Ikhwan and the Jama’at: False soulmates

By Jahanzeb Hussain

The crisis in Egypt has projected the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan-al-Muslimun) to the forefront of the debate on the future of political Islam. While there should be a debate its future, it should nevertheless be kept in mind that political Islam is not a uniform phenomenon. It varies from one Muslim country to another and from one Islamist party to another, not to mention its extremist, jihadi, and Salafist epigones. The Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt occupies a particular place in this constellation because of its erudition, and the structured nature of its discourse and its political organization. But if there are political parties in the Arab world which are inspired by this model, the content and form of political Islam in the rest of the Muslim world vary according to the different national political contexts.

The Pakistani Jama’at Islami, established in the pre-independent India in 1941, closely resembles the ideological foundations and the organizational model of the Egyptian Ikhwan, to the extent that they have been called soulmates.

Both, in countries distant from each other and having no historical ties between them, introduced the idea of a modern, Islamist parties integrated into the political set-up of their respective countries. They have the ambition of conquering state power for establishing an Islamic system through the state apparatus. These two parties are organized around political cadres rather than around a person. Their party structure is almost Leninist, with a politburo (the Markazi Shura), professional revolutionaries (the Salihines), working on the principle of democratic centralism, with downward and upward circulation of opinions, as well as internal elections. A mass party, therefore, and not a party of notables. Both parties cultivate an intense party culture and inspire a party loyalty, which is passed on from one generation to another. Their activists use same jargons, expressions and gestures specific to the party: the same style of beard and even a common sexual behavior of strict abstinence until marriage, avoiding any temptation and any straying of thought. “Lower your gaze,” as Tariq Ramadan, himself belonging to the Ikhwann lineage, exhorts the European Muslim youth.

The Islam of the Ikhwan and Jama’at Islami is devoid of all spiritualism and reduced to a political program – a determined political action, which is the conquest of power in the context of a modern state. Subsequently, the state apparatus is to be used for the establishment of a system, which will not remain limited to the imposition of the Sharia. For these parties, Islam is a complete and complex system, governing all aspects of life and all spheres of governance. It has to be implemented totally through the state power. Their concept of power is totalitarian, with the infallible Salihines at the helm of affairs. Much more than a return to the era of the Prophet, their Islam is a custom-made Islam adapted to modern times. Unlike fundamentalists, they do not exclude women from politics or the education system, even if they are required to dress and behave according to the injunctions of the Sharia. These parties are not against modern education, at least in respect of the physical sciences. It is otherwise for the social sciences, unless they are Islamized.

Although having identical foundations and working methods, confronted with the political realities of their respective countries, Ikhwan and the Jama’at developed different ideological trajectories. It can be said that they eventually tailored their ideology according to practical necessities.

According to their ideological premises, Islam is a universal religion, incompatible with the concept of nation-states. On this basis, the Jama’at opposed the demand for Pakistan. However, after the creation of Pakistan in 1947, it saw in the new country a springboard for furthering its cause of Islamizing the society. From then on, it gradually identified itself with official Pakistani nationalism: an Islamic nation in which the Sindhi, Baluchi, Bengali and Pashto components have no place, while the Punjabi component mingles with the ‘Pakistani identity.’ Pakistani nationalism is defined in opposition to India, making the army the only guarantor of national survival as the country is constantly faced with the Indian threat. This threat justifies the repression of all centrifugal tendencies. The Jama’at not only justified the military crackdown in East Pakistan in 1971, but it also directly participated in the genocide of the Bengalis through its militias, Al-Badr and Al-Shams.

Ikhwan, on its part, has always been the target of the Egyptian state. The military defeat of Nasser’s Egypt against Israel in 1967 sounded the death knell of a nationalism built solely on confronting Israel and its Western allies. The Ikhwan thrust itself into the ideological breach, which was opened as the result of this defeat. However, the crushing defeat inflicted by the Bangladeshi opposition forces and the Indian army on the Pakistani state in 1971 brought the Jama’at nearer to the army, transforming a circumstantial alliance into a close strategic collaboration. After the takeover of power by General Zia-ul-Haq, the Jama’at became a component of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, constantly feeding it with its militants. With the government’s blessing, it penetrated the state apparatus at different levels (ministries of education, information, assistance to Afghan refugees). Jama’at’s militia in Kashmir, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, enjoys direct support of the Pakistani army in the war of attrition that the latter is waging against India.

During their participation in the Afghan jihad, Jama’at activists built a very close relationship with Al-Qaeda. Imbued with solidarity, they offered their hospitality to Al Qaeda members on the run after they were dislodged from their Afghan bases. Several leaders of Al Qaeda, including one of its topmost leaders, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, were arrested from the houses of Jama’at members. Even the courier and messenger of Osama Bin Ladin, who had built for him his Abottabad hideout, had very old links with the Jama’at.

In contrast, the Ikhwan progressively distanced itself from jihadi ideology and filtered out the followers of Syed Qutub from its ranks. In fact, the Ikhwan are the best bulwark against violent extremism in the Arab world and the biggest proponents of parliamentary democracy. They are also well rooted in the Egyptian society, hence why they won the elections there last year. But the Jama’at will never win elections in Pakistan since it is absent from the society; it only finds itself in bed with despots in that country. Since it identifies with state nationalism, it has no support in Sindh and Balochistan. In the Khyber Pakhtunkhawa province, it is losing out to the Taliban, proving that it is no counter to the Taliban either.

Jahanzeb Hussain is the editor of Collateral Damage Magazine.


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