In El-Banna family, we know rather Hassan, founder of the Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in during the 30's of the 20th century. We know less well his younger brother, Gamal El-Banna and therefore great uncle Tariq Ramadan, who advocates still at the age of 89 years, a progressive vision of Islam. Meeting with an indefatigable man, who places freedom at the heart of each of its battles.
Books by the thousands. In the entry, living room, office ... they line the walls of the small apartment of Gamal el Bana. We are near the neighborhood of Abbasiya, once reserved for the Egyptian elite. This is where the intellectual, 89 years old, received his guests, journalists and friends, preferably in the morning or evening, after a long nap ...
The meeting begins with a quick "tour" of his vast library. He wished to show us his pearls : books older than 100 years! Gamal el Bana still pass his days devouring new books dealing with Islam. Reading, a passion that has helped vent the thirst for knowledge of a little boy in fragile health and childhood tinged with boredom. Youth in all respects different from that experienced by his older brother, Hassan al Bana. In his office, Gamal el Bana has no photo showing him beside his family : "we never had the opportunity to take a photo together".
from this lonely childhood, he retains a taste for silence. An old teapot, a big pair of glasses and a candle are his company, when he reads for hours his book. Not far away, his two faithful assistants, help him discretly. They provide a sweet cake, take care of books orders and set appointments for the boss who still refuses the idea of mobile phone...
This is one of the few aspects of modernity that the old man, who has the look of wise, preferred to leave aside. Because his mind is on the whole more open and more innovative than the current Egyptian society. Thus he defends the young people who marry in secret in order to satisfy their sexual desire : "How can we ask them to have a job, money and an apartment before getting married officially?". Anger against his country and his regime, this lover of freedom, remains a great optimist.
How you set up today the field of Islamic thought in the world?
We live in an era marked by social inequalities and unemployment. There are, on the one hand, footballer or belly dancer who earn millions, and on the other, those who have not enough money to eat. In addition, the oppression suffered by Muslims in many Arab countries. In Egypt, it has lasted 50 years. In that time, you can find all kinds of people that will keep you all types of speech, ranging from the traditional Muslim to Reformist one. And this does not help when it comes to rethinking Islam.
What presents for you the word "reform" of Islam? Is it to reform Islam or to reform our interpretations of Islam?
I do not like the term "reform" of Islam. I prefer to speak of "renewal of Islam". It must be comprehensive, cover all areas (political, social, women's rights ...). We must rethink our interpretations of the Koran, Hadith, jurisprudence (fiqh). To make this renewal, we must take advantage of contemporary culture and our experience among the years. In any time, we must not call Koran into question.
What is your method for achieving this "renewal"?
To succeed, it takes a long time, hard work, research. It's the work of a lifetime. I wrote three or four books for each topic it seems to me necessary to rethink. The important thing to achieve this renewal is to be based on the source, which is the Koran. Because many current problems in Islam come from the Sunna. It was affected by the fact that it was written 150 years of the Hegira: 90% of the Hadiths are not part of the prophet Mohammed. These hadiths were sometimes added by the enemies of Islam, or religious people who are pushing to implement Islam by having the Muslims hold the fear of hell or the desire of heaven according to their deeds.
What is needed to read the Koran differently?
I do not think it is good to require a single interpretation of the Koran. Everyone understands the text of the Koran according to his education. The Koran also contains different rules for the same case. The Koran is addressed to all people. It's impossible to imagine any human walking on the same line. That is why we find "substitutes" in the Koran. Everyone has the right to believe in an ayat. The believer is always right. The Koranic text is "plural" : The verses of the Koran do not contradict each other, they are complementary. Do not let anyone requires interpretation to others. The Koran is like a symphony that you can play yourself ... Do you need an interpreter to listen?
In what areas do you think it is urgent to reform Islamic thought? (human rights, women's rights, justice?)
The revival of Islam has to reach all areas, there are no priorities. When we finally understand that man is the real purpose in Islam, we will have more freedom. And this will allow political and social reforms and achieve equality between women and men. For example, it is impossible to require respect for the rights of women in a society that does not believe in individual freedom. In my book entitled "Our priority request is freedom", I explained that to seek to apply the Sharia requires first that we are free to submit this application without risking anything. I remind you that the former Soviet Union collapsed because of the lack of freedom which is essential to know the weaknesses of a system and prevent its failure.
What do you think about the work of people like Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Abdulkarim Soroush or Rachid Benzine?
These people are just criticize Islam, but they do Nothing. I've met with Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd in Germany and I was very shocked: he is an academic who, behind his speech, is very traditional. The problem of current reformists is that they do not go deep enough. These are often people who work nearby, and spend only a portion of their time on this enormous project when me, since 1946, I do it ... Only Gamal el Afghani was a true reformist. But because he was held in Egypt to fight against both colonization and against the local tyrants, he could never establish a true reform proposal.
Do you think that your thoughts may be well received today, at a time when Muslims are weak and feel out of the march of history?
I realize that my ideas will not have an immediate impact on society. Because it is not ready. We'll have to wait a few years. It's very difficult to change traditions and customs, especially when it's tied to religion. People are just beginning to believe in my way of thinking. Some also fear to be knowen as supporters of a renewal of Islam because such ideas, very new and shocking in Egypt today, can cause problems.
What do you think of preachers such as Amr Khaled, who have won a great success thanks to their TV shows?
The remarks by preachers like Amr Khaled is worthless. On the contrary, the way they do on television is harmful to Muslims ... Amr Khaled is the least worst, but they only repeat what was said long ago, but under modern look. And the question is not preaching, but in the substantive issue, which is: how to renew Islam? And for that, they can not do anything.
What are the points on which you have proposed it the most "revolutionary"? (wearing the veil, for example?
For me it'is freedom. The Koran is clear on this.
Tariq Ramadan has just published a book called the radical reform of Islam: what do you think of his work?
I am broadly in agreement with him. He is someone honest who does not have two faces, as his detractors say. Even if he addressed to the sheikhs of Al Azhar and the West differently, his background is the same for everyone. He gives a very positive image of Islam, based on coexistence with the West. He is totally different of his brother Hani, who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and is much less "reformer" than Tariq ... His only drawback is that he is not able to build what he says on Ayats or hadith. He is not a sheikh who mastered Arabic.
What about your relationship with Tariq Ramadan?
Tariq is very solitary. Even his mother rarely sees him. When I go to Geneva, he is always the last of the family that I see, for minutes. I fear that his success makes him a little proud in the future, especially given his young age. It's very hard to have a discussion between him and me. Generally it goes not very well. In the opposit, with his brother, who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the discussions flow better, I can even discuss with him issues that go against what he thinks.
Muslims in France today feel forced to the gap between the demands of their religion and laws of the country where they live. What do you advise them?
Without hesitation, I reply that they must follow the laws of the country where they are. For example, this would be very stupid that people think that the veil is the foundation of their belief. It's only the dress of Islam. The important thing is to be a good citizen, wherever I am.
Finally, are there limits to you not to cross in the reform of Islam? (for example the status of the Koranic text should not be discussed?)
The limits are God and the Koranic text.
Are you optimistic regarding the renewal of Islam?
I am optimistic. But it will only take place in 50 or 100 years. The mango tree takes 7 years to bear fruit, while a tomato production takes only a few months ... It depends on what you search for...
Can you tell us about your childhood in the house of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood?
My childhood was that of a cadet. In Egypt, it was always the elder who is spoiled ... and it was Hassan. My brother has lived a happy childhood in the country side under the sun and fresh air, I have lived in the alleys of Cairo, I was very weak physically. I have never had the opportunity to play when I was a kid. I did not even had the chance to drive a bicylette ... My passion was reading. I did not see my father and Hassan very much, they spent their day in their research projects, books ... That's why, I don't know very well Hassan, I even wrote in one of my books that anyone from the Muslim Brothers knew my brother better than me ...
What is your opinion on the Muslim brothers? Why did you move away from them?
I've never been one of their members. I was at the time risponsible of printing simply because I loved books. The Muslim Brotherhood has faced a lot of storms since 1948. One of their biggest was that conflict with Nasser. The former Egyptian president has put them in detention and tortured them. This has led the young members of the movement to call the Government to "kouffars" (infidel). And the wave of violence began. One of them, Said Kotb has called for Jihad and the youth of the movement followed. They separated from the Muslim Brotherhood and formed their own movements as "Al Takfir wal higra" or "Jama'a Islamia". Two extremist movements. Meanwhile, many Egyptians have left Egypt in 1973 to work in Saudi Arabia. When they returned, there was, in Egypt, the emergence of wahabite thought which was integrated with that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Suddenly, thoughts of Hassan el bana were no longer parts of the dominant thoughts of the movement.
How do you see the situation in Egypt if they have access to power?
It will be very difficult for the Muslim Brotherhood to access to power. It is sufficient that they are meeting in a few in a place, even a marriage, and the police will stop them! They will never succeed to have 60% of seats in the Egyptian parliament. If they go up 30 or 40%, they will make a coalition government, which would be very bad because it is generally the governments of enemy brothers who are not viables. An other obstacle is also the influence of the international community. The United States will never let the Muslim Brotherhood take the lead in Egypt. And, despite all these obstacles, if the movement was able to take the reins of the country, it would be a failure for them because they do not have enough experience. They do not understand the contemporary era.
How do you see the structure of the Muslim Brotherhood today and how is it different from before?
The question is : Has it been right to engage in politics? For me, the Muslim Brotherhood was a movement of education, who did not want to gain power. If they wanted power, they had to form a political party in 1946 till 1948, years where they knew the most of their glory, but they have not done it ... I think even now they do not want power. If Mubarak decides tomorrow whether to apply the Sharia, they will be at his side ... I think they are engaged in politics by saying they would leave a little of the oppression they face. But the current government is the worst experienced in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood can always block. This is useless because the government is led in the majority by people close to the president.
Why the Muslim Brotherhood, who are Sunnis, come near to the Shiites in Iran? and what is their relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood of Iran?
This approximation is based on the idea that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". In addition, they are Muslims like us. Never trust Qaradawi when he says he is afraid that the Shiites control the Sunnis, because we are all Muslims. Regarding relations with the Muslim Brotherhood of Iran is the lowest among the other wings of the movement in other countries. This is due to the oppression of the Shiites of Iran on the Sunnis.
What is the relationship between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood?
The Muslim Brothers have very old ties with Hamas, which wants to have good relations with the movement in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood would be willing to break off relations with Hamas if it would interfere with the Palestinian cause.
The positions taken by Gamal El Banna
The one who is believing that progressive Islam is, not only possible, but necessary, has surprised more than once by his own provocative. He has said that smoking during Ramadan should not be banned because tobacco was not known at the time of the Prophet! He also advocates a total separation of political and religious powers. His strongest words are those concerning women: he believes that the veil is not a legal obligation, and that the woman can marry without witnesses. Finally, we retain of him this comment, in 1994, leaving a trial that had approved the killing of an Egyptian writer accused of atheism: "This trial is a punishment for us than for the person against whom it was pronounced. This shows that there is no deep, real, sacred freedom".
Article written for the french magazine Le Courrier de l'Atlas (Special thanks to Marion Touboul)