Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, former member of Parliament in the Netherlands, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations, discussed her experience as a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood as she warned against religious extremism in Egypt.
With all the discussion in the United States about the Muslim Brotherhood in recent weeks—who they are, what they want, what Egypt might look like with the Brotherhood in charge—firsthand perspectives are invaluable. But while many Egyptians back the Islamic organization and say they have nothing to fear from them, Ayaan Hirsi Ali sees things very differently. After all, she was formerly a member of the Brotherhood in Kenya before becoming disenchanted with their political and religious views.
Ali believes the Muslim Brotherhood is still a great threat to secular democracy in the Middle East. Their public, decades-old renunciation of violence may be of some comfort, but Ali said their goals remain the same, and as dangerous to Arabic Muslim nations as ever.
Their main objective was to aspire to a society, a nation, a world that is ruled through Islamic law. That objective has not changed. What has changed is an internal discussion within the movement of when and how to use violence. I think the prevailing attitude now is that the movement can gain its objectives through nonviolent means, particualrly in elections, which is a narrow definition of democracy.
Surprisingly, Ali said the professed pacifism of the Muslim Brotherhood should make us more concerned. It makes them more potent and legitimate in the public's eye than the radical offshoots, although there is little separating the Brotherhood from these groups in ideology, she said. To hear Ali describe it, the Brotherhood sounds like a wolf in sheep's clothing.
The extreme violent ones, groups like al-Qaeda, have diverged in a different side, and I think that's what makes the Brotherhood so elusive and, in a way, far more dangerous than al-Qaeda because of their ability to participate in a democratic system even though they have undemocratic objectives, and to make everybody believe they are peaceful...Once they get to a place of power, we've seen quite the opposite...Everywhere groups that share the same objectives as the Muslim Brotherhood get to a place of domination, they change their colors, they change their objectives, and they stick to their mission.
That mission is the implementation of Sharia law in Arabic nations, Ali said. In short, a government that imposes Sharia law would enforce all of the restrictions on diet, sexuality, crime, economics, politics, etc., that are enumerated in the Qur'an—rules that would be considered repressive and authoritarian for non-Muslims and Muslims with less staunch beliefs.
Sharia is a confusing concept to Westerners and Muslims alike, as interpretations of Islamic code vary widely along with opinions about the role that religion should play in the politics of Muslim majority nations. Ali has no reservations about her opinion: Sharia law should have no place in government. But she told Brian Lehrer that the problem won't be solved with a simple separation of church and state. The once-and-for-all repudiation of Sharia governance could only come with a wholesale revision of one of the world's three major religions.
That would require a farewell from Sharia law and from the dream of the caliphate. It would require very clear scriptural revisions. It would require a revision of the prophet Mohammed as an example for all time, and it would require for Muslims in Muslim majority countries to design constitutions that protect societies from elements that want to introduce Sharia...They have to admit that there is an incompatibility between political Islam and their desire for freedom and economic prosperity.
That's no easy task. Politics and Islam have been intertwined from the get-go (Mohammed himself was a politician), and efforts at the significant reform of public and relgious institutions in the Middle East have enjoyed little success for the past millennium.
Despite all that, Ali is an optimist. Though she doesn't mince words in her warnings about the Muslim Brotherhood, she sees in Egypt the opportunity to forge a "third way," one that has yet to take root in the Middle East. And rather than a hands-off approach favored by some Americans, Ali recommends that the U.S. get more involved in the political transformation if we—and Egypt—expect a brighter future for the Muslim world.
The future of Egypt and other Arabic Muslim countries does not have to be a choice between two extremes of either a strongman tyrant type regime or a Sharia type regime. There is a third way, and I see this as a great opportunity to organize and inspire the liberal democratic forces in Egypt. Here is where the West can help...What we now call development aid, the $1.5 billion America currently gives to Egypt can be used to build that infrastructure of civic and economic institutions so that liberals are able to compete with the Brotherhood in an election. The best thing that could happen to Egypt is that the Brotherhood is defeated at the ballot box over and over again.