El-Hilal magazine organized a symposium on culture and the arts in Muslim Brotherhood thought, on Sunday (August 26), moderated by Mohamed El-Shafei, the magazine’s editor-in- chief.
Participants included Dr. Khaled Fahmi, Faculty of Arts professor - University of Menoufia; Dr. Mahmoud Khalil; Asem Shalaby, Chairman of the Egyptian Publishers Association (EPA); and Khaled Bannoura, member of the Shura Council (Egypt’s upper house of parliament).
On the opposite side, attendees included writer Salah Issa, Farida Al-Naqqash, Shaaban Youssef, film director Magdy Ahmed Ali, leftist writer Ahmed Abdel-Hafeez, and Dr. Tariq Noamani, Faculty of Arts professor – Cairo University.
The symposium kicked off with Salah Issa claiming that for the Brotherhood, the question of cultural identity is vague and unclear.
In response, Khaled Fahmi countered that the question of identity is crystal clear for the Brotherhood, adding that the group accepts the Egyptian cultural identity as summed up by the late Dr. Zaki Naguib Mahmoud who said that “Egyptians boast two basic traits: they are religious and inventive”.
Meanwhile, leftist writer Ahmed Abdel-Hafeez charged that the Brotherhood never reviewed its ideas over the past eighty years.
In reply, Dr. Fahmi explained that the Brotherhood has clear and well-documented thought reviews in which the group transcended Hassan Al-Banna’s past statements, e.g. its opinion regarding multiplicity of political parties – where Al-Banna’s original opinion was that such multiplicity would tear the nation apart – an opinion that has been reviewed and abandoned. The Brotherhood did publish a document in which it stressed its full acceptance of partisan pluralism, which ultimately led to the founding of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).
Another example of a ‘thought review’, Dr. Fahmi added, is that originally the Muslim Brotherhood did not accept women's participation in political life, a Salafist influence now fading, even altogether absent within the Brotherhood.
He said that in 1994, the Brotherhood affirmed permissibility of women's participation in all political activities.
Dr. Fahmi further assured that his statements were not theoretical, aimed at silencing certain opposing voices: they were based on true faith and clear cultural and political views and vision.
Film director Magdy Ahmed Ali accused the Brotherhood of living a Salafist phase even now. He described Brotherhood performance and ideas on art and creativity as rigid, prejudiced and intolerant.
Dr. Khaled Fahmi replied, citing the example of Fatima Abdul-Hadi, wife of a leading Brotherhood member, who said in her memoirs that she had established a theater group in which Brotherhood girls acted in plays presented to the public in Egypt.
According to her memoirs, no Brotherhood leader, Imam or Elder censured Fatima Abdul-Hadi for allowing the Sisters to act in the presence of an audience of men. Indeed, Fatima Abdul-Hadi affirmed that senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders, such as Sheikh Sayed Sabiq and others, did attend these plays.
Dr. Fahmi affirmed that the Muslim Brotherhood has always had – throughout their organizational phases – cultural programs, with poets and other artists participating in all Brotherhood activities. Indeed, Fahmi continued, the group always invites non-Brotherhood poets to take part in and contribute to its events and activities.
In response to writer Farida Al-Naqqash’s accusation that the Muslim Brothers are no reformers, Fahmi countered that they most certainly are: “The Muslim Brothers have always been reformers. They learn and teach their members history, and they build on it”.
Fahmi cited Talaat Harb’s response to Qasim Amin in one of his books, in which he said that: "The Muslim Brothers are only human. However, their cultural contribution is beyond the 60% barrier. We can focus on the cultural common denominator".
Fahmi further added that Al-Banna always exhorted the Muslim Brothers to work and sacrifice for the Egyptian homeland’s progress.
Fahmi pointed to Rached Ghannouchi’s reviews and statements in which he said that a woman can be the embodiment of human perfection.
He also noted that when Coptic thinker Milad Hanna wrote his book "Seven Pillars of Egyptian Identity", the Muslim Brotherhood accepted his ideas and never rejected any of them.
For his part, publisher Asem Shalaby said that the Brotherhood did affirm, in its party's platform, its refusal of any prior censorship on creativity, and suggested that the idea should be integrated into the country’s Constitution as a fundamental principle, adding that any control or censorship of artists and intellectuals should be by artists themselves – through their own charter or code of honor.
Meanwhile, Shalaby blamed intellectuals for their condescending approach towards the Muslim Brotherhood’s calls for dialogue, adding that it is not right for intellectuals to put all Islamists in one basket, “They should not equate between the Brotherhood project and other projects”.
Furthermore, Dr. Tariq Noamani accused the Brotherhood of having cave-mentality and ‘underground’ thought. But Shalaby said: “When Egypt’s Creativity Front was being founded, I contacted Dr. Imad Abu-Ghazi – Minister of Culture, at the time – seeking to join in as a member, to work within its framework, according to its mechanisms and methodology. Abu-Ghazi then told me that there is no point in joining: if a Muslim Brother came up with any enlightened production, his affiliation with the Brotherhood would be ignored and denied”.
Shalaby also affirmed that within each intellectual or political faction, there are variations, and hence intellectuals must always work to develop the positive side, rather than throwing it together with the negative side into the same basket.
He pointed to what the author Sana Albissi wrote, about two months earlier, documenting the artistic side of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Shalaby pointed out that, back in 1934 – and six years after its founding – the Brotherhood had a theater group presenting eight plays, in which well-known artists and actors, e.g. George Abyad, participated, and which introduced between 30 and 40 artists.