Talk to the Brotherhood

November 29, 2006

Talk to the Brotherhood

John Voll stresses the utility of engaging the Muslim Brotherhood—in spite of the movement's diversity.

To emphasize the diversity among Islamist groups, Georgetown University professor John Voll employed an analogy from his Midwestern, Methodist childhood.  Speaking at the Nixon Center yesterday, Voll recalled that his father, a minister, staunchly believed that one day Christianity would become humanity's only religion. The minister strove towards the creation of this Christian world by promoting social justice. Other Midwestern Christians, like the Lutherans or the Catholics, also shared this broad goal of spreading Christianity but utilized different tactics in their attempts to achieve it.

Voll argued that it is similarly incorrect to suggest that all Islamist movements are alike. Though these movements all try to advance the cause of Islam, they use varied means to achieve this end. The Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, cannot simply be lumped together with Al-Qaeda.

In fact, the Brotherhood, also known as the Ikhwan, has consistently taken a "non-jihadi" approach since its inception in Egypt in 1928. While the Islamist organization, or at least its Egyptian branch, has always regarded Egyptian society as sinful and corrupt, the Brotherhood has directed its adherents to "judge, not preach." Thus, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has refrained from accusing other Egyptians of being non-believers.

Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood has deemed it acceptable to participate in preexisting political processes. Most of the current leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood lacks the "political theory imagination to create an alternative system." Although the Brotherhood's stated objective is to establish governments based on the principles of sharia-Islamic law-members of the Brotherhood disagree on what sharia actually constitutes.  Voll emphasized that the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood interprets sharia as a series of divine norms rather than as a tradition of jurisprudence. According to the scholar, the Brothers he interviewed recognized that it seemed wrong to enforce medieval values in the 21st century.    

While there are voices of moderation within the Ikhwan, the Islamist movement has also served as a "feeder organization" for jihadists.  These Brothers, angered by the Ikhwan's refusal to condemn non-believers, leave the organization to join terrorist groups.  It is the disagreements with the Brotherhood's ideology-rather than that ideology itself-that breed radicalism. 

The Egyptian branch of the Islamist movement has actually confronted radicalism in the past. When Sayyid Qutb, an imprisoned Muslim Brother, published his radical manifesto Milestones on the Path in the 1960s, other jailed members of the Ikhwan implicitly repudiated his work with their own writings.  Ironically, Sayidd Qutb remains a popular figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, but not because of his opinions. The Ikhwan's younger generation, who generally have not read Qutb's work, admire Qutb's martyrdom-he was executed because of his Brotherhood affiliation-and his opposition to the secular Egyptian regime.

On the other hand, the mainstream Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood should not be confused with Muslim Brotherhood groups in other countries. The Ikhwan is not the product of an Egyptian "grand plan"; it has no global hierarchical organization.  The Egyptian Brotherhood does not even dictate the actions of its counterpart in neighboring Sudan. 

Troublingly, since there is no central figure to unite the entire Muslim Brotherhood movement, the European Muslim Brotherhood groups have drifted towards radicalism.  European members of the Ikhwan, unlike their Middle Eastern counterparts, seek to destroy the society in which they live.

Despite the problems that the Muslim Brotherhood presents, Voll believes that it is in the United States' interest to forge closer ties to the movement.  To effectively promote political reform in the Middle East, the United States will have to assist opposition groups within stubbornly autocratic Middle Eastern states.  In many of these countries, the Muslim Brotherhood is the only organization capable of challenging the government. Strengthening the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, for example, would help the United States to gain some leverage over the Syrian regime. 

For such a policy to be successful, the U.S. government must be mindful of the character of the movement.  Different Muslim Brotherhood organizations operate in different contexts. In some states, the Brotherhood is legal, in others it is banned but ignored, and in still others, it is repressed.  While may be difficult for the United States to deal with a non-governmental entity, Voll stressed the utility of "talking to, learning from and cooperating with" the Muslim Brotherhood.  The scholar used another analogy to acknowledge his bias towards engagement: "Should Faust have talked to the Devil? Yes." 

Marisa Morrison is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.