Since my recent post about Egypt’s internal turmoil, I’ve had some readers email me asking that I expound on who and what the Muslim Brotherhood are.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a socio-religio-political movement that was founded in Egypt in 1936, and, to me, the Brotherhood’s philosophical framework is best understood through the writings of one of their most prolific members, Sayyid Qutb.

Sayyid Qutb’s interpretation of Islam grew out of the many confrontations that occurred between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian state in the 1950s and 1960s. Increasingly radicalized by Egypt’s suppression of the movement, Qutb espoused a rejectionist ideology that was meant to be a kind of call to arms for the Egyptian people.

Qutb in an Egyptian jail

Qutb in an Egyptian jail

Qutb, who had a modern education, saw the Western world as morally decadent, racist, and devoid of familial responsibility. Worse, the West’s influence was growing in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. Throughout the writings of his forty published books, Qutb divided the world into two antipodal camps, the Muslim world (dar al-Islam) and the world of evil epitomized by the West (dar al-Harb).

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Thousands of Egyptians gathered in Cairo today for a mass demonstration to protest a draft constitution that has been adopted by the allies of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. The demonstration culminated in a mass march on the presidential palace.

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As you may be aware, Egypt’s fragile democracy was threatened last month when Morsi, a member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, moved to dramatically expand his power by nullifying Egypt’s separation of powers and granting himself absolute authority.

Separation of powers is a model for state governance. It was first used by the Roman Republic around 509 BCE. Under this model, the state is divided into branches, each with separate and independent powers as well as areas of responsibility. This ensures that no branch has more power than the other branches. The most common branch division is an executive, a legislature, and a judiciary.

Under Morsi, Egypt’s executive branch now has immunity from the other branches, thus giving the president dictator-like powers.

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The film that sparked the anti-American violence last week in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen was breathtakingly offensive to most Muslims.

Protests over the film entitled The Innocence of Muslims are now spreading across the Middle East and North Africa. I want to take a moment to talk about what is happening and why.

The now infamous trailer on YouTube was uploaded back in July, but the protests only started in Egypt this past week. There is some chatter that the man who made the film, believed to be Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, specifically targeted the Egyptian news media. It is believed that he alerted the Egyptian press to the YouTube trailer himself for maximum exposure within Egypt. It is possible that Nakoula timed his interaction with the Egyptian press to coincide with 9-11.

First, it is important to understand that the Qur’an and other Islamic teachings are crystal clear: Mohammad is never to be portrayed in a sketch or a painting, much less played by a bad actor in a cheap B movie. For Muslims, Mohammad is the perfect Muslim. He is the living Qur’an.

But this movie shows Mohammad seducing many women, and one actor states that the Prophet was gay. If you are a Christian, imagine if a movie depicted Jesus Christ engaging in oral sex and then claimed that he was a child molester.

The film portrays Mohammad as a sexual predator, a fraud, and possibly insane. It is in the poorest of taste.

The Innocence of Muslims

Sam Becile – which is the pseudonym Nakoula Basseley Nakoula used – claimed to be an Israeli Jew, and said that the film was financed by other Jews back in Israel. That appears to be completely false, though. Nakoula is being identified as an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian who’s alleged to be extremely anti-Muslim.

It is possible that the film was designed to not only denigrate Islam, but also to stir discord between Muslims and the Coptic Christians within Egypt. There’s been a lot of tension in those relations as of late, so such a film would be intended to further strain Egypt’s social fabric.

A series of anti-Christian attacks has heightened tensions since the ouster of Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak. Coptic Christians blame the the Muslim Brotherhood for the increase in violence.

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Six days into air strikes in Libya, coalition forces have essentially grounded the Libyan air force.

In distance, Libya is the 17th largest country in the world, and it is roughly the size of Alaska. However, the activity in the country is limited to a belt along the Mediterranean coast. This belt is where the population is, where the cities are located, and where there is oil infrastructure.

There have been strong uprisings along this belt both in the east of Libya as well as in the west. In many ways, Gaddafi’s influence has become limited to the capital city of Tripoli.

Tripoli is the largest city in Libya, and the country’s chief seaport.

It is still largely unknown who the rebels are in this uprising. Experts are still unsure how many rebel factions exist, and who makes up the leadership of each group. What is clear is that the opposition is not united, and is therefore not operating as a cogent group.

There are signs that suggest momentum for Gaddafi losing tribal support in Libya. The east side of the population belt is the region that traditionally has had opposition to the current Libyan regime. People here supported the monarchy, and were distressed when Gaddafi rose to power through his coup. Now there are uprisings in the west spurred on by one of Libya’s largest tribes, the Warfalla, that has traditionally supported the authoritarian leader.

Tribal connections in Libya are significant. They are formal networks of allegiances that hold whole communities together. Tribal connections give a sense of solidarity and unity to the Libyan populace, and such connections should not be underestimated as a primary driving force in motivating behavior.

There are more than twenty major tribal groups in Libya, and the bulk of the population is Sunni Muslim.

Known Libyan groups opposing Gaddafi include: The National Transitional Council (comprised of tribal groups including the Zuwayya and the Majabra), The Libyan Peoples Army (composed of Cyrenaica tribes like The National Transitional Council), and The National Conference for the Libyan Opposition (notable for being composed of members living outside Libya). Experts are still trying to deduce the various relationships that Libyan tribes may be developing with these and other emerging groups during the uprising.

There are arguments that both support and oppose the hypothesis that suicide bombers are foremost a product of religious extremism.

Since 1980, suicide bombings have been identified with a variety of religious and secular ideologies. These ideologies include: the Hindu BKI in India, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the SSNP in Lebanon, the PFLP in the Palestinian territories, al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the PPK in Turkey.

Salafi, Deobandi, and Marxist ideologies are three of the most common belief systems that are associated with suicide bombings. Marxism is a socio-political and economic worldview that is not historically associated with religion. This would suggest that suicide bombings are at least not completely a product of religious extremism.

Focusing on the Deobandi and Salafi movements, both of which I have written on in this blog before, neither Deobandi nor Salafi are unified belief systems. There is no single authority on either. Quintan Wiktorowicz has written in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism that “(t)he divisions within the Salafi community, in part, represent a generational struggle over sacred authority–the right to interpret Islam on behalf of the Muslim community.” In other words, Wiktorowicz claims that there is no single and exclusive understanding within Salafi ideology regarding actions such as suicide bombings. With this knowledge, one can assume that other ideological factors other than religion are also contributors in the making of a suicide bomber. We can come to this conclusion, because there is no homogeneous authority within a belief system like Salafi to encourage every believer into becoming a bomber. If there were, the world would have experienced millions more of these bombings.

What Makes A Suicide Bomber?

Suicide bombers seek to coalesce their religious beliefs to existing socio-cultural views influenced by their economic status, national identity, and political views. Therefore, they may seek out extreme religious ideologies because they are in line with their pre-existing socio-cultural worldview. This would indicate that religious extremism is not a catalyst in creating a suicide bomber as much as it is an approbation.

Individuals associated with suicide bombings tend to experience a progressive radicalization. A better understanding of what role religious extremism may play (and may not play) in that experience could save future lives. However, it is important to not sensationalize religion’s influence on acts of suicide bombings.

A lack of data on successful suicide bombers is a contributing factor to the ambiguity that religion plays in these events. Many groups that plan the bombings put off releasing the bomber’s identities in order to protect their families and larger community from revenge. Yet, data from failed suicide bombers is available, and it is conclusive. There are plenty of instances where groups like the Taliban recruited uneducated youths and indoctrinated them with an extreme religious ideology to incite and encourage them. However, there are just as many instances where failed bombers turn out to be extremely educated, and these people are just as likely to cite nationalistic and economic inducements as they are to espouse religious ones.

One of the few consistent factors in suicide bombings is that the bombing itself is an act of contesting authority.

Suicide bombers are reactionary. They are reacting to their socio-economic-cultural realities. They are disgruntled by factors (both real and perceived) within their community, region, or nation state.

I think it is pragmatic to state that suicide bombings are not singularly a product of religious extremism. But, for those instances where religious extremism is a factor, it would be beneficial to ask if suicide bombers (who we know are religious) subscribe to an extreme religion because they are already disgruntled, or does an extreme religion advance their militancy?

Jihadi Cool

January 12, 2010

Al Qaeda’s dissemination of jihadi ideology has become more sophisticated over the last few years. Al Qaeda is investing large amounts of capital into creating books, magazines, and music videos that are designed to appeal to Muslims under 30 years of age. Language and graphics are designed with specific local audiences in mind so that al Qaeda can properly target young Muslims in a desired area. Al Qaeda is paying close attention to what material their desired demographics respond to and connect with.

Al Qaeda is expanding into cyberspace

Al Qaeda’s reach in Cyberspace is multifaceted, because the network has a variety of different messages available on the internet that are designed to resonate with different groups. The regional arms and affiliates of al Qaeda, like the one in Yemen that I posted about yesterday, tend to focus on local issues that affect a particular local population. However, the traditional centralized body of al Qaeda, under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, tends to disseminate messages that are more global in scope.

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Part of what is fueling conflict within the Middle East is competing visions of what a Muslim society or culture should be, and conflicting interpretations of what Islam demands. Religiously Inspired conflict over proper etiquette, dress, and entertainment is mounting.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is currently challenging a planned performance by pop star Beyonce at a Red Sea resort. Beyonce’s concert has been announced for November 6th, and the Brotherhood is demanding that the Egyptian Interior Minister explain why she was given permission to perform. Organizing protests and anger against pop concerts headlined by females is a routine Islamist political maneuver.

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A strengthening alliance of militant groups working out of Pakistan continue to perpetrate attacks against governmental and security forces both inside and surrounding the country’s borders. Punjabi extremist groups are perpetrating bold attacks in concert with the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda.

It is a goal of these insurgents operating within Pakistan to divert NATO attention away from the insurgent’s camps and power centers. The insurgents are doing this to allow themselves time to regroup. The militants have capitalized on American attention being distracted by the Afghanistan elections. The insurgents have also begun to look for ways to encourage future distractions. Using groups like Jundullah to cause renewed tension with Iran over the weekend is but one example. Read the rest of this entry »

A schoolmate of mine from undergrad commented to me that she believes what I’m doing here on this site is as kind of public theology. She said “anytime that you are considering questions of community and culture, with a lens on religion, you are asking and answering God questions….therefore, theology.” This sort of misconception is common, because most people do not understand what a person in the field of Religious Studies does. Therefore, it is the fate of those in my field to dispel such perceptions one person at a time.

To me, a critical difference between a religious scholar (theologian) and a scholar of religion (secular academic) is an interest or disinterest in supernatural forces (God, angels, devils, etc…). Theologians care about the supernatural and wish to understand the intentions of a supernatural force (God) that they worship. However, secular scholars, such as myself, have no interest in understanding the supernatural. Secular scholars in the field of Religious Studies are instead interested in the natural (human) intentions and behavior: specifically of those who would be categorized as ‘religious believers.’ Read the rest of this entry »

With Iran continuing to dominate international news media, I thought it an important exercise to distinguish Iran from other Middle Eastern countries. 

Because of the representations of the Middle East that the U.S. is exposed to through various forms of mass media, Americans hold many stereotypes about the region: lavish sheiks, militant clerics, harems, cruel punishments, oil, and totalitarianism represent the Arab portion. The Israelis are viewed as being heroic, outnumbered, and tough. Yet, accurate representations of non-Arab countries like Iran often get lost due to the tendency of Americans to confuse and oversimplify cultural representations. 

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