Those who follow counterterrorism commentary over the last several months have noticed a number articles and media treatments dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood. Much of this commentary assumed familiarity with the Brotherhood and the issues raised by its presence in Western countries. Consequently, those unfamiliar with issues might feel lost, like sports fans who enter the stadium at halftime. My goal in this article is to give primer on the Muslim Brotherhood and the recent debates surrounding it. I am going to avoid the temptation to provide my own opinions on the merits of these debates. This decision does not imply that I have no opinions about the group and its worthiness for our embrace. Those opinions, however, will have to await another day.
The Muslim Brotherhood was created in Egypt in 1928, out a desire to bring about a more pure form of Islam and to gather enough popular support to force it on the Egyptian government. Today, the Brotherhood is considered the world’s most influential Islamist organization, and there are Brotherhood franchises throughout the Middle East and in many Western countries, including the United States. Its age means that the Brotherhood has spanned across four generations. Although its founder, Hassan al Banna, has been dead since 1949, some of his contemporaries are alive. Although a relatively young social movement, its 80-year existence means that the Muslim Brotherhood has had a long time to perfect is message and its mode of communication. This message has attributes that jibe with liberal sensibilities; the Brotherhood preaches that Islam enjoins man to strive for social justice, the eradication of poverty and corruption, and political freedom.
The Muslim Brotherhood's charter describes its goal as the re-establishment of the Islamic Caliphate - an empire stretching from Spain to Indonesia. Although it claims to be non-violent, its charter describes “dying in the way of Allah” as the group’s highest hope. Its most infamous alumnus is undoubtedly Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the number two leader of Al Qaida. This does not mean that the Brotherhood is synonymous with Usama Bin Laden, for Zawahiri views himself as a Al Qaida member. The Brotherhood and Al Qaida are both Sunni groups, although they are distinct, with Al Qaida considered far more militant.
Assessing the Muslim Brotherhood as a single entity is difficult, because its attributes vary from country to country. These differences are used by its supporters to argue that the Brotherhood is worthy of official recognition (even encouragement) by Western governments. Those who argue that the Brotherhood is monolithic tend to argue that its manifestations reflect the host country's attributes: the Brotherhood is more free to be open in Europe and the U.S. than in, say, Egypt and Syria, where it has been fighting repression since the 1930s. Those subscribing to the “monolithic Brotherhood” view believe that the face it shows to the West arises from the fact that it does not have to spend resources living underground, and can instead perfect the communication skills of its members and pass them off as mainstream and moderate.
The question of whether Western governments should embrace or eschew the Muslim Brotherhood is a hot topic right now in foreign policy circles, as a result of several articles and at least one televised documentary. This issue is also informed by some geopolitical developments.
The recent debates became heated when Robert Leiken and Steve Brooke published an article in the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs entitled, "The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood," in which they argue that the Brotherhood has evolved into an entity that legitimately desires to participate in democratic politics, to the point where it represents an effective counterweight to violent Islamist groups like Al Qaeda, and one worthy of embrace by Western governments. This view apparently carried some resonance. On June 20, 2007, Eli Lake of the New York Sun reported that Leikin has been asked to brief the U.S. State Department on his views.
The Leikin/Brooke article set off a firestorm. Critics argued that the authors had been duped, and were relying on poor scholarship. Doug Farah of the Counterterrorism Blog took issue with Leikin and Brook’s claim that Milestones - the book by Sayyid Qutb, long thought to be the vital source for Muslim Brotherhood’s violent tradition - had been officially abandoned by the Brotherhood in favor of Hassan al-Huyabi’s Preachers, Not Judges, which, as Farah notes, has never been published in English and has not been available in the Arab world since 1985. Patrick Poole was even more damning. In a June 21, 2007 American Thinker piece, he noted that Leikin had been wrong about the Soviet influence over the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s, and he was just as wrong about the Muslim Brotherhood today. To both Farah and Poole, the Brotherhood should not be trusted, since it is saying things for Western consumption that belies its true embrace of violent methods.
Around the time of the Leikin/Brooks piece, PBS aired a series “America at a Crossroads,” which explored the challenges confronting the post-9/11 world. The series included a 60-minute segment, entitled “The Brotherhood,” in which journalists Mark Hosenball and Michael Isikoff told the story of Abdulrahman Alamoudi, the most famous American member of the organization to be convicted in a U.S. court. They traveled to Europe to talk to Yousef Nada, one of al Banna’s proteges, and hinted at an Al Qaida-Muslim Brotherhood connection. Although the film included statements by current and former U.S. government officials critical of the Brotherhood, it left open the question of the appropriate U.S. policy towards it.
On June 4, 2007, The New Republic published a remarkable 28,000 word essay by Paul Berman, entitled "Who's Afraid of Tariq Ramadan." Ramadan, an Swiss academic, is the popular English-speaking grandson of Hassan Al Banna. Berman considered the mystery of Ramadan - who has been denied a U.S. visa to accept a teaching appointment at Notre Dame - and ultimately concluded that his smooth rhetoric was a mask hiding enthusiasm for a worldwide Islamic domination. Berman attacked Ramadan’s refusal, in a televised French debate, to condemn the stoning of female adulters, ultimately concluding that he is a fraud who had successfully conned several Western liberals. The French debate was perhaps the most stinging part of the Berman article, since it raised the issue most Western intellectuals have the greatest difficulty - the role of women in society if the Brotherhood succeeded in coming to power.
Responses to Berman’s article were varied. Some argued that Ramadan was a classic Muslim Brotherhood member who disingenuously gives the Western world what they want to hear while secretly harboring a desire for Muslim conquest in contravention of democratic values. To some, it does not matter whether Ramadan sincerely opposes violence, as long as his goal is domination of non-Muslims, in which case “outreach” is unproductive. One commentator, for example, wrote “What exactly do you plan to dialog [sic] about? Can we decide, after intense debate, that only half of the Qu’ran is infallible? That 16 and not 13 is the right age to sell your daughter to her Algerian cousin? That Europe’ free press should be vetted by a panel of mullahs rather than simply abolished?”
Others argued that Berman was wrong about Ramadan, insisting that he was the West’s best hope for a pluralistic Islam which embraces democracy and universal rights, even if they do not necessarily agree with the glowing attention he garners. As one writer put it, “It’s useful to have people like Ramadan around. His fascism is best dealt with by public engagement.”
The debate over Ramadan’s bona fides is an important one, if one accepts the method of assessing an organization through the behavior of its chosen leaders. In this case, Americans might want to bear in mind that a top Muslim Brotherhood leader in the U.S., Abdulrahman Alamoudi, is currently serving a 23-year prison sentence, after acknowledging his participation in a plot by Mohamar Qaddafi to kill King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, in a case described on the PBS production.
Regarding Ramadan, the notion that he might be a person with whom Western governments should view as a White Knight was struck a blow when David Goodhart, editor of Prospect, took him to task in a recent public letter in the June 2007 issue of the magazine. Goodhart was one of Ramadan’s Western supporters, who defended him against claims that he was an extremist. What changed Goodhart’s position was a June 4, 2007 article by Ramadan in The Guardian, which left Goodhart agreeing with Berman’s assessment in The New Republic piece.
What enraged Goodhart’s was Ramadan’s suggestion that Mohammad Sidique Khan, one of the London July 2005 bombers, acted in response to U.K.’s foreign policy and support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Noting that Khan had become radicalized well before the Iraq War, Goodhart argued:
To blame it all on British foreign policy and racism will simply not do. British Muslims are among the politically freest and richest in the world, which is why so many more Muslims are desperate to come and live here. Do some Muslims do less well than the average on educational and employment outcomes? Yes, of course, especially those from poor countries with traditional outlooks such as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.. . . Britain has many structural flaws, and individual acts of unfairness or discrimination take place every day based on race and religion, and many other things too. ...But to assert that Britain is a kind of apartheid state where justice is "applied variably depending on whether one is black, Asian or Muslim" is such an absurd exaggeration that it undermines your credibility when you are pointing to real grievances.
If Muslims want to change British policy on Iraq or anything else, they should join with the larger number of non-Muslims who are unhappy about British foreign policy in political parties and pressure groups. If they win the argument, over time foreign policy will change. But it requires patience, and accepting that however strong your feelings, the democratic political process works slowly and over the long term.
You, I thought, were different. You were modern, confident, educated, in favour of Muslim integration against religious and ethnic balkanisation. You were favoured by the British government because, it seemed, you could transcend the often beleaguered, Muslim worldview. That worldview sees nothing but grievance and oppression, even for British Muslims like Mohammad Sidique Khan who enjoyed all the freedoms of a rich western society (to marry for love, to go to university, to never worry where his next meal was coming from or how he would pay for healthcare). It is also a worldview which sees the murder of 52 innocents two years ago in the name of Islam not as an opportunity to take a long, hard look at the pathologies inside some sections of British Muslim society but, rather, another opportunity to blame the government and complain about Islamophobia. Your Guardian piece suggests I was wrong about you—it is a depressingly typical expression of that beleaguered, paranoid worldview.
To people like Goodhart, Ramadan has a long way to guy before he succeeds in convincing those who want to believe in him and his Muslim Brotherhood movement.
In addition to the above commentary, the Western response to the Muslim Brotherhood should also be informed by recent geopolitical events. In January 2007, the Muslim Brotherhood scored a singular democratic victory, when Hamas, its branch in the Palestinian areas, became the first Brotherhood wing to succeed in taking over a government through the ballot box. This event proved to be controversial in radical Muslim circles. Al Qaeda leader Zahawahiri issued a statement taking the Brotherhood to task for even participating in democratic elections (“they abandoned the movement of resistance and accepted the government of bargaining... they abandoned the heroic stuggler movement and accepted the domesticated beggar government”). To Brotherhood enthusiasts like Leikin and Brooke, this event and Zawahiri’s reaction showed that the Brotherhood was well posed to thrive as a Western institution. After all, our most hardened enemies disapproved of its actions. Viewed this way, how could the Brotherhood be all that bad?
This view may ultimately be short-lived, as a result of Hamas’ recent decision to take up arms against Fatah, its partner in the Palestinian government. Following a few days of fighting during the week of June 11 - a week in which, ironically, the NEFA Foundation gathered some of the Western world’s foremost experts in Italy to discuss the Muslim Brotherhood - Hamas succeeded in driving Fatah forces from Gaza, which it now controls. The fragile Palestinian Authority government has been destroyed, with Fatah retreating to the West Bank. What was the democracy-spouting Ramadan’s reaction to this development? He issued a statement claiming that the Hamas’ actions were Israel's fault. Ramadan’s claim, however, failed to convince Al Qaida. Ayman Zawahiri issued a statement commending Hamas for its actions in Gaza and urging Muslims to support Hamas.
So there it is. The Muslim Brotherhood remains an open question, and its worthiness for Western acceptance is far from settled. There is no question that these debates will continue. In the meantime, those interested in this important national security issues should continue to take notice, and welcome the efforts of groups like the NEFA Foundation to advance a broader understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood’s goals and capabilities.