7 Questions for Sherifa Zuhur
By Patti Munter
Sherifa Zuhur is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley, researcher and author of 17 books. She was a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, directed the Institute of Middle Eastern, Islamic, and Strategic Studies, taught at MIT, American University in Cairo, UC Berkeley, California State University, Sacramento and was a Senior Fulbright Research Scholar in Syria and Egypt, and a research scholar at Ben Gurion University’s Chaim Herzog Institute. Her work on Islamist movements in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia has relied on original field research and interviews. Her dissertation was on the impact of the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamist groups in Egypt whose influence in that country, and in academia and Muslim communities abroad has been profound. She has tried to draw attention to the growing influence of the Brotherhood and its sister organizations (in Libya, Gaza, Yemen, and Syria) and their links with jihadists.
Americans have a monolithic view of Egypt. Talk to me about the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). In your view, what does the future hold for the MB in Egypt?
The Muslim Brotherhood first developed in the late 1920s in Egypt as a response to the Westernizing effects of colonialism, and to preserve and develop an Islamic way of life. From its inception, the organization has drawn on the beliefs of the essentially conservative and deeply religious population to promote a pan-Islamic vision.
In the early to mid-1970s radical Islamist organizations grew and many of them included former Muslim Brotherhood members – namely the Islamic Jihad (IJ) and the Gamaat Islamiyya (GI). Members of IJ later formed a wing in al-Qaeda; members of GI waged a low-level insurgency against the Egyptian government. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood behaved as if it was a political party and also a socio-religious movement, focusing on recruitment, retention, alliances with independents. It fully expected President Mubarak to alter his antagonism toward them and allow them to retain political seats.
How easily can you have conversations about Muslim Brotherhood issues with young Arab American students in the US?
Conversations can be quite difficult depending on the degree to which they are influenced by community groups or projects where Islamists dominate. Liberal students may not really understand the degree to which the MB are committed to bringing about their world vision, and that they are not just one more democratic group or actor to be included in political.
To Arab-Americans who have lived in the region, such discussions are usually clear-cut; many have a healthy fear of Islamist groups. Others grew up with this orientation or married into it. I was quite shocked to encounter a young woman who firmly supports the MB and wants to work for the overthrow of Sisi who presented herself as a ‘free thinker’ to visiting MB government-in-exile figures speaking at a California university. As if MB are a cause, like possible extinction of a whale or an animal species that she wants to save. As if they represent a human rights issue. Other young Arab-Americans don’t really have opinions – the MENA is far away for them, they only bump up against the influence of the MB in religious associations.
To what degree have you interacted —or tried to — with MB-tied groups in the US?
While at US Army War College (AWC), I had a lot of problems with some officials and faculty who simply were anti-Muslim. I tried bringing a complaint to CAIR. What I found was that CAIR represents itself as an advocacy group, but only offers legal assistance in those cases where like-minded individuals suffer discrimination, and it does not pursue many other cases.
I believe Western Muslims should be involved in counterterrorism and security efforts against violent Islam. What bother me most is to see the reliance of some experts and centers on former jihadists (who are Islamists), or community members who are Islamists, whether MB or not.
I watched in disbelief five years ago as Nonie Darwish was disinvited to speak at Princeton about five years ago. Brandeis was also in the news last year: same story, different woman. Thoughts?
Princeton’s disinvitation of Nonie Darwish, like Brandeis’ disinvitation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali was shameful and the result of pressure by students. All I can say is it is an over-steering, an incorrect characterization of Islamophobia, and a vicious prejudice against two women who support women’s rights and have left Islam. Converting ‘out’ is considered apostasy, and for that, their high profiles, and firmly anti-Islamist stand, many oppose them. I am not comfortable with many things Hirsi Ali has done and said, but I would certainly hear her speak. As we supposedly uphold freedom of speech on our campuses – certainly that should occur. The other huge division concerns attitudes toward Israel; I suppose Nonie Darwish is not forgiven for her Arabs for Israelorganization.
After Morsi was elected, you detail how the MB ousted the Minister of Culture. Her replacement vowed to abolish ballet and Islamize Egypt’s film industry.
The MB —via the Freedom and Justice Party— brought in its own ministers. There was great antipathy to the new 2012 Constitution and other actions by Morsi. He appointed a new minister of Culture, Alaa Abd al-Aziz about a year into his term. By then the Tamarrod movement had already begun (the petition calling for Morsi to step down). As Abd al-Aziz made statements about Islamizing the arts – not only doing away with ballet – he fired the directors of the Cairo Opera House, the National Library and Archives, and the General Egyptian Book Organization. The cast of the Opera appeared onstage in Aidacarrying placards against the Muslim Brotherhood and calling for the end of Morsi’s regime. Then writers, artists, and performers began a two week sit-in outside of the Ministry of Culture.
What was behind the 2013 calls from Western governments to include MB politically? Was it fear? Naiveté? Corruption?
Various countries had come to the conclusion that Islamists held so much influence in the Middle East, they should be partners in the struggle against radical Islamists – a sort of “if you can’t beat them, join them” stance. They weren’t wrong in understanding that pushing full-out anti-religious secularism would not take, but rather, in imagining that Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood would ever be inclusive or put anything but its own movement’s interests first. Numerous Washington-based organizations and NGOs had promoted democracy in which Islamists and non-Islamists would coexist and somehow people would vote down coercive laws or measures.
Strong ties were established between democracy-building organizations and Islamists, so the thought was that since Morsi had won the election, the Muslim Brotherhood must be included in the post 06/30/13 government. In fact, then Minister of Defense al-Sisi presented multiple offers to the Muslim Brotherhood to include them in some way if Morsi stepped down, but they refused.
You catalogue daily instances of sabotage and violence by the “ansar Morsi.” Are they available to read by public?
I periodically post logs on Twitter of daily incidents of sabotage and violence by Ansar Morsi, and other radical Islamists. I do so because a wing of Egypt’s opposition claims that the Muslim Brotherhood are not violent; or they assert that the violence is actually fake and enacted by Egypt’s security forces to have a reason for a crackdown. Occasionally I post these on my website (sherifazuhurwordpress.com) and I am working on articles and a book which highlights this security campaign.
The Atlantic copies Egyptian press notices on violence and the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy tracks violent attacks. For some reason, both are opposed to Egypt’s government, and they do not connect dots between the resistance, its likely sources of funding, etc.
They are stuck in the belief that radicalization is caused by repression instead of understanding that radicalization is its own motor and motivation. .