By Osama Diab
Prominent Muslim Brotherhood member Kamal Helbawy talks about his research and ending the misconceptions that tie terrorism to Islam.
21 December 2009
For 58 years, Kamal Helbawy has been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, making him one of the oldest members of the Islamic movement. He joined the MB when he was 12 – in 1951 – and since then the Brotherhood, Islam and political Islam have been the centre of his life.
Helbawy has established several organisations, associations and research centres with a focus on Islam as a religion and as a political ideology. In the early 1970s, he took part in founding the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) in Saudi Arabia and served as its executive director until 1982.
Dr Helbawy was then in charge of Muslim Brotherhood activities in Afghanistan from the late 1980s until 1994. He then moved to the United Kingdom and has been based there ever since. Upon his arrival in London, he established the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), which have helped establish him as one of the leaders of the Islamic community in the UK.
The last official position Helbawy had with the Brotherhood was as their official spokesman to the West, from 1995 to 1997. Since his resignation, Helbawy has focused on his research and proudly describes himself as a researcher.
Building on this, in 2006 he established the Centre for the Study of Terrorism, to separate terrorism and Islam in people’s minds. Helbawy, known for his moderation, is keen to denounce terrorism and stop the West from linking it to Islam.
In addition to his research, Helbawy owns a nursing home in the Wembley Park area of North London. He jokes that his nursing home accepts people from all races, religions and genders, so people should stop accusing him and other Islamists of discrimination.
Helbawy explains his efforts to break the mental linkage between terrorism and Islam, the possibility of holding an official position in the Brotherhood again and the MB’s illegal status. He also gives his opinion on sensitive topics, such as the MB’s stance on minority rights, women rights, secularism, foreign relations and democratic reforms. Edited excerpts:
What is the idea behind the Centre for the Study of Terrorism?
We thought of establishing the centre for many reasons: first, since 2001, the Muslim world and Islam have been constantly accused of being linked in whatever capacity with extremism, violence and terrorism. That was why we started to think that there should be someone in the Muslim world to do research on terrorism from the ‘other’ perspective. George W Bush divided the world into the West and the ‘rest’, and I say that this ‘rest’ might have an opinion on terrorism.
The goal of the centre is to fill the void the West has when it comes to understanding Islam and falsely accusing us of terrorism, and also make it clear that there are other fields of terrorism unrelated to the Muslim world, like in India, Britain and Ireland. We, at the Centre, try to prove that terrorism has no home and no specific culture. Terrorism is simply not confined to a certain land, culture or religion.
Second, the centre also gives consultancy about terrorism. For example, through our research and studies, we clarified some points the West was not previously aware of. First is that the person who commits the crime of terrorism and is a Muslim is doing that for two reasons: not just because they hate the West, are unemployed, or live in a dictatorship. If they are an Islamist, there is also another motive, which is going quickly to paradise (al-shihada). He doesn’t just want to die or kill others, but most importantly please God and go to paradise.
The centre also carries out in-depth studies about Islamic movements in response to the misconception the West has about movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. I am always invited to seminars in universities [in the UK] to talk about political Islam. Media people, journalists and photographers still stand outside, point at me and say that I’m the man who is accused of violence.
Your name has been cited in some news reports as one of Mahdi Akef’s successors as the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. Are you interested in such a position?
This conflicts with my principles. I’ve been saying that as soon as you reach 65 years of age, you shouldn’t have executive responsibilities. I always tell the leaders of the Ikhwan (the Brotherhood) that once you reach 65 years of age, you shouldn’t do executive work and leave it for younger people. They should go on the street and tell people their story in coffee shops, on public transport and in mosques. They should do things that will have an impact on societ, instead of working from an office. I will never accept such a position. I used to be a member in the Irshad (guidance) office and resigned 10 years ago. I wanted to free myself from the executive responsibility that doesn’t give space for thinking and research, which is what I like to do.
Will we see the Brotherhood working lawfully with an official party soon?
Under the current Mubarak regime, there’s no way the Muslim Brotherhood would be able to establish a political party, no matter what they do. We applied to establish a party called el-Wasat four times and have been rejected each time. Is there any country in the world that has a committee called the political parties affairs committee (a committee that approves the establishment of new political parties) headed by the secretary-general of the ruling party? How can you be the judge and the opponent at the same time?
Will the Brotherhood be able to score as many seats as they did in the last elections?
The Brotherhood will never be ‘allowed’ to win as many seats on the parliamentary level or the municipal level. This is why I think the Brotherhood should seek change not the so-called ‘reform’. The Brotherhood must study how to change this regime rather than how to fix it. The current regime cannot be reformed. It is irreparable.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been accused by some opposition movements of being passive at times and reluctant to push for change and democratic reform.
According to my understanding, there are two things the Brotherhood should perceive differently. First, the perception that opposition parties are weak in Egypt, even if it’s true. Second is that the opposition is not effective in what they do. I think that the Brotherhood should work in every way possible, and preferably in collaboration with other opposition movements, to curtail the current regime. However, there are rules in Islam on how, when and if you should revolt against the ruler. The rules for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice in Islam say that if trying to end corruption will lead to more harm, then trying to change is considered a sinful act.
Would the Muslim Brotherhood accept operating in a secular framework like the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey?
We always had ties with the Islamic movement or the political party with the nationalistic and Islamic background in Turkey since its inception, even before the formation of the AKP. We had ties with the Islamic movement since the inception of the national order party formed by Erbakan and then the National Salvation Party. But let me tell you the difference between Egypt and Turkey: if the Muslim Brotherhood accepted what the AKP has accepted, with regards to foreign relations, they [the MB] would’ve been in power a long time ago and with support from the West. First, the AKP accepted having strategic relations with Israel, which is something the Brotherhood will never do or accept. Second, the AKP allows American military bases in Turkey, which again is something the Brotherhood will never accept, and even if they did accept it, the Egyptian people won’t accept that.
Regardless of foreign relations, would the MB ever accept being part of a secular state?
The MB has sacrificed a lot throughout the course of its history, and consequently has achieved huge gains and an increased popularity. Therefore, the concept of secularism will be very difficult for the Brotherhood to accept. But the core of secularism that allows the freedom of all is appreciated and valued by the MB and is something that it wishes for. This is why I say that the MB has its own agenda that it can only apply when it comes to power and when it is chosen by the people, but now the things that should be first on the MB’s agenda are freedoms and not the [application] of Shari’a (Islamic) law. If the programme is chosen, then it’s the people’s choice, the majority’s choice.
Democracy also protects minority rights, and is not just about the majority vote. Would the MB protect minority rights? Would they allow Copts, for example, to run for president?
Of course, I personally say, of course. If the people chose a Copt, then what you need to do is to reassess your programme and ask yourself why you were not chosen. I don’t have the ‘women’s complex’ either and also think they should have the right to run for president. Minority rights are protected completely and no one can protect the rights of minorities like Islam does. Secularism didn’t protect Christians’ rights in the West. In fact, secularism in the West tore down Christianity. As for the Muslim Brotherhood and Islam in Muslim countries, it protects the rights of the Christian minority. Christianity is disappearing now in the West.
If the people choose a Copt, it’s their choice. If they choose someone from the Brotherhood, it’s also their choice. It’s their choice even if they choose a woman.
I have said a million times that a woman like [former UK Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher is a hundred times better than any man.
What do you think of Egypt’s constitution and the amendments made to it since 2005?
Do you even call this a constitution? A constitution that had 34 articles amended in just a few days cannot even be described as a constitution.
So the Brotherhood doesn’t plan on changing the constitution if they come to power?
Constitutions always change, but it’s important that the change is for the better, and doesn’t aim to restrict freedoms – any freedoms. It has to aim for the respect of religious beliefs, mankind, freedom of expression, the right to life, and the right to education. There are many rights that Islam protects that modern Western civilisation still [does not].
This article first appeared in the November 2009 issue of Egypt Today. Republished with the kind permission of the author. © Copyright Osama Diab. All rights reserved.