A lesson can be learnt from Egypt, with the tribalism and ideological posturing of its political terrain. The equation of the Muslim Brotherhood to a neo-fascist group, as government officials have done, or the demonisation of its policies as ‘Islamist’ and worthy of banning or ostracisation is damaging and already the bitter harvest of these policies are being reaped and will accentuate in the future. Similarly there are those in the Syrian opposition who are adopting similar language and there is a danger, encouraged by Saudi interference, that public discourse will make strangers from any perceived difference. This does not bode well for the future.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not without flaws; it can be sectarian, authoritarian and insular. But it remains a reformist organisation that seeks to use civic organisations and organs of the state to push forwards with its reforms through democratic procedures (even though the process is flawed). It has also come some way from the years of conflict with Hafeth al-Assad’s regime. Furthermore the organisation itself was never a monolith (the Syrian branch has always been seriously fractious). In Egypt, when in power, it pushed forward its own views of religious orthopraxy, including the state as a moralising agent of change, with an assumption that its changes are organic to the very fabric of ‘Egyptian society’.
The Brotherhood historically adopted the discourse of ‘tamkeen’ (establishment and earthly inheritance), applying scripture (specifically Qur’anic verses pertaining to Moses’s struggle with Pharaoh) to its own cadres as historic players in an ongoing manichean struggle culminating in its own cadres or those similarly minded, as vicegerents and righteous inheritors of a Godly dominion (Muhammad al-Mursi was, in Brotherhood aligned media, Egypt’s first ‘Islamic’ president). It is a discourse developed from years of persecution to comfort and motivate that tribulations and testing are all part of divine providence. As with all Islamist groups the state remained a fixation and soon, when in power, it sought to push through a constitution, while not realising that outside its own insular subcultures, with its own logic, there were sections of Egypt’s society concerned with its moralising politics and in its attempt to impose medieval claims of religious (Sunni) consensus in regulating both state and politics.
Yet whatever its flaws and even polarising outlook, cultivated by many decades of persecution, it remains an important voice in Syrian politics and committed to some form of democratic politics. Persecuting or silencing its voice will only reconfirm the polarising outlook it had adopted. There is a significant difference between its politics and that of totalising Islamist groups seeking to control the state through violent means and imposing a derogatory status to those confessing different view-points or faith traditions, let alone viewing ‘others’ as members of communal blocs, de-humanised and enemies within. Yet it is this policy that many opposing the Brotherhood adopt; for them they are better quelled, even brutally quelled, and its leaders jailed.
Finally, the state is a means to meet needs and no end. Many years of potentates resulted in a vast and deeply embedded state security. The state has become reified and its organs become mechanisms to silence opponents and it is patriotic duty that dictates an identification with these same organs (hence the popularity of Egypt’s military). It is here that safe spaces need to be opened and for the state to retreat, so that these spaces become places for different viewpoints to be heard. Self-organising communities, cooperatives and so on, can become alternative means for political debate beyond the state. Instead of a strategic, partisan and polarising political practice, alternative spaces are places where normative debates can be had on what forms of human flourishing can unite and in what ways they may develop voluntarily. In this way differences between means and ends are pronounced, the latter negotiated to an extent that cannot happen when political practice is a mere struggle over state power in the pursuit of given ends.
Importantly, as Pierre Bourdieu notes, the struggle over the state is a struggle in the use of statist capital and so an access to symbolic capital and its production (the giving of value, in individual perceptions, to any other form of capital and its strategic distribution) entails coercion.
The state is the culmination of a process of concentration of different species of capital: capital of physical force or instruments of coercion (army, police), economic capital, cultural or (better) informational capital, and symbolic capital. It is this concentration as such which constitutes the state as holder of a sort of meta-capital granting power over other species of capital and over their holders. Concentration of the different species of capital (which proceeds hand in hand with the construction of the corresponding fields) leads indeed to the emergence of a specific, properly statist capital which enables the state to exercise power over the different fields and over the different species of capital, and especially over the rates of conversion between them (and thereby over the relations of force between their respective holders).
A struggle over statist capital thus corresponds to a struggle for power over the state and access to this statist capital. It is a struggle over force and coercion, so that safe spaces, noted above, cannot arise. This is an argument that many generations of Islamist thinkers have (ironically) made; their very marginalisation and persecution was due to their lack of access to this strategic meta-capital that access to state power will give them. It is when the state retreats that we can then plausibly address the pressing question – in what ways can we hold our differences and even tensions in life giving ways?