has gained international notoriety for its political activity in Egypt, the country where it was founded in the late 1920s and where it has since been classified as a terrorist organization. In The West, the dominant view of the Brotherhood in the wake of Egypt’s political upheaval is one of an extremist, fundamentalist group, more concerned with ideology than governance. While many scholars and pundits have raised legitimate concerns about the Brotherhood’s ability to usher Egypt into a new age of democracy and government accountability, the fact remains that the depiction of Muslim Brothers as militant ideologues is one that is grossly oversimplified and fails to take into account the Brotherhood’s development over time and the contextual details that have shaped its ideology. This reductionist view of the Brotherhood is part of a larger issue: a fundamental misunderstanding not only of political Islam, but of the diversity of religious and political ideologies of Muslims worldwide.
Political Islam, a now-favorite topic among scholars and pseudo-intellectuals alike, is a concept that is difficult to understand without at least a rudimentary understanding both of Islam and of the social and political history of the Islamic world. For instance, the Brotherhood is widely considered one of the earliest Islamic fundamentalist movements, and its emergence was largely reactionary to the immense political change witnessed in the wake of WWI, a phenomenon discussed more fully later in this paper. To speak very generally, however, proponents of political Islam see politics as an extension of the faith. Even among Islamists (a controversial neologism in itself) there is a vast array of belief, and Islamists by no means represent the entirety of the Muslim world. However, in part due to the discursive tradition of regarding the Prophet Muhammad as both a religious leader and a statesman, the appeal of a just state governed by Islamic principles continues to be a powerful one for manny believer––an appeal strengthened in part by the history of brutal dictatorship across the Middle East.
Such was the case in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood began in 1928 under the leadership of Hassan Al-Banna. At the time of the Brotherhood’s inception, Egypt had formally been recognized as independent of British rule for several years, however, it remained a sort of “de facto colony” (Mura 63) with the British strongly supporting the Egyptian monarchy and actively working to discourage political opposition. Al-Banna and his contemporaries were also profoundly influenced by the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924. In light of this, and societal split between ‘“modernists’, who advocated a stronger secularism in Egypt” (Mura 62) and those who feared the secularization of Islam, the Brotherhood emerged as an important force in Islamic revival and was buoyed by economic downturn in 1929 (Aknur 6).