Whitewashing Islamists

Reuters

People walk in front of graffiti against the Muslim Brotherhood along Mohamed Mahmoud street near Tahrir Square in Cairo on Sept. 21, 2012. No sooner had Egyptian authorities painted over a wall of revolutionary graffiti near Tahrir Square this week than the street artists were back with spray cans and a new target President Mohamed Morsi. Arabic words read, "Egypt is the tomb of Brotherhood's."

Article Highlights

  • While crowds in Paris celebrated Bastille Day on July 14, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made another revolution.

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  • Washington’s new attitude marks the fait accompli of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise against the backdrop of the Arab Spring

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  • The Muslim Brotherhood’s transformation from pariah to would-be partner is a longer story.

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On July 14, 2012, as crowds in Paris celebrated Bastille Day, the annual commemoration of the French revolution, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was marking another revolution, one whose import ultimately might be as great. At the Presidential Palace in Cairo, Clinton met Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s new president and longtime Muslim Brotherhood acolyte. She bestowed Washington’s blessing on Egypt’s recently elected government, promising “the strong support of the United States for the Egyptian people and their democratic transition.” In a follow-up visit to Cairo less than three weeks later, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta underlined “the strong support of the United States for the Egyptian people and their democratic transition.” Just a month later, the White House announced that Morsi would visit Washington this fall where, presumably, he will meet President Obama.

While Washington’s new attitude marks the fait accompli of the Brotherhood’s rise against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood’s transformation from pariah to would-be partner is a longer story. It is the tale not only of the Arab Spring and Mubarak’s fall, but also of previous dictatorships, front groups replete with Saudi cash and sophisticated public relations, naive diplomats, and Islamist advocacy groups that exploit Washington’s political correctness to attack those who doubt the Brotherhood’s claims to peace and democracy.

Anxiety about the Muslim Brotherhood is warranted first by the organization’s history. Its founder, a 21-year-old Egyptian schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna, taught that there was no aspect of life that fell outside Islam’s bounds. For Banna, the Koran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad constituted the only credible foundation on which to base individual behavior, family conduct, and community organization. Anyone who disagreed or adopted Western ways was not only believed to be against Islam but also considered a legitimate target of assassination. “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet,” Banna declared. The movement spread far and wide across the Middle East. In 1935, seven years after its establishment in Egypt, the Brotherhood founded a Syrian branch, and during World War II, Banna established affiliates in Palestine and Jordan. By 1948, the group claimed a half million adherents.

His followers put his words into action, seeking to cleanse Egypt of Western influence by any means. In the wake of World War II, the military intelligence division of the U.S. War Department, the predecessor of the Defense Intelligence Agency, speculated that the Muslim Brotherhood could pose the next “threat to world security.” “Led by demagogues and political opportunists,” it explained, Brotherhood activists “issue clandestine pamphlets, attack the government, stir up hatred?.?.?.?and sow the seeds of violence.” Indeed, in the 1940s and 50s, the group unleashed a wave of terror that killed Egyptian Prime Ministers Ahmed Maher and Mahmoud an-Nukrashi Pasha, among other lesser officials. 

In his 1964 manifesto Ma’alim fi al-Tariq (“Milestones”), influential Brotherhood theoretician Sayyid Qutb urged for violent jihad to return Egypt and the larger Muslim world to Koranic purity. Egyptian physician and current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was perhaps Qutb’s most famous acolyte. 

Banna’s successor Hassan al-Hudaybi, however, used Qutb’s execution in 1966 as an opportunity to take a new tack. He published Du’at la Qudat (“Preachers, Not Judges”) refuting Qutb’s radicalism. Largely on the basis of this perceived shift, those in the West who see the Brotherhood as a partner argue that the group has evolved, denounced violence, and shed its ideological rigidity. “Jihadists loathe the Muslim Brotherhood?.?.?.?for rejecting global jihad and embracing democracy,” Nixon Center scholars Robert S. Leiken and Steven Brooke wrote in the March/April 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs. That other groups are more extreme, however, does not prove the Brotherhood’s sincerity regarding democracy. As recently as 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Web portal promoted the slogan: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Koran is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”

Even so, many progressives and even some conservatives have been willing to take the Muslim Brotherhood’s denunciation of violence and embrace of democracy at its word. Thorbjørn Jagland, head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, admitted that the committee awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to Yemeni political activist Tawakkol Karman not only for her role in protesting Yemen’s dictatorship, but also because of her Brotherhood affiliation. Rather than the Brotherhood’s being “a threat to democracy, that kind of movement,” he suggested, “can be an important part of the solution.”

A similar sentiment prevails in Washington. When Obama addressed a speech to the Muslim world from Cairo, on June 4, 2009, the U.S. embassy invited 10 members of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc to attend. And just months before, several prominent intellectuals—including Peter Beinart, Tikkun’s Rabbi Michael Lerner, Georgetown University’s John Esposito, and Robert Kagan—sent an open letter to Obama that has since been republished on the Muslim Brotherhood’s webpage, declaring, “Most mainstream Islamist groups in the region are nonviolent and respect the democratic process.” 

Some scholars of Islam and the Middle East declined to sign that letter, and their reticence has proved wise. On February 18, 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians greeted the Muslim Brotherhood theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi as he returned to Cairo. Exiled from Egypt in 1961, Qaradawi established himself as a prolific writer and charismatic commentator. When the Arabic satellite network Al Jazeera adopted him as its chief authority on questions of Islam, his reach expanded exponentially. Just after al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, Qaradawi declared suicide terrorism to be religiously legitimate. “These are heroic commando and martyrdom attacks and should not be called suicide under any circumstances,” he explained. Back in Egypt after Mubarak’s ouster, Qaradawi denounced sectarianism and held the old dictatorship responsible for the violent sectarian division of Egyptian society. “The regime planted sectarianism here,” he declared, but “in Tahrir, Muslims and Christians joined hands for a better Egypt.” He neglected to mention, though, the Brotherhood’s promotion of sectarianism in recent years, including a series of articles posted on its website inciting violence toward Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims.

This not to say the Brotherhood is much more accepting of varying beliefs within Islam. Egyptian Koran scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd incensed the organization in the early 1990s when he wrote that scholars should interpret the Koran within a contemporary context rather than within the rigid framework of seventh-century Arabian mores. Islamist scholars declared him an apostate. Because even in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt non-Muslim men could not marry Muslim women, an Egyptian state court in 1995 acted on a Muslim Brotherhood activist’s complaint and ordered Abu Zayd divorce his wife of four years. 

Neither the intervening decades nor the Brotherhood’s ascent to power has changed things. Consider the case of Adel Emam, one of Egypt’s best-known comics. In the 1990s, he starred in a number of films that lampooned Islamists who were waging a violent insurgency against the Egyptian state. His most famous film, Al-Irhabi (“The Terrorist”) depicts Islamists as hypocrites who indoctrinate and manipulate youth into violence, but who drink and womanize behind closed doors. Far from enduring Emam’s biting criticism in the spirit of dissent, the Brotherhood chose retribution. Brotherhood lawyers pressed charges and, in February 2012, an Egyptian court sentenced Emam to three months imprisonment for insulting Islam.

For some officials, questions about the Brotherhood’s current position are academic. After winning almost half the vote in Egypt’s first free elections, the Muslim Brotherhood is now too big to ignore. “If we really want democracy in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is going to be a big part of the picture,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and top Clinton administration Middle East hand, told the New York Times. The question, though, is not whether “we” want democracy but whether the Brotherhood does. 

Those who have followed the Brotherhood for years place their hopes in the younger generation of activists. In an interview with PBS Frontline, for example, Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, described young Brotherhood activists as “a new generation of journalists, bloggers, and activists who are a little bit separated from the mainstream of the organization” and “moving closer, in some sense, to leftists and liberals.” Amr Hamzawy, research director at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut, agreed. “They will be an integral part of what’s going on,” he said. And yet, no sooner had the protesters left Tahrir Square in 2011, than the older, more conservative faction moved to consolidate control. 

To assuage fears among many Egyptians about its intentions, in April 2011 the Brotherhood said it would contest no more than half the seats in parliament. Such an assurance was crucial to winning liberal and nationalist acceptance, because the parliament’s main task was (and remains) the writing of a new constitution. The promise was empty, however, in both letter and spirit. In the November and December 2011 elections, the movement ran additional candidates as independents to sidestep their commitment, and hardline Islamists filled in seats for other districts. All told, Islamists took almost 70 percent of the seats.

The Brotherhood also assured onlookers that it would not seek the presidency. Morsi now sits in Cairo as the embodiment of that lie. Still, when he took his oath of office on June 30, 2012, he sounded a conciliatory note. “The new Egypt will witness a president who is working for the nation and is a servant of the people,” he declared. “This is my first mission.” For the military, who helped guide the transition, he had nothing but kind words. “The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has kept its word and fulfilled its promise at the very beginning,” he said, adding that after elected institutions reestablished themselves, “the Egyptian great army will come back to its main job to maintain and safeguard the borders.” Behind the scenes, though, Morsi had a plan and, in August 2012, he made his move. He sacked Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Sami Enan. While liberals cheered, their ouster removed any remaining checks on Morsi’s power. He began a crackdown on the press, putting an end to one of the more vibrant aspects of the Egyptian Spring, and appointed Brotherhood loyalists to oversee state television. “Are we looking at a president determined to dismantle the machine of tyranny,” asked bestselling novelist Alaa al-Aswani, “or one who is retooling the machine of tyranny to serve his interests?” 

The Egyptian-American sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim seconded the notion. Prior to the Arab Spring, Ibrahim was perhaps Egypt’s most outspoken liberal. He long argued that Middle Eastern autocrats and theocrats were mirror images of each other, each directing fear and animosity toward the other in order to recruit supporters, all the while targeting liberals and progressives who could provide an alternative to both. Imprisoned by Mubarak in 2000, Ibrahim shared a jail cell with members of the Brotherhood. He was swayed by their arguments and emerged from prison believing far more than before in their commitment to democracy. No longer. Now Ibrahim accuses the Brotherhood of “hijacking the revolution” and calls them more dangerous than the Saudi-backed Salafis who populate al-Qaeda and its sister organizations.

The tragedy of Egypt’s return to dictatorship is that American policymakers have seen this show before. Even as successive American administrations embraced Mubarak, many American intellectuals who disdained dictators came to sympathize with opposition groups, including Islamist parties. Such a pattern predates—and, indeed, helped enable—the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Speaking from exile in Europe, Ayatollah Khomeini knew how to pull the wool over the eyes of credulous Westerners. “I don’t want to have the power or the government in my hand; I am not interested in personal power,” he told London’s Guardian. “Personal desire, age, and my health do not allow me to personally have a role in running the country after the fall of the current system,” he assured the Associated Press. Many diplomats read such statements and counseled abandonment of the pro-American shah. Then National-Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski explained that “the lower echelons at State, notably the head of the Iran Desk?.?.?.?were motivated by doctrinal dislike of the Shah and simply wanted him out of power altogether.” They got their wish. When Khomeini returned, he was greeted by three million Iranians. Richard Falk, a Princeton political scientist who was influential in the Carter administration and had recently become a UN official (and who believes 9/11 was an inside job), urged the White House to embrace Khomeini. “The depiction of him as fanatical, reactionary, and the bearer of crude prejudices seems certainly and happily false,” Falk explained. “His close advisers are uniformly composed of moderate, progressive individuals?.?.?.?who share a notable record of concern with human rights.” It was what Carter wanted to hear; it was also nonsense.

The Brotherhood was as careful about peddling its conciliatory message as Khomeini was. In an early report from Tahrir Square, journalist Charles Sennott related how Mohammad Abbas, a member of the Brotherhood’s youth movement, chastised a young Brotherhood member who flashed his pocket Koran with the Brotherhood symbol of two crossed swords. “For God’s sake, don’t hold up your Koran. Hold up an Egyptian flag. For God’s sake. That’s not for the media,” he told the man. “Don’t show the ideology to the press because this is so bad for this revolution.”

The discrepancy between what the Brotherhood tells its own and what its leaders say to the Western audience is part of the organization’s DNA. “I must speak in a way that is appropriate for the ear hearing me,” Banna’s grandson Tariq Ramadan has explained. “We must know how to speak to those who do not share our history.” Ironically, Ramadan became a cause célèbre for American liberals when the George W. Bush administration used his doublespeak on democracy and terrorism to justify denying him a visa to the United States.

Indeed, one result of the repression the Muslim Brotherhood has faced is the creation of thousands of Tariq Ramadans. As Brotherhood activists fled repression in Egypt and other Arab states, those who settled in Europe and the United States learned how to interact with Westerners and speak their language. Funded by generous contributions from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, groups such as the Islamic Society of Germany, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) formed to lobby governments and interact with journalists, purportedly on behalf of the Muslim community living in each country. 

Just as in Egypt, tolerance for alternate viewpoints is not a trait of the Brotherhood diaspora, which regularly attacks any individual or organization that bucks the Brotherhood line. CAIR, for example, has demanded that the Joint Counterintelligence Training Academy prevent former CIA operative Reza Kahlili from teaching because he describes links between Islamist ideology and terrorism. ISNA claims the right to accredit Muslim military chaplains. Likewise, the American Islamic Congress’s (AIC) outspoken advocacy for women’s rights and its unapologetic condemnation of violent jihad has earned it the ire of Muslim Brotherhood advocates. “If AIC is surviving on U.S. money, then they have no legitimacy,” Muqtedar Khan, a Brotherhood activist and professor at the University of Delaware, declared. It is an irony of American policymakers that they will readily acknowledge the influence of Saudi petrodollars on the spread of more radical interpretations of Islam abroad, but fail to consider that the same pattern holds true domestically.

Complicating the mix in the West is the bizarre attraction Islamism holds for many progressives. (After the September attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo, analysts bent over backwards to exculpate the Muslim Brotherhood.) On its surface, the embrace is illogical: Islamism is the antithesis of modern liberalism when it comes to feminism, gay rights, and general tolerance. Yet, far leftists find both Islamism’s rhetoric of social justice and its fierce anti-Americanism attractive. In 2010, a Federal District Court sentenced radical lawyer Lynne Stewart to 10 years in prison for helping Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, imprisoned for his role in the first World Trade Center bombing, smuggle messages back to his Egyptian acolytes. Among his top supporters today is none other than Morsi, who, just one day before assuming office, called for Rahman’s release.

Democracy is a noble goal, but too often its advocates prioritize the process of democracy rather than democracy as a verifiable result. The actions of the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrate that the two are often mutually exclusive. Western diplomats falsely assume that political evolution equates with moderation and modernity. When religious populism infects state and society, however, the trajectory is backwards, not forward. On July 14, 1789, the people of Paris, enraged by their absolute monarchy and its arbitrary justice, stormed the Bastille, a fortress and prison in the center of the city. They demanded freedom, liberty, and equality, but what followed after a short interlude was a dictatorship as repressive as any they had previously experienced. Perhaps it is fitting that Clinton chose Bastille Day to congratulate Morsi on his election.

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