How Secular Is the Muslim Brotherhood?

The Islamic political group won't offer a presidential candidate but experts to have a role in Egypt's new government

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Many are speculating about what the Muslim Brotherhood could do now that Mubarak's gone. But Foreign Policy's James Traub decided to actually ask them. Traub writes, "though I did feel they were putting their best foot forward for a Western journalist, I was struck by their reluctance to impose their views on others and their commitment to democratic process." Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is taking heat for calling the Brotherhood a "mostly secular" organization. But was he so wrong? Members of the Brotherhood told Traub they don't want to impose Sharia on Egypt. He doesn't think they're lying.

"When people hear the name Muslim Brotherhood, they think of terrorism and suicide bombings," admitted Magdy Ashour, an electrician elected to Parliament to represent a Cairo slum. But, Ashour told Traub, his group cares about human rights. "We do not want to establish a country like Iran, which thinks that it is ruling with a divine mandate. We want a government based on civil law, with an Islamic source of lawmaking."

Top Brotherhood leaders told Traub that an "Islamic source of lawmaking" means "parliament would seek the advice of religious scholars on issues touching upon religion, though such views could never be binding," Traub explains. Parliament would have the "absolute right" to pass an "un-Islamic" law.

Maybe they were lying. But I didn't think so. ... It is true that one wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, radicalized in prison in the 1960s, became the forerunner of al Qaeda; Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of this faction, is now Osama bin Laden's deputy. But many of Zawahiri's cellmates rejected his call for violent resistance and embraced meliorism and a cautious, if often shadowy, distance from the state. It is this latter group that has shaped the modern Brotherhood. To not alarm the West, the Brotherhood has said that it will not run a candidate even if permitted to do so in a democratic presidential contest. Because this is consistent with past behavior, the burden of proof is on those who view the group's promise as a cynical ruse.

Al Jazeera's Larbi Sadiki explains, "No contender for power in post-Mubarak Egypt can bypass the Muslim Brotherhood, whether they rule as a majority through a direct democratic mandate or in coalition with others. If it does not rule in its own right, the MB is destined to be a king-maker." Why? There are just so many of them, and, thanks to its social work, the Brotherhood has a broad social networks in both urban and rural areas that gets along with non-member Egyptians. That means it has support at a tiny local level and globally.

Robert S. Leiken, who heads the immigration and national security programs at The Nixon Center, told Voice of America that you can separate the Brotherhood's members into three factions: a nonpolitical organization that does charity, a "very political" smaller group that wants Sharia, and a third group of pragmatists that would like Sharia sometime in a more Islamic future but don't see it happening in their lifetimes.

Muslim Brotherhood expert Nathan J. Brown, a George Washington University professor, says that most in the Brotherhood see Islam as just a "reference point." He continues, "So what they seem to have arrived at is a position that says that when we in Egypt make a law, we should probably draw on that Islamically, but as long as we do not violate anything that is incontrovertibly a part of the Sharia, then that’s okay. And the number of rules that are incontrovertibly part of the Sharia is actually fairly small."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.