The Muslim Brotherhood is set to play a significant role in Egyptian politics after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. The organization may have been caught flat-footed by the protests that drove Mubarak from office, but the Muslim Brotherhood will not remain in the wings now that Mubarak is gone. On Feb. 15, 2011, the Associated Press reported that the Muslim Brotherhood plans to form a political party to participate in future elections.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in elections does not translate into a commitment to democracy and individual rights. The behavior of Hamas since its electoral victory in early 2006 and the recent hijacking of Lebanon’s government by Hezbollah demonstrate that well-organized Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood can use violence, or the threat of violence, to seize the reins of power after an election. The manner in which Muslim extremists came to dominate Iran after a broad coalition of groups including secularists and Marxists ousted the Shah of Iran in 1979 is instructive.
Given the consequences, American people have great need for accurate information and insightful commentary about Muslim Brotherhood and its ideology. One place many Americans will look for this information and commentary is the pages of The New York Times, which in the past few days have been graced by Tariq Ramadan, whose grandfather founded the organization in 1928 and Essam El-Errian, a leader of the organization itself. Both of these articles portray the Muslim brotherhood as a peace-loving reform group intent on playing by the rules of democracy in the years ahead.
Ample evidence suggests that readers of The New York Times who rely on Ramadan and El-Errian’s testimony about the true nature of the Muslim Brotherhood will be making a mistake similar to the one made by people who trusted Walter Duranty’s blinkered coverage of the Stalinist regime in Soviet Union in the 1930s.
Numerous sources demonstrate that the organization’s leaders have embraced a violent authoritarian agenda that could threaten whatever freedom the Egyptian people have won for themselves with Mubarak’s ouster.
Tariq Ramadan’s piece, “Whither the Muslim Brotherhood?” appeared in the International Edition New York Times on Feb. 8, 2011. In this piece, Ramadan, a well-known Muslim scholar born and raised in Switzerland, writes that the Muslim Brotherhood
… began in the 1930s as a legalist, anti-colonialist and nonviolent movement that claimed legitimacy for armed resistance in Palestine against Zionist expansionism during the period before World War II. The writings from between 1930 and 1945 of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Brotherhood, show that he opposed colonialism and strongly criticized the fascist governments in Germany and Italy. He rejected use of violence in Egypt, even though he considered it legitimate in Palestine, in resistance to the Zionist Stern and Irgun terror gangs. He believed that the British parliamentary model represented the kind closest to Islamic principles.
There is an obvious contradiction between Ramadan’s description of the Muslim Brotherhood as a “nonviolent” movement that nevertheless supported “armed resistance” in pre-1948 Palestine. Moreover, Ramadan’s assertion that Muslim Brotherhood was opposed to violence in Egypt is false. In addition to engaging in acts of violence against Jews in Palestine, the Muslim Brotherhood’s military wing was responsible for the murder of several prominent Egyptian politicians – including the prime minister – in the 1940s.
The Muslim Brotherhood was also responsible for stoking anti-Jewish hostility – not just in Palestine – but in Egypt as well. Matthias Küntzel, author of Jihad and Jew Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11 (2009, Telos) reports that the Muslim Brotherhood was a “driving force” behind “a shift in direction in Egypt from a rather neutral or pro-Jewish mood to a rabidly anti-Zionist or anti-Jewish one, a shift that changed the whole Araab world and affects it to this day.” This shift, Küntzel states, took place between 1925 and 1945, was stoked by a 1936 boycott against Jewish business owners in Egypt organized by the Muslim Brotherhood. Küntzel writes “In mosques, schools, and workplaces, the Brotherhood worked up the believers with the legend that the Jews and British wished to destroy the holy places of Jerusalem, tear up the Koran, and trample it underfoot.” (Page 21)
Ramadan also offers distorted testimony about his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ramadan reports that al-Banna condemned fascist movements in Italy and Germany. Nevertheless, al-Banna drew inspiration from these movements. In a “Letter to the Young” quoted by Caroline Fourest in her book Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan (Encounter, 2007), Al-Banna holds up the Third Reich as a model for an Islamic movement charged with the creation of a worldwide Muslim government based on Islamic foundations.
This government, al-Banna envisioned would free Muslims from tyranny and “bring them together as one whole.” Al-Banna writes: “If the German Reich makes it a principle to protect all those with German blood in their veins, well then Muslim faith makes it a principle for every Muslim to act as the protector of all those who have taken to heart the teachings of the Koran.”
Ramadan’s assertion that his grandfather opposed colonialism is tenable if one is speaking solely about Western colonialism, for in fact, al-Banna explicitly called for the restoration of a previously existing “Islamic Empire.” This empire would include territory that previously “had the good fortune to harbor Islam for a certain period of time” before “fate decreed that the light of Islam be extinguished in these lands that returned to unbelief.” Al-Banna continues:
Thus Andalusia [Spain], Sicily, the Balkans, the Italian coast, as well as the islands of the Mediterranean, are all of them Muslim Mediterranean colonies and they must return to the Islamic fold. The Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea must once again become Muslim seas, as they once were, even if Mussolini has usurped the right to rebuild the Roman Empire. This so-called empire of ancient times was founded on cupidity and lust. It is thus our duty to rebuild the Islamic Empire, that was founded on justice and equality and that spread the light of the true way among the people.
The historical record contradicts Ramadan’s assertion that his grandfather was an anti-fascist. In his text Terror and Liberalism (2004, W.W. Norton), Paul Berman reports:
The Muslim Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, expressed—I am quoting now from Melise Ruthven, from his A Fury for God—“considerable admiration for the Nazi Brownshirts.” His organization did choose to designate its organizational units as kata’ib, or phalanges, in the Franco style. (Berman, page 59)
Jessica Stern, author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (2003, HarperCollins Publishers) offers testimony that further undermines al-Banna’s allegedly anti-fascist credentials as offered by Ramadan. She writes “Hassan al-Banna was strongly influenced by revolutionary totalitarian movements from the far left as well as the far right, including the glorification of the military and a fascination with violence, a cult of martyrdom, and the Russian revolutionaries’ idea of the ‘propaganda of the deed.’” This fascination apparently extended into the membership of the Muslim Brotherhood itself. Stern reports:
By the late 1930s, revolutionary junior officers, including those affiliated with the Brotherhood, had established links with Nazi Germany. Although the Brotherhood had started out as a charitable and cultural organization, it soon had a paramilitary wing, which took on fascist like slogans and practices. From the very beginning, one of its explicit goals was to counter liberal democratic principles. (Stern, page 45)
Clearly, al-Banna was fascinated with fascism and promoted the creation of a Muslim empire and yet Ramadan portrays him as an anti-fascist with strong anti-colonialist beliefs. Ramadan’s depiction of his grandfather is untenable.
To be sure, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political thought does not end with al-Banna. The group’s intellectual history also includes the writings of Sayyid Qutb, a virulent anti-Semite who depicted the Jews as enemies of humanity, Islam and God. Israel’s creation in 1948 was for Qutb, an affront to the Muslim nomos or sense of order that needed to be rectified with its destruction. He offered this message in his text Our Struggle With the Jews written sometime in the 1950s. Interestingly enough, Qutb, whose writings are hugely influential amongst Muslim believers decades after his death, is not even mentioned in Ramadan’s vague summary of the organization history after al-Banna’s death.
This is a telling omission.
In his summary of the Muslim Brotherhood’s post-al Banna history, Ramadan makes two gambits. First, he acknowledges in passing the undeniable bothersome aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, which he reduces to a call for the violent overthrow of the state. This inoculates him against charges of ignoring the problem altogether.
Once he weakly acknowledges the Muslim Brotherhood’s radicalism, Ramadan then portrays these radical elements in the Muslim Brotherhood as competing for influence with other groups in the organization who see things differently than the extremists in the organization. As Ramadan calls it, some of these groups favor gradual reform and others have come “into direct contact with the European tradition of democratic reform” and have apparently embraced these traditions.
Interestingly enough Ramadan does not openly assert that the members of the Muslim Brotherhood who have been exposed to the European tradition of democratic reform have actually internalized the principles of individual freedom, but instead lets readers draw this hopeful conclusion for themselves.
This is an important issue, because being exposed to the principles of democracy does not dictate that these principles be internalized. For example, Tariq’s older brother Hani was also exposed to the influences of Western democracy while growing up on Switzerland, but is clearly and openly committed to the imposition of sharia law and has little use for man-made law. “Muslims are convinced of the necessity to return to the divine law in all places and at all times.” (Fourest, Kindle Location 1068)
Nevertheless, in Ramadan’s description, the Muslim Brotherhood is a pluralistic organization in which “contradictory influences are at work. No one can tell which way the movement will go.”
This depiction is undermined by the public statements of Muslim Brotherhood leaders revealing the group as an extremist organization intent on clashing with the West. For example, Mustafa Mashur, who served as the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood from 1996 to 2002 wrote a book titled Jihad is the way. In this text, translated by Palestinian Media Watch, Mashur reiterates the Muslim Brotherhood’s goal of establishing an Islamic state – the goal first introduced by Ramadan’s grandfather, Hassan al-Bana. Here is one passage:
The Muslim youth on the path of Jihad should know that the sphere of their Jihad for Allah is not limited to the specific region of the Islamic countries, since the Muslim homeland is one and is not divided, and the banner of Jihad has already been raised in some of its parts, and it shall continue to be raised, with the help of Allah, until every inch of the land of Islam will be liberated, the State of Islam will be established, and Allah’s Da’wa (Islamic missionary activity) will reach all mankind.
These are not the thoughts of an organization whose members are struggling to adapt the principles of democracy individual freedom and anti-colonialism. This is an expansionist, theocratic, utopian and triumphalist ideology with little regard for notions of democracy and individual rights.
Then there are the public statements of Yusef Qaradawi, who was twice offered the position of Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood and who is described as the movement’s spiritual leader or father figure. In January 2009 stated that Hitler was a “divine tool” sent to punish the Jewish people for their sins. He also called on Allah to “take this oppressive, Jewish, Zionist band of people. Oh Allah, do not spare a single one of them. Oh Allah, count their numbers, and kill them, down to the very last one.” (Qaradawi, who is mentioned nowhere in Ramadan’s piece, offered a prayer in the 1995 funeral of Tariq’s father, Said Ramadan.)
Can anyone truly committed to democracy belong to an organization whose leaders speak and write like this? Does Tariq Ramadan truly expect people to believe what he writes about his grandfather and the organization he founded?