How do Islamist movements perceive citizenship rights, particularly in conservative societies such as the case in the Middle East? This study attempts to answer this question by examining the case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Conventional wisdom demonstrates that Islamic movements adopt illiberal views towards women and minorities, particularly non-Muslims, because of their conservative and rigid interpretation of religion. This study argues that religion is not the only factor that shapes these views. By unpacking the position of the Brotherhood towards women and Christians’ rights in Egypt, it shows that the Islamists’ conception of citizenship is driven by ideological and political considerations. It contends that the Brotherhood adopts an ambivalent and ambiguous understanding of citizenship that can be construed by three key factors: ideological stance, organizational cohesion, and political calculations.
How do Islamists conceive citizenship?1 The burgeoning literature on Islamists suggests their position on citizenship (muwatana) and political rights has changed significantly in recent decades. The writings of key Islamist figures, such as Rachid al-Ghannouchi (Al-Ghannouchi 1993), Yusuf al-Qaradawi (Al-Qaradawi 1985, 2010), Mohammad Salim al-Awa (Al-Awa 1989), Fahmi Howeidi (Howeidi 1999), and Ahmed Al-Raisouni (Al-Raisouni 2014), reveal an increasing awareness of the importance of citizenship, political pluralism, and civil rights. Their contributions have been presented as evidence of Islamists’ ideological “evolution” (Saeed 1999). The debate over gender equality and inclusion of minorities has also become an integral part of everyday discourse, particularly among younger Islamists. The Arab Spring can be credited for playing a key role in bringing these formerly prohibited issues into the public domain to be discussed and contested in everyday life. As Meijer (2014, 635) points out, the Arab uprisings engendered a significant shift in discussing political rights and “moved [them] out of the shadows of the non-political, the familial, the tribal, and the religious or technocracy into the public arena.” In fact, the demand for political values such as freedom, justice, and dignity was at the heart of public debate in the Arab world after the uprisings. More surprisingly, the traditional and conservative forces, such as Salafi, sought to align their discourse and rhetoric with demands coming from the streets.
Nevertheless, Islamists’ stance toward the “other” is marked by inconsistencies. While their rhetoric appears to respect citizenship rights in many cases, their practices demonstrate the opposite, particularly with regard to the rights of women and religious minorities. In this sense, their understanding of citizenship seems limited to certain groups, rights, and domains. For instance, the position of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood toward both non-Muslims and those within other sects of Islam such as Shiite is vague, to say the least. The Brotherhood’s stance toward collective and individuals’ rights is also problematic. According to the Brotherhood, the scope of freedoms granted to individuals (i.e., religious freedom, freedom of belief, freedom of conscious, etc.) should be limited and narrowly interpreted according to the Brotherhood’s understanding of Islamic texts.
Thus, the crucial question becomes: Why is the Brotherhood’s conception of citizenship problematic? Is it a matter of ideology or can the discrepancies be ascribed to political calculations and differences within the movement? Further, why was the movement unable to adopt a more open and tolerant position toward minorities in the wake of the January 2011 uprising? This paper aims to answer these questions.
The paper is structured as follows. The next section explores the Islamic discourse on citizenship and how it evolved from medieval Islam to today. The third section discusses the Brotherhood’s discourse on citizenship and explains the development of its view towards women and Copts. The fourth section explores the status of Copts and women under the rule of President Mohamed Morsi. The final section highlights the factors that can explain the Brotherhood’s discourse and position on the citizenship issue.
ISLAM AND CITIZENSHIP
The concept of citizenship (muwatana) is a relatively modern construct in Islamic political thought (Scott 2007, 5) and is usually associated with non-Muslims who are either living in a Muslim country or in a country under an Islamic rule (Furman 2006). Foundational Islamic texts (Qur’an and Sunna) define non-Muslims as ahl al-dhimma (protected people), a concept that refers to both Christian and Jewish minorities as ahl al-kitab (the Peoples of the Book). According to Islamic teachings, ahl al-dhimma are entitled to certain rights while living in Muslim countries, typically pertaining to legal and personal status such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. However, these rights were limited to monotheistic religions, specifically Christianity and Judaism (2). The provision of these rights was also contingent on payment of special taxes, such as a poll-tax (jizya), to the Islamic government (Scott 2007, 3).2 In reality, however, the rights and freedoms exercised by non-Muslims varied under the rule of different governments. With time and geographical expansion, Islamic jurists developed new methods to deal with non-Muslims through jurisprudential and intellectual reasoning (ijtihad), which enlarged the scope of their rights. For instance, under the Ottoman Empire, non-Muslim rights were expanded to reflect the plurality of society. A new legal framework, called the millet system, was adopted in the sixteenth century and granted religious minorities “a degree of legal autonomy and authority” (Braude 2014, 15). According to Scott (2007, 4), “this system granted non-Muslims a great deal of autonomy in both religious and non-religious affairs,” which reflected the plurality of Ottoman society. Furthermore, as a result of the Tanzimat reforms, the dhimma system was nearly abolished and non-Muslims were granted more rights and freedoms, including the freedom to convert to other religions (4). The emergence of national sentiment by the end of the nineteenth century had its impact on the treatment of Christians. In Egypt, for example, Muhammad Ali and his successors lifted many of the restrictions on Copts. According to Mahmoud (2012), this includes “the payment of jizya tax, exclusion from military service, and an easement of restrictions on the construction of churches” (431). The aim behind this new policy was to integrate the Coptic community in the nationalist project of Muhammad Ali rather than his belief of Copts’ entitled rights as citizens.
However, after the removal of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924 and the emergence of the modern Arab “nation-state,” debate over non-Muslim rights and citizenship intensified. According to Saeed (1999, 309–10), four perspectives can be noted in this regard. First is that of the traditionalists who adopted the classical view of non-Muslims assigned in Islamic texts. According to this perspective, non-Muslims should be treated as dhimmis who must pay jizya under the rule of Sharia. Second are the neo-revivalists who offer a more flexible view of non-Muslims by granting them more rights, but not equality with Muslim citizens. According to Saeed, Islamist movements such as the Brotherhood and Jamaat-e Islami in Pakistan fall into this category. Third are the modernists who oppose blatant discrimination against non-Muslims and call for their protection. However, they believe that Muslims should maintain some degree of preferential treatment in the Islamic state. The fourth trend consists of secularists who call for a secular state that does not differentiate between citizens based on their religion, race, or gender.
Over the past two decades, a new generation of Muslim scholars have focused on the contemporary problems Muslims face in societies and communities as the age of globalization emerges. They are mainly preoccupied by how Muslims can be integrated in a highly complex and entangled world without losing their identity. They provide new jurisprudential interpretations of Islamic concepts and traditions by redefining them to become more inclusive and relevant to Muslims around the world. Concepts such as the common good (maslaha) and purposes of Islamic law (maqasid al-sharia) have become the new vehicle to reform Islamic thought and renew its discourse. Scholars and public figures such as Jasser Auda (Auda 2008), Tariq Ramadan (Ramadan 2009), and Ahmed Al-Raisouni (Al-Raisouni 2014), among others, have made significant contributions on several contested issues such as citizenship, women, religious minorities, and life in Western societies. Their ideas are celebrated and embraced by young Muslims who seek to be integrated and be part of the world.
In Egypt, Islamic scholars and activists have provided new interpretations of Islamic texts in order to integrate non-Muslims. Howeidi, an Islamist-leaning writer, argues for the treatment of non-Muslims as full citizens who enjoy the same political rights as their Muslim counterparts (Howeidi 1999, 15). He urges Islamists to renew their discourse toward minorities to be open and inclusive. He further contends that the dhimma system is not Islamic because it was imported from communities that existed before Islam (Scott 2010, 129). Similarly, Mohammad Salim al-Awa, an outspoken Islamic scholar, and Tariq al-Bishri, a retired judge and historian, defend the inclusion of Christians in Egyptian society as full citizens. Both highlight that the dhimma system was merely a political concept that has been overtaken by the concept of citizenship (130). They also consider jizya a historical process that should be discarded since non-Muslims serve in the national army (131). Moreover, the renowned Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi supports equality between Muslims and non-Muslims in political and civil rights (Al-Qaradawi 1985). Furthermore, al-Qaradawi, like al-Awa and al-Bishri, views the concept of ahl al-dhimma as irrelevant since the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims should be based on the “patriotic brotherhood (al-ukhwa al-wataniyya)” (Warren and Gilmore 2014, 13).
Despite the new interpretations and views on non-Muslims, particularly Christians, Islamist movements and groups adopt a different approach that limits religious freedoms and rights of women and non-Muslims. Some of these groups remain loyal to the orthodox and literal understanding of Islamic texts. Other groups, however, adopt such strict views not only because of their loyalty to orthodox Islam but also for political and social considerations. Egypt’s Brotherhood belongs to the latter. It adopts, at best, an ambiguous and problematic stance towards women and Copts’ rights. This article aims to unpack the Brotherhood’s views on women and Christians in Egypt. It is important, however, to stress that it does not adopt the Western model of citizenship as a benchmark against which to judge the Brotherhood’s stance. Nor does it believe that citizenship is a “universal” concept that should be imposed or adopted by other communities. Rather, it attempts to explore the Brotherhood’s conceptions of citizenship and to what extent this shapes its relationship with other political forces after the January 2011 uprising. The article argues that religion is not the only factor that determines the Brotherhood’s position on women and non-Muslims, but also political and social calculations. As will be shown, these calculations range from appeasing the movement’s conservative base to electoral gains and organizational cohesion.
THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD’S CONCEPTION OF CITIZENSHIP
The Brotherhood’s ideology and political discourse underwent significant changes over the past few decades (Al-Anani 2007, Brown 2012, El-Ghobashy 2005). To enhance its political position and expand its constituency after participating in electoral politics during the 1980s, the Brotherhood had to revise many of its core ideas, particularly with regards to political pluralism and minority and women’s rights. Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Brotherhood, disregarded political parties because of their “role in dividing the nation and breaking it into factions and groups” (Al-Banna 2002, 60). However, the Brotherhood’s leaders argue that al-Banna was concerned by the unity of the nation against the British authorities rather than rejecting political pluralism and diversity fundamentally (Al-Hudaiby 1998). On Copts, (Al-Qaradawi 1985, 34) notes that al-Banna considered them “brothers in the homeland sharing the same rights and duties” (ikhwatuna fi-l-watan lahum ma lana wa ‘alayhum ma ‘alayna). Al-Banna also dismissed the notion of jizya, considering it a “historical” practice that should be abolished since the Copts were defending the homeland by joining the army (Al-Qaradawi 1985, 34).
Veteran Brotherhood leaders also recall the cordial relationship between al-Banna and Coptic leaders during 1930s and 1940s (Assaf 1993). For instance, Mahmoud Assaf, an experienced leader in the Brotherhood who spent a few years with al-Banna, recalls that al-Banna had a unique relationship with many of the Coptic leaders which was solidified after a visit to Upper Egypt. Moreover, Assaf claimed that some of these leaders asked al-Banna to establish a section within the Brotherhood for Copts called the Christian Brothers (Assaf 1993, 35). Yet, some accounts dispute this relationship between the Brotherhood and the Coptic community during the al-Banna era. Vivian Ibrahim, for instance, refers to several editorials, poems, and commentaries published in Coptic-owned outlets criticizing al-Banna and the Brotherhood (Ibrahim 2011, 97). According to Ibrahim, al-Banna wrote an open letter to the Coptic Pope Yousab II (1946–56) complaining about these insulting pieces against him and his movement (97). On the topic of women, al-Banna stressed the important role they play in society and the partnership between men and women. Yet, his position is clearly patriarchal and conservative. In a tract entitled To Muslim Women, al-Banna articulates that the main place of a woman should be her home where she can look after her children and husband (Ikhwanwiki 2007). He rejected a woman’s right to work unless necessary to raise her children.
However, over the past few decades, the Brotherhood revised many of al-Banna’s views, particularly on political pluralism and Coptic and women’s rights. The Brotherhood altered these views to become more compatible with democracy in an attempt to avoid alienating other political forces, as well as the West. In order to expand its constituency and enhance political clout, the Brotherhood sought to change its image as a rigid and reactionary movement. Therefore, it accepted political pluralism and became active in electoral politics at the beginning of the 1980s. The Brotherhood also reached out to different political and ideological forces, building coalitions with liberal, secular, and leftist parties in the 1984 and 1987 elections that increased the Brotherhood’s gains (Al-Awadi 2004, Wickham 2002). As an indication of its political and ideological transformation, the Brotherhood issued several statements during the 1990s recognizing political pluralism, respecting citizenship, and stressing the political rights of Copts and women (El-Ghobashy 2005). The most well-known of these came in 1994 when the Brotherhood issued a statement on political pluralism and women’s rights. Many observers consider the statement a hallmark in the Brotherhood’s conception of citizenship and a sign of its ideological evolution in general (Abdel-Latif 2008, El-Ghobashy 2005, Howeidi 1999). Not only did the statement accept political and religious pluralism but also it sought to refute the regressive and orthodox interpretations of Islamic texts that humiliate women and dismiss their rights (El-Ghobashy 2005, 382). It recognized the complete rights of women from different aspects such as a woman’s right of ownership, financial independence, etc. (Abdel-Latif 2008, 8). It also articulated full political rights of women as equal to men and acknowledged their right to vote and run as candidates for all executive posts (Abdel-Latif 2008, 8, El-Ghobashy 2005, 382). The Brotherhood then issued a document a decade later known as The Muslim Brotherhood Initiative for Political Reform, which called for comprehensive political reform in Egypt (Al Jazeera 2004). The new initiative acknowledged citizenship and political rights for women and Copts, including the ability to contest parliamentary and municipal elections.
However, the Brotherhood’s stance on women and Copts’ rights witnessed several setbacks over the past decade, which perplexed observers. For example, the Brotherhood issued a draft platform for a political party in August 2007 for the first time in its history (Ikhwanwiki 2007). The party platform triggered criticism from Egyptian intellectuals and the media because of its rigid and conservative content. For weeks, the platform was the subject of intense debate and stirred heated discussion among both Egyptian and Western observers. It also vexed many Islamic figures such as Howeidi and al-Bishri, who criticized the platform and the Brotherhood.
Critics argued that the platform reflects the rigid and undemocratic character of the Brotherhood (Aly 2007, El-Menshawy 2007, Lynch 2008), while others viewed it as a reflection of the balance of power within the movement (Al-Anani 2007, Quaisi 2007). Not only did the platform raise serious concerns about the democratic commitment of the Brotherhood but also it was seen as a setback in light of its previous position and statements (Abdel-Latif 2008, Howeidi 2007). First, the platform called for creating a religious council (Majlisal-‘Ulama) to supervise and revise legislations before becoming law (2007). Many observers believed that the Brotherhood attempted to create a theocratic state resembling the Iranian model (Aly 2007, 5, El-Menshawy 2007). As El-Menshawy describes, the council is “reminiscent of Iran’s Guardian Council, this undemocratically selected body could have the power vested by the state to veto any and all legislation passed by the Egyptian parliament and approved by the president that is not compatible with Islamic sharia law” (El-Menshawy 2007).3
Second, the platform was a major setback on citizenship rights for women and Copts in light of the Brotherhood’s previous statements. According to Abdel-Latif (2008), this statement on women was shocking and undid many of the Brotherhood’s progressive moves in the past (1). Despite stressing “the complete equality between man and woman in human dignity,” the platform differentiated between them politically and socially (Ikhwanwiki 2007, 12). While it acknowledged the right of women to work, it limited the scope of the female workforce to certain domains. For instance, the platform stated that women should not join the judiciary before having “a social and religious dialogue that can lead to a consensus over this issue” (Ikhwanwiki 2007). The platform also denied the right of women to become president or to lead the army because “these duties are incompatible with women’s human nature and their social role” (Ikhwanwiki 2007). Mariz Tadros points out that the Brotherhood is opposed to any constitutional guarantees of women working as citizens (Tadros 2012, 144). Similarly, the platform denied Copts’ right to become head of state. The Brotherhood justified its position by arguing that the state has “religious functions that require a Muslim to be head of the state or a prime minister to conduct them” (Ikhwanwiki 2007, 2). Tadros argues that the platform’s wording “suggests that rather than being deprived of a citizen right, the non-Muslim is being granted a favor, namely, being spared of the ordeal of ruling according to a creed that is not his/hers” (Tadros 2012, 107).4
Following the outrage sparked by the 2007 platform, the Brotherhood sought to allay fears regarding its position toward women and the Coptic community. To this end, the Brotherhood conducted several interviews with Egyptian and Western scholars to dismiss concerns of its exclusive stance on citizenship issues. Furthermore, some of the reformist figures within the Brotherhood, such as Abdul Moneim Abul Fotouh and Gamal Hishmet, publically rejected the platform and stressed the right of women and Copts to serve in the presidency (Islamonline 2007, Lynch 2008, 10). However, these efforts neither affected nor changed the overall position of the Brotherhood regarding rights for minority groups.
The 2011 platform of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) was an amended version of the 2007 platform that chose not to address the issue of allowing women and Copts to contest the presidency (Ikhwanwiki 2011). Although the platform stressed the importance of citizenship and the integration of Copts, it failed to provide details on how this could be achieved. Despite addressing the social and economic needs of women, it fell short of acknowledging their political rights. The Brotherhood has chosen instead to stay quiet about these issues, hoping to dodge criticism in order to avoid controversy or alienate secular and liberal forces (Al-Anani 2011).
AMBIVALENCE AND AMBIGUITY
The Brotherhood’s stance and discourse on citizenship and political rights of women and non-Muslims is ambivalent and ambiguous (Al-Anani 2007, Lynch 2008, Scott 2010). The 2007 platform contradicted the Brotherhood’s earlier statements regarding minority rights and conflicted with the positions taken by Islamists such as al-Awa and al-Bishri. According to Scott (2010, 151), al-Awa and al-Bishri posit that a non-Muslim can be prime minister or president because these posts are very different from the caliphate system that prevailed in medieval centuries. Both emphasize the right of women and Copts to hold the presidency since it is not the caliphate, or wilaya ‘uzma. Further inconsistencies on citizenship and political rights can be found among the Brotherhood’s leadership. While some adopt a conservative and rigid position toward women and non-Muslims, others espouse more progressive and moderate views. For instance, Mustafa Mashhur, the sixth General Guide of the Brotherhood, adopted a conservative position toward Copts. In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly in April 1997, Mashhur declared that Copts should pay jizya instead of serving in the army Al-Ahram Weekly 1997). Tadros notes Mashhur’s statement was interpreted as an assault on the concept of equal citizenship, and condemned by other political forces as well as some of the Brotherhood’s members (Tadros 2012, 89). Similarly, Mahmoud Ezzat, former Secretary General of the Brotherhood, emphasized that Copts and women should not be allowed to serve in the presidency. In the aftermath of the backlash prompted by the Brotherhood’s contentious 2007 platform, Ezzat explained the movement’s position as following Islamic traditions and the “consensus of jurists” (ijma‘ al-fuqaha’) (Ikhwanonline 2007). The most rigid stance taken among the Brotherhood leadership came from the movement’s mufti,5 Sheikh Abdullah al-Khatib, who rejected the construction of new churches and suggested that Copts pay jizya (Lynch 2008).6
In contrast, Mahdi Akef, the Seventh General Guide of the Brotherhood, demonstrated his recognition of rights for the Coptic community. He told Dream TV on 12 June 2006 that the Brotherhood respects citizenship rights and rejects any discrimination against Christians or Jews (Lynch 2008, 7). Akef stressed his strong relationship with figures in the Coptic community such as Mona Makram Ebeid, and asserted that the Brotherhood’s political committee had three Coptic advisors under his tenure (Al-Masry Al-Youm 2006). Mohamed Habib, the former deputy to Akef, reaffirmed citizenship rights for the Coptic minority, calling them “partners in the nation” (shuraka’ fi-l-watan) and claiming this understanding was “deeply rooted inside the MB” (Lynch 2008, 7). Moreover, Habib admitted the shortcomings of the 2007 platform and mentioned that the Brotherhood formed a committee to redraft the platform (6). Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood member known for his commitment to democratic values, and in 2012 a presidential candidate, repeatedly asserts that non-Muslims should have “complete equality in rights and duties” (Scott 2010, 140–41).
Yet, pundits cast doubts over the Brotherhood’s commitment to democratic values because of its conservative views on citizenship and ambivalent position toward women and Copts (Brown, Hamzawy, and Ottaway 2007, Scott 2010, Tadros 2012). Brown, Hamzawy, and Ottaway (2007, 4) identify that Islamists’ positions on Sharia, political pluralism, citizenship rights, religious minorities, and women lack clarity and are markedly ambiguous. They argue these are “grey zones” that raise suspicion regarding Islamists’ commitment to a more inclusive society with democratic values.
This uncertainty about the Brotherhood’s intentions is manifested in the concerns of the Coptic community. Scott and Tadros both concur that the Brotherhood’s ambiguous stance on citizenship has created a gulf of mistrust within the Coptic community. This ambiguity feeds into the state’s narrative that the Coptic community is not safe from persecution under the rule of Islamists (Scott 2010, Tadros 2012). Scott argues that many within the Coptic minority suspect the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups of having a hidden agenda that seeks to curb their citizenship rights and return to the dhimma system (Scott 2010, 182). Tadros contends that the Brotherhood’s alliance with Islamists who adopted antagonistic views toward non-Muslims raises doubts about the extent to which the Brotherhood can moderate its actions on the issue of citizenship (Tadros 2012, 97).
CITIZENSHIP IN PRACTICE
The January 2011 uprising initially brought hope that a new era of respecting citizenship and human rights was on the horizon (Meijer 2014). As Tadros (2012) points out, during the eighteen days of the uprising at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Christian activists felt they had become equal citizens and that the uprising would “herald a new age in social cohesion and solidarity that would cut across religious divides” (96). During the rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) from February 2011 to June 2012 and the Brotherhood from June 2012 to June 2013, prospects for an inclusive conception of citizenship became increasingly hopeless. Under the SCAF, Coptic churches were destroyed and many Christians were remorselessly slaughtered.7 As Jason Brownlee points out, “the first months after Mubarak was deposed revealed that Copts were isolated if not overwhelmed” (Brownlee 2013, 14). Brownlee highlights the state’s embedded discrimination against the Coptic community under the SCAF. For instance, on 15 April 2011, the SCAF appointed twenty governors, with only one being Coptic; the representative was quickly forced to resign after Salafis held massive rallies against his appointment (14).
The status of Copts and women experienced no improvement under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi because he failed to bridge the gap of mistrust between Copts and Islamists. Morsi did appoint a Coptic figure named Samir Murqus as his assistant (Agence France Press (AFP) 2012). He also met with a prominent leader in the Coptic community after giving the presidential oath (Mustafa 2012). In that meeting, Morsi stressed the equality between Muslims and Copts and promised to keep “a line of communication open, day and night, between [himself] and the Copts” (Mustafa 2012). However, only a few months later, the relationship between the two parties deteriorated as suspicions reemerged. More importantly, the Brotherhood’s discourse toward Coptic Christians during Morsi’s tenure enhanced their fears of Morsi’s hidden agenda. For example, Abdul Rahman al-Bar, a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, issued a fatwa that prevents Muslims from greeting Copts during Christmas before he was led to recant his statement after a strong media backlash (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat 2013a, 2013b). Furthermore, the alliance between the Brotherhood and other conservative Islamists created an inflammatory atmosphere that led to sectarian incidents during Morsi’s tenure. For instance, on 5 April 2013, five Copts and a Muslim were killed in the city of al-Khusus in the Qalyubiyya province of northern Cairo, which led to a cycle of violence between Muslims and Copts, resulting in another two deaths and eighty-nine injuries (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat 2013b). A few days later, the situation was exacerbated by an attack on Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral during the funeral process for those killed only days prior. The lack of a strong reaction from Morsi’s presidency outraged the Coptic community. Coptic Pope Tawadros II blasted Morsi’s presidency and accused it of marginalizing the Copts. In an interview with Reuters, Tawadros explained, “there is a sense of marginalization and rejection, which we can call social isolation” (Saleh 2013). In his last speech before being removed from power on 3 July 2013, Morsi lambasted the Copts for being “Islamophobic,” which, among other things, encouraged many of them to participate in the protests of 30 June that led to Morsi’s removal only days later.
The concept of women’s rights also experienced setbacks under Morsi’s rule. Although Morsi appointed a woman as his assistant, the specter of a rigid and patriarchal vision of women predominated. This was palpable in two key instances. The first was in the 2012 constitution, which failed to include clear measures to prevent discrimination against women and to guarantee their full citizenship rights. Despite removing an article that made women’s rights subject to rulings of Islamic law, the constitution did not list “sex” as one of the grounds of prohibiting discrimination (Human Rights Watch 2012). The second instance was when the Brotherhood reacted vehemently to the United Nations (UN) Women’s Rights Declaration. On 14 March 2013, the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) discussed a declaration that would condemn violence against women; however, the Brotherhood slammed the statement and argued it would lead to a “complete disintegration of society” (Kingsley 2013). The Brotherhood also issued a statement on its English website criticizing the declaration and claiming it would “be the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries, eliminating the moral specificity that helps preserve cohesion of Islamic societies” (Ikhwanweb 2013). The Brotherhood’s harsh words provoked Western observers and women’s rights activists in Egypt who criticized the Brotherhood and raised doubts regarding its rigid stance against women (Kingsley 2013). In order to mitigate the fallout from the incident, Morsi convened a meeting with women’s rights activists where he announced a new initiative to “support the rights and freedoms of Egyptian women” (Solovieva 2013). However, the initiative proved to be merely a political calculation and ultimately had no impact on improving perceptions of the Brotherhood’s stance toward women.
BEYOND RELIGION: MOBILIZATIONAL, ORGANIZATIONAL, AND POLITICAL CONSIDERATIONS
Why does the Brotherhood adopt an ambiguous and ambivalent conception of citizenship? Is it a matter of ideology or political calculations? As a massive social movement with a diverse constituency, the Brotherhood’s decisions are both ideologically and politically driven. In the ideological sense, as discussed above, the debate among Islamic scholars coalesces around the understanding that non-Muslims and Muslims should be granted equal citizenship rights (Al-Awa 1989, Al-Ghannouchi 1993, Howeidi 1999). Therefore, the logical question is: Why did the Brotherhood choose not to adopt this more progressive position? The answer lies within its political and strategic interests.
As a social movement, the Brotherhood makes decisions based on rational and strategic calculations. As Jean Cohen explains, “Social movements are rational actors who build their own actions on strategic calculations” (Cohen 1985, 707). The Brotherhood prides itself on its thorough deliberations when making strategic decisions, a process largely governed by cost–benefit analysis. Thus, the logic of adopting an ambiguous position on minorities such as Copts can be understood within the context of three key strategic interests: broadening the movement’s social constituency and support, maintaining its organizational cohesiveness, and appeasing conservative Islamist groups in order to secure their support against non-Islamists. The Brotherhood operates within a highly conservative and patriarchal society. According to survey data, the vast majority of Egyptians adopt conservative and exclusive views toward women and non-Muslims. A 2013 poll by Pew Research Center found that seventy-four percent of Egyptians believe Sharia should be the official law in the country. The same poll highlights conservative views among Egyptians toward women’s rights and the role of women in society more generally; fifty-four percent think that women should wear a veil and eighty-five percent believe that a wife must always obey her husband. Only twenty-two percent think women should have the right to divorce; and twenty-six percent prefer equal access to inheritance among sons and daughters. Most strikingly, the poll shows “Egypt is the only country in which more than one-tenth (12 per cent) of the total Muslim population says it is a good thing that non-Muslims are not free to practice their faith” (Pew Research Center 2013). Therefore, in order to avoid alienating this important yet socially and culturally conservative constituency, the Brotherhood tends to adopt similar conservative stances regarding women and religious minorities. When asked why the 2007 draft did not allow women or Copts the right to serve in the presidency, Mahdi Akef answered, “Because it is not realistic to do so in a country with a Muslim majority” (Akef 2009). Similarly, Rafiq Habib, a Coptic Christian who served as a political advisor to Mahdi Akef, stressed, “Egyptians will support neither a woman nor a Copt in presidential elections, so why should the Brotherhood do it?” (Habib 2009).
The second strategic interest that is instructive in explaining the Brotherhood’s ambiguous position toward women and minorities is organizational cohesion. The Brotherhood is not a monolithic movement; rather, it is an intricate and diverse group with many members belonging to different social strata, particularly the low and lower-middle classes. Over the past two decades, the movement has experienced changes that reshaped its organizational structure and affected its worldview, which became more conservative and less tolerant toward political and religious pluralism. Hossam Tammam notes the Brotherhood witnessed significant transformations in its internal structure and values, which became more traditional and rigid. He refers to these changes as the “ruralization of the Muslim Brotherhood” and states, “a transformation in behavior and values foreshadows a process of ‘ruralization’. This process is a break-off from the original nature of the Muslim Brotherhood as an urban group with regard to membership, recruitment, regulations and guidelines” (Tammam 2012, 5). These changes limited the Brotherhood’s ability to be more open and inclusive. Unsurprisingly, there is little variance between the views of old and young generations on women and Coptic rights. Al-Anani (2007, 91) maintains only twenty-three percent of young members in the Brotherhood agree that Copts have the right to become head of state and almost none believes that women should have the same right. Moreover, the Brotherhood’s 2007 draft platform that precluded women and Copts was the subject of extensive internal deliberations that saw nearly all members engaged in discussions on the topic at provincial and local branches. Strikingly, the rank and file of the Brotherhood were unenthusiastic about earlier drafts of the draft, which struck them as “too liberal, too political, and insufficiently religious” (Lynch 2008, 6).
The balance of power within the movement also plays a factor in favoring more conservative viewpoints. The current leadership of the Brotherhood embraces a traditional and controversial understanding of citizenship based on the classical interpretation of Islamic teachings. For instance, Mohamed Badie, the Brotherhood’s General Guide, defended his movement’s position toward women and Copts by referring to traditional jurisprudential rulings that prohibit women from becoming head of state. He also stressed that the state has certain religious duties that non-Muslims simply cannot undertake (Al-Youm Al-Sabi‘ 2009). Many of the Brotherhood’s leaders believe that complete gender equality and full citizenship is prohibited and inapplicable.
The third interest that could explicate the Brotherhood’s stance toward citizenship rights is its alliance with other conservative Islamists groups, particularly Salafis. Operating in a fiercely competitive religious market, the Brotherhood is always keen to demonstrate its religious credentials. But despite this competition, the Brotherhood’s leaders believe that they can accommodate other Islamist groups and gain their support. Therefore, during elections or political conflict with non-Islamists, the Brotherhood becomes more willing to give ideological and religious concessions to other Islamists in order to secure their support. This was evident after the January 2011 uprising when the Brotherhood was keen to appease Salafis and guarantee their support against the military and non-Islamist forces. For example, Khairat al-Shater, the Brotherhood’s strategist, sought to accommodate and co-opt Salafi groups and sheikhs by forming the Religious Association for Rights and Reform. This group included sixteen other figures from the Islamic spectrum, including many influential Salafi figures such as Sheikh Mohamed Hassan, Sheikh Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, and Sheikh Abdullah Shaker. While running as a presidential candidate in April 2012, al-Shater promised the group that his main objective was the application of Sharia. He stated, “Sharia was and will always be my first and final project and objective” (Reuters 2012).
Furthermore, the 2012 constitution was the subject of negotiations and compromise between the Brotherhood and the Salafi al-Nour Party. In order to pass the constitution, the Brotherhood had to appease the Salafis. Although Article 2 in the constitution stipulates that the principles of Sharia are the main source for legislation, Salafis believed the phrasing should be more explicit. They wanted to ensure these principles were interpreted by scholars they trusted (Brown 2012) and in accordance with their understanding of Islam. Hence, they pressured the Brotherhood to either change Article 2 to be more specific or to add another interpretative article; the Brotherhood conceded to the latter. As a result, Article 219 was added to the constitution and opened the door for stricter interpretations of Sharia. Nathan Brown argues Article 219 was produced not simply by intellectual debates but by hard politics. He explains Salafis’ strict position by the desire “to content themselves with the assurance that Article 2’s principles were at least being nailed down in some ways, even if it was done in a manner overly deferential to the scholarly tradition” (Brown 2012).
The Brotherhood’s discourse and performance while in power raised questions about its understanding of citizenship. This also created fears among minorities and enhanced suspicions about the Brotherhood’s commitment towards citizenship rights. These fears and concerns of political exclusion widened the mistrust between the Brotherhood and the Copts and played a key role in its removal from power in 2013.
For Western scholars, citizenship as a concept and cluster of rights has evolved over decades and its values should be taken for granted universally. However, as this study showed, some political and social movements adopt different conceptions and views on citizenship right for different theological and political reasons. Operating in religiously and culturally conservative societies, the ability of a social movement to adopt and advocate a progressive version of citizenship is immensely difficult. The Brotherhood’s ambivalence and opaque understanding of citizenship rights corresponds, in one way or another, to the environment in which the movement operates. This environment complicates the Brotherhood’s ability to alter its position on granting greater citizenship rights to religious minorities and women. As a political actor, the Brotherhood tends to appease its constituency and conservative allies at the expense of religious minorities. Ironically, it doubled down on its conservatism after the January 2011 uprising instead of entirely changing its views and position toward women and Copts. It chose to ally with Salafis and other conservative Islamists in order to counterbalance the military and “deep state” institutions (i.e., Ministry of Interior, the judiciary, and the state bureaucracy). In order to please these new allies, the Brotherhood’s hand was forced to offer ideological and political concessions that negatively affected its image in many circles. To remain a relevant and influential political force in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood needs to revise its views on citizenship and to become more tolerant towards women and non-Muslims’ rights.
The author thanks Chris Kato for assisting in editing this article, as well as the two anonymous reviewers for their useful comments.
By Islamists, I refer to active socio-political movements that use Islam as a frame of reference in everyday life. More specifically, I mean movements that accept political participation as the only means for pursuing change and acquiring power such as the Brotherhood and its offshoots in the Middle East.
Ironically, the idea of creating a religious council was introduced by Rafiq Habib, a Christian intellectual who was serving as an advisor to the Brotherhood’s General Guide Mahdi Akef. Habib admitted he was behind the idea, but stressed that the role of the religious council is consultative and not mandatory (Ismail 2007).
A mufti is an Islamic scholar responsible for explaining Islamic law.
According to Lynch, al-Khatib apologized for his statement, which he asserted was his personal view and did not reflect the Brotherhood’s position. Lynch also argues that such inflammatory statements increased the gulf of mistrust and skepticism between Copts and the Brotherhood.
On 9 October 2011, Egyptian military and security forces killed twenty-eight and injured around two hundred peaceful protesters, most of whom were Copts who gathered in front of Egyptian Television and Radio Station Union, known as Maspero, in one of the worst attacks against Copts in recent decades.