King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has now weighed in decisively on the Egyptian imbroglio by declaring his strong support for his “Egyptian brothers against terrorism, deviance, and sedition.” And the brothers he has in mind are not the Saudis’ long-term clients in the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) but their military oppressors. To underscore the decisive nature of this shift, the kingdom’s state-controlled press promptly wrote off the Brotherhood as “no longer relevant politically,” in stark contrast with Washington’s feeble efforts to prove the opposite.
By siding openly with the military and pledging economic aid, the Saudi monarch has essentially given carte blanche to General al-Sisi and his colleagues to outlaw the Brotherhood, thereby staking out a position diametrically opposed to that of Erdogan’s Turkey and ultimately that of Erdogan’s acolytes in the Obama administration. Since then, the generals have clearly begun pursuing a decapitation strategy by hunting down and arresting members of the Brotherhood’s top leadership organ, the Guidance Office, as well as members of the Shura Council, which is below it.
Of much greater import than whatever immediate repercussions in the Middle East this Saudi about-face may have will be its longer-term implications for the fortunes of radical Islam in the West and beyond. Notwithstanding the tiresome mantra of the Obama administration that our enemy is al-Qaeda, the MB and its Saudi financial sponsors are without a doubt most responsible for radical Islam’s having become the dominant idiom in the Muslim faith worldwide. And it is not likely that the West will make much progress dealing with Islamic extremism unless it comes to terms with this disturbing reality.
A brief survey of the history of the relationship between the Saudis and the MB is in order here. Having been founded in 1928 as a reaction to the abolition of the caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1924, the Brotherhood developed as a conspiratorial and violence-prone organization of devout Muslims, but also as one that sought broader support among the population by providing social services. By the 1940s, it claimed more than a million members in Egypt and had spread to a number of other Arab countries. Following the takeover of Egypt by the military under Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, the Brotherhood enjoyed a short period of cooperation with the government before being brutally persecuted and finally banned by Nasser, who had become a Soviet client in the meantime. It was after being outlawed in 1954, following an attempt on Nasser’s life, that the Ikhwan philosophy emerged as the guiding ideology in the Islamist firmament, and its proponents entered into a strategic alliance with the House of Saud.
The former outcome was due mostly to the work of Sayyid Qutb, a leading MB ideologue and a patron saint of radical Islam to this day. Borrowing partly from the work of another renowned Islamist, the Pakistani Abul ala Maududi, Qutb developed a robust Islamist ideological framework based on four major tenets. First, it portrayed the West with its emphasis on modernity and democracy as the archenemy of Islam and demonized it as a modern version of jahiliyya – i.e., the state of ignorance and paganism said to have characterized the pre-Islamic desert Arabs. For the Muslim religion to survive, Qutb argued, Islam had to defeat this external enemy by all means available, including violence.
Second, part of this Western conspiracy against Islam, but a sufficiently important separate category, were said to be the Jews. In his book Our Struggle Against the Jews, Qutb accused the Jews of having invented atheism, Communism, and psychoanalysis. He accused Marx and Freud specifically of destroying the Islamic faith and elevated antisemitism to a quasi-religious obligation for Muslims.
Third, Islam faced a formidable enemy inside the ummah, because under the West’s pernicious cultural influence, Muslim society had already declined into jahiliyya — “the most dangerous jahiliyya which has ever menaced our faith,” as Qutb put it. This “internal enemy” was embodied by Muslim rulers who failed to impose sharia and thereby became apostates to be treated accordingly.
Finally, what was needed to accomplish the historic task of reviving the caliphate, advised Qutb, borrowing from Lenin, was not a mass movement but an Islamic vanguard of highly trained and dedicated Islamic revolutionaries ready to die for the sake of Islam. Indeed, Qutb prophetically dedicated his seminal work, Milestones, to “this vanguard which I consider to be a waiting reality about to be materialized.”
The appearance and worldwide dissemination of this essentially totalitarian Islamist doctrine led to the emergence of numerous terrorist groups, in Egypt and elsewhere, eager to follow Qutb’s exhortations to violence. It is interesting to note that both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were evidently among those influenced by Qutb when they were students of his younger brother, Muhammad Qutb, the main exponent of the elder Qutb’s work in Saudi Arabia and a prominent Islamist in his own right.
Sayyid Qutb’s doctrine gained popularity in the 1960s, when Saudi Arabia emerged as an oil producer of note and began playing a larger role in the Arab world and beyond. It also began throwing its newly gained weight around and exporting its own Wahhabi version of Islam, which closely resembled the radical Salafism of the Ikhwan. In this it found an eager ally in the Muslim Brotherhood. Already in the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of MB cadres fleeing from Nasser’s persecution had found refuge and economic relief in Saud’s kingdom, where they were eager to continue their Islamist calling. This was the beginning of a robust union between the Brothers and Saudi petro-dollars that has resulted in the remarkable penetration of radical Islam into Europe and America that we observe today.
MB top functionaries such as Said Ramadan and Kamal el-Helbawy were instrumental early on in helping to organize key Saudi-sponsored and -funded Islamist front organizations, including the Muslim World League (MWL) and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY). As early as 1962–63, Muslim Brotherhood operatives and MWL money set up branches of the Muslim Student Associations (MSA) in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., as the first Islamist outposts in Western educational systems. The U.S. and Canada MSA, founded at the University of Illinois in 1963, for instance, was the first radical Islamist organization in America and the progenitor of virtually all Wahhabi/Ikhwan-affiliated organizations in the country to this day.
Saudi efforts to insinuate radical Islam into Western societies with MB’s help increased dramatically in the 1970s as the kingdom’s oil revenues grew nearly a hundredfold after the Arab oil embargo of 1973. All in all, Saudi figures show that in the period 1973–2002 the kingdom spent more than $80 billion to promote Islamic activities in the non-Muslim world alone. This colossal sum has been used to build in non-Muslim countries a huge network of Wahhabi/Ikhwan institutions, including over 1,500 mosques, 150 Islamic centers, 202 Muslim colleges, and 2,000 Islamic schools.
And what is being preached in these institutions, to borrow King Abdullah’s apt phrase, is “terrorism, deviance, and sedition.” Perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves again of the Brotherhood’s focused long-term objective, as described in one of their programmatic documents acquired by the U.S. government: “The Ikhwan must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and ‘sabotaging’ its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it’s eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.”
Current events in Egypt have shown beyond doubt that the MB is incapable of evolving into a more benign institution. The question, then, is whether their Saudi sponsors could be forced to abandon them elsewhere, not just in Egypt. For that to happen, the American president must make it clear to the Saudis that the Muslim Brotherhood’s continuation of its subversive activities in the West presents an ever-growing threat to the House of Saud itself. It is unlikely that our current president will do that.
— Alex Alexiev is a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center (IASC) in Washington, D.C. He tweets on national security at [email protected].