Letters: The Levellers and Egypt’s Islamists

Giles Fraser (Loose canon, 31 August) draws an intriguing parallel between the Levellers of the 17th century and the Muslim Brotherhood of today. Other observers have noted the Protestant-like fervour of Sunni fundamentalism, notably the late Ernest Gellner. After all, the term “fundamentalism” originated from Protestant Bible-thumpers.

Fraser wonders why we see the Levellers as precursors of liberation and democracy, but many find the MB sinister and authoritarian. The difference is precisely in the centuries which separate the two. The Levellers were part of the wave that initiated political modernity: of organised ideological politics based on popular participation, against the politics of patronage, loyalty and intrigue. The Brotherhood operate in a world in which political modernity has been established, with a diversity of organised movements and opinions, and in that world they confront not royalty, aristocracy and squirearchy but secular liberals and socialists, who have populated the political landscape of the Middle East for over a century, and are now engaged in a struggle for liberty, dignity and livelihood.

It is also a world in which women have had a taste of liberation, however tentative, and are now threatened with an erosion of the few gains they have made. Further, the Brotherhood is at ease with neoliberal capitalism, and many of its leaders are notable businessmen. Egyptian labour organisation did not fare any better under their brief rule than they had with previous regimes.
Sami Zubaida

• The Levellers, during the debates at Putney church, indeed did not raise their voice for women’s suffrage, but then who before them had? Who before them had shouted for universal male suffrage? Yet the very nature of their faith, which was one of continuous questioning, evolving religious contemplation, had led them to an idea that had had no template for them to work from. That is what is astonishing about Thomas Rainsborough’s words “I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he”. To have come up with those words at that time was astounding.

And because of this innate ability to develop radical religious thought – the notion of women being able to speak, feel, quake with their maker was already gaining ground in the Quaker movement – there can be no doubt that women’s suffrage would have followed hot on the heels of universal male suffrage.

As for the Muslim Brotherhood, the legacy of colonialism leaves a deep mental scar that cannot be wiped away so easily. From exploitation by an empire that only left 60 years ago, replaced by dictatorship endorsed by the colonialists that only degraded two years ago, any voice, any action, any conceptions of how to govern are going to be woefully inadequate, disabled by the long years of subjugation, neglect and betrayal.
Francis Forde
Walton, Warwickshire

• Giles Fraser describes the Levellers as “neither secular nor liberal”, as “religious puritans” who “thought Christianity was the solution” and states that “no one at Putney dreamed of giving women the vote”. The clearest statement of the Levellers’ position can be found in two documents which were before those present at Putney: The Case of the Army Truly Stated, and An Agreement of the People. Among the proposals in the latter were a biannual parliament, a specification of its powers (way beyond those exercised previously), equality before the law, and that there be no conscription to serve in wars.

The only reference to religion is to propose that “matters of religion” be left to the consciences of individuals ie religious tolerance, no compulsion and no state-sponsored church. This was not part of the Puritan outlook, certainly as then practised. The Leveller proposals for government were both secular and liberal.

Further, as pointed out by Patricia Crawford in the book The Putney Debates of 1647 (edited by Michael Mendle), there were women who did have the right to vote in the 17th century, particularly the “feme sole” propertied single women (eg by inheritance) and the widow. The Case of the Army proposed that “all [my emphasis] the freeborn at the age of 21 years and upwards be the electors”. Crawford comments that the Levellers and, on the other side, Cromwell would have understood what was being proposed.
David Watkinson

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