By Kelly McDonald & Ian Derk*
Isolating the precise year that the Society of Muslim Brothers emerged from coffeehouses of Egypt is impossible. The Society fought British occupation and residency of Jews in Palestine in the 1930’s and 1940’s. This group of people began with a focus on the spread of da’wa (the Muslim call to faith) and charity organization. Much of the early period was dedicated to charitable donations and mosque building as a counterbalance to the corrupting influence of the colonizing West.
Later, the Muslim Brotherhood began to interpret Islamic life in a more radical way. While founder al-Banna always said “the Qur’an is our constitution,” the Brotherhood attempted to create their version of the perfect Islamic society modeled on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the Brotherhood targeted the symbols of Western culture and decadence. The Muslim Brotherhood and the King exchanged assassinations, culminating in a dead prime minister and the death of al-Banna, forcing the Brotherhood to go underground. The 1952 Free Officer’s Revolt installed a new president, Gamal Abdul Nasser, with secular and Islamic forces working together. Despite the debt he owed to the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasser followed the Soviet model and later sought to limit the influence of the clergy within Egypt.
Although officially banned, the Muslim Brotherhood continued to organize on campuses. A split over tactics divided the Brotherhood and led to the most spectacular attack in its history, the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat 1981. The assassination created an uneasy balance between the Muslim Brotherhood and new government. New President Hoseni Mubarak decided to release several ideological leaders of the Brotherhood imprisoned under Sadat, in hopes of allying himself with moderate members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist networks in the nation to preserve his leadership. The uneasy relationship continued throughout the 1980’s as the Muslim Brotherhood won a growing number of parliament seats.
Ikhwanweb.com is an English-language site and the only official English-language site of the Muslim Brotherhood. The URL comes from a combination of ikhwan, translated as “brotherhood” or “brethren,” and “web,” implying an Internet presence. The scope and types of material posted on site facilitate the collective sharing of experiences on a global scale. The site’s critical import comes from its chronicling of the Brotherhood’s history and engagement in on-going controversies in and outside of Egypt. The site is set up as a collection of freelance writers with some regular employees.
Ikhwanweb.com illustrates what Dubriwny (2005) termed “collective rhetoric.” This rhetorical style, focused on consciousness-raising â€“ the act of introducing a worldview rather than coercing a position â€“ alters the position of rhetoric in social movements. The rhetorical style focuses on a type of rhetoric “in which the collaborative interaction of many voices creates new meanings for individual’s experiences” (398). While Dubriwny was looking at consciousness raising activities in a mass movement, the concept of “collective rhetoric” can be productively extended to an on-line social movement.
Awareness of the Brotherhood’s history is one primary method of developing the sense of worldview and identity on Ikhwanweb. There is an extended, early history of the group, discussing the reasons for founding the group. The repetition of the message restates the original purposes for the Muslim Brotherhood. Khairat al-Shatir, second deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood, claimed in an interview with Ikhwanweb.com that “We believe that the dialogue with the west is the ideal method to bridge the dividing gaps and resolve all grievances.” As the site not only incorporates key historical documents and messages from the leadership of the Brotherhood, as well as a collective of freelance writers, it is a complex and multi-vocal space. This is precisely what Dubriwny (2005) argued when she noted, “collective rhetoric models a process of persuasion that envisions the creation of novel public vocabularies as the product of the collective articulation of multiple, overlapping individual experiences” (p. 396).
Ikhwanweb’s site also engages a variety of contemporary conflicts in and outside of Egypt. Looking at a variety of issues, from proposed constitution reforms and the codification of legal rights to reaction about comments by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 about Islam and the imprisonment of a blogger by Egyptian authorities, Ihkwanweb raises awareness on a global scale to issues impacting Brotherhood members and supporters. In chronicling activities and sharing the experiences such as the imprisonment or detention of Brotherhood members or members of the media the site accomplishes what Dubriwny noted as the responsibility of “collective rhetoric” â€“ working to affirm and validate the lived experiences of participants.
This public dissent on state issues is an important part of the Muslim Brotherhood’s and Ikhwanweb.com’s reason for existing. The idea of individuals protesting over the Internet and registering disagreement to a global issue helped the group gain additional national and international notoriety. As Ikhwanweb.com allows publication of dissenting opinions, it also affords the group the ability to hold ambivalent positions.
Prior studies on mediated Islamic publics studied only cassette tapes, an important but dated medium compared to the Internet. The archived, linked, and cross-referenced data on Ikhwanweb.com changes the dynamic of public interaction in an Islamic sphere. Adopting a youthful identity and pro-democracy political position, Ikhwanweb presents a more tolerant view on Western thought and culture. Ikhwanweb.com is alert to texts produced outside of Egypt and features extended discussion regarding democracy, human rights, and religion.
Policy makers in the U.S. and around the world should also consider the shape of geo-political relations in the future as Islamist groups have gained power in democratic systems and are likely to spread. American policy should consider the growth of the Islamist movement along with the stability and longevity of the Mubarak regime. Engagement with Ikwanweb.com would be consistent with the message of openness and democracy promoted in the West. The site is instrumental for decision makers to track issues of import within the Islamic world and provides another avenue to awareness of those hostile to, as well as sympathetic, to our policy goals in the region and around the world. Dubriwny’s (2005) theory for social movement rhetoric based on the spread of an idea rather than material success illustrates powerfully the self-definition, and close engagement with on-going controversies highlighted by Ikwanweb.com.
*This analysis was adapted from Ian Derk’s Master’s Thesis, “A Public Face of Islam: Ikhwanweb.com, Social Movements and Counterpublicity,” defended August, 2008.
- Dubriwny, T. N. (2005, November). Consciousness-raising as collective rhetoric: The articulation of experience in the Redstockings’ abortion speak-out of 1969. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 91(4), 395-422.
- The Muslim Brotherhood’s (Ikhwan) Official English Website can be accessed at http://www.ikhwanweb.com/
- Roy, O. (2004). Globalized Islam: The search for the new ummah. New York: Columbia University Press.