This week in 1964: Outspoken Brotherhood critic and intellectual dies

On 12 March 1964, an Egyptian cultural legend died aged 75.

For decades, Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad had engaged in intellectual and political battles with his contemporaries. He also called for the modernizing of the Arabic language and advocated new writing styles.

Aqqad was a proponent of rational thinking and personal freedoms, who also calls for Egypt’s independence from British occupation.

Historians refer to him as a prolific intellectual whose diverse contributions cannot be easily categorised. A recurring challenge has been to separate his invaluable intellectual contributions from some of his more aggressive political views.

Aqqad began investigating the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe during World War II. He was one of the first Egyptian writers to attack Nazism in his 1940 book “Hitler in the Balance.” For him, Nazism posed a serious threat to Western values like freedom and democracy and he urged Egyptians to reject such dangerous ideas.

In the same period, he explored the progressive contributions of Arabic and Islamic civilizations. He started writing “Al-Abqariyat” (Geniuses), in which he focused on the human side of religious figures such as Prophet Mohamed, his companion Abu Bakr, and Jesus Christ.

He also wrote his iconic book “Democracy in Islam,” in which he argued that the core concepts of democracy — he was speaking about the parliamentary system — could be easily found throughout Islamic history.

In his earlier writings, one finds many intellectual battles with his contemporaries. But there are few comments about the Muslim Brotherhood, which was established in 1928.

This might be simply because the “giant writer,” as his followers called him, did not find anything intellectually unique in the ideas propagated by Hassan al-Banna. The same applied to Ahmed Hussein, founder of the semi-fascist Young Egypt movement. Aqqad was not interested in engaging intellectually with local political groups who adopted the strategies of Nazism and fascism.

After the end of the war, when the Brotherhood’s influence was growing, Aqqad began to attack them as irrational and manipulative, particularly when they assassinated former Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmi al-Nuqrashi, a moderate politician who he admired.

He wrote in Al-Asas newspaper in January 1949 that it was impossible to intellectually discuss the Brotherhood’s ideas. Instead, he argued, one should analyze the psychology of members who ignored their minds and blindly followed their leader.

In another article, he used a well-known tactic in the political arena of the time: black propaganda. He accused Banna of being a Zionist agent.

He wrote that Banna’s grandfather was a watchmaker from Morocco, strangely concluding that since most Moroccan watchmakers were Jews, Banna must be one as well.

Still his main criticisms of the Brothers were that it was a suspicious, undemocratic and violent group.

And, ironically, he argued — despite his advocacy for democracy and human rights — that the only way to challenge it was by putting its members in prison.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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