Reformers & Apologists

My Open Letter To A Jailed Muslim Brotherhood Leader

I am prepared to accept that perhaps you—as an individual—believe in our reform. Your group does not.


Ed Giles/Getty

The New York Times recently published a column by Gehad el-Haddad — the spokesman for the global Islamist group The Muslim Brotherhood — penned from the confines of his Egyptian jail cell, in Tora. What follows is my reply.

Dear Gehad,

Assalaamu ‘alaykum peace be upon you,

I shall not begin this letter by asking if you are well. I was sentenced to five years in the very same jail that holds you now. I know what solitary confinement does to a person’s mind, body and soul. Worse, I know first-hand the torture that is practised in Egypt’s dungeons, which you may have witnessed before you were confined to your solitary cell. I know that you are not well. But you know too that inna ma’al-usri yusra —with the hardship comes ease. This too, shall pass.

I read your letter published in the New York Times with mixed feelings. At once it brought back painful memories of my time as a prisoner in Mazra Tora. During those days I used to walk with your murshid al-‘aam, the leader of your group, Dr. Muhammad Badei’ around the cell block in the desert sand as he told me stories of his youth. Your previous spokesman, Dr. Essam el-Erian, showed me incredible generosity, regularly hosting me in his cell during Ramadan as we broke our fast together. I say mixed feelings because my thoughts have changed significantly since those difficult days, and I genuinely hope that yours do too.

Gehad, the last time we met was in May 2013 at then Prime Minister David Cameron’s country house, Chequers. There too was William Hague, then our foreign secretary. You came in your official capacity as the spokesman for the Egyptian President. The Freedom and Justice Party, your group’s political wing, had won the elections after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. From prison to power, the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi was now running Egypt. Cameron wanted my counsel regarding your government. It seems so strange now to think of it, how people can rise and fall so fast. David Cameron is no longer Prime Minister due to Brexit, and Morsi is again imprisoned while you languish unjustly in solitary confinement since President Sisi took power.

Upon meeting you then, I remember feeling optimistic about you personally, though not your group. You were at the forefront of a small band of modernisers within the Brotherhood. I left that meeting thinking that if democracy was allowed to mature in Egypt, your group would have lost the next elections to a more secular party —just as eventually happened to your affiliate Hizb al-Nahda in Tunisia, and this could have empowered your modernising message even more so among your rank and file. And so I was hopeful that in the long run your message would resonate over the more conservative message of your leader, Dr. Badei’.
But then general Sisi orchestrated his coup.

Democracy is a process. I understand that. Yours was a legitimately elected government. But as I argued in this BBC HARDtalk interview, just as you were democratically elected, the people had a democratic right to hold you and your Islamism to account. Sisi had no legal authority to oust you. He should have simply waited until the people removed your group peacefully, which they would have done anyhow. Within a year of The Brotherhood coming to power, Egypt witnessed the largest demonstration in its history against Islamist rule, against your rule. Egyptians—of all faiths and none—uniformly rejected your Islamist vision. And this is where I take issue with your letter to the New York Times.

You only present half the story.

Yes, you are not terrorists. There you are correct. And I promise you that, just as I have done with my own former group — the more extreme Hizb ut-Tahrir—I will resist any moves to list your group as terrorists in any secular democratic country. Your views deserve the light of day… not because I agree with them, but because I believe sunlight to be the best disinfectant. You are not terrorists, but it is disingenuous to argue that your Islamist ideology does not contribute to the intolerant atmosphere from which jihadists are able to recruit. Your group may not sit at the start of a conveyor belt that ends at ISIS, but your fiddlers certainly play the mood music to which jihadists dance.

Let me get some basic definitions out of the way first. Islam is a religion. It suffers from the same denominational, sectarian and doctrinal disputes as most other religions. Whereas Islamism is the desire to impose any version of Islam over society. And where jihad traditionally means holy struggle, Jihadism is the use of force to spread Islamism. Most Muslims, as you know, are not Islamists. Even in Egypt, when you won the elections, only 24 percent of the pubic voted for you in the first round. Those Muslims who did not vote for you are still Muslims, except of the non-Islamist sort. Islamists can be further divided into the political, like your group; the revolutionary, like my former group Hizb ut-Tahrir, and the militant, who are the jihadists. But all Islamists—by definition—share the basic, heterodox idea that a version of Islam must be imposed on society; they merely differ on how to achieve this.

And here is where your argument that The Muslim Brotherhood is inspired by the “values of social justice, equality” falls apart. You and I both know this is not true. While at least 15 percent of Egypt is Coptic Christian, your group does not believe that non-Muslims have the right to be heads of state. In 1997 your previous leader Mustafa Mashhur went so far as to state publicly that non-Muslim Egyptians would be expected to pay the Jizya, a medieval religious head-tax.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Nor does your leadership believe women have the right to be heads of state. The previous regime had introduced an amendment to Article one of the Egyptian constitution that would have allowed women and Christians to run for any political position, including the presidency. It defined the Egyptian state as a civic one and removed reference to Islam as the religion of the state. Your members walked out of the legislative chamber in protest. The Brotherhood’s record in parliament has amounted to trying to control what people watch, what they wear and what they read. Your group’s full slogan is: "God is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Qur'an is our constitution. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of God is our highest hope.” Let’s not kid ourselves. None of this fits the bill of social justice and equality.

And though The Muslim Brotherhood is not a terrorist organisation—again, I will resist this categorisation unless evidence to the contrary is shown to me—even your New York Times letter conceded that your group has spawned violent offshoots. Let us start with the most famous of them all, a man who also hailed from Mazra Tora prison—Sayed Qutb and his infamous jihadist manifesto: Milestones. As you know, Qutb is the direct theopolitical inspiration behind al-Qaeda, but he was first a member of your group. Even your leader Dr. Badei’ told me during those long walks together in Tora that he personally smuggled Milestones out from jail on Qutb’s behalf so that it could get published.

In your letter you admit that The Muslim Brotherhood has acted as an incubator for jihadism, yet you deny any responsibility for this. You ignore completely the history of your tanzeem al-sirri, secret jihadist paramilitaries that The Brotherhood once cultivated. Your defence is that jihadists found no permanent home for violence among your group, which is why they eventually branched off on their own. This is little comfort. It is akin to certain virulently anti-Muslim activists in the West who wish to ban the Qur’an trying to deny that their words provide the mood music to which neo-Nazis dance. You cannot have it both ways. If anti-Muslim rhetoric is dangerous because it acts as a backdrop to violence against Muslims, then Islamist rhetoric is dangerous because it acts as a backdrop to jihadist violence.

This is not an argument for silencing speech. It is an argument for using more speech to condemn bigotry in all its forms. The only way forward is to condemn any form of Muslim or non-Muslim supremacism. The desire to ban the Quran and the desire to impose the Quran are two ends to a lit fuse that can only end in explosions.

I am prepared to concede that your group is less extreme than most other Islamist groups, and you are certainly better than all jihadist organisations. Again though, this does not get us very far. Your shorter slogan is the rather simplistic but dangerous Islam huwa al-hal, Islam is the solution. As long as you still believe in implementing any version of Islam over society, your dispute with the jihadists will simply be about the how. But you are not God. Yours is only ever but one reading among a plethora of possible ways to read scripture. As a Muslim, my problem with all Islamists is over first principles, not means. Whichever way you come to power, you all still wish to impose a version of Islam over the rest of us. This is otherwise known as theocracy. Theocracy is wrong in principle. Regardless of how you bring it about, it is unjust in essence. It is the antithesis to the social justice you claim. And the only reason some in the West—I call them the regressive left—ally with you over this is because they harbour toward you a bigotry of low expectations. They don’t even see you as their equals, else they would hold you to the same standards they hold their Bible-Belt to. For us Muslims, you represent our very own Qur’an-belt. You should be legally tolerated, but civically challenged.

Truth is, you are further from identifying the problem than you may know. While Islamism must be intellectually terminated, Islam today must be reformed. Yet you haven’t even got past your Islamism. And here is the difference between Muslim reformers and apologists. A Muslim reformer will start by acknowledging a doctrinal problem. An apologist will pretend that the problem is merely tactical. A reformer will proceed to candidly highlight the problem among their community. An apologist will try to minimise the problem among their community. A reformer will go on to suggest solutions to these problems. An apologist will insist that the solution lies in the very source that caused the problem in the first instance. A reformer will insist that the state not take sides in religious disputes, otherwise known as liberal secularism. An apologist will insist that the state take their side in religious disputes. A reformer will value free speech over blasphemy, individual rights over communal identity and heresy over orthodoxy. An apologist will value dogma over dissent. A reformer will distinguish scripture from science, while an apologist will subject science to scripture. A reformer will believe that Muslim supremacists pose a grave danger to us all today. An apologist will believe that by criticising Muslim supremacists, reformers pose that danger.

I am prepared to accept that perhaps you—as an individual—believe in our reform. You may go much further on your own were you to be given a chance. And that hope for you will always remain open in my heart. That said, to pretend that The Muslim Brotherhood is positioned where you are is nothing but denial and deception. It is unhelpful for everyone involved, and is ultimately an exercise in futility. You cannot reform something if you first do not acknowledge that it suffers from a problem. And you are not accepting the problem if you continue to insist that your group values social justice and equality. You may, but your group certainly does not. So that must be your starting point, my dear brother. Speak as a reformer who rejects theocracy in principle, and accepts that Islam today needs reform. Do this and you will gain this former prisoner’s lasting support and gratitude.

Meanwhile, please send my salutations to your leader, and my friend, Dr. Muhammad Badei’. Sharing a cell with someone bonds a man across divides, in ways that are hard to articulate. And so I bid you farewell with the prayer he used to repeat to me during our prison days together:

Farraj Allahu ‘annka, may God release you soon.

Wassalaamu ‘alaykum

Your brother,Maajid Nawaz