Andrew C. McCarthy
January 31, 2011 4:00 A.M.
Fear the Muslim Brotherhood
At the Daily Beast, Bruce Riedel has
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
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.
block quote end
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
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
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
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
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
The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.
Ray T. Mahorney