Muslim Brotherhood still fails to offer a 'civil state' solution

The Muslim Brotherhood's moderate leaders may mean well with their promises to create modern states, but the greater organisation is prone to relapse to old habits of violence and extremism.

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"The Quran is our constitution" was the mantra, now all but forgotten, of the Muslim Brotherhood. In recent years, the credo appears to have been overshadowed by another, ostensibly mellower, one: "Islam is the solution." After the pro-democracy Arab uprisings, the Brotherhood's discourse has shifted to focus on its vision of the civil state.

From Yemen to Syria to Tunisia, the Brotherhood's conception is gaining ground. The organisation has nonetheless been accused of using modern political constructs to disguise an authoritarian, cynical Islamist agenda. The Brotherhood's growing political role has been attacked across the region, and nowhere as strongly as in Egypt, when the High Constitutional Court declared on Thursday that the Islamist-dominated parliament had been dissolved.

The Brotherhood, and other groups influenced by its ideology, will help to shape the region's future despite such obstacles. In part, objections to the organisation are justified by a history of militancy and violence in several countries. So it is worth asking whether the organisation has really changed. Beyond the reassuring public announcements, what is this vision of a "civil state"?

The Brotherhood maintains that a civil state is an alternative to theocracy and secularism, both of which, the organisation argues, are peculiarly western institutions. Madaniya, the Arabic word for "civil", implies a contrast with "military", "police" and "theocracy". A madaniya state, in theory, is ruled by technocrats who comply with a written constitution to protect the civil liberties of both Muslims and non-Muslims.

In reviewing Brotherhood writings on the subject, however, it is clear that their idea of madaniya is conceived as a constitutional theocracy, where religious authority is practised through a written constitution. While it is not publicly emphasised, madaniya renders the governing authority an agent of Islam; the Quran remains the supreme constitution.

By calling for madaniya "with Islamic reference", the Brotherhood is in reality describing the Islamic state as it was in the 7th century, with little reference to modern state institutions. The criticism of "theocracy" is actually a defence of Islam as a non-coercive religion, in contrast to the Catholic Church of medieval Europe, rather than a general criticism of the rule of religion.

Yusuf Al Qaradawi, a prominent Islamist ideologue, has said: "Those who accuse Islamists of calling for a theocracy, we say to them that is incorrect and unjust. [Islamists] call for an Islamic state. They have not called - and will never call - for a theocracy."

Sheikh Al Qaradawi's statements echo those of Sayyid Qutb, a Brotherhood intellectual who died in 1966: "The kingdom of God cannot be established when specific people take power as was the case with the Church authoritarians nor by men who speak on behalf of the gods as the case in theocracies but when God's Sharia rules."

There are two problematic issues in the Brotherhood's discussion of madaniya. The first is its failure to establish an interpretation of Sharia that upholds the moderation that is being preached in public, making the group susceptible to violent and extremist influences. If the organisation is to build trust, it must read Sharia in a way that sanctions practices like the devolution of power, plurality, and freedom of expression and public liberties.

A starting point for the group would be to revisit the idea of rulership as a religious mandate. The Brotherhood, unlike the consensus in mainstream Sunni thought, considers rulership as an organic part of religion. (The same position is held by Khomeinists and is used to justify clerical rule in Iran.) By insisting that rulership is fundamentally part of religion, the political process becomes an end in itself for Islamists, rather than a means to safeguard the welfare of the nation.

Without a revision of this jurisprudential concept - to ensure the neutrality of the state regarding religion's role - the Brotherhood may relapse. And the public has little more than words and promises as a guarantee.

Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda in Tunisia, presents a counterexample. Mr Ghannouchi has interpreted religious texts in a way that is compatible with modern political norms. He has argued, for example, that there is nothing essentially wrong with secularism and that it is not a philosophy but a "procedural measure" that helps a diverse nation to build a consensus (ijmaa', a Sharia term). His interpretation, however, does not restrain Ennahda's next leaders from following a radically different path.

The second issue that troubles the discussion of madaniya is that the Brotherhood's definitions of modern terms such as public liberties and freedom of expression contradict most people's understanding. In the West, the rejection of autocracy and theocracy was often framed as a movement to free the state from an oppressive clergy.

The Brotherhood's criticism of autocracy, on the other hand, emanates from a desire to free religion from any state control. By this idea, the role of religion maintains primacy over the state institutions.

The Brotherhood sets itself apart from other Islamist groups as a pragmatic faction that accepts modernity and its ethos, using the "civil state" idea to reassure secularists and minorities. But while its moderate leaders may mean well by their promises of a modern state, the organisation is prone to resist change. The moderate discourse must be translated into binding guidelines, a type of manifesto, as part of a reconfiguration of its overall ideology. Until then, secularist groups and regional governments will continue to view the group with suspicion.

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