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  • The Sociological Quarterly, Volume 42, Number 4, pages 487510.Copyright 2001 by The Midwest Sociological Society.All rights reserved. Send requests for permission to reprint to: Rights and Permissions, University of California Press,Journals Division, 2000 Center St., Ste. 303, Berkeley, CA 94704-1223.ISSN: 0038-0253; online ISSN: 1533-8525

    ISLAMIC MOBILIZATION:Social Movement Theory and the

    Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood

    Ziad MunsonDepartment of Sociology, Harvard University

    This article examines the emergence and growth of the Muslim Brotherhood inEgypt from the 1930s through the 1950s. It begins by outlining and empirically evalu-ating possible explanations for the organizations growth based on (1) theories of polit-ical Islam and (2) the concept of political opportunity structure in social movementtheory. An extension of these approaches is suggested based on data from organiza-tional documents and declassied U.S. State Department les from the period. Thesuccessful mobilization of the Muslim Brotherhood was possible because of the wayin which its Islamic message was tied to its organizational structure, activities, andstrategies and the everyday lives of Egyptians. The analysis suggests that ideas areintegrated into social movements in more ways than the concept of framing allows.It also expands our understanding of how organizations can arise in highly repressiveenvironments.

    Since its founding in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has spread to everystate in the Islamic world and claimed the allegiance of millions from virtually every seg-ment of society. At the height of its popularity, it had half a million active members in anEgyptian population of less than twenty millionproportionally more than twice aslarge as the AARP in the United States today. The Muslim Brotherhood also spawnedmany of the militant Islamic groups that exist today, including organizations such asHamas, the Islamic Jihad, and Gamaat Islamiyah. Despite its importance, however, schol-ars still know very little about the remarkable rise of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

    The following analysis attempts to understand how the organization was able toattract an unprecedented number of new members and public support in 19321954, theperiod of its greatest mobilization. I rst provide an overview of the history and ideol-ogy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. I then present and empirically evaluate thetwo most plausible existing models for understanding the organizations rapid mobiliza-tion drawn from (1) the literature on political Islam, written primarily by political scien-tists and area specialists, and (2) the political opportunity structure arguments in thesocial movement literature. I then examine new data from declassied U.S. StateDepartment les from Egypt during the period and suggest that social movement theory

    Direct all correspondence to Ziad Munson, Department of Sociology, Harvard University, 33 Kirkland St., Cambridge, MA02138; e-mail:

  • 488 THE SOCIOLOGICAL QUARTERLY Vol. 42/No. 4/2001

    must expand its understanding of ideology in order to account for the rapid mobiliza-tion of the Muslim Brotherhood in the period under study. These documents includeagent reports, internal memos, newspaper translations, and communiqus that the U.S.State Department initially classied as condential, secret, or top secret but are nowpublicly available.

    My analysis centers on two theoretically important arguments. The rst focuses onthe interaction between the ideational component of the Muslim Brotherhood, on theone hand, and the groups organizational activities on the other. This study suggeststhat our existing understanding of the role of ideas in social movements must be deep-ened to consider the ways in which mobilization depends on the interactions amongideas, organizations, and environmentsnot simply on one or the other of these threedimensions. Second, the case of the Muslim Brotherhood also suggests that our under-standing of the relationship between mobilization and repression must expand its focusto include the processes within organizations that enable them to withstand repressiveefforts of the state.


    Historical Sketch

    The Muslim Brotherhood was founded by Hasan al-Banna, a schoolteacher, with sixEgyptian laborers in the Suez Canal city of Ismailiya in March 1928. The Society wasjust one of many Islamic groups that al-Banna led, and its origins do not distinguish itfrom the many other similar groups that existed throughout Egypt at that time. Thegroup remained small during its rst three years, and the charismatic al-Banna concen-trated largely on membership-building activities in and around Ismailiya. By 1932, how-ever, al-Banna decided that the group could no longer grow unless it moved its center ofactivity to Cairo. The organization accomplished the move by absorbing a Cairo-basedIslamic society headed by al-Bannas brother. After a year in Cairo, the organizationbegan publishing its rst weekly newsletter and held its rst general conference of mem-bers. Meanwhile, the organizations membership began to grow dramatically. It had vebranch ofces by 1930, fteen by 1932, and three hundred by 1938. While exact member-ship gures are unknown, the three hundred branches probably represented between50,000 and 150,000 members (Mitchell 1969).

    The Muslim Brotherhood was an explicitly apolitical religious reform and mutual aidsociety during these early years. It devoted its energy to membership recruitment, pri-vate discussions of religion and moral reform, and building a social service organization.Its activities began to take a political tone in the late 1930s. The immediate catalyst forthis change was the Arab general strike in Palestine. The Society provided extensivesupport for the strike, generating Egyptian sympathy and collecting funds in support ofthe strike effort. At the same time, its newsletters became highly critical of the existingpolitical regime in Egypt, especially the quasi-colonial British control of the country.The group formally entered the political arena when it announced its own candidatesfor the 1941 parliamentary elections. It then began to hold increasingly large public ral-lies and demonstrations, calling for social reform and an immediate withdrawal of Brit-ish troops from Egypt. British military authorities ordered al-Banna to leave Cairo inMay 1941. In October, al-Banna and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders were impris-

  • Islamic Mobilization 489

    oned. The Societys meetings were banned after a public rally denounced the Britishwar effort.

    These state measures did not last long; the government was preoccupied with WorldWar II, not religious reform movements. The organizations meetings resumed; its lead-ers were released from prison; and membership continued to expand rapidly. The Soci-ety produced several new publications over the next two years and increased thefrequency of its public rallies. It created what came to be known as the secret appara-tus, a covert paramilitary arm of the organization whose principal aims were to protectthe leaders of the organization and to further the Societys goals through political vio-lence. By 1949 the organization had over two thousand branches throughout Egypt andbetween 300,000 and 600,000 active membersthe largest organized force in the country.

    Popular unrest increased in Egypt after World War II, and the Muslim Brotherhoodwas central in much of the turmoil. In 1947 Egyptian police discovered a large armscache belonging to the group in the outskirts of the capital, and a year later theyconscated a Muslim Brotherhood jeep lled with explosives. The Society was ofciallydissolved in 1948 as a result, and many of its members imprisoned. The organizationretaliated by assassinating the Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmud Fahmi al-Nuqrashi,the man responsible for ordering the Muslim Brotherhoods dissolution. Al-Banna, thefounder and leader of the organization, was in turn murdered two months later byEgyptian police. His death closed a major chapter in the Muslim Brotherhoods history.

    Al-Banna was succeeded by Hasan Ismail al-Hudaybi, a former Egyptian HighCourt judge and well-respected member of the Egyptian elite. While not as charismaticas his predecessor, he was an accomplished leader and kept the organization unied andfunctioning despite struggles over internal leadership, the imprisonment of over fourthousand of its members, and its formal dissolution by the state. The existing regime wasdisintegrating, however, and on July 23, 1952, a small cadre of military men known asthe Free Ofcers overthrew the existing regime. The Free Ofcers had strong links tothe Muslim Brotherhood, and for a short period of time the Society enjoyed a cordialrelationship with the new Egyptian leaders. The regime released many of the organiza-tions members from prison and allowed them to resume their public recruitment andpropaganda activities. Tension between the organization and the new regime increased,however, as the regime solidied its control over the country. On October 27, 1954, aMuslim Brotherhood member tried to assassinate Egyptian President Gamal Abd al-Nasser at a public speech. Al-Nasser responded by ordering the redissolution of theSociety and the arrest of thousands of members. Subsequent trials led to the executionof six Muslim Brotherhood leaders, while hundreds of others were tortured and jailedover the next decade.

    Brotherhood Ideology

    The basic worldview of the Muslim Brotherhood was rooted in the Hanbali school ofIslamic thought. It is one of four major traditions for understanding and interpretingIslamic law, and the most conservative in terms of its insistence on a literal reading ofthe Quran and other texts. The primary concerns of the Muslim Brotherhood centeredon the do


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