The Egyptian military’s obvious determination to crush the Muslim Brotherhood involves serious human rights violations, apparent in the appalling scenes of the siege of members in a mosque on Saturday. A separate question, which any political pragmatist would ask, is, can it work?
If we look at long term attempts to limit political expressions of religion in modern history, it is a mixed bag. But mostly, no, it doesn’t work in the long run.
Saddam Hussein in Iraq attempted to suppress Shiite religous parties such as the Islamic Call (Da’wa) Party, the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, and the Sadr II Bloc. He made membership in Da’wa a capital crime and executed thousands. He also suppressed the Sunni fundamentalists, which is why the Bush administrations charges that he hooked up with al-Qaeda were so funny. Now Iraq is ruled by the three Shiite parties (the prime minister is from Da’wa) and they are being contested by the Sunni fundamentalists. It is true that the US overthrew Saddam, but if eradication had been successful, these groups could not have come back so quickly and taken over.
Zine El Abidin Ben Ali attempted to uproot the Renaissance (al-Nahda) Party in Tunisia, and organizationally speaking largely succeeded. But the party came back to win the 2011 elections for the constituent assembly. Not wiped out.
The Baath Party in Syria tried to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood at Hama in 1982, and after. Political Islam now rules parts of northern Syria. It may lose out, but it is unlikely to go away.
Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi tied to repress political Islam in Iran. It came to power in 1979 and still rules. The Soviet Union tried to destroy political Islam in Afghanistan and failed, despite igniting a war in which a million people died.
The Kemalist regime in Turkey tried to forcibly secularize the country for decades. The Islamically tinged Justice and development party came to power in 2002 and has ruled ever since.
Algeria’s generals did in the 1990s to The Islamic Salvation Front exactly what Gen al-Sisi plans to do to the Muslim Brotherhood. 150,000 or more died, and the generals largely prevailed. The Algerian state and society are still fragile.
It seems to me that the preponderance of the evidence suggests that religiously based political movements are almost impossible to eradicate by force. Families transmit religious commitments, to which political entrepreneurs in each generation can appeal.
Even the Soviet Union, with its official atheism campaigns, could only weaken but not destroy the power of the Orthodox and Muslim religious establishments. The Orthodox Church is now one of the pillars of the rule of President Vladimir Putin, and he had members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot sentenced to hard labor for desecrating a church with a protest performance, to make the hierarchy happy. Most ex-Soviet Muslims are not very religious, but in Chechnya, Daghestan and the Ferghana Valley of Uzbekistan, Sunni radicalism has emerged.
Not to mention that the Egyptian government banned the Brotherhood in 1948, as a result of which it assassinated Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Nuqrashi; and in 1954-1970 because it tried to assassinate Col Gamal Abdel Nasser. Anwar El Sadat rehabilitated it because he wanted to offset the Nasserist Left, then Hosni Mubarak used it to deflect the Muslim extremists of al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya and the zegyptian Islamic Jihad. It always came back.
The only places where hard line repression of political Islam had medium-term success (Syria, Iraq, Algeria), very heavy losses of life were involved. And even that did not always work (Afghanistan.)
So the Egyptian generals are likely trying something that can’t be done in the long term, and can only be accomplished in the short term by genocidal techniques.
Editor's Note: This essay originally appeared on August 18, 2013, on Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion, a website featuring commentary by Professor Juan Cole. It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Cole.