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An Interview with Khaled Salam

June 25, 2012

Khaled Salam is the editor in chief of Ikhwanweb, the official English website of the Muslim Brotherhood. In this interview with scholar Chrystie Swiney (The College of William and Mary), Salam discusses the Brotherhood's positions regading the major issues that have arisen from the Egyptian Revolution, namely women's rights, the separation of religion and state, and the need to establish a democracy that fairly represents the diversity of post-Mubarak Egypt.

Chrystie Swiney: What is the Brotherhood's position on Sayyid Qutb, who emerged from the ranks of the Brotherhood and is thought to be the father of radical Islam? What is the Muslim Brotherhood's attitude toward the views he espoused, particularly those with respect to jihad and violent revolution? As part of the Brotherhood's credo, the phrase "jihad is the way" is included. What does this mean exactly? How does the Brotherhood define and conceive of jihad; and how should it be used to bring about its vision of the ideal Muslim society?

Khaled Salam: No topic in the history of Islamic thought, in the last century and in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, was more controversial than Sayyid Qutb's thought. I can say beyond doubt that the Brotherhood has transcended Sayyid Qutb's thought, and made a complete break with his writings, particularly his last writings: "Milestones", "This Religion" and "The future of This Religion".

The Muslim Brotherhood released an important document in which it clarified its position on the issue of "blasphemy" and the concept of "pagan society". It took the shape of a book called "Preachers, Not Judges", by the second Chairman of the Brotherhood, the late Hassan Hudaibi. In this book, the group affirmed that it completely rejected the idea of judging others and accusing them of being apostates or infidels. They also rejected the concept of "pagan societies".

Thus, Sayyid Qutb's thought has been refuted, from both the doctrinal and the intellectual perspectives, and does not represent any intellectual reference for the group. In fact, it can be understood as one of the results of the jails, detention camps and torture episode. For us, it represents a "crisis thought" that no longer represents us or reflects our discourse. Nevertheless, we believe that the death penalty this thinker received was itself a crime. Had he been alive today, Sayyid Qutb would have changed his ideas, and thought. Ultimately, thought should only be confronted with thought.

The Muslim Brotherhood rejects and condemns violence. Rather, it chooses peaceful options and believes that peaceful and revolutionary reform is the way of change.

The issue of Jihad has been grossly misunderstood. Jihad in Islam is not only about fighting, but also about working hard and striving for good causes. There are peaceful forms of Jihad like self-commitment to ethics; there is Jihad in working to rejuvenate, develop and reform societies.

In Arabic language, Jihad is "to exert an effort". Jihad may also take the form of resisting occupation of one's homeland, which is endorsed by all international laws. The Brotherhood differentiates between condemned terrorism and the right to resist colonial projects and physical occupation.

That is our position with respect to any occupation of our countries. We reject any targeting of civilians. We consider that a crime by any standard. What we mean by the slogan "Jihad is our way" is the resistance we must put against occupation of our land and against military colonialism. But it never means declaring war on others. We are all for peace, tolerance, coexistence and respect for international treaties and conventions.

The Brotherhood's position on Sayyid Qutb's thoughts, therefore, has been declared much early on as the leader of the Brotherhood at that time, Hassan al-Hudeiby put his own comment on this stating that the Brotherhood carry an advocating attitude and are not judging people. The thoughts of Qutb and the radical interpretations for his words came along with and due to the oppression and suppression attitude of the military regime of Nasser, especially in 1954 and 1967. Qutb, on his own, has a much softer interpretation of his own words than the ones who took him as the father of radical Islam. The Brotherhood's attitude towards the views Qutb presented and the various radical interpretations was clear since day one; the group sticks to the interpretation of "jihad" as exerting the effort to make things better, and thus, Jihad and Ijtihad are so much combined. This means that the Brotherhood's motto "jihad is the way" involves mainly work, effort and action in a peaceful way to serve the people and improve things as much as possible. The Brotherhood define and conceive of jihad as this notion of making every possible effort and being as much proactive as possible to bring about the group's vision of the ideal society we hope for.


CS: What is the Brotherhood's position on the status of women in public life? Can women hold leadership positions within the Muslim Brotherhood? Can they hold the highest positions? Why or why not? In the political sphere, why are women not suitable candidates for the Presidency? Are there any other restrictions that should be imposed on women that are not equally imposed on men? Why or why not?

KS: This is best expressed in the Brotherhood's document issued in 1994, in which the group assures full rights of women to fully partake in political and social life, just as much as a man would; including all internationally accepted political rights, from candidacy and voting, at all levels of legislative authority, to the right of working in institutions of the judiciary as well as executive and constitutional institutions, without any discrimination.

As for the top responsibility, the post of President of the Republic, there are two scholarly opinions, one says it is permissible for a woman to take the top job. Another view finds otherwise. The Muslim Brotherhood's Shura Council may have accepted the second opinion in the past, before the revolutionary episode. Then, we had extraordinary security circumstances where authoritarian regimes prohibited most men and women from taking top positions, due to the monopoly by dictatorships that did not believe in democracy and the peaceful transfer of power.

I believe that if the Brotherhood took an internal vote on this matter, under the new circumstances after the revolution, it might well change its positions, especially as the scholarly opinion to ban women from presidential elections has been criticized by many contemporary scholars citing differences between the old and modern concepts of executive head of the state: the historical concept no longer exists in the modern State based on institutions.

On the other hand, I stress that the Brotherhood is certainly not a male-oriented organization. Indeed, it believes in women's role within and outside the organization. It has no objection to the presence of women in all different levels of leadership within the group. This was delayed in Egypt, though, due to relentless security crackdowns by the repressive authoritarian regime, but the group and its organizations around the world do boast women in administrative leadership levels.

But we know we need to do more for women's empowerment in decision-making, and there is continuous self-criticism within the group. And with the group's increasing presence in political life, there will be a greater presence for women in the near future.

The Brotherhood's position on the status of women in public life, therefore, is the most advanced and most flexible among all Islamic interpretations. The group believes in full sharing for women in public life with men; it works for a wider and deeper women participation in all fields. Women, in this respect, can hold leadership positions within the Muslim Brotherhood and within the society at large. For security reasons and because of the hardships the men of the group had with the security devices of Mubarak, women were not on the forefront of the Brotherhood's activity. Still, things are different now after the revolution. I believe that women now can hold the highest positions. In the political sphere, women need a lot of empowerment till they get better chance in political representation. Factually, it is still early before women become strong enough to aspire for top posts such as becoming candidates for the Presidency. There are not any restrictions that should be imposed on women regarding political participation that are not equally imposed on men.


CS: Media reports suggest that some within the Muslim Brotherhood are concerned that the movement's involvement in politics will lessen or detract from its religious commitments, and that the political realm is not the appropriate forum for religiously oriented movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. How does the Brotherhood deal with such internal disagreements? What is its position on the extent to which it should be involved in the political realm? Clearly, the movement now believes in participating at the highest levels of the Egyptian government and dominating the Egyptian parliament. Is the movement concerned at all about the effects that such extensive involvement in politics will have on the movement as a whole? The Americans believe that religion should be protected from the corrupting influences of politics, which is why they require a strict separation between religion and state. How does the Brotherhood view such a separation?

KS: The issues of Religion and the State, religion in politics, religious advocacy and political discourse... where they meet and where they separate? These questions are very important. I believe there is a lot of research and studies—at Ikhwanweb—in which we have discussed these problems. I would like to emphasize the following: we believe that the issue of separation of religion and life is the essence of Western secular thought that we disagree with. Sunni Islam is not a theocratic religion, and does not recognize so-called men of religion blessed with holiness. A Muslim does not need any intermediary between him or her and God.

Thus, there is no problem, in Islam, that requires the radical steps taken by Western secular thinkers in their rebellion against the Church. I do not deny that the history of Islam had certain episodes inconsistent with this fundamental notion, but in my opinion Islamic thought has settled this issue. There are important interpretations of this, by Rashid Ghannouchi, Malik bin Nabi and Mohamed Al-Ghazali, which see that Islam rejects tyranny in the name of religion and that it interacts with life, recognizing specialty and diversity, under the banner "You know your world" (i.e. you are the best to understand details of your own world).

Further, there are differences of opinion within the group, on the issue of separation between religious advocacy and partisan action. There are realistic interpretations, in this regard, witnessed in the application of Muslim Brotherhood thought around the world.

There is a "complete separation" experience, as is the case in Morocco. Meanwhile, in the Algerian experience, the Muslim Brotherhood movement has turned into a political party active in social, educational as well as Islamic advocacy work. There is also the Jordanian model, where they have a party and an organization, with areas of separation and connection.

Then, there is the experience of modern Egypt, where the Brotherhood, as a group, has political, religious, educational and social roles. The party is its political arm. Areas of connection, between the group and its political wing, in the Egyptian experience are much larger than those of separation.

I believe that this pattern will evolve over time and diligent self-criticism, and will probably get closer to the Moroccan model. And of course all of this will be decided through internal democratic processes.

On the other hand, the American model simply does not suit us. Neither do some European models, since they set religion aside and away from life completely. In 1993, Mr. Ghannouchi, the renowned Tunisian Islamic thinker, innovator and leader of Nahda movement, posed an important question: "Is Islam a secular religion?"

In other words, while some media reports give the impression that some people within the Muslim Brotherhood are concerned that the movement's involvement in politics will lessen or detract from its religious commitments, this opinion represents a minority compared to a majority that are confident that the group is flexible enough and innovative enough to do both.

There is no real concern that the political realm is not the appropriate forum for religiously oriented movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. Most of the Islamists in Egypt from all trends have no sensitivity against involvement in politics. They deal with it as part of their regular daily activity that attempts to improve and reform things. It is part of the call for Islah in general. Internal disagreements are easily dealt with in the Brotherhood. There is always a cycle of consultations and discussions where numerous view-points are represented. After the revolution, the group became much more involved in politics as it has formed a political party (FJP), and thus, everyone knows that there will be a huge amount of effort dedicated to the group's members' involvement in the political realm. Clearly, the movement now believes that it should be participating and sharing with others a united national-unity frontal-type style of politics when dealing with the highest levels of the Egyptian State politics. Therefore, the FJP does not and is not willing to dominate the Egyptian parliament. The movement is not concerned at all about the effects that such extensive involvement in politics on the movement as a whole, as it is part of its regular mandate. Maybe some Americans believe that religion should be protected from the corrupting influences of politics, but this does not mean Islam-wise a strict separation between religion and the State. The Islamic historic experience is different from that of Christianity.

CS: The Egyptian Revolution is believed to have been started by young Egyptians and liberal activists, not members of the Brotherhood. What was the Brotherhood's role in igniting the Egyptian Revolution? What is the relationship between the Brotherhood and these young people and liberal activists then and now? How did these various groups, including your own, work together during the revolution to being about its successful conclusion? What is and was the relationship between the Brotherhood and the Egyptian military? Is the movement concerned about reconciling all of these various interest groups within Egyptian society if they control many, if not most, of the positions within the new Egyptian government?

KS: After revolutions and major historical events, there are usually several narratives that tell the story of how it all started. I would affirm that the Brotherhood did participate in the protests that sparked the revolution, especially as I was a witness to the presence of young Muslim Brotherhood members and 'x-brothers' in the preparations made for the twenty-fifth of January.

This wonderful fabric integrating Cairo's young men of all discourses, liberal, leftist, Islamist, Brotherhood, youth protest movements, Facebook masses and young urban middle class citizens, helped them network and communicate in a manner quite different from the traditional hierarchical norms. They were there, ready for the signal to start the protest in Tahrir Square.

Then there were the great first three days. More joined them later, major movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood. However, Brotherhood youths were present from the first day, and the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and various other youths—in the days of the revolution—was excellent. It was what we call "the spirit of Tahrir".

After toppling Mubarak, that relationship was adversely affected by difficult tests, especially after the revolutionary events where the Muslim Brotherhood did not participate because of its adopting an institutional rather than revolutionary approach. There was a famous argument about the legitimacy of the parliament versus the legitimacy of the square.

We recognize that the institutional path failed. But after a deep internal self-criticism, we have yet again formed an alliance with liberal and leftist youth as well as x-Muslim Brotherhood youths. There is now a broad coalition with them, aiming to achieve all the goals of the peaceful revolution.

So, it is true that the Egyptian Revolution have been started by young Egyptians and liberal activists, but the members of the Brotherhood have been part of this since day one, especially the younger members. The Brotherhood had a role in igniting the Egyptian Revolution by being an active component in the Egyptian politics and the wave of opposition to Mubarak since 2005 parliamentary and presidential elections in particular. The relationship between the Brotherhood and these young people and liberal activists has been strong all the way as the Brotherhood made sure to be part of every patriotic initiative calling for change, e.g. the Kefaya movement and the National Assembly for Change established by Mr. El-Baradei years ago. In fact, these various groups, including the Brotherhood, managed to work together during the revolution to bring about its successful conclusion because the situation was very tense and Mubarak's regime was so horrible and oppressive that people forgot about all their differences and worked together to topple that regime.

The relationship between the Brotherhood and the Egyptian military is part of the long standing relationship between the Egyptian people and their military. The Egyptians hold great respect and confidence in their military; and the Brotherhood is no different in this. The movement is not concerned about reconciling all of these various interest groups within Egyptian society because reconciliation is part of the Egyptians' way of sorting things out. We, as well as others, start from the base of getting things worked out with least confrontation and least contradiction of positions or interests. No matter how the new Egyptian government would be like, I believe that this would be the norm in it.

CS: What is the relationship of the Brotherhood with the Salafis of Egypt, who believe in instituting Sharia law in all or most spheres? What is the Brotherhood's position on the public enforcement of Sharia law? Which facets should be adopted into Egyptian law: all or only parts of the Sharia? If the latter, which parts? How should women and minorities expect to be affected if Sharia is more robustly implemented?

KS: In the beginning, before answering the question directly, it is important to give an explanation of the phenomenon of Salafism in Egypt and their denominations. Salafists in Egypt boast several sub-currents that vary according to regional factors and according to scholars who are the God-fathers of each Salafist faction in Egypt.

There is an old Salafist School in Alexandria. There are also Cairo Salafists, Lower Egypt Salafists, populist Salafists, like the faction represented by Sheikh Abu Ismail. There are small nuclei of Salafists who sympathize with Jihadists.

But on the whole, the Salafism phenomenon remains peaceful in Egypt; they do not resort to violence. The Salafist Nour Party is the first political manifestation of the Salafis. It adopted a solid nucleus of the Salafist call in Alexandria.

The Muslim Brotherhood's relationship with the Salafists is not a strategic one. It is subject to electoral calculations. The Salafis rejected an alliance with the group and its presidential candidate Dr. Morsi, and preferred an alliance with another candidate, Dr. Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh.

This is a clear indication that there is no polarization between Islamists and secularists in Egypt. Rather, alliances and conflicts go on in the political and electoral realms only. The Brotherhood is keen to give Salafists in Egypt full opportunity to experience political life, because the more they get into politics, the more realistic and moderate they become.

On the issue of Sharia (Islamic law), we disagree with the Salafists in the fact that we believe in "the principles of Sharia", that is: the higher principles such as freedom, equality and respect for human rights. All that leads to these values is Sharia.

We believe that the Egyptian Constitution has no problem with Sharia. We believe there is no need to amend the Penal Code in this regard. Rather, our priority is to restore or establish security, health-care and education, in addition to the protection of human rights. The Muslim Brotherhood's idea of Sharia is not about corporal punishment, but a comprehensive cultural renaissance.

As for Christians in Egypt, there certainly is no threat to them, because we believe in their right to apply Christian teachings in their matters of personal status, and there is no forcing them otherwise. That is their constitutional, legal right which they will fully enjoy and exercise.

With regard to the issue of women, there is no legislation that violates their rights; men and women are equal before the law and the Constitution. Our lawmakers are submitting draft laws to address issues of harassment, assault and the protection of women-headed households as well as other important issues.

Hence, the relationship between the Brotherhood with the Salafis of Egypt is sometimes tense and sometimes better, especially with the ones who believe in instituting Sharia law in all or most spheres. The insistence of the Salafists in this is to do so sharply and immediately and with least care for the actual findings in the society. The Brotherhood's position on the public enforcement of Sharia law is rather different as things should be gradual, flexible and carried out through national consent and after lengthy national dialogue. Therefore, deciding about which facets should be adopted into Egyptian law: all or only parts of the Sharia, is basically a matter for the specialists on that sphere to decide after consultation and dialogue with various groups. I believe that women and minorities are not expected to be affected if Sharia is more robustly implemented. There will be many elements to their favor I am sure.

CS: Given that democracy necessarily requires compromises and serving the interests of the broader public, not the constituency within one's movement, how will the Brotherhood (and the Freedom and Justice Party specifically) deal with the inevitable eventuality whereby it is forced to compromise on its core values in order to meet the demands of the majority or to stay in power? Are there any values that the Brotherhood could not compromise on, even if it went against the expressed wishes of the Egyptian majority who elected the movement into power? One of the most important documents issued by the Brotherhood in 1994 was called "Shura and Democracy", which confirmed that parliamentary democracy is a form of contemporary Shura. The group announced that it accepts the Western model of democracy.

KS: We believe that democracy is a valid option. Our Arab peoples have suffered greatly over the decades of tyranny and despotism, repression and violation of human rights. Consequently, we accept the results of democracy, whatever they are. They must be respected, and not circumvented or undermined in any way.

There is an Islamic Hadith (saying of the Prophet) that states, "My people will not agree upon an error". As for the argument of values and choices of the majority, we believe that the choice of the majority is the original basis, so long as it does not contradict the Constitution and the rule of law. The majority in this homeland do not agree upon an error.

We must respect people's choices, even if they conflicted with our values, while the Constitution remains the only reference in disputes between different institutions. Believing that democracy necessarily requires compromises and serving the interests of the broader public, not the constituency within one's movement, will definitely get the Brotherhood (and the Freedom and Justice Party specifically) to deal with the fact that no one particular group or party can monopolize politics or impose its own way of doing things on every other entity. In the inevitable eventuality whereby one is forced to compromise on its own core values in order to meet the demands of the majority or to stay in power, reconciliation becomes a must, and it is to be reached thorough consultation and dialogue. Values—by default—are not rigid. They are basically flexible and reconciliatory. I cannot name exactly any values that the Brotherhood could not compromise on. The issue is that if things go against the expressed wishes of the Egyptian majority who elected the FJP, the FJP should be democratic and sincere to its own constituencies or else it would lose the next elections.

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