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Rejecting the 'good Muslim, bad Muslim' framework

March 29, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Writing back in 2002, scholar Mahmood Mamdani astutely remarked that after 11 September, Western publics and their leaders, like former US President George W Bush and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, propagated the idea that “Islam must be quarantined and the devil must be exorcised from it by a civil war between good Muslims and bad Muslims.”

This framework imagines Islam as a self-contained geography, without recognising the oppressive colonial and imperial encounters past and present. Somehow, within such a framework, Islamic resistance is seen as a backwards response to modernity rather than as a direct product of Western occupation and exploitation. Indeed, the Western role in any conflict is rendered invisible.

Alas Afghanistan and Iraq are still fighting the West’s imposed civil war today, and the mission has been successfully outsourced to many other corrupt governments in Muslim majority countries.

Now, apparently, it is Egypt’s turn.

On 25 December, the Egyptian authorities designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, even though the movement has long renounced violence and decried the brutal attacks that have taken place since the military coup that ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected government. Never mind that the authorities do not have any evidence to support their assertion, or that unrelated groups have claimed responsibility for the upsurge in violence.

Instead the Egyptian authorities are waging a fascist nationalist campaign against the Islamist movement, and the West has remained largely silent because it is in Israel’s interests.

In other words, Egypt’s coup leaders have branded generals and political elites who are armed by the West “good Muslims”, while labelling the unarmed Muslim Brothers “bad Muslims”.

At the same time, the Egyptian authorities have expanded their crackdown to include any Egyptian who dares to oppose the military regime. As a result, thousands of activists from across the political spectrum in Egypt have been arrested in recent weeks and months. And unfortunately, some of the unjustly accused are indirectly reproducing the “good Muslim, bad Muslim” framework by publicly pronouncing innocence and a lack of affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.

For example, reporting earlier this week on the charges brought against 20 journalists working for the Al-Jazeera network, the Washington Post ran a story by the Associated Press that quoted the brother of one of the journalists, Mohammed Fahmy, who “said the family had given evidence to the prosecutors showing Mohammed was not paid by the Brotherhood and did not adhere to the group’s conservative lifestyle.” The reporter added that, “He said his brother [Mohammed] has been kept in a high-security prison with Islamists and terror suspects.”

The brother understandably wants to communicate that Mohammed is not involved in terrorism. However, his statement ends up legitimising the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood by separating Mohammed from the movement while placing Islamists and terror suspects in the same category.

By uncritically publishing this simple statement, the Washington Post undoes so much of the important work previously done by the newspaper in an editorial in late December that decried the unjust criminalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood, citing a lack of evidence.

In order to uphold justice, any person must be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. But of course, even the accusation of guilt can have political consequences. Marxist scholar Louis Althusser highlighted the problem of “interpellation”, using the example of a subject who responds to the policeman’s call “hey, you there!” The subject’s response to this call presupposes some recognition of potential guilt and opens the door to a subsequent judgment, reinforcing the power the policeman has over the subject. By responding, the subject is recognising that it is possible that he or she really does occupy the deviant space designated by the interpellator.

The potential injustice is aggravated when groups are collectively interpellated by the authorities and the act is publicly recognised by others. This has resulted in a lose-lose situation for the Muslim Brotherhood. When members of the Brotherhood are forced to profess their innocence in court or even in the media, this weakens their position and empowers their accusers. And when other Egyptians are also forced to profess their innocence, and do so by stressing that they are not members of the Brotherhood, this reifies the Brothers as “bad Muslims”.

Many others accused by the military regime have also deliberately disassociated from the Muslim Brotherhood. After the authorities charged respected Egyptian scholar Emad Shahin with espionage and aiding a terrorist organisation, he released a strongly worded statement asserting that: “For the record, I definitively state that I have never been a member of the Society of the Muslim Brothers at any point in my life, and I have never provided it with any financial or material support.”

Being falsely imprisoned and accused must be scarier than I can imagine, and I recognise that Egyptians need to defend themselves in any way that they can. Since the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has, in fact, been criminalised, affirming one’s independence is a legal strategy.

However, it is incumbent upon all those who are writing about the tragedy that is unfolding in Egypt to refrain from validating the “good Muslim, bad Muslim” framework by recognising it.

All political prisoners in Egypt are innocent because they are non-violently struggling for justice and democratic legitimacy in the face of a brutal military regime. Some are not more or less guilty than others simply based on their political or religious affiliations. At times like these, we need to remind ourselves that we are all brothers and sisters in our common struggle for human dignity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.