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New Texts Out Now: Elizabeth Thompson, Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East

[Cover of Elizabeth F. Thompson, [Cover of Elizabeth F. Thompson, "Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East"]

Elizabeth F. Thompson, Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Elizabeth Thompson (ET): I have long wished for a bottom-up, people’s history of the Middle East. So I took the opportunity offered by the Carnegie Corporation’s grants for books on the Islamic world to write a history based on the biographies of activists who led the largest political movements in the region.

Two moments in teaching also inspired this book. First, I joined a panel on the third anniversary of 9/11, where a religion scholar once again lamented the corruption of Islamic culture by ignorant engineers and others inspired to militancy by the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood leader jailed in 1960s Egypt. I thought to myself, "OK, so maybe Qutb didn't understand the rich heritage of Islam, but that doesn't explain why so many people found his message important.” I wanted to go beyond judging reformist movements to understanding WHY they gained influence. Second, in my survey course on modern Middle Eastern history, students expressed astonishment that Middle Eastern countries had adopted constitutions more than a century ago. I wanted to write a book to show that there have long been democrats in the region, and that Middle Eastern peoples were not just discovering democracy now.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

ET: The eleven chapters each focus on activists who mobilized the largest political movement of their generation. The book begins with reformist Ottoman bureaucrats who produced a bill of rights in 1839, then shows how that decree inspired a new discourse of rights and equality among common people, first in establishing a peasant republic in Lebanon in 1859, then in constitutional revolutions in Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, and Iran between 1882 and 1911. I suggest that constitutionalism acted as an umbrella for broad political coalitions because it promised justice through sovereignty. Constitutionalists wanted to rescue their truncated, plural, and corrupt legal systems from European interference in order to establish the equality of all citizens under one law. They also believed that constitutional limits on monarchs would bolster national sovereignty.

The second part of the book shows how that broad consensus on liberal constitutionalism as justice fell apart during and after World War I. The extension of European colonial rule—in defiance of Woodrow Wilson’s call for self-determination—undermined liberalism as an ideal model of justice. The largest movements after 1919 were nationalist, Islamic, socialist and Communist. They privileged collective security over individual, liberal rights. The chapters feature Halide Edib’s struggle to reconcile nationalism and liberalism in Turkey; the failure of liberalism and the victory of nationalism in the struggle between Musa Kazim and David Ben-Gurion in Palestine; the Islamic model of justice promoted by Hasan al-Banna in Egypt; the social democracy advanced by Iraq’s communist leader, Comrade Fahd; and the Arab socialism of Akram Hourani in Syria. To my surprise, all of these movements retained constitutional ideals as a goal, even as they mobilized their followers with collectivist and revolutionary methods.

The third and last part of the book looks at politics since the 1960s, when political arenas shrank under the pressure of the Cold War. As the Soviets bolstered the power of military dictators, and the United States secured the reign of monarchs, the era of competing mass movements ended. Without an arena for free organization, activists turned to extra-legal and violent methods of protest, and to the refuge of religious spaces. Chapters feature the dilemmas faced by Abu Iyad, a leader of Fatah, and the utopian visions of Islamic justice popularized by Sayyid Qutb in Egypt and Ali Shariati of Iran. The epilogue places the Arab Spring in the context of this long history of justice interrupted and constitutionalism postponed. It queries whether a new political space now exists in which to advance a more populist and vernacular form of constitutionalism than the elite liberal form of a century ago.

J: How does your work connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

ET: This book builds on my first book, Colonial Citizens, in its focus on social movements and on the impact of colonial rule on Middle Eastern politics. That book addressed the construction of political arenas in French-ruled Syria and Lebanon. In this book, I take a broader view of history and I focus less on structure and more on the question of agency. Given the overwhelming power of war and foreign intervention, how can political leaders strategize to build authentic, grassroots movements with any hope of longevity? I regard all of the people I study with awe: they worked in terribly unstable environments, against long odds, and under terrible risk. Half of them were executed or murdered. The others were tossed into exile.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

ET: A friend remarked that this is a book about “losers.” I responded that that hope lies in the details of their defeat. Despite the depressing descent of the region into violence during the last century, people have not ceased to fight for justice. They are not doomed to dictatorship and despair by their culture or their religion, as the old Orientalists argued. They were defeated by opponents and obstacles familiar to all historians of the post-colonial world: the radical shifts in the global economy since the nineteenth century, self-interested colonizers and their local clients, the ravages of war, and especially the pressures of the Cold War that undermined contested politics.

My book shows that Middle Eastern peoples risked their lives for ideals not so different from those of Americans: freedom, economic fairness, and a say in government. It offers students, journalists, and policymakers an entirely different starting point for thinking about the region's politics. Today, Middle Eastern activists are motivated by the examples set by the people in my book. They see themselves as restoring justice that was stolen from them. This story gives policymakers the tools to forge a very different, and I believe more effective, set of policies to “reset” our relations with the region and to discourage the resort to terror as a form of protest.

Citizens and students who read the book will learn that even while the American government did much to discourage democracy in the region—long before the Iraq war—Middle Eastern peoples had found inspiration and admiration for American democracy, education, and culture.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

ET: I am now finishing a book tentatively called Scarlett in Cairo, Mammy in Damascus: Cinema and the Politics of Late Colonialism. It looks at how movies and movie theaters became arenas of political debate in the 1930s-1950s. It also links the politics of spectatorship, of foreign films from the self-styled modern world, to the politics of production, with a focus on Egyptian films. The title refers to a chapter on the political uses of Gone With the Wind as war propaganda in 1941-1942. 

J: What methodologies did you use in your research for this book?

ET: Justice Interrupted combines social science analysis of political movements with cultural analysis of the texts left by the activists, including memoirs, speeches, propaganda, and letters. Each chapter asks, first, why the activist decided his or her circumstances were not merely misfortunes, but rather an injustice that demanded correction. The chapter then examines how the activist turned this feeling of injustice into a vision of justice that inspired others. Finally, each chapter looks at the obstacles the movements face, both locally and internationally.

The other organizing idea of the book, constitutionalism, came to me later. I had begun with the assumption that Albert Hourani was right that the liberal age in the Arab world ended in 1939. Instead, I found that none of the movements dropped the goal of constitutionalism. 

Excerpts from Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East

From the Introduction

In 1599, an Ottoman bureaucrat named Mustafa Ali returned to Cairo with fond memories of the city he had visited a quarter century before. “But in the course of time the state of the world had changed,” he reported. “The various classes of mankind had become distressed in the matters of livelihood, and peace and order had been chased from the face of the earth.” He urged the sultan to restore justice by imposing stricter Ottoman rule and Islamic law over the Land of the Nile.

Mustafa Ali uncannily detected the beginnings of fundamental change in the Middle East’s position in the world economy and the global balance of power. The Ottomans had once ruled over the heart of the world economy. Now, as the rise of capitalism in Europe diverted trade and disrupted the Ottoman economy, patrimonial ideals of harmony collapsed. By 1770, the once-awesome Ottoman army could no longer defend the realm. Mustafa Ali’s royal reports had by then launched a tradition of jeremiad among reform-minded bureaucrats. They warned of imperial decline unless the sultan revived the empire’s forgotten principles of justice. Finally, they inspired an Ottoman bill of rights in 1839, when the sultan decreed that a citizenry with equal rights under the law would replace the paternalistic hierarchy of ruling class and subjects.

Since then, Middle Eastern peoples have mobilized against injustices caused by global economic change and growing state power. By the time of World War I, Ottoman, Egyptian, and Iranian citizens united in movements to demand constitutional government as a new model of justice. They hoped that constitutions—which would limit the monarch’s power and grant legislative power to a representative assembly—would assure full sovereignty against the encroachments of European imperialism. They also hoped that constitutions would assure all citizens equality under the law. Their constitutional governments collapsed, however, in the wake of foreign invasion. Faith in Constitutionalism also collapsed, because it had not lived up to its promise to protect sovereignty.

After World War I, the Ottoman and Iranian dynasties fell, ceding political space to a new array of movements that embraced new models of justice. Liberals now confronted mass movements that often rejected their role as a ruling elite. Mass movements rallied popular support through local vernaculars of justice, promising equality and security. Constitutional ideals remained an end-goal, but no longer was it the preferred means. To attain sovereignty—the prerequisite to constitutional justice—the new movements demanded revolt and national unity, voicing deep suspicion of the liberal ideals that Europeans used to justify their occupation and colonization of the Middle East after the war

The consequences of World War I went beyond the rejection of elitist liberalism. The extreme violence on the war’s killing fields ushered in a new era of political violence. To populations devastated by death, disease, and hunger, the new mass movements prioritized collective security over individual rights, a strong state over freedom, in agendas variously labeled nationalist, socialist, communist, and Islamist. Rejection of liberal ideals was not due to Islamic culture, but rather to historical circumstance. In the name of unity, some of the new movements vaunted one ethnic or religious group over others, in a brutal and violent politics of exclusion. Other movements, like Iraqi communism, promoted political inclusion of lower classes and minorities.

In World War II and the Cold War, these rival visions of justice exploded into conflict. While many Arabs, Turks, and Iranians embraced the victory of democracy, the Middle East again became a primary battleground between world powers—this time, the United States and Soviet Union. Fearful of communism, the United States supported coups against popularly elected governments in Syria, Iraq, and Iran that promised to unite citizens across religious, ethnic, and class lines. Soviet- and American-backed dictators suppressed the region’s most popular movements: the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, the Iraqi communists, and Syrian socialists.

In the wake of the Cold War, ethnic violence surged again. The already fraught issue of partitioning British Palestine into independent Jewish and Arab states became a flashpoint of Cold-War and post-colonial politics, laying the ground for the region’s longest conflict. By 1965, the political arena in Iran and the Arab countries had virtually collapsed. With little or no legal space to organize opposition movements, Palestinians and Islamists turned to the methods of Third Worldist guerrilla warfare and terror.

The dawn of the twenty-first century, like that of Mustafa Ali’s seventeenth-century, has ushered in a new era of global transformation. Constitutionalism has returned as the most dominant model of justice in the Middle East. Turks elected an opposition government that has eased the military out of politics. In Iran, the Green Movement rose up in 2009 against religious elites’ control of government. Two years later, the Arab Spring broke out against the petty and pervasive tyranny of governments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain.


From Chapter Six: “The Muslim Brotherhood’s Pursuit of Islamic Justice”

On 12 February 1949, a taxi waited on a quiet boulevard in central Cairo, outside of the Young Men’s Muslim Association building. Shortly after eight o’clock, a bearded man of medium build, wearing a fez and overcoat, walked down the building’s ornate stone staircase. Just as he stepped into the cab, a black car pulled up. Two gunmen jumped out and shot him. The victim was Hasan al-Banna, the forty-two-year-old leader of the largest political movement in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Banna was rushed to a hospital, where he died that night. The Egyptian government declared a state of emergency and banned all public mourning. Only Banna’s immediate family was permitted to walk in the funeral procession, guarded by armored cars and tanks. Privately, across all of Egypt, more than a half-million members of the MB mourned him.

To his followers, Banna was a saintly martyr and Egypt’s greatest political leader. The MB had grown, in just twenty years, into a major rival of Egypt’s top party, the Wafd Party. Its campaign for Islamic justice had mobilized poor and middle-class Egyptians who lived far from the elites in parliament, from King Farouk’s palace, and from the British, who still ruled from their embassy and bases on the Suez Canal. These Egyptians sought access to the political arena that excluded them. They viewed Banna as an honest everyman who battled the corrupt world of Egyptian politics.

Not only the poor and Muslim venerated Banna. One of his greatest public supporters was a Christian politician, Makram Ubayd Pasha, who resented Britain’s increased political role in Egypt since World War II. Ubayd Pasha jumped the police line around Banna’s home to join his funeral procession. Another supporter was Judge Ahmad Kamil Bey who in 1951 would dismiss charges of sedition against the MB and then declare that he so admired the organization that he would join it. A third prominent supporter was Anwar Sadat, the future president of Egypt who helped mount the 1952 Revolution that toppled King Farouk and who would sign a peace treaty with Israel twenty-seven years later. “He had a surprising, intuitive grasp of the problems facing Egypt,” Sadat wrote of Banna in 1954. “The welfare of Egypt was the thing he cared more about than anything else in the mortal world.”[1]

To King Farouk and the British, Banna was a traitor and a terrorist. He had refused the king’s invitation to join his party and had mobilized the MB against the British in Palestine. After the Arab defeat in the 1948 war, militants in the MB assassinated Egypt’s prime minister in December 1948. To many in the ruling elite, the murder of Banna two months later appeared as just retribution. Even the political opposition—both nationalists and socialists—viewed Banna’s murder with a bit of relief. To them, he was a demagogue who deluded the masses with a simplistic vision of Islam. Contrary to the court’s judgment, they blamed Banna for the rise in political violence after World War II.

Americans diplomats followed the British, and regarded Banna as a dangerous eccentric.[2] The New York Times described the MB as an “extremist” political movement with “mystic and fascist overtones” and possible communist support. The Los Angeles Times called Banna “an ardent foe of the Jews” who “proposed an Arab government in the Holy Land.”[3]

Was justice done on 12 February 1949, or was justice denied? The memory of Banna and his murder remains highly politicized and fiercely debated. Historians in Egypt and beyond have not come to agreement on how much Banna knew about the violent plots of the MB’s militant wing. Nor do they agree on Banna’s political vision. Some point to his message of equality, freedom, hard work, and aid to the poor as consonant with liberal values. Other scholars read Banna’s speeches and pamphlets in an opposing light, as a demagogic program to construct an Islamic state, impose conformity on the people, and wage perpetual war against non-Muslims. One reason for disagreement is political bias; another, however, is the complexity and ambiguity of Banna’s own words. As his brother Gamal al-Banna said, “Hasan al-Banna was a genius in organization, but when it came to theory, he was nothing.”[4]

Banna must not, and cannot, be judged by searching his writings for his true intentions or for a coherent philosophy of Islamic justice. His memoirs, speeches, and pamphlets reveal a man more devoted more to action than thought. His vision of justice must be understood in the specific contexts in which he wrote and spoke. His views and methods of activism evolved rapidly. In the early 1930s he was a quiet, earnest teacher who took weekend hikes to proselytize by foot in the poorest villages of Egypt. By 1939, he was a national politician with personal ties to the palace and leaders of parliament. In the 1940s, he commanded a greater political following than the Wafd Party, the nationalist opposition party founded by Saad Zaghlul.

Like Halide Edib and other nationalists, Banna turned his back on liberalism as a European model of justice with false claims to universality. He advocated Islam as a distinct and superior model of justice. His Islam was modernist, following Muhammad Abduh and the first generation of Islamic reformers who aided the 1882 Urabi revolution. Like them, Banna regarded Islam as a holistic vision of heavenly and earthly justice, with specific standards of government and social relations. Like them, he argued that vitality and flexibility of Islamic law would provide basis for modern, constitutional government.

Banna’s career suggests one way that popular movements redefined justice in the wake of liberalism’s decline after World War I. The MB was the first and the largest mass Islamic movement in the region. Its history challenges common assumptions about the relationship of Islam to democracy, and about the predilection of Islamists for violence. Banna founded the movement with nationalist aims to roll back British imperialism. In the 1930s, he recruited Egypt’s modest classes whose suffering during the world depression was ignored by the political elite. He empowered them with a message of cultural pride and spiritual uplift, against an elite that justified its hold on power by its claim to superior knowledge of Europe. Banna did not oppose democracy, but rather, like Zaghlul, opposed the factionalism that paralyzed policymaking in parliament. He accepted Egypt’s 1923 constitution, with some revisions.

The MB’s political trajectory was defined by the revolutionary violence that spread in Egypt in the 1940s. Banna turned against Zaghlul’s Wafd Party because it was corrupt and it collaborated with the British during World War II. King Farouk wanted to harness the MB’s popularity for his own benefit, but Banna kept a distance. When Banna tried to run for a parliament seat in the early 1940s, these rivals struck back, with Britain’s blessings. They forcefully excluded the MB from the political arena. It was then that the organization aligned with other opposition movements in what became a general revolt against the regime in the late 1940s. While Banna had once restrained militant members who preached revolution, he now permitted militants to join other political groups in a wave of assassinations that crested with the 1948 Palestine war and led to the 1952 revolution by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers.

Banna left a powerful dual legacy. By building the first truly mass movement in the Arab world, he profoundly altered the rules of politics. The MB shook the foundations of the elite system built by the British since 1882, demonstrating people power to other opposition groups. And by recasting political and social justice in explicitly Islamic terms, Banna fundamentally altered Egypt’s political culture. The elites’ liberal model of justice—based on the nineteenth-century belief in Islam’s essential agreement with other world civilizations—gave way to views that divided Eastern justice from that of the capitalist and imperialist West. Banna captured the moral outrage of ordinary Egyptians who—decades after Ahmed Urabi—still resented European support of Egypt’s landowning elite. The consequences of the political realignment, however, were dire for Egyptian Christians and Jews. Modern Islamism “solved” the problem of equality raised in the Tanzimat era by marginalizing minorities.


[1] Anwar Sadat, Revolt on the Nile (New York: J. Day, 1957), 31–32, 48–50.

[2] “Memorandum of Conversation between Shaikh Hassan Al Banna and Philip W. Ireland, First Secretary of Embassy,” 27 August 1947. Document 833.00/8–2947, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland. Hereafter “Memorandum of Conversation between Shaikh Hassan Al Banna and Philip W. Ireland.” I thank Samer Shehata for alerting me to this document.

[3] Albion Ross, “Moslem Brotherhood Leader Slain as He Enters Taxi in Cairo Street,” New York Times, 13 February 1949, p. 1; “Assassin’s Shot Fatal to Moslem Chieftain,” Los Angeles Times, 13 February 1949, p. 13.

[4] Gamal al-Banna, personal interview, Cairo, 16 May 2008. For a negative view of Banna see Gudrun Kraemer, Hasan al-Banna (New York: Oneworld, 2010); for a positive view see Brynjar Lia, The Society of Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement 1928–1942 (Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 1998).

[Excerpted from Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East, by Elizabeth F. Thompson, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. For more information, or to purchase this book, please click here.]

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