At the Daily Beast, Bruce Riedel has posted an essay called “Don’t fear Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,” the classic, conventional-wisdom response to the crisis in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is just fine, he’d have you believe, no need to worry. After all, the Brothers have even renounced violence!
One might wonder how an organization can be thought to have renounced violence when it has inspired more jihadists than any other, and when its Palestinian branch, the Islamic Resistance Movement, is probably more familiar to you by the name Hamas — a terrorist organization committed by charter to the violent destruction of Israel. Indeed, in recent years, the Brotherhood (a.k.a., the Ikhwan) has enthusiastically praised jihad and even applauded — albeit in more muted tones — Osama bin Laden. None of that, though, is an obstacle for Mr. Riedel, a former CIA officer who is now a Brookings scholar and Obama administration national-security adviser. Following the template the progressive (and bipartisan) foreign-policy establishment has been sculpting for years, his “no worries” conclusion is woven from a laughably incomplete history of the Ikhwan.
By his account, Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna “preached a fundamentalist Islamism and advocated the creation of an Islamic Egypt, but he was also open to importing techniques of political organization and propaganda from Europe that rapidly made the Brotherhood a fixture in Egyptian politics.” What this omits, as I recount in The Grand Jihad, is that terrorism and paramilitary training were core parts of Banna’s program. It is by leveraging the resulting atmosphere of intimidation that the Brotherhood’s “politics” have achieved success. The Ikhwan’s activist organizations follow the same program in the United States, where they enjoy outsize political influence because of the terrorist onslaught.
Banna was a practical revolutionary. On the one hand, he instructed his votaries to prepare for violence. They had to understand that, in the end — when the time was right, when the Brotherhood was finally strong enough that violent attacks would more likely achieve Ikhwan objectives than provoke crippling blowback — violence would surely be necessary to complete the revolution (meaning, to institute sharia, Islam’s legal-political framework). Meanwhile, on the other hand, he taught that the Brothers should take whatever they could get from the regime, the political system, the legal system, and the culture. He shrewdly realized that, if the Brothers did not overplay their hand, if they duped the media, the intelligentsia, and the public into seeing them as fighters for social justice, these institutions would be apt to make substantial concessions. Appeasement, he knew, is often a society’s first response to a threat it does not wish to believe is existential.
Here’s Riedel again:
By World War 2, [the Brotherhood] became more violent in its opposition to the British and the British-dominated monarchy, sponsoring assassinations and mass violence. After the army seized power in 1952, [the Brotherhood] briefly flirted with supporting Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government but then moved into opposition. Nasser ruthlessly suppressed it.
This history is selective to the point of parody. The Brotherhood did not suddenly become violent (or “more violent”) during World War II. It was violent from its origins two decades earlier. This fact — along with Egyptian Islamic society’s deep antipathy toward the West and its attraction to the Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitism — is what gradually beat European powers, especially Britain, into withdrawal.
Banna himself was killed in 1949, during the Brotherhood’s revolt against the British-backed monarchy. Thereafter, the Brotherhood did not wait until after the Free Officers Movement seized power to flirt with Nasser. They were part of the coup, Nasser having personally lobbied Sayyid Qutb (the most significant Ikhwan figure after Banna’s death) for an alliance.
Omitting this detail helps Riedel whitewash the Brothers’ complicity in what befell them. The Ikhwan did not seamlessly “move into the opposition” once Nasser came to power. First, it deemed itself double-crossed by Nasser, who had wooed the Brotherhood into the coup by signaling sympathy for its Islamist agenda but then, once in power, declined to implement elements of sharia. Furthermore, Nasser did not just wake up one day and begin “ruthlessly suppressing” the Brotherhood; the Ikhwan tried to assassinate him. It was at that point, when the Islamist coup attempt against the new regime failed, that the strongman cracked down relentlessly.
Riedel next asserts: “Nasser and his successors, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak, have alternatively repressed and demonized the Brotherhood or tolerated it as an anti-communist and right-wing opposition.” This, too, is hopelessly wrong and incomplete. To begin with, regardless of how obdurately progressives repeat the claim, Islamism is not a right-wing movement. The Brotherhood’s is a revolutionary program, the political and economic components of which are essentially socialist. It is no accident that Islamists in America are among the staunchest supporters of Obamacare and other redistributionist elements of the Obama agenda. In his Social Justice in Islam, Qutb concludes that Marx’s system is far superior to capitalism, which Islamists deplore. Communism, he argues, faltered principally in its rigid economic determinism, thus missing the spiritual components of Allah’s totalitarian plan — though Qutb compared it favorably to Christianity, which he saw as insufficiently attentive to earthly concerns.
Nasser’s persecution of the Ikhwan led many of its leading figures to flee Egypt for Saudi Arabia, where the Brothers were welcomed because they were perceived, quite correctly, as urbane but stalwart jihadists who would greatly benefit a backwards society — especially its education system (Banna and Qutb were both academics, and the Brotherhood teemed with professionals trained in many disciplines). The toxic mix of Saudi billions and Brotherhood ideology — the marriage of Saudi Wahhabism and Brotherhood Salafism — created the modern Islamist movement and inspired many of the terrorist organizations (including al-Qaeda) and other Islamist agitators by which we are confronted today. That Wahhabism and Salafism are fundamentalist doctrines does not make them right-wing. In fact, Islamism is in a virulent historical phase, and is a far more daunting challenge to the West than it was a half-century ago, precisely because its lavishly funded extremism has overwhelmed the conservative constraints of Arab culture.
Sadat pivoted away from his predecessor’s immersion of Egypt into the Soviet orbit. He did indeed invite the Ikhwan to return home, as Riedel indicates. Sadat knew the Brothers were bad news, but — much like today’s geopolitical big thinkers — he hubristically believed he could control the damage, betting that the Ikhwan would be more a thorn in the side of the jilted Nasserite Communists than a nuisance for the successor regime. Riedel’s readers may not appreciate what a naïve wager that was, since he fails to mention that the Brotherhood eventually murdered Sadat in a 1981 coup attempt — in accordance with a fatwa issued by Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (later of World Trade Center–bombing fame) after Sadat made peace with the hated “Zionist entity.”
Sadat’s successor, Mubarak, is undeniably a tyrant who has kept emergency powers in force through the three decades since Sadat’s assassination. Any fair assessment, however, must concede that he has had his reasons. Egypt is not just plagued by economic stagnation and inequality; it has been brutalized by jihadist terror. It would be fair enough — though by no means completely convincing — for Riedel and others to argue that Mubarak’s reign has been overkill. It makes no sense, though, to ignore both the reason emergency powers were instituted in the first place and the myriad excuses jihadists have given Mubarak to maintain them.
On that score, the Brotherhood seems comparatively moderate, if only because the most horrific atrocities have been committed by two even worse terrorist organizations — Abdel Rahman’s Gamaat al Islamia and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad, both precursors to al-Qaeda (in which Zawahiri is bin Laden’s deputy). Of course, Zawahiri — like bin Laden and such al-Qaeda chieftains as 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — came of age as a Muslim Brother, and Abdel Rahman notoriously had a close working relationship with the Ikhwan. But even if we close our eyes to the Ikhwan’s contributions to terrorist violence in Egypt since its attempted forcible overthrow of the regime in 1981, we must not overlook the sophisticated game the Ikhwan plays when it comes to terrorism.
Occasionally, the Brotherhood condemns terrorist attacks, but not because it regards terrorist violence as wrong per se. Instead, attacks are criticized either as situationally condemnable (al-Qaeda’s 1998 embassy bombings, though directed at American interests, killed many Muslims and were not supported by an authoritative fatwa), or as counterproductive (the 9/11 attacks provoked a backlash that resulted in the invasion and occupation of Muslim countries, the killing of many Muslims, and severe setbacks to the cause of spreading Islam). Yet, on other occasions, particularly in the Arab press, the Ikhwan embraces violence — fueling Hamas and endorsing the murder of Americans in Iraq.
In addition, the Brotherhood even continues to lionize Osama bin Laden. In 2008, for example, “Supreme Guide” Muhammad Mahdi Akef lauded al-Qaeda’s emir, saying that bin Laden is not a terrorist at all but a “mujahid,” a term of honor for a jihad warrior. The Supreme Guide had “no doubt” about bin Laden’s “sincerity in resisting the occupation,” a point on which he proclaimed bin Laden “close to Allah on high.” Yes, Akef said, the Brotherhood opposed the killing of “civilians” — and note that, in Brotherhood ideology, one who assists “occupiers” or is deemed to oppose Islam is not a civilian. But Akef affirmed the Brotherhood’s support for al-Qaeda’s “activities against the occupiers.”
By this point, the Ikhwan’s terror cheerleading should surprise no one — no more than we should be surprised when the Brotherhood’s sharia compass, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, approves suicide bombings or unleashes rioting over mere cartoons; no more than when the Ikhwan’s Hamas faction reaffirms its foundational pledge to destroy Israel. Still, just in case it is not obvious enough that the “Brotherhood renounces violence” canard is just that, a canard, consider Akef’s explicit call for jihad in Egypt just two years ago, saying that the time “requires the raising of the young people on the basis of the principles of jihad so as to create mujahideen [there’s that word again] who love to die as much as others love to live, and who can perform their duty towards their God, themselves, and their homeland.” That leitmotif — We love death more than you love life — has been a staple of every jihadist from bin Laden through Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood killer.
To this day, the Brotherhood’s motto remains, “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 hope. Allahu akbar!” Still, our see-no-Islamic-evil foreign-policy establishment blathers on about the Brotherhood’s purported renunciation of violence — and never you mind that, with or without violence, its commitment is, as Qaradawi puts it, to “conquer America” and “conquer Europe.” It is necessary to whitewash the Ikhwan’s brutal legacy and its tyrannical designs in order to fit it into the experts’ paradigm: history for simpletons. This substitute for thinking holds that, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously told an Egyptian audience in 2005, America has too often opted for stability rather than freedom. As a result, the story goes, our nation has chosen to support dictators when we should have been supporting . . . never mind that.
But we have to mind that. History is rarely a Manichean contest between good and evil. It’s not a choice between the pro-Western shah and Iranian freedom, but between the shah and Khomeini’s ruthless Islamist revolution. It’s not a choice between the pro-Western Musharraf and Pakistani freedom, but between Musharraf and a tense alliance of kleptocratic socialists and Islamists. Back in the 1940s, it was not a choice between the British-backed monarchy and Egyptian freedom, but between the monarchy and a conglomeration of Nasserite pan-Arab socialists, Soviet Communists, and Brotherhood Islamists. And today, the choice is not between the pro-American Mubarak and Egyptian freedom; it is a question of whether to offer tepid support to a pro-American dictator or encourage swift transition to a different kind of tyranny — one certain to be a lot worse for us, for the West at large, and for our Israeli ally: the Muslim Brotherhood tempered only, if at all, by Mohamed ElBaradei, an anti-American leftist who willfully abetted Iran’s nuclear ambitions while running the International Atomic Energy Agency.
History is not a quest for freedom. This is particularly true in the Islamic ummah, where the concept of freedom is not reasoned self-determination, as in the West, but nearly the opposite: perfect submission to Allah’s representative on earth, the Islamic state. Coupled with a Western myopia that elevates democratic forms over the culture of liberty, the failure to heed this truth has, in just the past few years, put Hamas in charge of Gaza, positioned Hezbollah to topple the Lebanese government, and presented Islamists with Kosovo — an enduring sign that, where Islam is concerned, the West can be counted on to back away even from the fundamental principle that a sovereign nation’s territorial integrity is inviolable.
The Obama administration has courted Egyptian Islamists from the start. It invited the Muslim Brotherhood to the president’s 2009 Cairo speech, even though the organization is officially banned in Egypt. It has rolled out the red carpet to the Brotherhood’s Islamist infrastructure in the U.S. — CAIR, the Muslim American Society, the Islamic Society of North America, the Ground Zero mosque activists — even though many of them have a documented history of Hamas support. To be sure, the current administration has not been singular in this regard. The courting of Ikhwan-allied Islamists has been a bipartisan project since the early 1990s, and elements of the intelligence community and the State Department have long agitated for a license to cultivate the Brotherhood overtly. They think what Anwar Sadat thought: Hey, we can work with these guys.
There is a very good chance we are about to reap what they’ve sown. We ought to be very afraid.
— 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.