The first time I went to the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters in Cairo in the 1990s they insisted I wear a headscarf before I could meet their spokesman at the time, Mamoun Hodeiby, who has since died.
This was one of only two occasions in my journalistic career that I have been asked to wear a scarf to conduct an interview. The only other time was in Gaza when I interviewed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas until Israel assassinated him last year.
So when I returned to the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo in June I was pleasantly surprised that I was not asked to cover my hair before I met Supreme Guide Mohammed Mahdi Akef and his deputy Mohammed Habib.
But my pleasure was short-lived.
Shortly after I begen my interview with Akef, I asked him if the Brotherhood would change anything in the Egyptian constitution with regards to women’s rights. This is a particularly sensitive issue in Iraq today where fundamentalists want to replace the civil law that has governed marriage and divorce with wording that would require court cases dealing with these matters to be judged according to the law practiced by the family”s sect or religion.
This would be a disaster not just for women of course. If the Iraqi constitution is based on religion, it is equally a disaster for the country’s religious and ethnic minorities and for all Iraqis who do not want to live under a particular interpretation of Islam.
Iraqis deserve a constitution that guarantees them all equal protection and status, regardless of gender, religion or ethnicity.
It will especially affect women because experience has shown that many Muslim countries that claim to follow Shariah pay lip service to Islamic law but follow a more secular legal system for everything but women and children and family courts. It is always women who pay.
And why is it always the case that covering women is the quickest way to prove Islamic credentials?
To prove to me that the Brotherhood would not endanger women’s rights, Akef pointed to me and said that although I was “naked” I had been allowed to enter his office. I objected and insisted I was not naked. I was wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt and trousers. I said there were many views on Muslim women’s dress but he insisted that there were no differences among the views.
Akef said the Brotherhood would not force Egyptian women to wear hijab because he said they did not believe in forcing anyone to do anything.
That sounds wonderful, but if he considered me “naked” then I am not very optimistic about their other views on women. It is not so much that their views on women have changed but that they now realize that if they force female journalists to cover their hair, it will be used as evidence against the Brotherhood. In other words, they are much more media savvy now.
And that essentially is the problem with the “new” Muslim Brotherhood as they would like us to believe they are. They say they have changed and they now use words such as “freedom of choice” and “political pluralism” but old habits die hard. And nowhere does this become most apparent than when you ask them about women, the role of Shariah and how they will treat religious minorities and other Muslim sects.
Take as another example, their views on Shia. I asked Mohammed Habib, the deputy supreme guide, how relations would be between a Brotherhood government and other Muslim countries, primarily those with Shia majorities. I mentioned Iraq where I said the Shia comprise 60 percent.
Habib insisted that the Shia in Iraq were not more than 30 or 40 percent but he said that Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan el-Banna tried to bring the Sunni and Shia schools together.
“We must find similarities and points that bring us together and avoid differences and we must form committees of higher knowledge to bring the Sunnis and Shia together,” Habib said. “This will solve many problems and much of the tension.”
Again, this is good to hear but it was disturbing to hear him half the number of Shia in Iraq , particularly after the decades of abuse and massacres they experienced at the hand of Saddam Hussein.
The two examples I have given you from my interview with Akef and Habib are the reasons why it is imperative to involve the Muslim Brotherhood in the dialogue on reform. If the Muslim Brotherhood ever comes to power in
Egypt , I will not live there again. But if Egypt is to truly reform and work towards a democracy, everyone must be included in the dialogue, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
Furthermore, talking to the Brotherhood and hearing their views is the only to bring out the contradictions and problematic views that still exist in their thinking.
While it is reassuring to hear Habib say “We will never use violence as a tool for change. If we did then we’d be giving legitimacy for it to be used against us. We reject violence and coups.,” it is difficult to pin him down on exactly what role he thinks Sharia will play in Egyptian society if the Brotherhood are ever in power. And will they be a religious or a civil government?
He insisted they would be a civil government but that freedom would operate within a religious framework. Women won’t be forced to wear hijab but the Brotherhood will not tolerate “nudity and public immorality”. Who will define these things? And he also said that they would “of course” censor music videos and put an end to free concerts.
And what about Christians in Egypt ? Habib said they would be treated as ordinary citizens with all the rights of citizenship but he said they would be subject to Shariah along with Egypt ’s Muslims. This issue has caused untold problems and eventually violence in countries with Christian citizens, such Nigeria and
So as I said, the Brotherhood must be involved in the dialogue on reform in Egypt because democracy does not exclude anyone but also because it important that their views get aired so that we can challenge them on ideas that are contradictory or problematic.
If they want us to believe they’ve truly changed and that they want to reform Egypt, then why did they walk away from a joint opposition demonstration recently just because some protestors shouted anti-government chants? Egypt’s small but active opposition movement could do with the numbers that the Brotherhood usually bring out to demonstrations but the Brotherhood must not walk away because that only feeds into rumours that they’ve struck a deal with the government to remain non-confrontational in return for the ability to contest more parliamentary seats. Akef and Habib denied this.
And finally, the Egyptian government must know that the biggest antidote to the Brotherhood isn’t to keep the ban on the organization nor is it to throw its members in jail.
It is to widen the political space so that alternatives to the Brotherhood arise. The longer they are barred from politics, the longer their mystique lasts.