Making sense of the "extraordinarily dynamic" Islamist movement can be an extremely bewildering task, Hillel Fradkin of the Hudson Institute noted at The Nixon Center yesterday. That's why those in the West have often mischaracterized the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. However, as Director of Immigration and National Security Programs Robert Leiken and research associate Steven Brooke-both from the Nixon Center-explained, the Brotherhood is anything but violent. The movement, which maintains a notable presence in both the Middle East and Europe, promotes gradual societal change through peaceful political means.
While jihadists abhor democracy, the Muslim Brotherhood seems to embrace it. No one knows what Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen-as the organization is known in Arabic-would do if it were actually to come to power, but the Brothers Leiken and Brooke spoke with appeared to be committed to representative government. In fact, a dedication to notions of popular will seemed to be the principal commonality among all of the interviewed Brothers.
Although the Ikhwan is composed of many distinct national groups, four trends are shaping the entire movement. First, the Brotherhood is trying to reach out to non-Arab ethnic groups. For instance, the Muslim Brotherhood in the UK is making an effort to bring into its ranks Pakistani Muslims-who form the core of the British Muslim population. Second, "global freelancers"-notable figures on the movement's fringes-have risen to greater prominence. Third, the organization has stepped up its efforts to appeal to a younger generation of Muslim activists. Finally, driven by a desire to resist globalization's effects, Muslim Brotherhood organizations are forming coalitions with non-Islamist groups, including secular reformers.
That being said, the international Muslim Brotherhood is neither a "monolith" nor an "Islamist Comintern." When the leaders of the various Muslim Brotherhood organizations meet, "they fight like cats and dogs", according to Peter Mandaville, assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University. Many Muslim Brothers tend to place more importance on the problems within their particular countries, as opposed to those facing the movement as a whole. This national focus creates friction within the international Ikhwan, ensuring that cooperation between different Muslim Brotherhood organizations remains minimal.
Sometimes, the divisions between the national Brotherhood organizations can be quite pronounced. For instance, the Syrian Brotherhood, unlike its Middle Eastern counterparts, refused to support Hizballah in its conflict with Israel this past summer. The Syrian Brotherhood, which disapproves of Bashir al-Asad's meddling in Lebanon, sees Hizballah as a proxy of the regime it deeply despises.
Not only are there rifts between different Brotherhood groups in different countries, but there are also deep divisions in the Brotherhood along generational lines. The Brotherhood's conservative older members, who joined the group in the 1950s and 1960s, are heavily influenced by their experiences with political repression. Many of these Brothers, who spent time in prison because of their Ikhwan affiliation, are wary and secretive. They are well-educated, doctrinaire and unwilling to budge on the issue of Israel. This older generation dislikes cooperation with other groups, maintains a separation from the general public and opposes the formation of a Muslim Brotherhood-based political party. These Brothers occupy the top positions within the organization and favor a stronger international Brotherhood apparatus.
On the other hand, the younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood are pragmatic and reformist. Having joined the organization in the 1970s and 1980s, these individuals do not have prison experience. They were molded not by oppression, but by their experiences in syndicate-board elections. In the syndicates, the younger Muslim Brothers learned not only the art of electioneering but also the craft of managing resources. The younger generation, not given to secrecy, tends to support the foundation of a Muslim Brotherhood political party. More in touch with the general public than their elders, many members of the younger generation serve in parliaments across the Middle East.
Not all ideological splits within the Brotherhood fall strictly along generational lines. When Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser imprisoned and tortured the Brotherhood's membership in the mid-1950s, the organization faced a serious internal crisis. Many within the organization wondered how Muslims could treat other Muslims so cruelly. Sayyid Qutb, an imprisoned Brotherhood intellectual, responded that Muslims who persecuted their co-religionists were apostates. Governments that oppressed their Muslim populations could also be considered apostate and, hence, could be violently overthrown. The Muslim Brotherhood's head, Hasan Hudaybi, carefully repudiated Qutb's assertions in the book Preachers, Not Judges, and those with Qutbist leanings left the organization.
While the Brotherhood now insists that Sayyid Qutb's writings have been taken out of context, his teachings continue to inspire Brothers dissatisfied with the organization's rejection of violence. These Brothers trickle out of the organization and switch their allegiances to jihadi groups. This change of affiliation is hard for outsiders to detect because-among other things-many "members" of the Brotherhood are only loosely connected with the organization in the first place. The Brotherhood is seen as a terrorist group in the West precisely because, as Leiken observed, "It's difficult to know where the Muslim Brotherhood starts and ends."
Given this ambiguity, Mandaville advised that the United States should work to contain the suspicious elements in the Brotherhood, since the young reformers will eventually assume leadership positions within the movement. Furthermore, the United States can take advantage of the movement's diversity, working with it on a case-by-case and country-by-country basis. In U.S. dealings with the Brotherhood, Mandaville said, "Time is on our side."
Marisa Morrison is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.