About fifteen years ago, I had the privilege of entering Gamal al-Banna’s lair, the youngest brother of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. In a small apartment in a working-class district of Cairo, he had collected more than 30,000 books, many of which cannot be found today, hundreds of unpublished documents, such as handwritten notes on the secret links between the Brotherhood and the Free Officers Movement, the military organization founded by Gamal Abdel Nasser. During Gamal al-Banna’s lifetime, these treasures did not interest many people. What have they become since his death in January 2013?
Gamal al-Banna was probably not completely telling the truth. He claimed he had never belonged to the Brotherhood. However, he was the editor of their newspaper Al Ikhwan Al Muslimin in the 1940s. He had also been the editorial secretary of Al-Shihâb, another organ of the movement. Arrested in December 1948, along with many Muslim Brotherhood leaders, Gamal al-Banna was only released in 1950, one year after the murder of his eldest son. But very quickly, indeed, he had moved away from this Islamic organization to devote himself to the workers’ cause. He had worked in a textile factory, then became head of the General Union of Textile Industry Workers, and finally founded the International Islamic Labour Confederation in Geneva in 1981. Throughout his life, Hassan al-Banna’s younger brother wrote studies and books on trade union organizations in Egypt, but also in the United Kingdom, the United States, the former USSR, Sweden, Burma and Malaysia. We even owe him a book entitled L’opposition ouvrière à Lénine…
But above all, Gamal al-Banna has taken many iconoclastic positions, which will contribute to his marginalization in his country. Because if he opposes the Islamists, he is no more soft with the Egyptian regime (at the time of our meeting, Hosni Mubarak was in power). In particular, he publishes La liberté de croyance en Islam, L’islam et le rationalisme, and above all L’échec de l’État islamique à l’époque moderne: les responsabilités, which will be prohibited. “I consider that the Islam of the Sheikhs of Al-Azhar is not the Islam of the Koran. They don’t have a very broad general culture, they get cluttered with details,” the old man with grey hair had told us. In 1994, in a booklet entitled Kalla thumma Kalla! (No, still no!), he was outraged that a religious authority, in this case Sheikh Mohammed al-Ghazali, had been able to justify the murder of the writer Faraj Fouda, accused of atheism. Faraj Fouda, a human rights activist and symbol of the Egyptian secular intelligentsia, was murdered in Cairo in June 1992 by militants of the Gama’a Islamiyya, an Islamist organization even more extremist than the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The veil is not an obligation in Islam. The most important thing is decency. If a woman wants to hide her hair, she may as well wear a hat,” he told us in 2004. “The Koran is a guide for believers, not an exact science. As for the hadiths, they were made over the centuries to serve religious or political interests. It makes no sense to refer to it to answer today’s questions,” did not hesitate to declare the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood’s own brother. This had led him to be soberly presented by the Egyptian official press as a “modernist Islamic thinker, often challenged by traditional circles”.
The foundation for “Islamic culture and information”, which he had created with his sister Fawiya (then deceased), was located on the first floor of a crumbling building on El Geish Street in the Egyptian capital, far from the more affluent arteries on the banks of the Nile River. The small apartment was overrun, from floor to ceiling, by thousands of books, old magazines, unobtainable for decades, unpublished documents on the Brotherhood. Gamal al-Banna had also recovered from booksellers collections left by the British army.
In the book The Project, just published by Alexandre Del Valle and Emmanuel Razavi (L’Artilleur, Paris, November 2019), the authors describe their meeting with Gamal al-Banna in July 2007, which they present as the “legatee of original documents inherent to the Brotherhood”. When asked about his nephew, Tariq Ramadan, Gamal al-Banna told them: “He looks like a Brother and has the speech of the Brothers on the surface. But he’s not one of them. He of course knows part of his grandfather’s work, but he has not read it entirely, because I am one of the few to have what is left of his texts” (2).
Gamal al-Banna, who was born in 1920, died in January 2013, at the age of 92, in a state of general indifference. Since his death, Hassan al-Banna’s unpublished texts have apparently not reappeared. What happened to his younger brother’s invaluable collection, the last of a family of five boys and two girls? Was it dispersed or even permanently lost?
While Emmanuel Macron announced in November 2019 “new concrete actions” aimed at ”political Islamism” of those who have “a project of separation from the Republic”, and Christophe Castaner, the Minister of the Interior, asked to make the “fight” against “Islamism” and “communitarianism” a strong “new axis” of State action, it is regrettable that nothing has been seriously undertaken to date to collect as much information as possible on the most dangerous and structured of Islamist organizations, the Brotherhood of the Muslim Brothers.
* Journalist and writer, specialist in the Muslim Brotherhood.