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About the Common Man

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a little Bollywood, a little Hollywood, a little classical, a little rock and roll -- and what all that might have to do with Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal ]
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>> You must be thinking, this not a terrorist but just a common man. I will easily catch him. <<

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The phrase “the common man” is a common enough phrase anywhere English is spoken. US Vice President Henry A Wallace used it 16 times in a wartime speech here in the US in 1942:

I say that the century on which we are entering — the century which will come out of this war — can be and must be the century of the common man.

His words, in turn, inspired Aaron Copland to write his Fanfare for the Common Man:

And from there, Emerson, Lake and Palmer took up the baton…

But all that is hometown news, and it’s an away match I want to draw your attention to again today — specifically the upcoming Indian elections.

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It is instructive that Narendra Modi, PM candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), portrays himself as a “common man” on the header of his official Twitter feed:

— especially since his intriguing rival, Arvind Kejriwal, is head of the Aam Aadmi (literally: Common Man) Party (AAP) — and is also widelt represented as “a common man in politics”:

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The phrase “the common man” is a common enough phrase, to be sure. But there’s one more thing you might want to know… It is a phrase which may carry even more freight in India.

It is the way the common man / terrorist describes himself in the extraordinary 2008 film, A Wednesday — currently streaming on Netflix — in which police commissioner Prakash Rathod (Anupam Kher) recalls his encounter with the “common man” (Naseeruddin Shah). Here’s the way the common man explains himself:

I am someone who is afraid to get into a bus or a train these days. I am someone whose wife thinks is going to war … while I am actually going to my work. She is afraid that I may not return. She calls up every two hours. To find if I had my tea. To find if I have lunched. Actually she wants to find out whether I am still alive. I am someone who sometimes gets stuck in the rain or in the blasts.

I am someone who suspects the person carrying a rosary. I am also the one who is afraid to grow his beard and wear a cap. If I buy a shop I am afraid to choose a name as someone might see the name and burn it during the riots. No matter which two parties are fighting, I am the first one to get killed.

You must have seen a crowd. Choose a person from it. I am that person. I am just the stupid common man…

By my count, the phrase “common man” occurs 14 times in the subtitles, and sometimes but not always in English on the soundtrack — and “the common man” is the name goiven to Naseeruddin Shah’s character in the final credits.

And finally, a remake of the movie with Ben Kingsley playing Naseeruddin Shah’s role — set in Colombo, Sri Lanka rather than Mumbai, India — has recently been released, under the title A Common Man. Not that anyone in India seems to like it better than Neeraj Pandey‘s brilliant original…

Correlation — or causation?

It would be hard to say whether Henry Wallace’s speech, or Aaron Copland’s Fanfare, or Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s rock-out, or Neeraj Pandey‘s movie, or Chandran Rutnam’s knock-off for that matter, were in the minds of Modi and Kejriwal’s “minders” when they picked their slogans…

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The AAP is the explicitly political offshoot of Anna Hazare‘s highly-regarded but apolitical India Against Corruption movement. Here’s the “clean sweep” AAP’s manifesto:

For the past two years millions of common Indians came out on streets to fight against the biggest evil in our country today – corruption. This people’s anti-corruption movement has exposed the ugly and greedy face of our politicians. No political party in India today works for the common man’s needs. The Janlokpal Movement was a call to all the politicians of India to listen to the common man’s plea. For almost 2 years we tried every single way available to plead our cause to the government – peaceful protesting, courting arrest, indefinite fasting, several rounds of negotiations with the ruling government – we tried everything possible to convince the government to form a strong anti-corruption law. But despite the huge wave of public support in favour of a strong anti-corruption law, all political parties cheated the people of India and deliberately sabotaged the Janlokpal Bill. The time for peaceful fasts and protests is gone. This is the time for action. Since most political parties are corrupt, greedy and thick skinned, it’s time to bring political power back into the people’s hands. We are not saying that every single politician is corrupt and greedy. There are many good intentioned people in politics today who want to work honestly for the people of India. But the current system of polity does not allow honest politicians to function. We are also not claiming that every single person who joins our party will be hundred percent honest. We are saying that it is the system that has become very corrupt and needs to be changed immediately. Our aim in entering politics is not to come to power; we have entered politics to change the current corrupt and self-serving system of politics forever. So that no matter who comes to power in the future, the system is strong enough to withstand corruption at any level of governance.

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Henry Wallace presumably had the likes of Hitler and Mussolini – but not, apparently, Stalin – in his sights when he said “it is easy for demagogues to arise and prostitute the mind of the common man to their own base ends”.

Unpopular he undoubtedly was — in one poll to find the “least approved man in America” only Lucky Luciano beat him — but this particular warning continues to be applicable today.

And okay then, for your listening pleasure, here they are: Emerson, Lake and Palmer…

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March 17th: Holi Festival “of colors”

Monday, March 17th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- my favorite Indian festival -- and also Modi, the Indian PM candidate whose visitor's visa for the US was revoked by State a decade ago on the grounds of "violating religious freedom" ]
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It may be the world’s most playful festival — Holi, the Festival of Colors, is celebrated today, March 17, in India and around the world.

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The equipment required for play is simple enough: colored powders.

These powders can be thrown at people dry, watered down and tossed at them in balloons, or sprayed from squirt-guns…

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In each case, the result it the same — brightly-colored people.

And why?

The symbolism of the colors of Holi Festival is that the devotees are “drenched in the colors of devotion” to God, in memory of the brother and sister devotees Holika and Prahlad, who refused to worship their father King Hiranyakashipu as God, although ordered to do so on pain of death.

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And then there’s Narendra Modi.

Modi is currently running for Lok Sabha on the BJP ticket from Varanasi — the holiest city in India — and will become PM in the event of a BJP win. The elections, in the world’s largest democracy, are scheduled to run for 36 days starting April 5th.

Blog-friend Patricia Lee Sharpe offers some background on Whirledview:

Raze Mosques, Ban Books, Exile Artists

Although some of Modi’s predecessors have played down the religious angle and stressed free market economics to broaden the party’s appeal, the B.J.P. nevertheless adheres to a militantly nationalist ideology based on a (this part is almost funny) Victorian re-interpretation of Hinduism known as Hindutva, and the party belongs to the same political family (aka parivar) as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (R.S.S.). As the Hindustan Times says, “Few are convinced that the R.S.S. has no role in B.J.P. politics.”

In its early days R.S.S. members donned khaki, marched around and provided intimidation services for the Hindu Mahasabha and other Hindu nationalists in the manner of coeval Brown and Black Shirts in pre-World War II Europe. It was banned in 1948, after an over-zealous member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for being too tolerant of Muslims and too reformist visà-vis Hinduism, as in treating “untouchables” like fellow human beings. Reactivated as a “cultural” organization, with a leadership overlapping that of the superficially benign B.J.P., the R.S.S. in 1992 recruited a mob to raze the centuries-old Babri mosque in Ayodya, alleging it had been built over the ruins of a temple to the Hindu man-god Rama. Eventually, the courts intervened, dispatching teams of archaeologists to excavate for evidence of Ram’s temple. In the end, with the mosque destroyed and lacking the least sign of a temple, the judges split the difference: Hindus and Muslims get to use court-allocated portions of the disputed site. Naturally, neither side is happy.

Moving forward to 2013, Hindutva sympathizers have been responsible for the Indian High Court’s decision to ban a book by an eminent American Sanskrit scholar on the grounds that its erudite version of a polycentric Hinduism shaped by a multitude of Vedic and non-Vedic traditions might hurt the feelings of some Hindus. As a result, naturally, sales of the ebook version have soared, but fears of violence, if not a justification for the decision, were also not totally unfounded. There were angry demonstrations over attempts to sell Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which was banned to spare Muslim sensibilities.

And here’s a truly sad case of triumphal, puritanical Hindu communalism: death threats forced M.H. Hussein, India’s most acclaimed modern painter—if you want a Hussein, think in terms of seven figures in U.S. dollars at Sotheby’s—to spend his last days in exile. His “crime”? He, a secular, perhaps even heretical Muslim, had dared to paint some Hindu goddesses veiled (at best) diaphanously. Anyone familiar with the buxom, bare-bosomed devis on Indian temples would have to ask: how else would anyone paint a Hindu goddess? But no one has ever accused religious fundamentalists, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian, of sophisticated cultural criticism.

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Modi himself invites you to send e-greetings for Holi Festival on his website:

The joyful occasion of Holi can also be celebrated by sending an egreeting to your near and dear ones. You may do this by visiting the official website of Shri Narendra Modi and sending a personalized e-greeting, along with an audio message by Shri Narendra Modi.

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Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style, for parallels, patterns

Monday, March 25th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- if we omit all mention of the Qur'an, will the jihad perhaps disappear, you think? ]
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On Friday, Oct. 29, 2004, just before the 2004 US Presidential Election, a videotaped speech by Osama bin Laden was released online and variously reported:
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Being a theologian at heart, I’ve formatted these versions in the style used in comparisons of the Synoptic Gospels, to give you an immediate sense of the differences I’ll be discussing…

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Just how important was this particular speech by bin Laden?

It was important to bin Laden himself, as it was his first statement after his invitation to the US to convert to Islam. As I have noted before — quoting Michael Scheuer‘s Al-Qaeda’s Completed Warning Cycle – Ready to attack? — bin Laden had been criticized for failing to issue such an invitation:

After 9/11, bin Laden received sharp criticisms from Islamist scholars that dealt with the al-Qaeda chief’s failure to satisfy several religious requirements pertinent to waging war. The critique focused on three items: (1) insufficient warning; (2) failure to offer Americans a chance to convert to Islam; and (3) inadequate religious authorization to kill so many people. Bin Laden accepted these criticisms and in mid-2002 began a series of speeches and actions to remedy the shortcomings and satisfy his Islamist critics before again attacking in the United States.

MEMRI picks up the story here:

The Islamist website Al-Islah explains: “Some people ask ‘what’s new in this tape?’ [The answer is that] this tape is the second of its kind, after the previous tape of the Sheikh [Osama bin Laden], in which he offered a truce to the Europeans a few months ago, and it is a completion of this move, and it brings together the complementary elements of politics and religion, political savvy and force, the sword and justice. The Sheikh reminds the West in this tape of the great Islamic civilization and pure Islamic religion, and of Islamic justice…”

This video is also a significant “first” for bin Laden. In Raymond Ibrahim‘s words in his The Al Qaeda Reader:

This message also marks the first time bin Laden publicly acknowledged his role in the 9/11 strikes; previously he had insisted that he was merely an “inciter” and that it was the Muslim umma in general who had retaliated in defense of their faith.

It was important to the US because of the election four days later. The following exchange occurred on NBCNews’ Meet the Press, Jan 30th, 2005:

MR. RUSSERT: At the Clinton Library dedication on November 18, a few weeks after the election, you were quoted as saying, “It was the Osama bin Laden tape. It scared the voters,” the tape that appeared just a day before the election here. Do you believe that tape is the reason you lost the race?

SEN. KERRY: I believe that 9/11 was the central deciding issue in this race. And the tape–we were rising in the polls up until the last day when the tape appeared. We flat-lined the day the tape appeared and went down on Monday. I think it had an impact

The speech was important, in sum, both to bin Laden himself and to the US electorate: it deserves a close reading.

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Sadly, however…

Posted, translated transcripts of Al Qaida and other jihadist materials often leave out the salutation and envoi (or other choice bits such as quotes from the Qur’an or Hadith) because they’re too religious or perhaps too Muslim — but when these same pieces of the puzzle are added back into the text, the whole document may cohere to a degree that is otherwise unapparent.

We tend not to “get” religious language. What do Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon tell us in their book The Age of Sacred Terror?

So much of what was heard from al-Qaeda after the attacks sounded to Americans like gibberish that many chords of the apocalypse were missed.

Our prejudice against alien religious sentiment, or the assumption that it is ritualistic and hence irrelevant, or even worse, “babble” — the term FBI agents used to describe David Koresh‘s religious interpretation of events during the Waco siege — can blindside us to its very real discursive and exegetical power.

That’s the reason I’m offering you this post — years later — as a counter-example of the power of “Sembl thinking” — essentially, the power of pattern recognition as a key to understanding.

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I read three versions of bin Laden’s videotaped speech of Oct. 29, 2004 at the time: those provided by CNN, MEMRI, and Al Jazeera — one “western secular” source, one with some degree of Israeli association, and one with roots in the Arabic cultures.

CNN cited al-Jazeera as having aired the video, and posted “a transcript of his remarks as translated by CNN senior editor for Arab affairs Octavia Nasr” which, as you can see above or at the link, began, “You, the American people, I talk to you today… “ MEMRI offered The Full Version of Osama bin Laden’s Speech followed by a transcript which began, “O American people, I address these words to you…” And Al Jazeera posted “the full English transcript of Usama bin Ladin’s speech in a videotape sent to Aljazeera” and noted, “In the interests of authenticity, the content of the transcript, which appeared as subtitles at the foot of the screen, has been left unedited” – above a transcript that began:

Praise be to Allah who created the creation for his worship and commanded them to be just and permitted the wronged one to retaliate against the oppressor in kind. To proceed: Peace be upon he who follows the guidance: People of America this talk of mine is for you…

That in itself is interesting — Al-Jazeera has two sentences with religious significance, one of them saying that God “permitted the wronged one to retaliate against the oppressor in kind” — with no mention of them in the MEMRI and CNN accounts.

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As I read the Al Jazeera version, which seemed to me to be the one most likely to be accurate to bin Laden’s meaning, I came across the phrase:

We want to restore freedom to our Nation and just as you lay waste to our Nation, so shall we lay waste to yours.

There were several other parts of the speech which seemed to make (rhetorical) use of symmetry. There were the comments about “punishing the oppressor in kind” by destroying towers in the US, since towers in the Lebanon had been destroyed (which seems a pretty literal-minded reading of “in like manner”):

And as I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind and that we should destroy towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children.

There was a passage pointing up analogies between the Bush dynastic presidencies and similar dynastic rulerships in “our countries”:

… we have found it difficult to deal with the Bush administration in light of the resemblance it bears to the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military and the other half which are ruled by the sons of kings and presidents. Our experience with them in lengthy and both types are replete with those who are characterized by pride, arrogance, greed and a misappropriation of wealth.

And there was the comment translated in the CNN version:

Your security is not in the hands of [Democratic presidential nominee John] Kerry or Bush or al Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands. Any nation that does not attack us will not be attacked.

Each of these excerpts is couched in an analogical, symmetrical format, but it was the first one that really rang a bell for me — that phrase “just as you lay waste to our Nation, so shall we lay waste to yours” reminded me very strongly of one verse from the Qur’an, which contains the phrase, “And one who attacketh you, attack him in like manner as he attacked you” — the whole verse, Qur’an 2.194, has also been translated thus:

For the prohibited month, and so for all things prohibited, there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.

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Okay, I’d read three versions of bin Laden’s text, and made a mental leap to a Quranic verse — and then I finally ran across ABC’s transcript, which opens with the very verse from the Quran my mind had leaped to.

Here’s where you can find the entire text, which ABC describes as “an unedited government translation of the Osama bin Laden videotape” – presumably from the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (then the FBIS, now the Open Source Center). It is certainly the most complete version I’ve seen:

Full Transcript of Bin Laden Video: ABC News Obtains Complete Text of Bin Laden’s Oct. 29 Video.

I don’t know for sure whether bin Laden used that verse himself (although I’d bet on it), or whether it was “framing matter” added by in the studio by Al-Jazeera (I very much doubt it) — either way, it confirmed my association, and reading the whole speech as a sermonette on that scriptural text gives it, in my view, notable added coherence.

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Here’s what I wrote after I read the ABC transcript:

I’m particularly interested to note that bin Laden “opens” with the Qur’anic verse which says “for the prohibited month, and so for all things prohibited, there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves” [Baqara 194].

That’s the central statement of the Islamic view of symmetrical morality in warfare, and prior to reading your full text, I thought I’d detected echoes of it in the OBL text in question — my own analytic process leans heavily on analogy and symmetry — and specifically in the passages I’ve quoted above…

The analogical, symmetrical format is present in each of these excerpts, and indicates how deeply the Qur’anic process runs in bin Laden, even here in a speech which attempts to present that very Qur’anic insight in secular terms to a western audience — explaining the first of the four excerpts above, for instance, with these following words:

No one except a dumb thief plays with the security of others and then makes himself believe he will be secure whereas thinking people when disaster strikes make it their priority to look for its causes in order to prevent it happening again.

and saying again, towards the end of the speech:

you may recall that for every action, there is a reaction.

We do indeed recall that phrase: in its complete form, as given in Isaac Newton‘s memorable Third Law of Motion:

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

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For what it’s worth, the Qur’anic verse in question is not present in either Ibrahim’s Al Qaeda Reader, nor in Bruce Lawrence, Messages to the World: the Statements of Osama bin Laden. Ibrahim opens his version with the words, “Praise be to Allah, who created the worlds for his worship…” and Lawrence with, “Peace be upon those who are rightly guided. People of America…”

But no mention of Qur’an 2.194. It has just vanished. Gone. It has been ignored.

Isn’t that pretty much the definition of ignorance?

Words fail me.

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The Oscars, the Conclave and the Chinese

Monday, February 25th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- more on the upcoming papal election from a "comparative" perspective ]
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As you know, I noodle around with parallelisms and oppositions quite a bit. Here are two recent pairings that caught my attenion — one of them just in time for the Oscars:

The other concerns political influence on spiritual appointments…

I had the good fortune to meet and befriend a “tulku” while I was at Oxford, so the whole business of the identification and recognition of reincarnated Tibetan lamas has long been an interest of mine.

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US Foreign Policy, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

The Obama administration, though they would not characterize it as such nor have much desire to acknowledge it at all, have attempted  a strategic detente with the “moderate” elements of political Islam.

This policy has not been entirely consistent; Syria, for example, is a quagmire the administration has wisely refrained from wading directly into despite the best efforts of R2P advocates to drag us there.  But more importantly, under President Obama the US supported the broad-based Arab Spring popular revolt against US ally, dictator Hosni Mubarak, and pushed the subsequent ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Libyan revolution against the entirely mad Colonel Gaddafi. These appear to be geopolitical “moves” upon which the Obama administration hopes to build.

I would like to emphasize that there is one legitimate and valid strategic pro to this sub rosa policy; namely, if everything went well, it would provide the United States with powerful triangulation against revolutionary, apocalyptic, radical Islamism as expressed by al Qaida and various Salafi extremist movements. There are reasons, rooted in takfirism, strategy and the politics of lunacy that our terrorist enemies frequently hate and revile the Brotherhood as traitors, apostates or whatever. Isolating the most actively dangerous and violent revolutionary enemies from a large mass of potential allies is, at least, a good strategic goal.

It is also my view, that this “outreach” is as politically sensitive  to the Obama administration as was the China Opening was to Nixon and about which they have been equally opaque and misleading for fear of a domestic backlash. The weird, foot-dragging, dissembling, embittered, kabuki drama inside the Beltway about public statements and intelligence on whether Benghazi was caused by obscure crackpot Islamophobic film makers or a well-orchestrated terrorist attack  is in my view due to a major foreign policy strategy never having been framed in public for what it is. I’m sure people will differ strongly with me on this (which is fine), but I would characterize detente with Islamists as a strategic shift on par with the “Pivot to Asia”.

The downside here is that first, things are not likely to come out well at all, as unfinished revolutions tend to give birth to monsters; and secondly, any detente with “moderate” political Islam is an uncertain gamble based on certain exceptionally optimistic conceptions of not only what the Brotherhood might do, but about it’s very nature.

While the removal of Arab dictators resonated with American values , it was questionable realpolitik while the administration’s de facto support of  Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faction over poorly organized secular liberal modernists was an act of realpolitik that required a compromise of the democratic values so recently invoked to justify abandoning Mubarak. This was cynical diplomatic flexibility worthy of Talleyrand.

Unfortunately, the most democratic thing – perhaps the only thing – about Mr. Morsi and his Brotherhood supporters was his election.

The Egyptian people who are subjected now to thuggery from both Morsi’s Islamist stormtroopers and from the security forces of the Egyptian military are less sanguine than are the Brotherhood’s cheerleaders inside the administration. The Egyptian people, in fact, seem to be in revolt against domination by the Muslim Brotherhood’s shadow government.

The first question to ask in assessing if the Obama administration policy here is wise would be “What is the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood?” Americans love to personalize foreign policy, but if  Morsi were to be toppled or die, the Brotherhood will remain what it currently is, the best organized political force in Egypt and one widely influential throughout the Arab world and the West itself.

I am not an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood, nor am I an Arabist by education. Most of us aren’t – a group that I fear includes most of the Obama administration officials involved in shaping this policy. Almost fifty years after King Faisal determined to export Wahhabism, more than thirty years since Khomeini’s Revolution and more than ten years since 9/11 the USG still has less in-house expertise related to Islam than it did about the Soviet Union and Communism a decade after the Berlin Blockade.

Perhaps we all should begin learning more?

Here is an analysis from FPRI; it is extremely critical but it touches on organizational aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood that I have not seen elsewhere (hat tip to David Ronfeldt). Feel free to suggest others, both for and against. The Brotherhood is a very large group with a long history that includes violence , terrorism and subversion on one hand and peacefully representing expressions of pious, middle-class, social conservatism in other places and times:

Lecture Transcript: What Every American Should Know about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Delivered by Eric Trager 

….Two years ago when I was doing my dissertation fieldwork in Cairo, I sought out interviews with leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood, and I was referred to a man named Muhammad Morsi, now the President of Egypt. At the time, President Mubarak was ill and had gone off to Europe for operations amid a lot of mystery surrounding his health. I asked Muhammad Morsi whether the Muslim Brotherhood would run a presidential candidate if Mubarak died tomorrow. Here is what he said:

[From an audio file played by Trager]

Eric Trager: You don’t see the Muslim Brotherhood nominating a presidential candidate [if Mubarak dies tomorrow]?

Muhammad Morsi: No… because society is not ready… Our society is not ready yet to really defend its worth. We want a society to carry on its responsibilities, and we are part of this society. Another thing, if we are rushing things, then I don’t think that leads to a real stable position.

When he made that statement, I don’t think he was lying, and I don’t think he was being coy. I think that he didn’t expect that he would be faced with this reality in a mere six months. He did not expect that Mubarak would step down six months later and, to be completely honest with you, neither did I. My dissertation was entitled “Egypt: Durable Authoritarianism”—until the revolution.

What did Morsi mean when he said that the Brotherhood was trying to build a society? Let me give you some background on the Muslim Brotherhood. It was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, who was a schoolteacher in Ismailia. The Muslim Brotherhood’s goal was then—and remains now—to establish an Islamic state in Egypt. The way it pursues this goal is by trying to Islamize Egyptian society. Through social services, education, and the mosque, it sought to make Egyptians more religious and more Islamic as a grassroots strategy for building an Islamic state. That’s very, very different from a strategy that says, “We’re going to run for president, run for the Parliament, and use that power to transform society.” Rather, the Brotherhood says, in effect, “We’re going to Islamize society to build towards power.” It was a long-term strategy; it took them 84 years before they ran for and won the presidency. So Morsi told me in 2010 that the Muslim Brotherhood was not going to run for the presidency because it was not done Islamizing Egyptian society….

Read the rest here.

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