Abdullah Al-Arian, Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Abdullah Al-Arian (AA): I began the intellectual journey toward this book over a decade ago. As an undergraduate student, I witnessed how the events of 11 September 2001 rapidly deteriorated the tenor of the discourse within the United States on the relationship between Islam and society in the Arab world. The alarmist trend that warned of an impending clash between “Islam” and “the West” was amplified during the War on Terror, resulting in a tendency to conflate all expressions of Islamic activism with terrorism in the realms of policymaking as well as popular culture.
Even within the academic community, I noticed that many scholarly treatments of the rise of Islamic movements in the twentieth century were little more than “response literature.” Studies in the mid-twentieth century situated the phenomenon within the broader scholarship on development and modernization. By the late twentieth century the field had shifted, as part of the study of an “Islamic resurgence” witnessed in events such as the Iranian Revolution, the Afghan jihad, and the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat.
As perhaps the most widely known expression of Islamic activism in the last century, many scholars had explored the historical trajectory of the Muslim Brotherhood, but those studies were largely limited to examining it either in relation to broader political developments occurring at the level of the state, or popularly vis-à-vis expressions of violent contention against the state. Few studies actually attempted to look at the movement on its own terms and the ways in which it situates itself within the historical developments in modern Arab societies, and the Egyptian context in particular.
Rarely in the current analyses of the Muslim Brotherhood’s place in contemporary Egyptian society and politics does one see its development traced as part of a long-term historical process. If they address history at all, most commentaries will generally make allusions to Hasan al-Banna’s founding vision or Sayyid Qutb’s ideological intervention, before drawing conclusions about Muhammad Badie, Mohamed Morsi, and the current organization’s posture in relation to political developments in Egypt.
In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood had all but disappeared by the late 1960s, as a result of continual state repression, and yet had re-emerged with renewed force by the end of the 1970s. Remarkably, that story has never been told.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AA: In this study I ask a simple question: Why did many Egyptians of this era pursue the path of Islamic activism and how did they go about doing so? In the process of conducting research, I had to contend with a number of pre-existing narratives. There was the common refrain that Sadat had actively cultivated and controlled the rise of the Islamist movement. There was the competing narrative that the Muslim Brotherhood had been destined to resume its mission because of the popularity it continued to enjoy within Egyptian society despite all attempts by the Nasser regime to malign its reputation and consign it to the dustbin of history. Another paradigm shifted the conversation away from popular forms of activism to focus exclusively on the rise of militant groups out of the Islamist camp. As a result, the Muslim Brotherhood’s mission was for some time viewed exclusively through the lens of its propensity to encourage and engage in violence.
I believe that these narratives do not accurately capture the developments of this period. It is true that the state emerged as a significant actor in the field of Islamic politics, led primarily by Sadat’s refashioning himself as the “Believer President.” However, I contend that while this provided an opened space for the resumption of popular modes of religious expression, Sadat’s efforts to coopt the Islamic movement ultimately met with failure for a number of reasons, not the least of which involved diametrically opposed visions of the place of Islam in the public sphere. Meanwhile, at the level of society, the Muslim Brotherhood of the early 1970s was a shell of its former self. Many of the surviving activists, numbering barely one hundred members, were not even certain that they wanted to resurrect the organization’s mission upon their release from prison.
The real story of this era revolves around a vibrant youth movement based in Egypt’s colleges and universities. Even as they rebelled against the tenets of Nasserism, the youth of this period were the products of its socioeconomic policies, from increased urbanization to greater access to education. They found in their Islamic identity a response to the post-1967 crisis, even as they adopted the modes of popular contention that had emerged under Nasser. The student movement was notable for the fluidity it displayed on the ideological level and the dynamism it exhibited on the organizational front.
By the late 1970s, leaders of al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya had consolidated their control over the student unions of nearly every university in Egypt. The book’s individual chapters look at the parallel developments occurring across the student movement broadly and internally within the reemerging Muslim Brotherhood. The book weaves together a narrative that examines critical moments where these forces intersected and traces the path taken by the bulk of the student movement’s leadership as it ultimately “graduated” to take on the Muslim Brotherhood’s mission and adopt its organizational model. One of the study’s key findings is that, even as they attempted to reassert the Muslim Brotherhood’s traditional hierarchical structure, senior figures like Mustafa Mashhur, Kamal al-Sananiri, and ‘Umar al-Tilmisani could not help but adapt their mission to the changing landscape of Islamic activism.
This speaks to the impact made by student leaders like Helmi al-Gazzar, ‘Esam al-‘Erian, and ‘Abd al-Mon‘eim Abul Futuh, who oversaw thousands of student activists who ultimately joined the Muslim Brotherhood and transformed it in the process. Whether we recognize it or not, much of the contemporary scholarly discourses surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood, whether it concerns analyses of its charitable associations and social welfare projects or its performance in state elections, stems from developments for which this generation was responsible.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
AA: The initial spark for this study was a research project that provided a content analysis of Islamic publications from the 1970s. Applying the literature on framing that emerged out of Social Movement Theory, I challenged the reductive tendency to define Islamic movements by their rigid dogma, instead arguing that there is in fact an active process of construction that goes into a movement’s ideological formulation and dispersion. Even in instances of reliance on traditional Islamic sources, active engagement with those texts occurred in the process of forging an organizational message fit for mass dissemination and consumption.
That earlier project ultimately led to an interest in exploring other aspects of emerging modes of activism, in particular the youth movement who were the most eager consumers of this literature. Chapter two of my book draws on an earlier research project on the rise of a little known group called Shabab al-Islam that emerged in Cairo University’s College of Engineering in the late 1960s. Unlike al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya, which eventually spread throughout the country and linked with the Muslim Brotherhood to provide it with continuity, Shabab al-Islam did not survive the tumultuous period due to its frequent clashes with the regime as well as competing student groups. Nevertheless, it enjoys the distinction of being one of the first independent social movement organizations in Egypt after 1967 and proved to be a sign of things to come.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AA: I wrote Answering the Call with several audiences in mind. It is my hope that scholars who focus on Egyptian history, politics, and society will find this study to be a worthwhile contribution to our knowledge of a transformative era in Egyptian history, with broader implications for our understanding of contemporary events.
Additionally, because it engages with the literature on social movements, this book can also serve as a case study for our understanding of how and why movements emerge. As such, non-Middle East specialists can find comparative value in it, especially as social movement theorists increasingly have had to account for Islamic movements in the development of their methodological tools.
Though it was unintentional, in its own way Answering the Call has emerged as a response to the “instant experts” who have posited their own interpretations of Egypt’s revolutionary moment and its aftermath. I have sought to provide a far deeper contextualization for these recent developments than much of what has been published on Egypt during the past several years. I hope that people who have been following these events closely will find my book to be a helpful resource that sheds light on many of the issues raised by recent challenges to Egypt’s political order.
Finally, I endeavored to write this book in an accessible style. Along with setting out to make a scholarly contribution to the various fields with which this book engages, I wanted to make certain that readers would find the narrative rich and compelling. At its core, this book tells a story, one that I imagine many people could identify with, irrespective of their background.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AA: My next major project emerges directly from this book. I am interested in the way that popular Islamic activism took on a transnational character during the mid-twentieth century. In particular, I seek to trace the development and expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood’s mission and the means by which it was transmitted from Egypt to other Arab societies. I suspect that looking more deeply into how this mission was localized may challenge many of the prevailing notions we hold about the supposed ubiquity of Islamic activism. For all the recent discussions questioning the compatibility of Islamism and nationalism, in most places where it existed, adapting the Islamic activist mission to emerging national identities, and more importantly, the limits of the modern state, was a process that unfolded over the course of several decades. Needless to say, this is an ambitious endeavor that involves multiple case studies and the consolidation of several different bodies of historical literature.
J: How does your book contribute to or diverge from previous scholarship on Islamic activism?
AA: Scholarship on Islamic activism has shown significant progress in recent years. Far from the influence of modernization theory that obscured early depictions of Islamic movements, or the alarmist tendency of the 1980s and 1990s, more recent studies have benefited from greater precision and care in the methodological tools used to carry out these analyses. The aforementioned Social Movement Theory (SMT) has influenced a number of recent works about Islamic movements in addition to my own work as well. By avoiding the exceptionalism with which Islamic movements have been treated in the past, SMT offers the analytical tools with which all social movements, irrespective of their ideological orientation, are scrutinized: How are the movement’s decisions informed by the broader political context and decisions made at the level of the state? How does it effectively mobilize its base and make use of the limited resources available to it? How does it package its mission and present it for mass consumption? Once we begin to ask the right questions, it becomes clear that Islamic movements are actually operating within the same framework and bound by the same structural dynamics as other movements. For over a decade, scholars like Asef Bayat, Janine Clark, Carrie Wickham, and Quintan Wiktorowicz have made exceptional advancements to the way we look at Islamic social movements. My work attempts to build upon the theoretical constructs by applying them to a historical case and by weaving a broader narrative within which the theoretical analysis can be properly situated.
In some ways, this task is even more pressing given the prevailing analysis about Islamic activism in Egypt during the 1970s. Gilles Kepel’s seminal book Muslim Extremism in Egypt offers up a comprehensive assessment of the rise of underground militancy and what he views as the development of a public discourse that had become increasingly violent in both content and tone. The book’s discussion of the return of the Muslim Brotherhood is quite limited when compared with its thorough exploration of jihadist groups. Given its attempt to shift the discussion of Islamic activism back toward the moderate mainstream, Answering the Call exists to both complement and contend with the key findings in that and other similar works. Given the durability that the Muslim Brotherhood’s mission has demonstrated in the ensuing years, it is clear that da‘wa—rather than jihad—was the key concept at the heart of Islamic activism dating back to this era.
J: How does your book shed light on some of the contemporary manifestations of Islamic activism in Egypt, and the future course of the Muslim Brotherhood in particular?
AA: At its core, this book is a work of history. I have made the case elsewhere that the roots of much of the contemporary discourse concerning Islamic activism in Egypt can be traced back to the Sadat period. Current questions revolving around the internal dynamics of the Muslim Brotherhood, its organizational structure, its ideological outlook, its social mission, the development of its political agenda, and its engagement with the state all find their basis in developments that occurred during the organizational reconstitution which occurred in the late 1970s and continued into the early 1980s.
As we look back at the developments of the last three years, there has been much emphasis on the role that Egyptian youth played in leading the anti-Mubarak uprising, and rightly so. In the book’s epilogue chapter, however, I present the case that Mubarak’s overthrow also presented a generation of lifelong activists the opportunity to shape the political and socioeconomic future of their country. The prior arrangement, as it stood, was a nation governed by a president (and his cronies) well into his eighties preparing to hand over the country to a son (and his wealthy friends) in his forties, effectively bypassing an entire generation. It was no coincidence that most of the Egyptian political leadership that emerged after Mubarak’s fall, from Hamdeen Sabahi and Abul Futuh to Morsi and Khairat al-Shater, were veterans of the 1970s student movement. Of course, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was also a product of this era, though his early path into military service ensured that he remained outside the sphere of popular activism and probably hastened his hostility toward it. Ironically, had it not been for the same revolutionary movement that he has since brutally suppressed, Sisi also would have watched from the margins as the younger Mubarak inherited his father’s rule.
As we ponder the future of the Muslim Brotherhood—and popular activism in Egypt more generally—it may be instructive to consider the historical precedent for the resumption of activism following a period of severe repression. Once again, commentators seem to be consumed with the question of whether an otherwise non-violent movement could take the path of violent contention. As I have attempted to demonstrate in this book, it is more instructive to examine these movements, not as an alien force committed to the widespread destruction of society, but rather as a natural product of the societies from which they emerge.
Excerpts from Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt
From the Introduction
Cairo’s oppressive summer weather had yet to subside as the third general guide of Gama‘at al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin (the Society of the Muslim Brotherhood) languished in the damp heat of an Egyptian prison. It was the fall of 1981, and he had not expected to be back inside so soon. By now an old man, ‘Umar al-Tilmisani was a lawyer by training but had spent nearly twenty years of his life as a political prisoner. In the decade since his release, however, he had attained the top leadership position in the Muslim Brotherhood and helped restore it to its former status as the chief opposition movement in the country, largely through the successful recruitment of a vibrant student movement. Along with several colleagues from his inner circle, Tilmisani had traveled across the nation speaking at conferences, attending summer youth camps, and meeting with students on their campuses, preaching the da‘wa, or call, of the Muslim Brotherhood to tens of thousands of young Egyptians in the process.
In contrast to the relative openness that had characterized much of his time in office, on 5 September President Anwar al-Sadat ordered state security agents to conduct a massive sweep of the country, arresting hundreds of members of the political opposition in all of its ideological stripes, from Nasserists and Marxists, to the Islamic movement, represented chiefly by the Muslim Brotherhood. Feeling threatened by the rising tide of fervent political opposition, Sadat abandoned his rhetoric on democracy, opting for a return to the repression that characterized the era of his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, by quashing all political dissent. A month later he would be assassinated.
From the confinement of his cell, Tilmisani could do no more than pen his prison memoir, recounting his experiences under the Sadat regime, and commenting on the daily news items that trickled into the prison through smuggled newspapers. In one entry, he lamented a news story about Sadat’s meeting with the Higher Council of the Press. According to the article, on his way out of the meeting, Sadat stopped to greet one of the council’s members, ’Ihsan ‘Abd al-Quddus, a notable newspaper editor, literary writer, and liberal commentator. Sadat smiled at his old friend, shook his hand warmly, and spent a moment catching up with him. Though he tried to muster a smile in return, ‘Abd al-Quddus could not help but be reminded of the loss of his son, who at that very moment was in an undisclosed location along with the hundreds of activists arrested by Sadat.
Muhammad ‘Abd al-Quddus was a leader in al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Society), the powerful organization that represented religious student activists in universities throughout the country. He had also recently joined the Muslim Brotherhood, and carrying on the family tradition, had taken up journalism as a career and a personal passion. But Muhammad did not report for one of the liberal, secular newspapers. He was a writer for al-Da‘wa, the Muslim Brotherhood’s monthly magazine. When security agents raided the offices of al-Da‘wa and arrested the editors and staff members, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Quddus was the youngest person apprehended.
In commenting on this chance encounter between Egypt’s authoritarian ruler and a grieving father, Tilmisani wavered between unrestrained condemnation of Sadat’s behavior and sadness at the pain that ’Ihsan ‘Abd al-Quddus must have felt by coming face to face with the person responsible for his son’s dismal fate. Sadat “was flexing his muscles, demonstrating his power...and reproaching [‘Abd al-Quddus] for allowing his son to go along the path of the call to God.” Or, he pondered, was it possible that Sadat was genuinely attempting to flatter his old friend? “His tenderness did not end with a smile to the father he had deprived of his son…no, not only did he smile at him, but he went out of his way to greet him. Have you ever seen humility more charming than this?” Tilmisani concluded sarcastically.
This story serves as a symbolic representation of a number of transformative developments of the Sadat era in modern Egyptian history. The anguished father unable to confront the president in defense of his son is a testament to the decline of liberalism in Egypt’s political culture, which witnessed the replacement of the traditional political forces, the “centers of power” as Sadat termed them, with a new political base made up of ideologies antagonistic toward the liberal, nationalist, and radical socialist forces of old. Tilmisani, who expressed his deep outrage at Sadat in no uncertain terms, signaled the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood as the chief opposition movement leading the popular contention against the state. In fact, Tilmisani’s role extended to that of paternal caretaker to Muhammad ‘Abd al-Quddus, who along with thousands of young Egyptians, joined in this movement at the expense of the ideology of their parents. Finally, Sadat replicated the dualism for which his regime had become known, at once warmly greeting his friend while his policies caused ‘Abd al-Quddus and his family much harm.
As a leader who in the span of a decade pursued war and peace, populism and free enterprise, democracy and despotism, Sadat was said to have met his untimely demise at the hands of a movement he helped create. Following a turbulent history of social activism, political contention, and militant resistance, the Muslim Brotherhood experienced such a crushing blow early in the Nasser era that few in Egypt would have expected it to reappear. Yet two decades after its absence from society, the Muslim Brotherhood re-emerged as a social movement organization spreading a religious and political message and expressing its opposition to the state. This study explores the underlying social developments, political conditions, and historical events that permitted the return of the Muslim Brotherhood to the fore of Egyptian society and politics. Additionally, it investigates the internal factors within the organization’s disparate parts: its leaders, members, ideological mission and social program—to explain its stunning resilience in the face of severe repression and its ability to reclaim its position at the head of an increasingly diversified Islamic movement.
Beginning after Egypt’s defeat in the June War of 1967 and gathering momentum with Sadat’s assumption of the presidency following Nasser’s death in September 1970, religiously inspired social movements took on a renewed urgency in their activist missions. By the middle of the 1970s, the trajectory of Islamic activism reached its height, as a vibrant and dynamic student movement became dominated by religious youth who put forward a multifaceted program of social advocacy and anti-state contention, built on an intellectual project that incorporated a wide array of sources and influences. Finding strength in its youth and diversity, the religious student movement, led by al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya, swept the Student Union elections at nearly every Egyptian university, adding legitimacy to its cause and raising its ambitions. Meanwhile, following their gradual release from prison, the Muslim Brotherhood’s former leaders cemented their determination to continue their mission by reorganizing their movement into something akin to the former organization.
By the end of the decade, the Muslim Brotherhood had been successfully reconstituted, due in large part to the ability of the senior leadership to assimilate the Islamic student movement into the ranks of a new hierarchical structure. Although the end of the Sadat period in 1981 occurred at a time of renewed political repression and the mass imprisonment of the leadership of the Islamic movement, young and old alike, the era itself would be remembered for ushering in the return of Islamic activism in the public sphere, a phenomenon many have termed, the “Islamic resurgence.” Even Sadat’s assassination at the hands of a group of Islamic militants was not enough to subdue a movement that established a permanent presence in Egyptian society beginning in the critical decade of the 1970s.
 ‘Umar al-Tilmisani. Ayyam Ma‘a al-Sadat. Cairo: Dar al-I‘tisam, 1984, p. 102.
 Interview with Muhammad ‘Abd al-Quddus.
 Tilmisani, p. 102.
 Some prominent examples include: Kurshid Ahmad. Islamic Resurgence: Challenges, Directions & Future Perspectives: A Roundtable with Kurshid Ahmad. Tampa: WISE, 1994. Hillal Dessouki, ed. Islamic Resurgence in the Arab World. New York: Praeger, 1982. John Esposito. Voices of Resurgent Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. John Voll. Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994. Emmanuel Sivan in James P. Jankowski and Israel Gershoni, ed. Rethinking Nationalism in the Arab Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Bassam Tibi. The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
[Excerpted from Abdullah Al-Arian, Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt, p. 1-4, by permission of the author. © Oxford University Press 2014. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]