With the tragic deaths in Libya of State Department official Sean Smith, former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, and Ambassador Stevens, the Muslim Brotherhood has been thrust back into the spotlight.
The Muslim Brotherhood, a religious back-to-basics movement with what critics have rightly pointed out to have terrorist ties, has been intermittently in the news since the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia.
Members of the Brotherhood, through a variety of political parties, have played an important but not always decisive role in the uprisings. Egypt, where the movement began, is for the moment the exception.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the Arab Spring uprisings
By Lance Eldridge
In June, the influential Egyptian military recognized Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s new president. He is a recognized Islamist and is the one of the first elected to head an Arab state.
Even before the military’s approval, Washington pursued a new policy of engagement towards the Muslim Brotherhood in what is a likely attempt to influence rather than isolate Egypt’s new leaders. Washington likely believes that given the Brotherhood’s broad organizational membership, Cairo would not turn into a theocracy similar to Tehran so long as the U.S. remained engaged with the Brotherhood’s democratically elected officials.
Recently, several conservative media outlets (see here, here, here, and here) have published reports that Egyptian mobs, followers of the Muslim Brotherhood, have crucified opponents of President Mohammed Morsi during recent protests in Cairo.
At least two media personalities have understandably crowed about their 2011 predictions that the Brotherhood (see here and here, for example) would take power in Egypt, and have suggested that the Brotherhood was somehow culpable for the most recent and often violent protests directed at U.S. interests throughout the Middle East and Asia.
Going Deeper than the Sound Bites
However, the Brotherhood was probably not directly responsible for the attacks on U.S. property and citizens, though their ideas were likely an indirect catalyst. Using an anti-Muslim film as an excuse, the rioters — possibly led or inspired by al-Qaeda — expressed strong displeasure with not just with the film and U.S. policy, but the mere existence of what they see as an apostate and powerful state which happens to have soldiers on Muslim soil.
Al-Qaeda has continued to try and capitalize on the issue by encouraging further attacks on U.S. diplomats while the official representatives of the Brotherhood are trying to distance themselves from the violence. The Administration is learning that it is not so much what we do, but who we are that riles the most violent jihadist.
Though the Brotherhood has been at the intellectual forefront of the radical Islamist movement, the protests and violence in Egypt were meant as much to discredit the Brotherhood in the eyes of Egyptians (and others) as it was meant to embarrass the U.S. on the anniversary of 9/11.
The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in the 1920s by Egyptian school teacher Hasan Al-Banna, began as what some believe to have been a relatively peaceful, social organization dedicated to a revitalization of Muslim teachings. What made the movement unique was Al-Banna’s ability to appeal not just to religious elites as previous reformers had done, but to the Muslim on the street.
Al-Banna recognized that if Islamic nations, and especially Egypt, were to thrive they needed Western science and technology. However, this path was fraught with dangers that could have eroded Islam’s relevance, so the adoption of Western technology had to go hand-in-hand with spiritual reformation and revitalization.
He also believed that the plight of poor Egyptian workers was a religious challenge and that Islam, which represents not just a religion but a lifestyle, offered a solution.
The movement built schools, hospitals, factories, and even offered health insurance. By the Second World War, the Brotherhood was the most powerful political institution in Egypt (See Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History and Bernard Lewis’ The Crisis of Islam).
Egypt’s Jamal Abd al-Nasser — whose form of Egyptian nationalism also had Nazi intellectual roots — was wary of the Brotherhood’s influence and its ability to bring much-needed services to the Egyptian population, and had al-Banna assassinated in 1949.
Al-Nasser aggressively suppressed the Brotherhood in part because he could also not get over the fact that a member tried to assassinate him in 1954, though rumors have persisted that al-Nasser staged the attack for his own purposes.
Secular leaders elsewhere in the Islamic world, such as Ataturk in Turkey, suppressed the movement in part because of its tendency to undermine governmental authority.
In the 1950s, the Brotherhood found a new reformer who promoted a more violent response to Westernization. In 1949, Sayyid Qutb attended Colorado State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Colorado) where a permissive Western culture (wrestling, music, and form-fitting clothing, for example) contributed to his increasingly radical ideas of Islam. He returned to Egypt in 1953 as a reformer, but was imprisoned three years later by al-Nasser for his Brotherhood affiliation.
Qutb’s radicalization blossomed in captivity. For example, previous Islamic teachings taught that non-Muslim societies were jahili (ignorance of divine guidance from God) but Qutb came to believe that ostensible Muslim leaders, such as al-Nasser, were no better.
This was, Qutb believed, because the government failed to recognize the supremacy of Sharia Law. Qutb had disdain for democracy and secularism, beliefs he expressed in his book Milestones, which was a pleading for political jihad that would lead to Islam’s return as a global power in a renewed Caliphate. For his opposition to Nasser he was executed after a show trial in 1966.
Despite efforts at suppression, the Brotherhood has remained politically influential, especially in Egypt, where it played a critical role in the recent revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s government. The Brotherhood also has a presence in Tunisia, Libya, and Syria.
The Muslim populism that the Brotherhood pioneered has now spread to other, even more radical groups. According to Islamic scholar Karen Armstrong, “[e]very Sunni fundamentalist movement has been influenced by Qutb.”
This would include the Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah (a Shiite Muslim group), and the Palestinian Authority. The Brotherhood and its individual members have also inspired a number of radical Islamic groups in Europe) and the United States.
However, this spiritual connection may be as far as the Brotherhood’s influence has gone in these circles. Many of these radical Islamist groups have become regional competitors and internecine rivals.
A Complex Organization
The complexity of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the assortment of individuals who freely associate with the movement, have made a coherent U.S. policy response difficult to manage in the public arena. For example, FBI Director Robert Mueller has reportedly recognized individual members’ possible links to terrorism.
The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, has rightly referred to the Brotherhood during Congressional testimony as an umbrella organization. However, during questioning he mistakenly said the movement was secular, but soon backed away from the incautious remark.
The Brotherhood is a complex organization composed of individuals with a variety of religious and political beliefs. No political or social movement in the Middle East is monolithic (just look at the failed Ba’athists, pan-Arabism, and the Maghreb Union). The Brotherhood is no exception.
In what is a likely desire to clearly identify our “enemy” in a region known for its opacity, some commentators and politicians have mangled the debate and have made the opinions about the Brotherhood’s effectiveness a litmus test of political purity.
It’s prudent to be skeptical, especially when it comes to our national security, where position and interest collide and converge. However, paranoia can lead to overreaction and miscalculation in a region where nuance trumps coercion and common sense and stability become the casualties.
About the author
Retiring after nearly 22 years of active duty in the Army, Lance Eldridge worked as the director of a law enforcement training academy and served as a rural patrol deputy and patrol officer in Colorado. While in the military, he held leadership positions in a variety of organizations and has written extensively about US military strategy, operations, and history. He is a graduate of the US Army's Command and General Staff College and the Norwegian Staff College. He holds a Masters Degree in History and a Masters Degree in Strategic Intelligence. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in national security strategy, European regional security, US history, and terrorism. He now works in northern Virginia.