The man and his Brothers

The current leadership of the Muslim Brothers has deviated from the teachings of its founder Hassan Al-Banna and the path he laid down more than eighty years ago – a defence you hear often from either closet Muslim Brothers  or people sympathetic  to its ideology.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Nearly all the problems that have beset the MB and continue to bedevil its survival could be traced back to the man himself and his ideas.

The organisation he created sets itself over and above society and the state, appointing itself as morality police and the only true representative of Islam and those who oppose it are enemies of the faith — an affront to the vast majority of Muslims in Egypt and beyond.


Al-Banna’s autobiography alone provides ample evidence of that.  Writing in the MB’s weekly publication Al-Natheer (May 1938) Al-Banna tells us he had this warning for the political class of the time if they failed to abide by the MB’s goals: “if they beat about the bush, and hide behind specious pretexts … we will declare war on every and each leader who does not work for the victory of Islam, and does not work for regaining the rule and glory of Islam. “ He later sums up his message and strategy in the phrase: “Either loyalty [to us] or hostility” – in other words “either with us or against us” (Imma wala’, wa imam ?ada’ (Memoires of Dawa and Da?iya p.191)

This was the dichotomisation of not only Egypt but the whole world into Muslims and non-Muslims (supposedly enemies of Islam); a theme later picked up by Sayyed Qutb and developed into a manifesto of global jihad against the decadent materialism of the infidels wherever they are.

Al-Banna’s account of his own life is a treasure trove for those who want to disprove the fallacy that today’s MB has deviated from the founder’s vision: the populism, the sectarianism and the opportunism are all there, illustrated by the man himself, the chief author of the myth that Egypt’s decline was because it abandoned Islam, a cornerstone belief of Islamism based on a puerile and selective reading of history.

Here is another anecdote from his autobiography that throws some interesting light on the man :  following an angry reaction to him accepting donation of 500 Egyptian pounds from the (infidel) French director of the Suez Canal to build a mosque, he first defends himself by saying   this was our money anyway returned to the rightful owners of the waterway.  When this argument fails to assuage his critics, he says the fund was not used in building the mosque, and went straight into the coffers of the MB!

Perhaps even more shocking is that  he tells us that he had asked for more money for the construction of the mosque from the French director because the Suez company, claims Al-Banna,  had spent half-a-million Egyptian pounds building a church in Ismailia !

Al-Banna’s account of himself exposes another disturbing feature of the man.  While Islam values modesty and humility, he displays not a small degree of hubris when he equates between the difficulties he encountered in launching the Muslim Brothers and the difficulties that faced Prophet Mohammed in the early days of Islam. The same hubris we see today in the MB leaders describing their movement as rabbaniyya (godly) – and that may explain in part their intransigence and unwillingness to admit to any of their past or present mistakes.

Of all the anecdotes in the autobiography the one I find most revealing about the man, and possibly other Islamists, is the brief account of his first encounter with Cairo.

Al-Banna was born in 1906 to a cleric in a small town in the Nile Delta at a time when Cairo was aspiring to become a cosmopolitan city,  its new modern centre was planned by to rival Paris.  Professor Cynthia Myntti’s beautiful photographic essay describes what this Cairo may have looked like back then:  “There was a time, not long ago, when Europeans and Americans came to sunny and glamorous Cairo to escape their dreary northern cities. Cairo: where electric trams needled tree-lined boulevards linking spending mansions, hotels, arcades, bright-lit theatres, and pleasure parks. …  It was a time when the corner shop was Greek, the mechanic Italian, the confectioner Austrian, the Pharmacist English, the hotelier Swiss, and the department store owner Jewish.”

What did Al-Banna see?  None of the above.   He only saw decadence and an abandonment of Islamic morals. And whenever these words are used by Islamists they almost always refer to the opposite sex, especially women with uncovered faces and alcohol.

Al-Banna was not excited about the new architecture or modern amenities, but was terrified by that which was so different from “our safe countryside” as he put it.   He could have objected to social inequality,    poverty or expressed dislike of Western architecture on purely aesthetic or functional grounds.  None of the above.

It’s an illuminating moment, almost archetypal in the light it throws on the cultural shock Islamists feel wherever they encounter modernity, in their home country or abroad. Where other people could be excited and exhilarated by that which is different, the Islamist’s immediate reaction is fear and rejection, he flees to ‘our safe countryside”.

It’s the same sentiment we see in Sayyed Qutb’s encounter with America many years later.

This makes me wonder whether what went through the mind of Mohammed Atta (the Egyptian ring leader of the 9/11 gang) when he first arrived in Germany was any different from Al-Banna’s.   The full story of that man has yet to be written, but I bet there was awe, followed by fear then resentment and … we know the rest.

And I don’t think it can all be explained by reference to conservative upbringing or the Egyptian countryside. A generation earlier,  a Muslim cleric  from  Upper Egypt, which is  a far more conservative region than the Nile Delta,   went to Paris for the first time; he loved what he saw, and wrote a book that was later to become one of the founding stones of Egyptian “nahda”,  renaissance. His name was  Rifaa El-Tahtawi (1801-1873) .

The difference between Tahtawi and Al-Banna can only be explained by psychology.  But we know very little about the family dynamics of Al-Bannas  to say why one person went that way and not the other.   But surely psychology is better equipped to offer an explanation than history or political science.

Recently, Egyptian journalist Ibrahim Issa suggested that using the coercive machinery of the state alone was not enough to fight the Muslim Brothers.  He said the state should enlist the help of psychotherapists.  I couldn’t agree more.


(Written for Islamist Gate )


Magdi Abdelhadi

Writer, broadcaster, moderator, media consultant. I commute between London and Cairo. I am a former BBC journalist. All views here are only mine.


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