Islamists and Cultural Politics

Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen[1], University of Copenhagen

Cultural policies may be an area where Islamist parties have to make some hard decisions. Cinema illustrates their dilemma.

The movie “Mawlana” may be a good illustration of the role of Islamists in Egypt’s cultural production – and of the dilemmas Islamists are confronting when formulating a viable political position post-2013. Released in January 2017 and an instant hit at the box office, the film depicts a late Mubarak Egypt obsessed with Islam but largely devoid of Islamists. In the film, Azharis are pliable tools of the state, Salafis are making Islam into a business of piety, and enlightened sheikhs who understand the plight of ordinary Egyptians are looked upon with deep suspicion by the intelligence service, at least if they are courageous and popular. In the important film and television drama business, the Muslim Brotherhood is written out of the picture. When the Brotherhood actually appears on the screen, it is normally as the villains. Ramadan 2018 will feature the second season of al-Jama`a (“The Society”), which painted a portrait of the organization’s leadership as power-hungry and in control of violent cadres in its first season in 2010.

No wonder the Muslim Brotherhood considers art to be political. But where do Islamists stand on the issue of the arts? Written out of the script of the Egyptian movie industry, have they themselves also written off the movies? This question of Islamists and cultural policy has been somewhat neglected by scholars, but it is of some significance when discussing possible future political orientations and positions of the Brotherhood. This paper will look at the cultural policies adopted and pursued by the Brotherhood when it came to power. It will argue that Islamists have neglected cultural production at their peril. In so far as Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere want to re-connect to mainstream Arab Muslim culture, they would be well advised to formulate an approach to the arts and cultural policy that is less preoccupied with censoring “filth,” combating “aggression” or avoiding showing “what God has prohibited.” Instead, it could embrace cultural production that engages more with human characters in their complexity and frailty. A bit, perhaps, like Mawlana – the sheikh who is main character of the film and the book behind it.

A long, uneasy partnership

The first Egyptian full length film was produced in 1927, the year before Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Egyptian movie industry and the Brotherhood both came of age in the 1930s. They had few connections. The biggest production company, Misr, was part of Talaat Harb’s project of economic and cultural liberation from the British. That, however, did not mean religion. After an aborted attempt at a movie about the prophet Muhammad, the film industry shied away from religious subjects for several decades. Hassan al-Banna, in turn, was deeply suspicious of the movie theatres and the culture that came with them, and several times called for more censorship on movies. Still, compared to the nascent Salafist trend, the Brotherhood did not completely reject films or other performing arts. It regularly reviewed films in its magazine, and, more surprisingly, al-Banna himself took a strong interest in arts, including painting and theatre. Al-Banna had good relations with Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad and other playwrights, and the Brotherhood had its own performing theatre troupe.[2] The Brotherhood’s men’s choir performed in one of the first films with a religious theme, “Bilal, muezzin of the prophet” (1953).

This engagement with performing arts died out with the outlawing of the Brotherhood during the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1954-70) and was never really revived. The Nasser state drafted the culture industry into its ideological project, further alienating it from the Brotherhood. Interestingly, it is also during the Nasser era – often, wrongly, considered “Secularist” – that the film industry took to religious themes and produced a dozen films on religious subjects. A good example is the film Rabia al-Adawiyya (1963), about a country girl in medieval Iraq who abandons the world and becomes one of the most illustrious female Sufi saints. Sufism, simple piety and the working, unassuming people were staples of the Nasser era take on Islam, promoting a very different form of religion than the Brotherhood’s more puritan, legalistic and modernist ideology. While al-Banna’s criticism of the movie industry had focused on its morals, the theme of political conspiracy was now added to the Brotherhood’s misgivings. When the Brotherhood resurfaced again in 1970s, its journal al-Da`wa, took a vocally negative stand against the movie industry, which it considered an “imported art form” and part of a Western cultural imperialism (ghazwa thaqafiyya), sowing doubts about the faith. It repeatedly castigated movies for endorsing “what God has forbidden,” such as alcohol and illicit love affairs. When the Brotherhood began to have representatives in parliament in the 1980s, they regularly called for censorship when a film was said to be scandalous, often adopting the less overtly Islamist claim that it violated “Egyptian values.”

By the 1990s and 2000s, two tendencies of Islamist engagement with performing arts stood out clearly. On one hand, a tendency to judge the performing arts as immoral and unislamic, thriving inside the Brotherhood and linked to what Hussam Tammam called the “Salafization of the Brotherhood.” And on the other hand, a tendency to revive an interest in art, considering it uplifting and an important means of worshop, or daawa. The latter was espoused by Yusuf al-Qaradawi – himself an author of a play in the 1940s – who recently went so far as to endorse the project of a film about the prophet Muhammad. A good illustration of this clash was the closure of the hugely popular Islamist-leaning website IslamOnline in 2010. Produced in Arabic and English for a global audience, IslamOnline featured reviews of films as an established part of youth culture and entertainment. In 2010, IslamOnline was closed due to differences between the owners – based in Saudi Arabia and Qatar – and the editors in Cairo, in part because of these movie reviews.

The Egyptian film industry, meanwhile, had since the 1990s abandoned its policy of neglect towards Islam. In the 1990s a couple films were produced agitating against the threat of Islamism.[3] From the 2000s, however, other films and TV-dramas began to take a more conciliatory approach, affirming the Islamic nature of Egyptian society and the religious commitment of ordinary Egyptians.[4]

The Nahda vision

When the revolutions spread across the Arab world in 2011, the Islamists were not prepared, but it was clear that they stood to gain. For more than a decade, they had been pursuing a strategy of political inclusion, gaining visibility and parliamentary experience, albeit without tangible power and influence. During that time they had also adopted new ideological positions – again largely developed by Islamists outside the Brotherhood – stressing the conformity of Islam and democratic institutions. They had even moved towards political liberalism, stressing the rights of citizens and the limits of state power.

Written a month after the revolution in 2011, the political program of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party took this democratic commitment further than ever, arguing for a pluralist Egypt with freedom of expression. And yet, in the chapter on culture, older themes of defending a healthy, pious and uniform Egyptian culture against aggressive foreign corruption resurfaces: “The Egyptian culture with its above-mentioned [religious] characteristics forms a hindering wall protecting against the modes of destructive cultural imperialism, the scheming, dissolving playfulness of foreign cultures that does not edify, but corrupts.”[5] The party wants a firm state cultural strategy in the field of performing arts, “developing the quality of the Egyptian TV film and drama and cinema film in order for it to play its role in spreading lofty values and prohibiting low works that excite the instincts and lead to crime.”[6]

This was echoed on the Brotherhood wiki-website, where the subject of art was understood to be not only of great significance but also great danger, to society and the community, or umma. A fictitious brother horrifies his conservative family by declaring that he wants to become an actor, but defends his decision by explaining that the performing arts cannot be left to those who only aim to rouse the senses. He envisions himself as inspiring people and filling their hearts with faith and lofty aims. Art and acting can be a means of jihad on the path of God. An elderly sheikh of the family agrees.[7]

Nahda politics

When the Freedom and Justice Party actually won the parliamentary elections in the winter of 2011-12, it took no major initiative in the field of culture. And when half a year later the Muslim Brother Mohammed Morsi was elected president and appointed his first cabinet, he decided to retain the minister of culture of the former government under SCAF, Muhammad Saber Arab, opting for cultural continuity rather than rupture. This reflected other priorities and was probably partly meant to reassure the critics of the Brotherhood, domestically and abroad. Moreover, since the revolution Salafi parties had successfully contested the elections, and Salafis regularly attacked the cultural sector in Egypt, culminating with a long sit-in in front of the media production city.

Still, even if it did not become official policy, many Islamists were determined to develop new cultural institutions and expressions with an Islamic hue. A theatre troupe, Yanayir, and a film production company, Rihab, were set up after the revolution, and an art production group of young Islamists, al-Nahda, announced its establishment. In September 2012, the Islamist TV-station “Misr 25” began broadcasting. Among its programs was al-Fann bi-jadd, “Art, seriously,” whose young host, Hamid Musa, insisted that art must be multazim “committed” and come from the heart.

These are words that many Islamists also use about the right attitude towards religion. But what would this entail in relation to art? Under pressure from the revolution, the conservatives were revising their position, as well. A fatwa by the Brotherhood’s quite conservative mufti, Abd al-Rahman al-Birr, permitted performing arts as long as they conformed to Islamic values. But this in his view meant that nothing sinful could be shown, including women without headscarf.[8] This idea of having to depict a sinless life was more or less in line with attempts in the 1990s of producing so-called “clean cinema,” with a commitment to avoiding “immoral scenes” such as showing non-married couples together.[9] However, these attempts met with little success among the Egyptian public. What was meant by commitment? Was it commitment to showing ideal, sinless believers and scenes? Or was it the ambition to show human dilemmas and moral choices which called for religious commitment? Or did it simply mean serious art?

A controversial example came from the artist collective al-Nahda, which produced a short film, “The Report” in 2013. Never released by the censor after a single presentation, it reportedly showed Egyptians responding to the controversial anti-Muslim YouTube film “Innocence of Muslims.” The director Izz al-Din Dweidar, a vocal representative of the young brothers, accused the censor of political bias. Towards the end of his first – and only – year in power, Morsi finally responded to the Islamist frustration. A new minister of culture, Alaa Abd al-Aziz, was appointed, and he immediately proceeded to substitute directors of cultural institutions with new names with Islamist leanings. Dubbed akhwana (“Brotherhoodization”), this move was met with a long demonstration in front of the ministry and contributed to Morsi’s growing unpopularity and downfall in July. This was the beginning of Ramadan, and the most successful Ramadan series that year was al-Da`iya, about a young Salafi preacher who preaches that music and art are immoral, but is converted to a much more humane version of Islam through his meeting with a revolutionary woman from Tahrir square who happens to be a violinist in the Cairo Opera. The cultural industries, in short, had not adapted to the Brotherhood’s cultural agenda, but actively confronted it.


The revolution of 2011 paved the way for Islamist influence, and even dominance, in Egyptian politics and – despite stiff resistance from some of the revolutionary youth – culture. Nevertheless, naming production companies and television stations after the 25th of January, did not in itself make them revolutionary. The year of Morsi’ reign revealed that, in spite of its talk about the defense of culture, the Brotherhood had few ambitions when it came to contributing to Egypt’s actual cultural production. In April 2013, well-known representatives of Egypt’s art scene confidently stated in a survey that the Islamists simply lacked the skills and the talent.[10] To be sure, the small group of young Islamists who took up the task had little to offer; this is understandable, given the Brotherhood’s history of ambivalence towards the arts.

The cultural production environment, on the other hand, proved to be a formidable foe. Antagonizing it was, if not fatal, then at least an ill-considered move on the part of Morsi that made it easy for his enemies to mobilize. Sometimes ridiculed by Western scholars for its crude political messages, the Egyptian film and television industry is probably fairly well attuned to its audience. In 2012, Islamism, too, was able to appeal to Egyptians. But the Brotherhood and its supporters tended to consider the popular vote a cultural entitlement, rather than a support to be continuously earned. And it never took a clear stand to accept entertainment and art as a value in itself, beyond its value as a tool of moral education and daawa. The experience of IslamOnline demonstrates that, if they abandoned this self-serving moralism, Islamists might not only be able to connect to a powerful industry with significant politico-cultural clout, but they might also re-connect to mainstream Muslim populations concerned with many other issues in life than religion. Who knows, they might even be able to produce art.

[1] Some of this material is drawn from a longer paper, “Media Controversies and the Policies of the Morsi Government”, that is due to appear in the journal Communication and the Public.


[3] Armbrust, W (2002). Islamists in Egyptian Cinema, American Anthropologist, new series,104, 922-31.

[4] Skovgaard-Petersen, J (2011). Islamic Fundamentalism in Arab Television: Islamism and Salafism in Competition. In: Ulrika Martensson (ed) Fundamentalism in the Modern World: Fundamentalism and Communication: Culture, Media and the Public Sphere. (Vol. 2, pp. 264-91). London: I.B. Tauris.

[5] Birnamij Hizb al-Hurriya wa ’l-`Adala, (Cairo, 2011) 81.

[6] Birnamij, 84.


[8] Badr Muhammad Badr, ”al-Ikhwan yadakhkhalu majl al-intaj al-fanni”, Al-Jazeera net 30/5 2011

[9] Van Nieuwkerk, K (2007). From Repentance to Pious Performance, Isim Review 20.

[10] Azab, S (2013). Hal yumkin “akhwanat” al-fann fi Misr ma ba`d al-thawra? Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 30/4.