The remarkable rise and fall from power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt since its legalisation in 2011 remains one of the most prominent talking points in the Middle East. Egyptian people, meanwhile, remain prey to the whims of their country’s ever-influential military, which overthrew democratically-elected Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi earlier this year.
In 1981, President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda with possible links to members of the Muslim Brotherhood. This came at a time when observers claimed Egypt to be going through a process of ‘Islamisation’.
What this term means is contentious yet, as early as 1978, it was enough to worry British diplomats. A Foreign Office cable reported that Islamic extremism was the biggest potential problem for Sadat, a Western ally. The rising popularity of the banned Muslim Brotherhood in student elections was particularly noted. The cable went on:
There is confusion between religious extremism and fundamentalism and a religious revival, which are not necessarily the same. The latter may involve little more than an increase in the numbers and devotion of believers, the construction of more places of worship and the political benefits of appearing pious. On the other hand Islamic (or any other religious) extremism involves fundamentalists seeking to impose their views of correct behaviour on others.
This is a valuable acknowledgement of the difficulties in determining the difference between religious extremists and those that appear extreme to others because of their piety, religious conservatism or opposing beliefs.
The rise to power of Morsi, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, led to suggestions that Egypt was undergoing a period of ‘Islamisation’ once more; i.e. a religious radicalisation of society. This may be true but, equally, it could simply have been a reflection of the opportunity for political and religious expression provided to conservative Muslims by the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.
Similarly, attacks on Coptic Christians were suddenly highlighted in media sources as proof that Islamic extremism was on the rise in Egypt. However, it should be noted that the Christians make-up a minority of the population in Egypt and, as such, are likely to be vulnerable to discrimination at the hands of the religious majority in any case. Simultaneously, there are both Protestant and Catholic denominations of Egyptian Copts who hardly see eye-to-eye.
Dismissing Egypt’s troubles as a symptom of increasing ‘Islamisation’ (whatever this means) is too simple. Non-religious factors, such as the economy, provision of services, gender equality, bureaucratic waste and corruption need to be acknolwedged as contributors to the ongoing tension and political malaise.
As the British cable noted in 1978:
The search for a synthesis of traditional Muslim society and the challenges of the modern world has been going on since the Ottoman Empire began its retreat before the advances of Europe in the eighteenth century.
Such sentiment could apply to any religion which, whilst an often contradictory concept in the modern world, provides people with belief and strength during desperate times. It is important that we refrain from judging people apparently alien to ourselves as extremists. It can too easily be used as a legitimisation of unjust acts.
Source: National Archives ref FCO 93/1430
In Egypt’s instance, overthrowing a democratically-elected leader because of his supposed Islamic extremism only divided an already-fractured society further. One person’s extremist is another’s devout believer.