While this fatwa did little to assuage concerns regarding the Brotherhood's view of minorities, the Easter ruling's specificity strikes a sharp contrast
with the Brotherhood's otherwise vacuous approach towards interpreting the sharia for crafting policy. While the Brotherhood technically embraces the
jurisprudential doctrine known as istislah, in which Islamic legal principles are interpreted to achieve "societal benefits," the vagueness of
this outlook has long enabled Brotherhood leaders to avoid explaining how they would "implement the sharia" once empowered. This obfuscation has persisted
even since Morsi's June 2012 electoral victory.
Indeed, compare the specificity of Barr's fatwa on greeting Christians on Easter with the list of bromides that Brotherhood leader Farid Ismail threw at me
during a July 2012 interview, when I asked him what policies would change once Morsi implemented sharia. "It means peace, security, equality, citizenship,
freedom, and giving rights for people despite their religion or ethics or color or sex," said Ismail, declining to identify a single specific policy that
would change when I pressed further. It is the type of answer that even Muslim Brothers in positions of executive authority continue to give nearly a year
later. "Everything I'm doing is sharia!" Kafr el-Sheikh Governor Saad al-Husseini, a top Brotherhood figure, proclaimed to me this past February. "Justice
is sharia. War against corruption is sharia. Security is sharia. ... Improving the economy is the sharia. This is the sharia. To preserve the dignity of
Egyptians is the sharia. ... Day and night we are with poor before rich. This is sharia!"
With such an ill-formed view of what the sharia implies for policy, it is no wonder that the Brotherhood's tenure as Egypt's ruling party has yielded so few distinctively Islamic laws. And the Brotherhood will likely
continue to embrace this content-free sharia, for two reasons:
First, by keeping its sharia approach vague, the Brotherhood is able to prevent internal fissures from emerging that could potentially undermine its
organizational integrity, which it views as vital to consolidating its power. The Brotherhood thus envisions itself as a disciplined vanguard, which -- according to
former Brotherhood spokesman Ibrahim al-Houdaiby -- "focuses on recruitment and empowering the organization while postponing all intellectual questions."
To prevent potential fissures, the Brotherhood thus frames its views in specific sharia terms only when it seeks to justify certain theocratic ideas on
which its cadres broadly agree, such as in its calls for banning the sale of alcohol, outlawing bikinis, and the "Happy Easter"
Second, the Brotherhood's vague sharia approach allows it to justify everything it does as Islamic, while casting its opponents as enemies of Islam who are
thereby deserving of punishment. Barr, the Brotherhood leader who issued the fatwa prohibiting Muslims from wishing Christians a Happy Easter, was actually
quite explicit on this point when I interviewed him in July 2012. "When we implement the sharia, we will first try to ease the concerns of the people,
implementing [it] through cooperation that safeguards freedom and dignity and accomplishes justice," Barr said, echoing familiar clichés. "Then, if someone
comes and breaches this, punishments will be brought against him for not accepting this, for the dignity of life and [based on] a correct [Islamic]
education," continued Barr, adding that sharia had penalties for all offenses, including "attacking the finances or attacking the mind." Sadly, Barr's call
for punishing those who "breach" this broadly-defined sharia has been implemented under Morsi: more journalists have been prosecuted for insulting the president during Morsi's ten months in
office than during Mubarak's thirty years in power, and many of these individuals are also being tried for insulting Islam.