Strategic Thinking about the Muslim Brotherhood

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:

Though Mr. Ibrahim's calculated distortions and grievous errors will be apparent to anyone who reads our article in its entirety, one particular example must be corrected on-the-record. Ibrahim's column opens by citing Bernard Lewis' axiom "one man, one vote, one time" to argue against the Brotherhood's commitment to democracy. Ibrahim then sets out to twist our words to argue that we "declared that the Ikhwan movement would honor democratic processes", all to dramatically refute our "declaration" by digging up his own examples of "the Nazis, Bolsheviks, and the Baathists of Iraq and Syria who used bait and switch tactics." He must have missed the part in the article where we wrote "many analysts, meanwhile, sensibly question whether the Brotherhood's adherence to democracy is merely tactical and transitory-an opportunistic commitment to, in the historian Bernard Lewis' words, ‘one man, one vote, one time.' Behind that warning is an extensive history of similar cadre organizations that promised democracy and then recanted once in power: the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, the Baath party in Iraq and Syria, even the Nasserists." Readers can judge for themselves whether Mr. Ibrahim committed his mistake because he simply did not read our article, or because he found our logic so convincing that he appropriated it as his own.

Another example of Ibrahim's "scholarship" is his charge that we gloss over the statements of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure, who "specifically ruled that Americans in Iraq and Israelis everywhere should be targeted by suicide bombers, who will be considered martyrs and heroes." Qaradawi has indeed made controversial statements, but the reason this one didn't appear in our article is because the evidence was far too slight and contradictory to prove that Qaradawi ever issued the ruling Ibrahim alleges. Marc Lynch has repeatedly written about the mischaracterization of Qaradawi's views and how this apparent falsehood has hardened into fact. But apparently when your purpose is to stroke partisan sensitivities rather than inform and clarify, any stone is good enough to hurl.

Marc Lynch made this point clear in his Summer 2006 piece in The National Interest:

Perhaps the most important combatants in today's Arab and Muslim war of ideas are popular Arab nationalists and moderate Islamists who generally oppose American policies but also detest Al-Qaeda's tactics and doctrines. . . . Influential figures-such as the Egyptian columnist Fahmy Howeidy (who wrote scathingly about the need to "liberate the Iraqi resistance" from Zarqawi's sectarian brutality) and Qaradawi (who has denounced Zarqawi as a murderer and a criminal)--have done more damage to jihadism than all of America's efforts combined. "God's curse on Qaradawi, the American agent" is standard fare in jihadi Internet chat rooms.

Though we were unsuccessful in securing an appointment with Qaradawi, we repeatedly queried Muslim Brothers about Iraq. That is why we could write that, "Muslim Brothers throughout the Middle East and Europe inveighed against the ‘puppet' Iraqi government." Yet as we explained, national policies also count, and the national Muslim Brotherhood participates in the Iraqi government as we pointed out.

One who so avidly endorses Ibrahim's scholarly reputation deserves to have his own statements and analysis reviewed. Though Farah's reputation for intelligent and courageous reporting on Africa is well deserved, his understanding of Islam and Islamists leaves much to be desired. For instance he asserts (in a blog post of March 12, 2007) that Anwar Sadat was "gunned down" by "members of the Muslim Brotherhood." Wrong. Sadat and the Muslim Brotherhood cooperated against the leftist influence in Egypt, and some controversial observers even claim (PDF) that the two signed a formal six-point contract pledging mutual support. In fact, it is well known that Sadat was murdered by members of al Jihad, which at that time was captained by Abdelsalam Faraj and under the spiritual sway of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called "Blind Sheikh." In his work The Neglected Duty Faraj outlined his justification for killing Sadat. In multiple places this work attacks the theory and practice of the Muslim Brotherhood (see, for instance pages 184-189 in the Jansen translation).

These discrepancies offer some clues why Farah so misconstrues the Islamist universe. To deny that the Muslim Brotherhood had a historical connection with jihadist groups would be nonsense. We clearly acknowledge that radical groups formed inside the Brotherhood but left out of disgust (or were ejected) when the Brotherhood rejected violence as a means to change society, a process begun by Supreme Guide Hasan al-Hudaybi. As we write: "Having lost the internal struggle for the Brotherhood, the radicals regrouped outside it, in sects that sought to topple regimes throughout the Muslim world. (Groups such as al Jihad would furnish the Egyptian core of al Qaeda.) These jihadists view the Brotherhood's embrace of democracy as blasphemy."

In his own way Farah has pronounced on this matter, expressing shock in a March 12 blog post that Zawahiri could so viciously attack (.rm download) Hamas, the Brotherhood's arm in Palestine. An earlier paper of his also expressed surprise that disputes were brewing between the Brotherhood and the jihadists. But Farah's shock at these seemingly ex nihilo developments would have been mitigated if had he bothered to familiarize himself with basic jihadist literature.

In 1991 Zawahiri codified his multiple attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood in his book The Bitter Harvest. One passage illustrates Zawahiri's sense of betrayal by the Brotherhood: "the Brothers recognized the legitimacy of those secular constitutional institutions. And this was one of the greatest factors helping the Tyrants brand the jihad group with illegitimate interpretations of Islam." In his 2001 memoirs, Knights Under the Prophet's Banner, Zawahiri still maintained that "the MB in general and those in Egypt in particular have chosen to be passive and to abandon jihad for the sake of God, although jihad is the greatest duty of Islam." Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi, the preeminent jihadist thinker according to a West Point study, also repeatedly criticizes the Brotherhood.