'Every aspect of life is to be Islamicized'

Egyptian activists translate address from Muslim Brotherhood candidate Shater, offering rare glimpse into his worldview.

Muslim Brotherhood, FJP's Khairat al-Shater (photo credit: Reuters)
Muslim Brotherhood, FJP's Khairat al-Shater
(photo credit: Reuters)
The Muslim Brotherhood’s main presidential candidate seeks to fundamentally Islamicize Egyptian society if elected, according to newly uncovered footage of an extended address he gave supporters last year shortly after his release from prison.
Egyptian activists have transcribed Khairat al-Shater’s 90- minute address into English, offering a rare glimpse into the worldview of the normally tight-lipped candidate who is a front-runner in upcoming elections to lead the Arab world’s most populous state.
Shater delivered the address, entitled “The Islamic Renaissance Project,” in Alexandria on April 21, 2011, less than two months after his release from prison. The veteran Brotherhood financier had served four years of a seven-year sentence for money laundering and membership in the once-banned Islamist group when he was freed in the aftermath of president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
Footage of his remarks has been available on YouTube for the past year, but only in Arabic. Following Shater’s announcement as the Brotherhood’s candidate late last month, activists from the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth translated and transcribed the video and last week posted it online. The English translation is now available on the homepage of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, a journal published by the US-based Hudson Institute.
“Everywhere, the Brothers are working to restore Islam in its all-encompassing conception to the lives of people,” Shater says in the address. “Thus the mission is clear: restoring Islam in its all-encompassing conception, subjugating people to God, instituting the religion of God, the Islamicization of life, empowering of God’s religion, establishing the renaissance of the ummah [worldwide Muslim nation] on the basis of Islam... Every aspect of life is to be Islamicized.
“We call upon God Almighty to make this transformation the beginning of a new renaissance for the ummah and the shaking off of the state of backwardness from which it has suffered for decades,” Shater says in the clip. “As Muslim Brothers, it is imperative that we, as well as the entirety of the ummah, God willing, take advantage of this revolution which took place in Egypt and continues in the countries surrounding us.”
Shater uses the Arabic “nahda” to refer to his hoped-for renaissance. Nahda literally means “rising up,” and can refer to prosperity or success rather than the strict Western meaning of rebirth. Ennahda also is the name of the leading Islamist movement in Tunisia, which took a plurality of that country’s parliamentary votes in elections last year.
Shater appears to have adopted the word as an unofficial trademark. His campaign Facebook page – which has garnered some 90,000 “likes” in its first two weeks – features the motto “Nahda is the people’s will.”
Shater’s use of “ummah” also appears deliberately ambiguous. In this context the word, Arabic for “nation,” may refer either to the Egyptian people or to the Islamic community of believers worldwide.
The Muslim Brotherhood garnered around half of Egypt’s parliamentary seats in elections earlier this year, with even harder-line Islamists taking another 25 percent. Eager to assuage Western apprehensions over an Islamist takeover, the Brotherhood had originally insisted it would not field a candidate to replace Mubarak in Egypt’s first comparatively free presidential elections in decades.
Late last month the group reversed its decision, naming Shater, a successful businessman and longtime senior Brotherhood official, as its candidate. Still, Shater’s candidacy may ultimately be annulled: His prison term was due to expire in 2015, and he must now receive a pardon from either the military court that tried him or the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in order to run.
The Brotherhood has hedged its bets, naming Mohamed Morsi – head of its Freedom and Justice Party – as a “backup” candidate should Shater be deemed ineligible.
Since freed from prison Shater has remained reticent over the most sensitive questions facing the Brotherhood: Its future treatment of women and religious minorities and Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. Leading Muslim Brotherhood members have given mixed signals over their commitment to the treaty – some have insisted relations with Israel would be unacceptable while others have pledged commitments to keep all of Egypt’s international obligations.
Over the last year Shater has referred to the treaty just once, in a January interview with Al- Ahram newspaper, in which he tersely affirmed that his party would “abide by the commitments of the Egyptian government, regardless of our reservations.” In footage of last year’s Alexandria address he does not mention Israel at all.
Shater’s caution is part of a wider Brotherhood effort to uphold the rigid religious principles its followers expect while at the same time mollifying Western unease over the prospect of Islamist government.
Last week, the organization sent a delegation on a tour of Washington to meet with policy analysts, university students and the media. At every stop, the delegates assured their hosts they intend to preserve the rule of law and minority rights.
The Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party would be “as inclusive as possible – including liberals, secularists” and Christians, a Brotherhood lawmaker told an audience at Washington’s Georgetown University, adding that peace with Israel would not be altered “unless if there is a massive popular will to change that.”
“We are... working to improve the situation of women in society, getting to the root causes of the problem of the marginalization of women,” the female editor of the Brotherhood’s Englishlanguage website assured the Georgetown audience.
Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Brotherhood’s visit was an exercise in dishonesty.
“They lied constantly and emphatically, as if there were simply no evidence of contrary views to the ones they were putting out,” Trager told The Jerusalem Post. “Of course the evidence they were lying is freely available – the Brotherhood’s history of opposing laws banning female genital mutilation, and its statements about wanting to put the Camp David Accords to referendum, are all public.”
“Anyone seriously following Egypt has to know they were painting a highly inaccurate picture of themselves,” he said.
Trager interviewed Shater last year in the course of doctoral work on Egyptian opposition parties. He said the candidate’s remarks in the video largely comport with what he had told him in person.
“The idea is that the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to implement Shari’a, but an interpretive form that seeks to realize what they would call social benefits,” he said. “It’s an Islamic jurisprudential approach in which there is constant reference to Islamic law, but it’s interpreted in terms of the general aims of a given text.”
Mina Rezkalla, a former member of the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth and an intern at the Hudson Institute, said he believes the Brotherhood remains committed to the same principles that have marked the movement throughout its eight-decade history.
“They have a double voice. They play with the words, but not with the content,” he told the Post. “When talking about Israel to a Western audience, they will use the word ‘Israel’ rather than ‘the Zionist state.’ But if you had a long, deep conversation with them, they would see they never change their concepts.
They will never tell you that Israel is legitimate – they simply talk about protecting Egyptian interests.”
Watching Shater’s remarks, Rezkalla said, he was struck most by the Islamist candidate’s sincerity.
“He’s such a believer – he didn’t talk about himself or his own sacrifices. He didn’t talk about anything but the glory of the organization and the glory of the goal,” he said. “He talks about a perfect totalitarian project – to Islamicize Egyptian society from top to bottom, and to do the same all over the world.”