By Maurice Chammah
Downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square is now synonymous with protests, tear gas, and tragedy, but for a couple of days in June 2012 it was filled with celebration. Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and its newly elected president, Mohamed Morsi, cheered and danced through the square while taxis honked in rhythm. I’d lived in the country for a year and suddenly everyone seemed happier than they had in months. Even some secular Egyptians, suspicious of the Brotherhood, were thrilled to have a leader with no ties to the military or the Mubarak regime. Morsi’s victory suggested that some form of democracy might have, tepidly but undeniably, become the happy ending to a long story of corrupt rule and political upheaval.
And then it was over. A year later, Morsi’s presidency flamed out in mass violence and clashes with the country’s military, which is now back in charge and more ruthlessly suppressive of dissent than ever. We now know that the Brotherhood, hemmed in by the economic and infrastructural dominance of the military, never really ruled the country. Right after Morsi left power, the New York Times reported how “gas lines have disappeared, power cuts have stopped and the police have returned to the street.” In a country where conspiracy theories often stretch credulity, this looked like an awfully credible conspiracy. The Brotherhood has returned to the fringe of Egyptian political life; most of their leaders are in prison, and members who are not dead are keeping a low profile.
Throughout the sudden rise and fall of the organization’s political fortunes, journalists framed the Muslim Brotherhood with varying degrees of historical and cultural context. Many probably looked to the journalist Lawrence Wright’s magisterial history of Al Qaeda, The Looming Tower, which addresses early Islamism in Egypt. Others interviewed think tank scholars and political scientists like Carrie Wickham and Shadi Hamid. The shortest accounts in the press just mentioned the basic facts of origin: the year 1928, the activist Hassan Al-Banna, and the Suez Canal city of Ismailia. Longer accounts included how the group renounced violence in the 1970s and gained widespread support by providing social services like hospitals and schools, only later attempting to achieve political power as the Mubarak regime quietly let them run for parliament.
But I want to call attention to one book that, perhaps because it is not being marketed beyond academic circles, is off the punditry radar. In The Orphan Scandal (Stanford University Press, 2014) City University of New York historian Beth Baron explains how the roots of the Brotherhood’s movement can’t be fully understood without appreciating their earliest opponents, which were not military men or monarchs but instead young, wide-eyed Christian women from Europe and the U.S.
Christian missionaries are rare in Egypt today, but in the early twentieth century, Baron tells us, the country was “awash” with them. “They could come because the British made it possible,” she writes, “protecting missionaries at the same time that they watched them.” These evangelists were nearly all female, and they wanted to offer social services to the poor just as much as they hoped to “win souls for Christ.”
The missionaries represented a range of denominations — Catholic, Presbyterian, Pentecostal. Most were Protestant and evangelical, and came from the U.S., a country which at the time seemed refreshingly un-imperial to Egyptians. Baron portrays impassioned women who may have had little opportunity to practice religious leadership at home, and who found a meaningful calling among Egypt’s most vulnerable population: orphans.
Some of the images Baron unearthed would be unthinkable today. At an Assemblies of God orphanage in the city of Asyut, 200 miles down the Nile from Cairo, the children learned English while listening to “Onward Christian Soldiers!” and “Joy to the World” on a gramophone. The missionary Lillian Trasher wrote in a letter home, “There were dozens and dozens of little girls shouting, crying, talking in tongues, rejoicing, preaching, singing — well, everything you can think of — praising God!”
As they grew, the missionary orphanages expanded to take in children who might have still had a living parent or older sibling, but whose family was too poor to care for them. The issue of conversion became more and more salient, and a burgeoning movement of Muslim activists discovered, with horror, that these orphanages might be taking in Muslim children and turning them into Christians. “Contrary to the claims of evangelicals about rescuing children,” Baron writes, “the Brothers insisted that missionaries had induced some ‘gullible’ boys and girls to convert, preying on their ‘simple intelligence.’”
They fought back. The Brotherhood founded their own schools for boys and girls, they sent out missionaries of their own, and, after a while, it became clear that what the Brotherhood was doing looked an awful lot like what the American Christians were doing. Baron found that this was no coincidence; in a chapter called “Fight Them With Their Own Weapons” she describes how Islamic activists consciously copied their Christian counterparts in style, action, and tone. The missionaries preached near the main streets of villages on market days, so the Brothers set up their own mobile unit and preached in cafes. The missionaries published Bibles, tracts, and magazines, so the Brothers launched their own publishing campaign. “The Muslim Brotherhood learned tactical and strategic lessons from the missionaries they encountered,” Baron writes. They defined themselves in opposition to the missionaries while at the same time learning from their style of religious action.
Eventually, the Muslim Brotherhood set up schools of its own, specifically to counteract the influence of missionary education. In the canal cities, members of the new organization went to the families who, because they were so poor, sent their daughters to the missionary schools. They implored them to retrieve these girls and send them instead to Muslim schools.
In their encounter with the missionaries, Baron explains, early Islamic activists picked up ways up understanding “religious knowledge and authority” that lasted long after this period. For much of its history, Sunni Islamic authority in Egypt had a Catholic flavor, with Al-Azhar in Cairo serving as the powerful center. When the institution failed to denounce the activities of the missionaries, it paved the way for grassroots activists like the Brotherhood to gain a new kind of authority. In the meantime, Baron writes, “The Muslim Brotherhood learned from missionaries that in an age of print culture and increasing literacy laymen could interpret religious texts and preach. This would completely transform the relationship of believers to scholars, challenging the authority of clerics and institutions such as al-Azhar in their leadership of the community.”
Baron does not dig deep into how this shake-up in authority played out, in part because it was not until decades later that the rise of grassroots activism and worship truly flowered in Egypt, a transition that has been explored deeply by anthropologists like Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood. Now, if you turn on the television in Egypt, you will see popular lay preachers reminiscent of American protestant televangelists. It would be easy to see this as a product of American cultural influence, but Baron shows us that its roots go much further back, to a time before the U.S. played a strong role in the region.
Although this is a book geared towards scholars, Baron takes the admirable step of attempting to frame the over-saturated archival detail in a story that that energizes the book’s structure. She does this by focusing on Turkiyya Hasan, a young girl who came to play an invaluable role in the public relations efforts of the early Islamic activists.
When Hasan was nine or ten years old, she was dropped off at the Swedish Salaam Mission in Port Said. A matron gave her a doll, some chocolate, and “images of a strange man” (you can guess who). Over the next few years, she was encouraged by teachers to claim this man as her savior. She refused, weathering verbal and even some physical abuse from some of the teachers.
Eventually, on a hot morning when she refused to rise in a show of respect to her elders, a teacher named Alzire Richoz “attacked her with a sharp pen,” “dragged her inside a sitting room on the roof and closed the door,” “began hitting her with both hands on her head and face” and “picked up a cane and beat Turkiyya with it in a frenzy.”
“Are you trying to kill me?” Turkiyya asked (only her own account survives, and there was every reason to stretch the story, so take it with salt). “I won’t kill you,” Richoz responded, “but I will kill the devil that keeps you from Jesus.”
Turkiyya got away. Richoz left no account of the events, and its debatable whether the girl was beaten because she refused to convert or simply because she had frustrated her teacher past a breaking point. In the end, this distinction mattered little as the girl’s story exploded in the popular press. The Brotherhood had been watching the missions and looking for an opportunity to undermine them. “With the caning of Turkiyya,” Baron writes, “the Brotherhood found the perfect cause and stepped in at the critical moment to publicize the girl’s story.”
The mass outrage spurred led to frustration with the slow, uneven response of state institutions. Egyptian officials under “semi-colonial” British rule clamped down on the press. A group of Catholic nuns in the Delta region were attacked. The government used the incident to crack down further on Muslim activists. A pattern of distrust and sporadic violence between the secular-minded elite and the more religious sectors of the lower and middle classes emerged in a way that starts to look familiar.
As we now know, that dynamic would outlive the moment’s particular players. The missionaries would leave, but the newfound religious divides they inspired would stick around. Baron’s argument is worth us keeping in mind because it diverges from the typical narratives about the rise of political Islamism, which often say it’s all about Saudi clerics and the influence they purchased with oil money, or it’s a reaction to secular nationalism, or it’s a reaction to imperialism, or it’s a reaction to American consumerism. Baron tells a part of the story that’s older and more subtle, where consequences were unintended and intentions were good, if naïve.
Reading Baron’s book after the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief encounter with real power, you can’t help but feel that the wish of some Egyptians (and plenty of Westerners) to just make the Brotherhood, and political Islam fizzle out — by throwing the whole lot of bearded men in prison — is the most naïve position of all. What you get from Baron is that these political movements evolve organically. They’re born in antagonism, molded by persecution, and emboldened by opposition. They rise and fall, but they don’t just disappear.
Maurice Chammah is a staff writer for The Marshall Project based in Austin, Texas. He writes regularly for The Revealer and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Texas Observer, and elsewhere. As a 2011-12 Fulbright Fellow in Cairo, he studied trends in Egyptian journalism. He plays the violin and has toured with the band Mother Falcon. His website is: http://www.mauricechammah.com.