Between Liberalism and Islamism: The Muslim Brothers and the United Nations

By Joshua Donovan
Submitted to Session P4967 (Islamist Thought and Practice, 2017 Annual Meeting
Egypt; Islamic World;
19th-21st Centuries;
On June 26, 1945, representatives from fifty nations gathered in San Francisco to sign the United Nations Charter, ushering in a new, long-lasting international order. Over the past several years, a growing body of scholarship has explored the origins and ontological nature of this international liberalism. However, less work has been done on how the United Nations was perceived in the Middle East in its earliest days, especially by actors operating outside of statist structures. This study examines the emergence of the United Nations from secret meetings in Dumbarton Oaks to its promulgation via the UN charter and the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948 from the perspective of Egypt’s Muslim Brothers, who operated both outside of this new international arena and often in a degree of opposition to the Egyptian postwar statecraft.

First, a careful examination of the writings of leading figures in the Ikhwan, including its founder, Hassan al-Banna, demonstrates that many of the Brothers closely followed each major development of the UN, displayed a sophisticated and accurate understanding of the nature of the inchoate system as it was being formulated, and actively reflected upon what the new world order would mean for Egypt, the broader Arab world, and Islam.

Next, this study reveals that the Brothers expressed hope in the nascent international legal structures of the United Nations, and demonstrated a strident Egyptian nationalism that seemed at odds with the more transnationally-minded mission of the Brothers. Shrewd pragmatism drove the Brothers to accept the UN charter, intially denounced as a “farce of farces,” and to view the Egyptian state’s participation in the UN and repeated bids for membership on the security council as an opportunity to advance their own vision of human rights and international affairs. Al-Banna and other leaders of the Ikhwan maintained this approach even in the face of a western-dominated UN Security Council, the UN vote to partition Palestine, and the admission of Israel into the UN as a member state.

Finally, this paper insists that “Islam” and even Islamic movements ought not be seen in opposition to international liberalism and its discursive progeny, “human rights.” On the contrary, the brothers remained active within the nascent framework of international liberalism and developed an “Islamist” response to the newly-articulated notion of international liberalism and human rights.