To Fear or Not to Fear

The (American) Web on The Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood has agreed to back secular opposition voice Mohamed ElBaradei as official spokesman of Egypt’s opposition groups as the country teeters on the edge of revolt. But what exactly is the Brotherhood? And how should we think about the group that will likely play a major role in any new government that will be formed should Hosni Mubarak be ousted?

These questions are being asked and debated as more reports come out about the MB’s endorsement of ElBaradei and with pundits analyzing group’s initially muted approach to the protests. For answers, you should definitely read Lawrence Wright’s masterly, The Looming Tower. But in lieu of getting your hands on Tower—it’s brilliant, but it’s a tome—you might wade into the Internet for some answers. You will find a vigorous debate about who this group is and what they might mean for Egypt’s future. Vigorous and murky.

The murkiness comes from a disagreement among the pundits as to just how tolerant and non-violent the Brotherhood is—from the American perspective, as to whether we should fear the chance they might take power, or not. The Journal has a nice summary of the disagreement in its report on the MB and ElBaradei.

Some Middle East analysts argue that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the organization from which many of the region’s Islamists have taken inspiration, has a more moderate theological profile than is sometimes feared.

Unlike the Palestinian political group Hamas in the neighboring Gaza Strip, the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t considered a terrorist organization by Washington or by European capitals. Egypt has outlawed the group as a political party, but members of the movement sit in Parliament as independent lawmakers, and U.S. officials frequently meet with these parliamentarians.

Detractors, however, see the Brotherhood as an extremist organization, similar to the Islamic movement that overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979. They point to a draft political manifesto published by the organization in 2007 in which the organization called for a religious guidance counsel to be set up in Egypt to approve all laws passed by the country’s civilian institutions. The political platform also states that Christians or women couldn’t become president.

The Brotherhood’s moderate wing disagreed with the manifesto, but the document helped exacerbate rifts between the group and Egypt’s leftist and liberal democracy activists. For that reason, it was seen as a significant development when Mr. ElBaradei forged the umbrella opposition movement last year with the approval and inclusion of the Brotherhood.

And for a more vivid illustration of the disagreement, The Daily Beast has run two he-said/he-said takes on the Brotherhood. There is “Beware Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,” by former Times columnist Leslie H. Gelb, in which he writes, “It would be delusory to take the MB’s democratic protestations at face value. Look at who their friends are—like Hamas.” And then there is, “Don’t Fear Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,” in which Brookings Institution Fellow Bruce Riedel writes:

The Egyptian Brotherhood renounced violence years ago, but its relative moderation has made it the target of extreme vilification by more radical Islamists. Al Qaeda’s leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, started their political lives affiliated with the Brotherhood but both have denounced it for decades as too soft and a cat’s paw of Mubarak and America.

Caitlin Dickson at The Atlantic Wire has put in the hard yards aggregating a bunch of similar such pieces, excerpting from those arguing the MB is looking for a second Iranian-style revolution, to Think Progress writer Tonya Somanader calling the fear-mongering over the MB the “hardliners’ ‘delusion-du-jour.’” The piece and the posts it links to are well worth a read.

Something you should also read is Michael Downey’s interview with Khaled Hamza, editor of the Muslim Brotherhood’s official website, posted this afternoon on the website of The World Policy Journal. Downey had interviewed Hamza last summer when Hamza revealed the MB was already talking with ElBaradei. It’s a fascinating interview, conducted last Monday (before the MB became actively involved in the opposition protests), and says much about the approach of the moderate wing of the Brotherhood. Some highlights:

On the political process:

What role would the Muslim Brotherhood have in creating a new state if it participated in the political process?

We would take part in Parliament and run in the elections for it. [Under Mubarak’s ban on the group, members of the Brotherhood must run for office as independents - Ed.) When people choose the Muslim Brotherhood, the West must understand that the people want it.

On extremism and imposing sharia law:

What if an Egyptian extremist group like Islamic Jihad wanted to take part in the elections, would this be allowed?

No, if they want to make a terrorist operation against civilians we would jail them and stop them from participating in the elections. We will only accept the peaceful and democratic way in political life. If they use violence, we would jail them.

Do you support the establishment of sharia (Islamic law) in the way the government of Saudi Arabia has established it?

The Brotherhood does not agree with the monarchy in Saudi Arabia, because it is simply not democratic.

So you believe that there has to be a certain way to put sharia into place, but that establishing it through monarchy or by force is unacceptable?

Yes, democracy is the only way.

What about the Iranian model?

The Iranians follow the Ayatollah; we do not believe Islam requires a theocracy. In our view, the ulema (clergy) are only for teaching and education—they are out of the political sphere. Iran has some good things, such as elections, but we disagree with all the aggression. We disagree also with the human rights abuses from the government and attacks on the population.

On women’s freedoms:

Should women be forced to wear the hijab, as they are in Iran?

No, they must choose. They should not be forced to wear hijab. We would never push the people to do something they don’t want to. But if a woman does not wish to wear hijab, there would be law to wear something respectable—not like a prostitute. Women must choose their way of Islam.

And on Israel:

What about relations with Israel? What would the Brotherhood do regarding the situation between Israel and Palestine?

We think Israel is an occupation force and is not fair to the Palestinians. We do not believe in negotiation with Israel. As the Muslim Brotherhood, we must resist all this. They are an occupation force and we must resist this. Did you see what they do in Gaza, on the flotilla? Israel is a very dangerous force and we must resist. Resistance is the only way, negotiation is not useful at all.

So would the Muslim Brotherhood, if in a position of government, help groups like Hamas? Yes, sure.

Do you recognize Israel as a state?


Those few answers reveal an interesting and difficult complexity for journalists. The MB, at its more progressive edges, seems to be group that can neither be pegged as a fully liberal non-threat to Israel, nor the herald of an Iran-in-waiting hard-line state to be feared. And this is just one voice from the thousands that constitute the group.

As we report on the developments in Egypt in the coming days and weeks, it will be important to remember these complexities. And where we write about the Brotherhood, to remember the group is not something yet to necessarily be feared (or not to be feared) but, at this point, primarily something to be explained.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , ,