Is the Muslim Brotherhood the answer to our prayers for a force to promote democracy and to counter jihadism in the Islamic world? Yes, answer Robert Leiken and Steven Brooke in the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs, in an article to which I took exception on Monday. They have replied to my criticisms, and I will answer their replies and continue the discussion about the Brotherhood.
Brooke says of my citation of Mahdi Akef that one should “look at the overall group and not just pull out the most conspicuous bad examples. . . . [W]e can’t get distracted by ‘weeds in the garden.’” But Mahdi Akef is not merely a “bad example” or a “weed.” He is the head of the organization, its General Guide or Supreme Guide (translations vary). When asked in an interview about public statements by other Brotherhood figures, Akef replied:
I am the one and only leader of the Brotherhood in Egypt. Ever since I was elected to the post, I have permitted other prominent members to speak to the media. . . . Ultimately, the Brotherhoood has one head and one elected supreme leader, Mohammed Mahdi Akef.
Was this an empty boast?
I also visited the Brotherhood’s website today. It has twenty articles on its front page. The icons for seventeen of these are various different photos of Mahdi Akef. Of the three other articles, two are reports on speeches by Mahdi Akef. On another day, it might be less monomaniacal—but you get the point.
The Muslim Brotherhood movement condemns all bombings in the independent Arab and Muslim countries. But the bombings in Palestine and Iraq are a [religious] obligation. This is because these two countries are occupied countries, and the occupier must be expelled in every way possible. Thus, the [Muslim Brotherhood] movement supports martyrdom operations in Palestine and Iraq in order to expel the Zionists and the Americans.
What does it tell us about the group’s position on jihad that it condemns terrorism only in (most) Arab and Muslim countries? Not to mention that it is hard to see how one could support U.S. policy toward global jihad and also support the bombers blowing up U.S. troops in Iraq. As for the question of U.S. policy on democracy, Akef has this to say: “We have expressed no willingness to enter into dialogue with America as a country. Moreover, we refused everything it offered in the name of democracy, human rights, education, and the war on terror.” After all, as he put it on still another occasion: “We have no relations with the U.S. It is a Satan that abuses the region, lacking all morality and law.”
Leiken writes: “We never said these were the only moderates Muslims with whom to talk.” But in his next breath, he disparages other possible interlocutors as “an isolated moderate Muslim somewhere [without] traction in Muslim societies.” As if this weren’t enough, in their response to another critic, Patrick Poole (whom Brooke cites in his replies to me), Leiken and Brooke claim: “Without the Muslim Brotherhood, and with Poole’s policies, we stand to lose the Middle East and the entire Muslim world.”
I was stunned when I read that sentence, and doubly stunned when Leiken replied to me here by writing: “Josh comes out where we did: ‘talk with the Muslim Brotherhood.’” My words were: “talk to the Brotherhood? Sure. But to anoint it as the ‘moderate’ force we have been seeking would mean to betray the true Arab liberals as well as our own critical faculties.” Can he really discern no difference between what I wrote and his own claim that the Brotherhood is the fulcrum of our hopes?
Leiken also writes: “We indicated that we rejected the Brotherhood’s ‘defensive jihad’ against Israel or the U.S. intervention in Iraq.” Really? On what page? I failed to find this “indicat[ion]” in two readings. Perhaps I missed it, but what makes me distrust Leiken’s command of his own article is the third paragraph of his response to me. He writes: “We never said the Muslim Brotherhood ‘embraced democracy.’” Let me quote the article: “Jihadists loathe the Muslim Brotherhood . . . for . . . embracing democracy.” And then a few pages later: “The Ikhwan [i.e., Brotherhood] followed the path of toleration and eventually came to find democracy compatible with its notion of slow Islamization.” Further, Leiken misquotes himself when he says that he and Brooke described the Brotherhood as a “vanguard party,” a term which does not appear in the article. Rather they called the Brotherhood a “cadre party,” and compared it to the Communist and Nazi parties—but only to differentiate it from them.
In their response to Poole, Leiken and Brooke write: “Are we really prepared to demand that all other countries embrace Western democracy . . . ? This simpleminded and quixotic approach was tried in Iraq and has failed.” Perhaps, but the article in Foreign Affairs recommended the Brotherhood precisely as a force for democratization. Perhaps that was just a bluff, and they really mean that we should give up on democracy and make our peace with powerful indigenous forces. Maybe so. But if we are to follow that realist path, how realistic would it be to place our hopes on a force that trumpets its hatred for us?