The ‘Secular’ Muslim Brotherhood

by Andrew C. McCarthy

The Obama administration is preparing the political ground for failure in Egypt.

How fitting that it was Juma — Friday, the Islamic Sabbath day — that convinced Hosni Mubarak to end his 30-year reign as Egypt’s ruler.

This was only hours after James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, told Congress that Mubarak’s main opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, is “largely secular” in nature. Mr. Clapper was merely echoing the American media, taking pains to brand Egypt’s uprising as secular, democratic, and Islamist-free. It is a narrative divorced from reality. In Egypt, a self-consciously devout Islamic country, nothing is secular and Islamist-free, and therefore nothing is truly democratic, not in the Western sense.

It is on Juma that Muslims attend weekly communal prayers. Out they then pour from thousands of mosques, with fiery sermons by some of the ummah’s most fundamentalist imams still ringing in their ears. On Thursday night, when Mubarak defiantly said he wasn’t going anywhere, that he would not relinquish all his powers, the throng gathered in Tahrir Square was outraged. Outraged crowds the police state could handle. Crowds inflamed by the imams are a different story. Those would be the crowds on Friday. It was time to go.

So Mubarak is gone. Just as Sadat is gone, and Nasser, and King Farouk, and the Brits. The Brotherhood has outlasted all of them. Time after time, it has been repressed, persecuted, driven underground, and officially banned. The Brotherhood survives and thrives in Egypt because its credo — “Allah is our objective, the Prophet is our leader, the Koran is our law, jihad is our way, and dying in the way of Allah is our highest objective” — concisely speaks the sentiments of Islamic Egypt. It survives and thrives throughout the Islamic world because its Salafist ideology admonishes Muslims to take Mohammed, Islam’s warrior prophet, as their guide and to honor the principles of Islam’s founders, the “rightly guided caliphs.”

That is not to say all Muslims agree with the Brotherhood’s call to install strict sharia. Many don’t. It is a disagreement, though, that is perilous to voice. The Brotherhood perceives itself, and is widely perceived, as guardian of the true Islam. If you’re a Muslim, you can rationalize that the Islamists are too retrograde, too literal in their construction of doctrine. In the confines of your mind, you can admire Western thought and the place it reserves in faith for reason — an attribute on which Islam slammed shut its “gates of Ijtihad” a millennium ago. You can insist, in the silence of your conscience, that while you will take sharia as your private ethical guide, you have no interest in its public program. But you won’t say it aloud.

This is the quandary. If you are a Muslim, from exactly what part of the Brotherhood’s motto would you dissent? Allah obviously is your objective. Mohammed is regarded by your scriptures as the perfect human model to be emulated. Are you going to dissent from sharia, the law of Islam taken straight from the Koran and authoritative accounts of the Prophet’s words and deeds? Or from the imperative of jihad, a divine injunction the scriptures say Allah has elevated over all others?

The Brotherhood’s program — perhaps sincerely, but certainly shrewdly — strives for rigorous fidelity to Islam’s origins. That is why the Brothers are so popular with the scholars at al-Azhar University, and why they have been embraced for over a half-century by the rulers of Saudi Arabia — custodians of Islam’s holiest cities and sites. Even for a Muslim who privately believes the Brothers are a menace, publicly saying so is fraught with risk. This is especially so when one considers that, for Muslims, treason — sowing discord within the ummah — is considered apostasy, the gravest sin in Islam and one for which the penalty is death.

It is an act of great courage for a Muslim to oppose the Brotherhood openly. Personal, tacit dissent is one thing — the common thing. But the Brothers have effectively taken on the mantel of Islam itself. Even those many who would deny it to them have a hard time saying why publicly.

Much of what inspired Hassan al-Banna to create the Brotherhood in 1928 was rage over the purging of Islam from public life in Turkey. Muslims the world over were horrified by Kemal Atatürk’s dismantling of the Caliphate — even though it was by then an empty shell, bereft of any but symbolic value. Just as the Brotherhood has outlasted its Egyptian oppressors, however, Banna’s vision has prevailed over Atatürk’s. Each day, the regime in Turkey, a strong ally of the Brotherhood’s, moves the country deeper into the Islamist fold. In an overwhelmingly Muslim country, the pull of the Brotherhood’s ideology remained powerful, even through an 80-year secularization project.

Now, Mubarak is gone. And with President Obama’s penchant for both engaging Islamist organizations in the U.S. and indulging even the ruthless Islamist leaders in Tehran, the Brotherhood knows the current administration won’t dare use the lush U.S. financial support of Egypt as leverage to deny the Brotherhood a powerful role in the new government.

Nobody knows this better than James Clapper. He cannot possibly believe the Brotherhood is secular. He can believe only that you can be duped into thinking the Brotherhood is secular. The administration has to do something because, in Egypt, a Brotherhood-influenced government is now inevitable. And we’ve seen in Turkey how Brotherhood-influenced becomes Brotherhood-dominated in short order.

The Obama administration is preparing the political ground for failure.

—  Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.