The answer to this question must be an emphatic NO! There are plenty of situations where Islamists do not resort to violence. But at the same time they face a real dilemma. They want their society to be more consistently Islamic; but how are they to achieve this goal? Are they to work for a gradual and peaceful Islamisation of the country, or are they justified in using force to win power? And what happens when violence is done to them? These dilemmas can be illustrated from the history of one particular Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The vision of its founder, Hassan al-Banna, from the beginning in 1928 was for a genuine Islamic revival which would transform the social and spiritual life of the nation and bring British rule to an end. At an early stage some of its members formed a secret military organisation, ‘the Special Apparatus’, which targeted British occupation troops and Egyptians who collaborated with the British. But when they engaged in violence, they were always condemned by the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. The activities of the Brotherhood led to opposition from the British and the Egyptian government, and Hassan al-Banna was assassinated in 1949.

Nasser had been a member of the Brotherhood since 1941, and the coup that he led in 1952 had the approval of the leadership. Before long, however, friction developed between Nasser and the Brotherhood, and after a year he dissolved the organisation. Many of its leaders were imprisoned and tortured. After Nasser’s death in 1971, Sadat released members from prison, hoping to enlist their support for his government. His toleration of the movement enabled it to regain power and influence. By the mid 1970s they had split into three groups: the Muslim Brotherhood, which continued to believe in peaceful reform through the Islamisation of the individual, the family and society before the establishment of the Islamic state, and two other groups, the Gamaa Islamiyya of Egypt and al-Jihad, which condoned the use of violence. Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and his signing of the Camp David peace treaty with Israel in 1979 led to his assassination by members of these last two groups. Many were put in prison, while others fled the country; and it was some who went to Afghanistan who later created al-Qa‘ida. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood were regularly put on trial. But others started working with political parties – but because the party itself was still officially banned, they stood as independents.

When Mubarak was brought down in January 2011, after holding back for a short period, the Muslim Brotherhood seized the opportunity to join in the revolution – and effectively high-jacked it. Then largely as a result of the goodwill they had built up through their networks and social work all over the country, they were able to get their candidate Muhammad Mursi elected as President. He lost no time in attempting to impose an Islamist agenda on the country, and this led to a popular revolt in June 2013, when around 33 million people took to the streets to depose him. While some would say that Sisi used this as an opportunity for the army to seize power, others would say that he was forced to step in and take control in order to save the country from chaos. The Muslim Brotherhood members were furious that their democratically elected president had been ousted by a coup, and there were violent clashes with the police and the army and arson attacks on around 70 churches.

While the majority of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, therefore, have genuinely wanted to bring about the Islamisation of society by peaceful and democratic means, the leadership hasn’t always been able to control members who wanted to engage in violence to achieve their political ends. Their activities have provoked strong opposition from successive governments, which have regularly used violence to suppress them. While the Brotherhood have at times engaged in violence, a great deal of violence has been done to them, and many outside observers have been extremely critical of the way Sisi has set out to destroy the movement and thus to ensure that it can never seize power again.

There has therefore been an ambiguity at the heart of the Brotherhood from the beginning, which is summed up by Alison Pargeter in this way:

‘Whilst the Ikhwan (MB) is keen to present itself as a peaceful organisation and has proven itself to be largely pacific, it does have a history of getting involved in violence when the opportunity has presented itself. Right from the outset the concept of violence was enshrined in its famous motto, which remains the maxim today: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.’ At its inception, the Ikhwan attached a far greater importance to the concept of jihad in both its violent and non-violent sense than was the tradition of the Islamic circles of the day. This differentiated it from other Islamic societies and organisations…

‘… the Brotherhood has a complex ideological relationship to the use of violence. Whilst its members broadly reject the idea of fighting against their own regimes, they do not entirely disown scholars such as Sqayyid Qutb who was one of the early proponents of violent struggle against un-Islamic Muslim governments in the contemporary context and whose ideas radicalised a generation and more. They might refute some of Qutb’s ideas but there is still a certain pride in him and they consider him as one of their most important martyrs. This gives the impression that here is still an ambiguity in their discourse on violence and that they do not come down on one side or the other.’[i]

Has this ambiguity been exposed by the events of the last three years? Since the political forces arrayed against it are so formidable and at times quite violent, is it ever likely to achieve its goals in Egypt without violence? So perhaps the answer to our question ‘Is Islamism always likely to tend towards violence?’ needs to be ‘NO – BUT …’