To Talk or Not To Talk?-That is The Question

To Talk or Not To Talk?-That is The Question

In the Middle East and elsewhere, we do not have the luxury of choosing our allies like dessert, based on our inclinations or whether we happen always to like what they say. The Muslim Brotherhood merits our attention.


Steven Brooke and I have received much criticism from other conservatives about our analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood. One of them is Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute. He recently voiced his objections with our position. While he agreed that we should talk to them, he doesn't see the Brotherhood as a force for either reform or moderation. He considers them jihadists and bases his argument on quotations from Supreme Guide Muhammad Akef. And if there is no difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda-they are both jihadi, tout court-what is there to talk about?

What indeed? This is the heart of the matter:


Steven Brooke and I set out one year-and-a-half ago to investigate the Muslim Brotherhood. We did so because we saw two diametrically opposed views of the organization-one, often embraced by American commentators, saw the Muslim Brothers as "radical Islamists" and "a vital component of the enemy's assault force . . . deeply hostile to the United States." At the same time, Al-Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri was sneering at them for "lur[ing] thousands of young Muslim men into lines for elections . . . instead of into the lines of jihad."

Initially, we found many of the things which so often distress our colleagues. There are plenty of quotes from Supreme Guide Muhammed Mahdi Akef and others that reflect standard Arab denunciations of America and Israel (which of course are not limited to the Muslim Brotherhood-or even Muslims).

But we pressed on. We read all the available literature-primary and secondary sources on the Muslim Brotherhood. We even translated Arabic texts written by Muslim Brotherhood leaders. We talked with more than a score of Muslim Brotherhood members scattered throughout Europe and the Middle East, including top members like the aforementioned Akef, Abdul Moneim Abul Foutouh and Kemal Helbawy. We met with critical former members, experts with diverse views and with the Muslim Brotherhood's counterparts on the ground: liberals, Nasserists, feminists, socialists, Communists, what have you. We talked with the police and with the intelligence services of Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Germany.

We learned that the Muslim Brotherhood is several things at once: a vanguard or cadre party most of whose officials appear to be elected democratically (though not transparently). That is, its has internal disputes but does not share them with the public. We learned that historically its central and defining dispute, and one that did become public, was over the question of takfir; the accusation that other Muslims, particularly Muslim rulers, were apostates and therefore the object of jihad. This led to a split in the Muslim Brotherhood and those who left it formed organizations such as al-Jihad, Jemaah Islamiya and others, whose leaders are now top lieutenants of Osama bin Laden and regularly denounce the Muslim Brothers as collaborationist, stooges and democrats.

We learned it isn't clear where the Muslim Brotherhood begins and ends. One very knowledgeable observer compared it to the Mormons. It's been called a movement, a mall where you can find what you want. Amorphous and contradictory, it is, as we said on Frontpage, an untended garden, one with many weeds, and perhaps the most unruly weed is the Supreme Guide, Mr. Akef.

It became clear that there were two main currents within the Muslim Brotherhood. Some members were reactionary and dogmatic, were probably anti-Semitic and certainly anti-Zionist, wanted Israel to vanish and made that a principle of their politics and world view. The Supreme Guide expresses such views. But we found those views to be a severe embarrassment to other leading Brothers. We talked to powerful Brotherhood leaders who took public positions extolling Jews. This trend seems to be on the ascent. We developed what we thought was a consensus view of who the Supreme Guide was and how much real influence he had. The portrait that emerged was of an aging leader, out of touch-perhaps something like Mao in his final years as Deng arose or the aging Brezhnev as Gorbachev and the glasnost tendency arose. Perhaps the closest analogy, given the Brothers' movement toward democracy, is the Second International at the time when Friedrich Engels was giving way to Eduard Bernstein. Muravchik will recall that moment.

We followed the Muslim Brotherhood in action through the course of entire days. We went to their mosques, listened to their sermons, talked at length with several imams. One imam with whom I spent the better part of a week had gone to the police to turn in a jihadist in his mosque. I came to regard him as friend in the struggle against terrorism, even though he reveres Yousef al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood's very controversial intellectual, and his Muslim book store featured a detestable book by Noam Chomsky. These are the difficult choices we have to make.

We found that the national branches of the Brotherhood differed. While most Middle East Brothers, like other Arabs, denounced our war in Iraq, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood clamored for American attention and the Iraq branch has sat in the Iraqi parliament.

We talked at length with intelligence agents from several governments and detectives from Scotland Yard, men and women who follow the Brotherhood closely. These were not individuals spouting off some slogan about "the global war against terrorism", but practicing counter-terrorists. These sensible people had a variety of attitudes towards the Brotherhood, but none considered it jihadist. They often worked with them, warts and all, and found collaboration useful precisely in routing out radicals. In our Foreign Affairs piece we cited the example of the Brotherhood's collaboration with Scotland Yard in purging jihadists from London's notorious Finsbury Park Mosque.

We also examined the world the Muslim Brotherhood inhabits. The Muslim Brotherhood in Europe, as well as in the Middle East, must cope with a younger generation and some old men infected with conspiracy theories. This radicalization is the context in which we must understand repulsive statements from men like Akef. To risk another Western analogy, they are like major party candidates in primaries placating their base, but rapidly moving to the center when real clear politics happen; under the pressure of elections, like some Muslim electoral parties in Asia.

We also looked at the small moderate groups, like the Wasat, the different varieties of Sufis and so forth-the ones constantly extolled in the West as our allies. We found some small groups and some popular, media savvy preachers. We should be, and I believe, are talking with all of them. But the majority of Muslims do not even attend mosques or fuse politics with religion as the Brotherhood and other Islamists do. The organized Muslim universe is comprised of many radical groups, some isolated fledgling moderate networks and a big mainstream in which the Muslim Brotherhood occupies the major space. These fledgling moderates usually have professional, glossy handouts, manicured, multi-lingual spokesmen, and support for Israel, admiration of the United States and the separation of religion and state. They are certainly our allies, but we could not determine who in any numbers followed them, where they had electoral strength or broad organic support.

In many parts of the world, but particularly in the Middle East, we do not have the luxury of choosing our allies like dessert, based on our inclinations or whether we happen always to like what they say.

Josh Muravchik wrote in August 2002 (as the administration was calculating how to persuade the American public to go to war in Iraq) that regime change in "Baghdad would unleash a tsunami across the Islamic world", and that would be only a single ripple in "a new fourth wave of democracy" that would reach as far as Beijing. He explained that "democracy has established itself as a universal norm."

Of course, if that is the world you see, talking with forces like the Muslim Brotherhood is an odious and otiose compromise with principle. If on the other hand, you see the United States having squandered its "unipolar moment", sinking its lowest in world opinion since the founding of the republic, its sword dulled, its alliances scattered to the four winds, reviled in the Muslim world; under those circumstances you take your allies where you can find them and are grateful.

Muravchik's great principle is democracy. For many years he has peered out and found a vast historic battle between democracy and its enemies: the Hegelian thesis and antithesis embodied in reality. But reality, as for example in Egypt today, is far more complex and layered.

In one of his responses to our argument, he says: "Perhaps that was just a bluff, and they [Leiken and Brooke] really mean that we should give up on democracy and make our peace with powerful indigenous forces." If this is irony, he doesn't mention it. Democracy, by its very nature enlists "powerful indigenous forces", or else we are talking about some "democrats" we find attractive like Ahmed Chalabi or scores of assorted meeting goers. It has taken a disastrous war, thousands of casualties and billions of dollars to determine that democracy in the Middle East will have to represent the people (or "powerful indigenous forces") who live there, not the individuals we deem liberal or democratic.