Iran, Egypt and the Ikhwan

One of the main themes of the Quran, the holy book of Muslims, is an unequivocal invitation to learn from history across all geographies and cultures. Surprisingly, this is the most neglected lesson among Muslim societies, showing in retrospect why it has been so emphasized in the Holy Book. Governments are perhaps too busy to pay attention to the roots of their own calamities. But one expects that a long lasting organization such as the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood, with all its ups and downs, experiences and zealous care for teachings of religion, should be in a good position to read its own and other Muslims’ history and, while ridding itself of ideological vicissitudes between Left and Right, approach the future through reason and critical revaluation. A brief look at the modern history of Iran-Egypt relations, entangled with various traits of radicalism, will show what a huge asset of experience the Ikhwan has access to.

Iran and Egypt have a long modern day history of political and intellectual relations, almost always to the extreme of passion or revulsion. At the political level the extreme relationship started with the marriage of the last monarch of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah, with Fowzieh, the sister of the last king of Egypt, Farouq, followed by the marriage of the Shah’s twin sister, Ashraf, with an Egyptian military officer in the mid-twentieth century. Both marriages failed.

The next leader of revolutionary Egypt, Gamal Abd al-Nasser, fell in political love with Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq, Iran’s popular prime minister, whose policy of oil nationalization in the early 1950s made him a role model for an international movement within the developing world: the non-aligned movement. The next phase of Iran-Egypt relations was colored by the extreme hatred between Nasser and Mohammad Reza Shah after the fall of Mossadeq, followed by a political brotherhood between both countries once Anwar Sadat understood the depth of the hollow promises of relations with the communist bloc. The last Iranian monarch landed in Egypt for good, providing one of several excuses for turning the relationship between Sadat and the new revolutionary regime in Iran into such bitter hatred that even the next generation of leadership in both countries is still bound by it.

This extreme history also had its echoes among the intellectuals of Iran and Egypt from the early twentieth century. Not only did the Egyptian movies go to Iran sooner than the western cinema. Mohammad Abdu and Hassan al-Banna (the son of Abdu’s student and follower), two of the most prominent pioneers of the Islamic movement in Egypt, were highly impressed by the ideas of the Iranian Seyyed Jamaleddin Assadabadi (al-Afghani), known to be the father of Islamic revivalism in modern times, who lived and commenced his political and intellectual activities in Egypt in the course of a few years in the late nineteenth century. No intellectual Arabic thought impressed Iranian counterparts as much as the Muslim Brotherhood movement did during the twentieth century. Fi Zalâl al-Qur’ân, the Quranic exegesis of Seyyed Mohammad Qutb, a prominent mentor of the Ikhwan, became more popular in Iran than any other exegetical work by modern Arab authors. Taha Hussein was well read in Iran as ! well. And Fadaian Islam, the Islamic fundamentalist organization active in Iran in the 1950s and 60s, was highly impressed by the Ikhwan of Egypt.

Above such a fluctuating and extreme relationship at the political, religious and intellectual levels lies an important truth: it is the heavy cultural and intellectual weight of both parties that makes them inevitably and permanently attractive, interesting and challenging to one another. They simply cannot remain neutral and indifferent. If this is the case, why can’t they learn from each other’s experience–something non-existent among Islamic countries that have so persistently missed the opportunity to look at and learn from their own and their neighbors’ past as well as the experiences of other nations?

The Ikhwan of Egypt has just turned 75. It has been affected by and has influenced Iranian Islamic revivalism. Will it learn from the profound Iranian experience or is it doomed to follow Iran’s trials and errors, and continue to fall prey to the web of ideological and emotional politics? The new Ikhwan leadership is well positioned to respond to this question.