As the fountainhead of global Islamic terrorism, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has long had a public-relations problem. For years the Brotherhood has struggled to veil its reputation as a violent and reactionary religious movement without moderating the substance of its politics, which continue to include support for terror attacks and the institution of hard-line Sharia law. At the University of California at Irvine (UCI), the Brotherhood has now found an audience receptive to its efforts.
This Wednesday, four separate UCI programs – including the department of history; the Center for Research on International and Global Studies at UCI’s School of Social Sciences; the school’s Middle East Studies Student Initiative and its Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies – will host Ibrahim el-Houdaiby, a young member of the Muslim Brotherhood and the leader of its new generation of self-styled “moderate Islamist” activists. Still in his twenties, the Cairo-based Houdaiby has a long lineage in the Brotherhood: His grandfather was Hassan el-Houdaiby, a prominent Brotherhood ideologist. Houdaiby has carried on the family tradition, writing a column for the Brotherhood’s official English-language website, IkhwaWeb.com, and generally trying to arouse foreign sympathy for a movement still regarded as dangerous in the West.
On the UCI faculty, at least, Houdaiby has made a favorable impression. In particular, he has impressed history professor Mark LeVine, who helped organize this week’s event. In an interview, LeVine said that he met Houdaiby in Cairo while conducting research for his recent book, Heavy Metal Islam: Religion, Popular Culture and Resistance in the Middle East, and came away convinced that the young activist truly represents a new breed of Muslim Brother – a clear break with the rigid fundamentalists who dominated the movement throughout its 80-year history.
As an example, LeVine says that Houdaiby is “more interested in working with the secular forces in Egypt, which is something that the Muslim Brotherhood has not traditionally done. And he has a willingness to be critical of the leadership, something that you would not have seen a generation ago.” Inviting Houdaiby to UCI, according to LeVine, is a way for students to engage with a Muslim activist who is not only close in age but also represents a new model of Islamic leadership.
That is a flattering description. Yet, there is reason to doubt whether Houdaiby really represents a trend toward moderation, and whether it is fitting for an American university to provide him with a platform. On the evidence of his published writings, Houdaiby is not the democratic reformer he affects to be.
Houdaiby certainly sounds convincing. Even as he describes himself as a moderate Islamist, he takes care to stipulate that “moderate Islamists fully endorse democracy, and their discourse illustrates a clear respect of civil liberties and human rights.” As for Islamic politicians, he explains, they “fully endorse democracy, support freedom of the press, and believe in equality as the basis of citizenship.”
So it is with the Brotherhood, which, as Houdaiby tells it, should not be considered a fundamentalist group. Rather, it is a “reformist organization that upholds the principles of tolerance [and] peaceful reform.” Instead of imposing its views on society, the Brotherhood champions “constructive dialogue that is based on mutual respect and appreciation of diversity.” It’s no coincidence that the topic of Houdaiby’s appearance at UCI will be “religion and democracy in the Middle East.” If Houdaiby is to be believed, the Brotherhood is now the Middle East’s foremost advocate of democracy and democratic values.
That is not whole story, however. A closer look at Houdaiby’s writings suggests that while he has shrewdly adopted the rhetoric of Western democrats, his political goals, like those of the Brotherhood, could hardly be more opposite. Where Houdaybi departs from his predecessors is largely in his success in putting a fresh and tolerant face on an old and intolerant agenda.
For instance, there are his countless contradictions. While Houdaybi says that the “state should not interfere in the individual’s personal choice to violate Islamic teachings and drink alcohol,” he insists that this is only true “as long as he does not violate the societal rights by threatening its security.” Of course, the notion that deviating from Islamic teachings constitutes a societal “threat” would convince only those who, like the Brotherhood, argue that society should be governed exclusively by Sharia law. Brotherhood founder Hassan el-Banna similarly proclaimed that Islam must be “given hegemony over all matters of life.” Houdaiby’s references to personal choice may sound more congenial to Western ears but it is noteworthy that his underlying assumption about the supremacy of Sharia is exactly the same as el-Banna’s.
Given his explicit support for Sharia law, it’s hard to give credence to Houdaiby’s professed belief in equality. And indeed Houdaiby’s writings point in a very different direction. For example, Houdaiby has criticized Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mahdi Akef for denouncing as “naked” those women who do not wear the hijab, or headscarf. However, Houdaiby isn’t prepared to say that women should be given a choice on the matter. On the contrary, he has written that “I support Akef’s stance on wearing the hijab, and like him view it as a religious obligation.” One need only consider the Taliban’s promises to assault with disfiguring acid all women who do not wear the hijab to see how tolerant Islamists tend to be of women who do not abide by such “religious obligations.”
Lest one take him for a radical, Houdaiby insists that his ideal of an Islamic society would look nothing like Taliban-era Afghanistan. But his support for criminalizing adultery in accordance with Sharia law belies such assurances. Although he has written that it is a “couple’s personal choice to adhere to Islamic teachings, prohibiting sexual relations outside marriage,” he insists that “the choice should not violate their society’s right to have a decent environment. Therefore, extramarital sexual relations are only a punishable crime if there are four eyewitnesses to the relation.” As with the hijab, the Islamic world provides revealing examples of what such a standard for punishing adultery might look like in practice. In November 2007, a Saudi appeals court sentenced a married woman to 200 lashes and six months in prison after she was gang-raped for the crime of “being in the car with an unrelated male.” In that case, her rapists were also her accusers. In Afghanistan, similarly, women are often sentenced to prison terms of up to twenty years after being raped. Houdaiby’s praise for “Western political systems” may have convinced some Western liberals that he is one of them, but his support for a Sharia-ruled state, with all the gender inequities it implies, indicates otherwise.
Indeed, in his ideology, Houdaiby is an Islamist of the old school. As his spiritual inspiration, he invokes the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sheikh Youssef el-Qaradawi. Of Qaradawi, Houdaiby claims that he has “shown a high level of respect for human rights and civil liberties.” In fact, Qaradawi is an anti-Semite who rejects all dialogue with Jews – “There is no dialogue between them and us other than… the language of the sword and force,” he has declared – and a supporter of terrorism. In 2007, Khaled Mashal, the Damascus-based leader of Brotherhood offshoot Hamas, praised Qaradawi for his “support of martyrdom operations.” According to Mashal, the good sheikh “never hesitated to issue rulings in support of these operations, and there were times when we were in dire need of these rulings.” That Houdaiby regards Qaradawi as a model religious guide is a telling commentary on what it means to be a “moderate Islamist.”
If UCI faculty and administrators are troubled by Houdaiby’s agenda, they show no evidence of it. Professor LeVine, while conceding that he has not read all of Houdaiby’s writing, defended him as someone who “absolutely” does not represent the Brotherhood’s more extreme positions. And yet, LeVine added that he would support inviting him to the school even if that were the case. “In the end I don’t really care,” Levine said. “I think he represents a rising generation of Islamic activists that we need to talk with, and I don’t think I need to read everything he’s written to see that he’s worth engaging.”
Still, LeVine says that he would be happy to invite critics of Islam and Islamism to UCI, including Ayan Hirsi Ali and Dutch politician Geert Wilders, provided that the school can afford their fees. (LeVine said that the Houdaiby will not be receiving an honorarium for his appearance and that the school has paid only for his trip from Egypt.) For now, though, that sentiment does not appear widely shared at UCI. The school does not plan to have a speaker to challenge Houdaiby's presentation of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The only clear winner in that scenario would seem to be the Muslim Brotherhood. The forerunner of al-Qaeda has long tried to present itself as a force for tolerance, human-rights and democracy in the Muslim world. Even in the Middle East that self-description has not gone unchallenged. How ironic that it should meet with so little skepticism at an institution devoted, at least in theory, to promoting critical thinking.