Commentary Magazine


The Brotherhood’s Creed

“In the anxious and often fruitless search for Muslim moderates, policymakers should recognize that the Muslim Brotherhood presents a notable opportunity.” So write Robert S. Leiken and Steven Brooke in “The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood” in the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs. (Leiken, a friend of mine, is an expert on Central America who made important contributions to debates about that region in the 1980’s.)

He and Brooke claim that “jihadists loathe the Muslim Brotherhood . . . for rejecting global jihad and embracing democracy.” Although “critics speculate that the Brotherhood helps radicalize Muslims . . . in fact, it appears that the Ikhwan [i.e., Brotherhood] works to dissuade Muslims from violence, instead channeling them into politics and charitable activities.” Indeed, in its birthplace, Egypt, “the Ikhwan followed the path of toleration” rather than “pursuing a divisive religious or cultural agenda.”

In short, the Muslim moderates for whom we have been searching since 9/11 have been under our noses all along in the guise of the granddaddy of all Islamist organizations. How could we have missed this? “U.S. policymaking has been handicapped by Washington’s tendency to see the Muslim Brotherhood—and the Islamist movement as a whole—as a monolith,” lament the authors. “When it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood, the beginning of wisdom lies in differentiating it from radical Islam and recognizing the significant differences between national Brotherhood organizations.”

Count me among the unenlightened. Why, if the Brotherhood has embraced democracy, does it not practice it in its own ranks? Its internal procedures are secretive and hierarchical. It is headed by a “general guide,” selected in secret by a small committee for an indeterminate term, usually for life. The current “guide” is Mahdi Akef. “Our understanding of democracy depends on the criteria approved by Islam—namely, values of justice, equality, and consultation—unlike what Americans are trying to convince us [of],” he says. And why should they emulate Western democracy, considering the group’s just grievances against the West? “Western democracies,” Akef writes, “have slammed all those who don’t see eye to eye with the Zionists regarding the myth of the Holocaust.”

If I am unconvinced of the Brotherhood’s democratic convictions, what of Leiken and Brooke’s claim that it represents the antithesis of jihadism? They concede some nuance: “The Brotherhood does authorize jihad in countries and territories occupied by a foreign power. Like in Afghanistan under the Soviets, the Ikhwan views the struggles in Iraq and against Israel as ‘defensive jihad’ against invaders, the Muslim functional equivalent of the Christian doctrine of ‘just war.’”

This is rather like saying that the acts of Jack the Ripper were the “functional equivalent” of courtly love. Just-war doctrine insists above all that war be conducted with discrimination between civilians and combatants. The Brotherhood, by contrast, cheers on suicide bombings, and some of its branches perpetrate them. (Hamas, for example, is the group’s Palestinian wing.)

Just-war doctrine also insists on a compelling cause, the justice of which can be discerned by human reason. But the Ikhwan’s “defensive jihad” is purely selfish. As Akef puts its: “Jihad is an individual duty incumbent upon every Muslim, male and female, if any inch of the land of Islam and the Muslims is occupied.” And what is “the land of Islam and the Muslims”? Here is the answer to be found in the charter of Hamas: “any land the Muslims have conquered by force” constitutes “an Islamic Waqf land consecrated for Muslim generations until Judgment Day . . . in the Islamic sharia (law) . . . because during the times of (Islamic) conquests, the Muslims consecrated these lands to Muslim generations till the Day of Judgment.” I know of no document of the Egyptian Ikhwan that is equivalent to the Hamas charter, but there is little doubt that the Brotherhood’s definition of what constitutes “Islamic Waqf” is identical.

Leiken and Brooke offer the soothing distinction that the Brotherhood supports not holy war but war for land. They quote the Brotherhood’s chief spiritual leader, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, saying: “the enmity between us and the Jews is for the sake of land only.” But here is Qaradawi’s explication of the significance of the land: “[We] must not allow anyone to take a single piece of land away from Islam. That is what we are fighting the Jews for. We are fighting them . . . in the name of religion, in the name of Islam, which makes this jihad an individual duty, in which the entire nation takes part, and whoever is killed in this . . . is a martyr. This is why I ruled that martyrdom operations are permitted, because he commits martyrdom for the sake of Allah, and sacrifices his soul for the sake of Allah.” [Thanks to MEMRI.]

Throughout the Arab world there exist genuine liberals and democrats, albeit too few. For the most part they distrust the Brotherhood’s intentions and fear its rise. (Here, for example, is Egyptian liberal Tarek Heggy’s take on the group.) Should we 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.

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