For years, I’ve been writing critically about the Muslim Brotherhood and its reactionary politics, cult-like secrecy, cell-based structure and ideological zeal. Across the Middle East—in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and elsewhere, including via Palestine’s Hamas—the Muslim Brotherhood is gaining momentum. It’s something that scares liberals and progressives in the Middle East, and it ought to alarm readers of The Nation, too.
Not because the Muslim Brotherhood is pro-Al Qaeda or terrorist. It’s not, although its skewed version of what Islam means has frequently inspired those with more radical, and violent, ideas, just as ultraconservative Christian evangelicals abhor violence in the United States but inspire those who’d bomb abortion clinics.
And not because the Muslim Brotherhood is anti-Israel. Plenty of Arab middle-of-the-road and progressive political currents see Israel’s expansionist politics, and sometimes Israel’s very existence, as anathema. The Brothers, like most mainstream Arab politicians and activists, are pragmatic enough to understand that Israel isn’t going away, and they’re not likely to support a military mobilization against Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood has said, publicly, that it won’t abrogate Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
The problem with the Muslim Brotherhood is that its politics is centered on a combination of all-out support for free-enterprise capitalism and ultraconservative views about social issues. For exactly that reason, the Brothers are tailor-made for a lasting partnership with the United States, and its global efforts to export unfettered capitalism. Investors who want to make a buck can easily overlook a bunch of laws and regulations against women’s rights, freedom of religion, and the like. That’s not to say that the Muslim Brotherhood will be a tool of the United States; it won’t. The Brothers are infused with a weird hybrid of “Islamic” nationalism and independence that will cause them to seek allies around the globe, not in the West. But unless you’re one of those neoconservatives who believe that there’s an ongoing “clash of civilizations,” you’ll grasp quickly that the Muslim Brotherhood will be happy to do business with the West, even as it draws on the vast financial support of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and other Arab kleptocrats.
Let’s review the news from recent weeks:
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is flexing its muscle. It recently announced that it is reconsidering its earlier, much-publicized decision not to run a candidate for president of Egypt. Those who understand the secrecy and duplicity of the Muslim Brotherhood cult may have suspected all along that the Brothers would run a candidate for president, and if they do they’re likely to win. Next, the Brothers— and their quarrelsome, even more radical partners, the Salafi movement in Egypt—completely dominate the 100-member commission that will write Egypt’s new constitution, leading several secular and progressive figures to resign from the commission in dismay. Already, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis control Egypt’s parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood is widely suspected of seeking a deal with the ruling military council, giving the generals some sort of amnesty from prosecution for crimes dating to the Mubarak era and to violent put-downs of street protests last year. Nevertheless, worried progressives have angrily walked out of the vote concerning the Muslim Brotherhood-run commission.
In Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood has set up something called the Justice and Development Party, modeled directly on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. The Muslim Brotherhood in Libya has always been close to the Egyptian branch, which is the heir to the original Muslim Brotherhood organization founded in Egypt in 1928. Many of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya today established themselves in exile in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, IkhwanWeb.com, a Brotherhood outlet, says: “Fleeing repression, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood was reborn in the United States, where members established the ‘Islamic Group – Libya’ in 1980 and issued their magazine The Muslim.” During the 1980s, when the Muslim Brotherhood opposed Muammar Qaddafi, they drew much support from Sudan, where the Muslim Brotherhood was playing a leading role in Khartoum. Libya is still in turmoil, with competing tribal and local militias struggling for power and Libya’s eastern half rumbling about seceding. But the Brothers are likely to play an ever greater role there.
In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood is emerging as a dominant, if not the dominant, current inside the factious opposition movement. No surprise: the Brothers have long had a strong underground presence in Syria, and they’ve been fighting the Assad regime for decades, inside and out. On Sunday, to the consternation of some Syrian oppositionists from the secular and progressive wing, three leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood held a news conference in Turkey to announce themselves as major players, pledging support for democracy and pluralism. (I’d be cautious at taking them at their word, but the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world has uniformly adopted principles in support for democracy since, it seems, it’s working for them and it provides a plausible path to power.) The Brothers’ stated support for democracy, respecting religious minorities, and the rights of women ought to be welcomed, but with a wary eye.
In Tunisia, happily enough, the Muslim Brotherhood-allied Al-Nahda party declared today that it would not support the idea of sharia as the basis for Tunisian law. The AP reports:
Islamic law will not be enshrined in Tunisia's new constitution, preserving the secular basis of the North African nation, Tunisia's ruling Islamist Ennahda Party said Monday. Ziad Doulatli, a party leader, said the first article of the new constitution would remain the same as in the 1959 version and it will not call for Shariah, Islamic law, to be the source of all legislation, as many conservatives had wanted.
That’s good, and it’s not too surprising because, unlike Egypt, Tunisia is far more advanced in terms of liberalism, and the Islamist current is weaker than elsewhere. Still, Al-Nahda is a powerful voice, and it bears watching.
For the United States, and for Saudi Arabia, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood is a useful ally in the gathering confrontation with Iran, the Syrian government, Iraq’s Shiite leadership, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. That ought to worry everyone.