Tag Archives: Islamism

Patti Munter Interviews Sherifa Zuhur

16 Jun
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.   .

Women on the Ground vs. Women in the (Ivory) Towers

27 Apr

Women on the Ground vs. Women in the (Ivory) Tower

Mona El Tahawy, an Egyptian journalist and supporter of the Arab revolutions wrote an important call to action for women of Egypt and the Arab world yesterday. I don’t know if she or the editors came up with the article’s title, or if critiques of accompanying illustrations are all that important for American readers must certainly be accustomed to the de rigeur picture of a veiled woman, bearded man, or kaffiyah-wearing stone thrower. El Tahawy emphasized the blistering misogyny that underlies the many practices, rules and trends impacting women in Arab Muslim states. Of course, this is not what we teach in Middle East History or Politics 101 where we are concerned with imparting information in narrower doses and combatting Western stereotypes of the Arab world. And the terminology was misinterpreted. Misogyny does not mean personal hatred for an individual but an institutionalized set of practices and attitudes while allow men (and women) to passively watch and ignore, or engage in acts of oppression.

Those who are competent to discuss women’s lives in the region should be engaged in a deeper inquiry and discussion about the tenure of the outrages mentioned — circumcision in Egypt, the levels of family violence impacting women, the sexual violence and harassment against women moving in the public sphere, the discriminatory laws and practices, and the governments’ failures to deal with such problems or support the interests of 51% of their populations.

The main point of El Tahawy’s addressing the spectacular suffering of women in a variety of country contexts and issues a variety of issues interconnected by internalized misogyny, or an unequal according of power at this historical moment is that the region has just undergone four earth-shaking political revolutions, and at least one more in process. How shameful it would be if all of this upheaval and the deaths of those struggling for freedom did not result in the implementation of true democracies in which women must claim equal citizenship and equal rights!

As academics we were taught utter nonsense about the capacity of Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, Libyans and Syrians to challenge the existing political and social orders. We were told that those socialized under patrimonial cultures would never act, or never act as individuals. Academic voices prattled on about the resilience of authoritarianism, and academics, like other professionals aligned themselves with particular regimes. And then, the entire world was shocked and energized by the sight of these revolutions.

Just as Egyptians refused to accept the stereotypes of their own passivity and inability to mobilize, now women are concerned about a present-tense where they are forced to the bottom of party lists, and must keep silent about the outrages perpetrated on women during the revolution or those which continue full sway in other places, such as Saudi Arabia. When Mona writes of hatred of women, we must understand her socialization as a teen living in the Kingdom with its young and annoying mutawa`in, women’s inability to vote or drive or go to restaurants and remember that once upon a time in Iraq, women also drove freely and ran businesses without fear of attacks, and that women have been attacked in the festivals and public gatherings in Egypt for years now. Let us remember little girls sold at eight and nine years old into marriage who only get a break if the King intervenes! Let s ask who is speaking for babies who are circumcised in Yemen and six-year olds circumcised in Egypt despite the passing of an amendment to the Child Protection Act. We must think of the very real slurs and insults – psychological abuse that many women endure along with slaps, kicks, and beatings. Of the lengths that women must go to obtain divorces, or to keep from being divorced, or to obtain custody if they are divorced. And remember that women activists have worked together to try to inhibit honor crimes.

For her advocacy of the Egyptian revolution, which included having both of her arms broken and being sexually attacked while covering a demonstration, and for her articulate cri de coeur for women, El Tahawy received a lot of criticism, much of it revealing of the critics. The cowardice of academia was on full display yesterday as academic feminists tumbled over one another to put her down for being a pawn of neoconservatives, who wrote about too many issues at once, reintroduced “binaries,” or – and this from one of her former idols – who supposedly reviles religion. El Tahawy is a Muslim and chooses not to wear hijab. And the hijab would not have saved her from sexual assault for we might remember that Samira Ibrahim who unsuccessfully sued the military authorities for violating her by subjecting women demonstrators to virginity tests, is covered. And her suit failed.

One might think these critics had never been exposed to feminist analysis or that women’s studies of the region is now decidedly out of vogue. Academics who incessantly rehash the last thirty years of scholarship on Islamic feminism or structuralist approaches to social issues must be terrified that a door is being opened onto a new phase where they will have no relevance. While the Islamophobia types have overemphasized the threat of Islamism, we cannot ignore political implications in its expansion for women, or minorities, or democracy. We dare not admit that discussions of gender are inconvenient.

While Mona was called a “feminazi” and Leila Ahmed, who commented on her article, a “promoter of spiritual hijab” by two men I argued with last night, Monica Marks in Huffington Post declares her own research on Islamism to be far more significant than the misguided testimony of a “native informant” like Mona El Tahawy. Many academics shared links with each other declaring that they would never present the issues as she did, when in fact, these same individuals frequently offer public lectures addressing the inequities women face in the region. In fact, a striking level of denial blatant arrogance, hypocrisy and competition inhibits a very productive use of scholarship on women.

Because quotas for women politicians have not been adopted, and newly-instituted gender parity laws were easy to subvert in the list system, there are now 42 an-Nahda women representatives (and 7 non-Islamist women) in the new Tunisian parliament out of 217. One immediately spoke out against unmarried mothers in her first post-election statement. In the new Egyptian parliament, currently considering such important matters as allowing polygamous men to have extra energy subsidies, and the rights of nurses to wear niqab, we see only 11 women out of 508 representatives. Yemen and Libya have even poorer records of promoting female leadership – the public must be convinced to accept women in such new roles and that means overcoming the underlying misogyny that El Tahawi highlighted. With few politicians eager to uphold reforms or enact new ones to deal with the violence and discrimination that plagues women’s lives, it appears that civil society, that is, NGOs serving women will resume their pre-revolutionary role of working on women’s issues, and fiercely denying any connection to “foreign agendas”

It is a serious matter that the moderate Islamist parties who now dominate these countries lack an agenda to reform women’s issues. Let us hope they develop such agendas and that women in the region can begin to acknowledge themselves as the huge interest group that they could be. Thank you, Mona for your call to action!

Sherifa Zuhur
Institute of Middle Eastern, lslamic and Strategic Studies