Strategic Thinking about the Muslim Brotherhood

Examining the Muslim Brotherhood objectively and in light of its relationship with other currents is a necessary first step in facing up to our challenges in the Middle East.

The Bush Administration has painted itself in a narrow corner in the Middle East, indeed in the entire Muslim world. With a bellyful of enemies and challenges and a slim number of friends and options, it makes sense to re-examine how the U.S. can best pursue key national interests in this vast alienated region. This is a point we stressed at a recent presentation at The Nixon Center.

Our essay on the Muslim Brotherhood in Foreign Affairs started from that unhappy premise. We noticed that, like too many of the policy debates in this country, polemic and ideology had replaced analysis and fact. In the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, it was especially obvious that the conventional perception of the group was increasingly at odds with its reality. Examining the Muslim Brotherhood objectively and in light of its relationship with other currents is a necessary first step in facing up to our challenges. In doing so, we must realize that no option is without drawbacks and its advantages must to be weighed against key American national interests. There are no cost-free solutions.

Predictably the piece touched a few tired nerves. One sad example was Youssef Ibrahim's column in the New York Sun on March 12. Another example was Douglas Farah's post on his blog (cross posted on the Counterterrorism blog) which was simply rehearsed Ibrahim's charges and in the process charged us with a "shocking piece of slipshod academic investigation." The presumably careful Mr. Farah managed to spell one of our names wrong.

More important, he is unable to produce a single piece of countervailing empirical data or any argument supported by scholarly research. The original version of our article contained more than thirty footnotes to Arabic, French and English sources which were fact-checked by the staff of Foreign Affairs. Among our materials were largely unknown but hugely important Brotherhood texts such as Hasan al-Hudaybi's seminal Preachers not Judges. That collection of prison letters formed the historical and theological refutation of the jihadist arguments of Sayyid Qutb. These letters were also an historical milestone, the beginning of the parting of the ways between the Muslim Brotherhood mainstream and the jihadists who began to leave the organization soon after.

Had Farah any real interest in documenting a critique he should have rallied his own sources. A good place to start would be with the work of the historian Martin Kramer, who makes a well-informed case against engagement with Islamists here. However Farah prefers to lean on the shaky Youssef Ibrahim, whose "scholarly" credentials include a dismissal from the Council on Foreign Relations and a reputation for subjectivity and bias during his tenure at TheNew York Times.

We have written to the New York Sun and asked them to allow us space rebutting Ibrahim's shoddy, dishonest column, but they have yet to print our response. That sent us, sometime well wishers of the Sun's stance on such issues as communism, political correctness and liberal groups, a chilling message as to that paper's real commitment to clarifying issues for its readers. They appear to prefer the partisan sneak attack with no opportunity to return fire. Part of our letter is reproduced here, if for no other reason to illustrate one danger of accepting Farah's endorsement of Ibrahim as a "true scholar of Islamic affairs." As we wrote: