The Not-So-Moderate Muslim Brotherhood
by M. Zuhdi Jasser
This month’s Foreign Affairs from the Council on Foreign Relations features an in-depth look into the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) (Ikhwan al-Muslimeen) by Robert S. Leiken and Steven Brooke. Leiken and Brooke attempt to make the case for a pragmatic engagement of what they call the “Moderate Muslim Brotherhood” as an organization whose “relative moderation offers Washington a notable opportunity for engagement.” Borrowing from their own meetings with MB leadership from across the Middle East and Europe, they navigate the dizzying number of national permutations of the MB theme from Hassan al-Turabi in Sudan to Yusef al-Qaradawi in Qatar to Kamal el-Helbawi in the U.K. to name a few. As an example of what Leiken and Brooke believe to be the “moderate” stance of the Muslim Brotherhood, they note:
Compare the statement from the Brotherhood’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi who argues that ‘the enmity between us and the Jews is for the sake of land only’ with this one from Zawahiri: “God glory to him, made the religion the cause of enmity and the cause of our fight.” Yet, the authors admit, “Despite these denials, Brotherhood literature has expressed hatred for al Jews, not just Zionists.”
We are, in the end, supposed to take this away from their work: “the beginning of wisdom lies in differentiating it (MB) from radical Islam and recognizing the significant differences between national Brotherhood organizations…a conversation with the Muslim Brotherhood makes strong strategic sense.”
As a devout anti-Islamist American Muslim I have been struggling to explain to all those who will listen the central incompatibility of the Islamist doctrine with America’s pluralistic ideology. The literal Islamization of society, consciousness, and government as advocated by the Muslim Brotherhood is an anathema to America as it is to a pluralistic and liberated Islam. Leiken and Brooke, in effect, whitewash an international organization whose mission is at odds with our own Constitutional system of governance.
Such oversimplification ignores the long term Islamist threat against our homeland security and our national cohesion. What would be the authors’ stance on the “moderation” of the Muslim Brotherhood if they were to become a majority in the United States? Would it not be more academically sound and pertinent to our global conflict first to investigate the opinion of the leaders of the Brotherhood on how “Islamic” or un-Islamic American Jeffersonian democracy is? Have we not learned from our past mistakes? Close non-critical relationships with radicals like the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia only contribute to their global power and the manifestations of radical Islamism today. So is the suggestion now that we empower even more of our ideological enemies?
Some form of engagement, even with our greatest enemies, is certainly necessary for any type of negotiation and diplomatic progress - a détente if you will. However, the deeper, entirely unanswered question here is - in what form should this engagement be manifest - soft assistance or hard critical deconstruction?
The case for choosing from the lesser of two evils as the authors note in their reckless comparison of Qaradawi’s Islamism to Zawahri’s radical jihadism is certainly easy to make but sure folly. Zawahiri and Al Qaeda are a military threat with a militant Islamist ideology which speaks to only the fringe and most radical Islamists in the Muslim community. Qaradawi and the Brotherhood are actually far more dangerous ideologically to the West. Their similarly Islamist message may, in fact, resonate with a far greater number of Muslims in the West and the East as evidenced by the millions of western Muslims engaged almost daily by satellite watching al-Qaradawi. He and the Brotherhood at times speak of “justice”, “a middle ground” (wasatiya), democratic principles (voting and parliaments), and of women’s rights, among other attractive principles.
Qaradawi, is moreover for the record, clearly no moderate. He has defended the barbarity of female circumcision and terrorism in Israel and Iraq. His duplicity on such issues demonstrates the inherent pathology of political Islam which will often even among supposed moderates sacrifice principle for the ends of Islamism. Yet, the attraction of Qaradawi and his so-called ‘moderate Islamism’, is built upon a societal and governmental formula which is incompatible with American governance and Jeffersonian democracy as we know it.
The Muslim Brotherhood is based upon a strictly Islamist approach to governance and law. At the very core of their approach to the branches of government is a toxic mixture of politics and theology. The toxicity of this mixture was foreseen by our forefathers who escaped religious persecution by the Church of England and sought to prevent it after 1789 years of the absence of liberty in the West. No matter how “moderate” or “democratic” Islamists report their processes to be, it is still under the mandate and intellectual control of Islamic scholars of sharia law also known as the ulemaa.
To the Brotherhood and Islamists, the Holy Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet Mohammed is not “a” source of law but “the” source of law. Thus, Islamist systems can never claim to be pluralistic or blind to religion. They are based upon the inculcation of Islamic religious law into the confines of government. It is based upon the interpretative imposition of clerics upon the greater society in the name of a community (ummah) primarily inspired by Islam rather than by all faiths equally. Their political disagreements are not driven by argumentation over humanism or natural law. They are rather driven by a renewal of the interpretation of Islamic scripture. This renewal or modernization, is very necessary for internal Muslim thought, but should rather remain the private matter of Muslims only and not for imposition through the will of the majority in government upon the minority. Those not schooled or trained in sharia law would be unable to function in the daily legal or political semantics of a Brotherhood-type government. The national citizenry and religious community are incomprehensibly mixed. Anti-Islamist Muslims do not accept such mixture.
If the United States is to begin a process of publicly engaging and supporting the so-called “moderate Muslim Brotherhood”, where does that leave unaffiliated Muslims who are plausibly the majority of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims? These unaffiliated who are raising their children to be Muslims when given an understanding of how pious Americans are within our pluralistic system of government, could easily become advocates of the separation of religion and government in the Muslim world. They first need to understand that Muslims in America could not be more free to practice their faith or more Muslim in personal character. They need to hear the argument made concerning the preeminence of the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who brought forth a nation with our founding fathers which separates religious laws from our central government in order to protect us through our Constitution and Bill of Rights from theocracy. They need to hear the argument made that government in order to be truly pluralistic “under God” must be blind to specific scriptural language and theological interpretation of one particular faith while respecting the values, morals, and inspiration of that which guides all faiths from the God of Abraham. They need to hear Muslims make the argument that the ummah (the Muslim community) is stronger, purer, and more holy when it is humbly involved with the spiritual and not a tool of the political. Muslims also conversely need to express how the nation’s citizenry are more unified and secure when not threatened by global religious allegiances as is seen with Islamists or the Brotherhood.
With time, American Muslims can win this argument about systems of governance by expressing how religion is entirely abrogated when government interprets and imposes scriptural law upon all members of society. At the end of the day, one of the most central beliefs of a Muslim or any God-fearing individual is the need to be able to exercise choice and free will. An individual must be free in order to prove their belief in God to God by refraining from sin and choosing good. If government makes that choice unilaterally through law, individual freedom and thus personal faith is negated. Our government can certainly be “under God” in spirit but should not be a “representative” of God on earth as is suggested with a caliphate concept. A government “by the people” and “for the people” is in complete antagonism with Islamism but not at all with Islam.
Most Muslims left to their own devices do not believe in a clergy or any religious hierarchy. Islam is a personal faith between a Muslim and God. The mosque is in fact just a place to worship, gather, and educate in the example of the Prophet Mohammed and in the Islamic tradition. Nowhere in the Qur’an is it mandated that the mosque be a house of political discourse of governmental policy. Yet, one will never hear the Brotherhood admit this.
We have a lot of work ahead of us to defeat Islamism. Let us not begin down the road toward the inevitable critical engagement with Islamism (political Islam) by actually facilitating Islamists with our endorsement of their “moderation”. Certainly, right now they may fit the bill of the lesser of two evils. But we should not take our eye off the long term ball—the defeat of the ideology of Islamism. To endorse the Brotherhood is to put off that defeat.
The most dangerous Islamists in this conflict of ideologies between Americanism and Islamism are the ones which can hide behind electoral processes, token anti-terrorism stances, and peaceful progress while they work domestically and globally insidiously against our Constitutional system. Just because Islamists may be honest or non-violent, that doesn’t make their ideology more compatible with America.
If we passively engage the Brotherhood free of critique, where does that leave the anti-Islamist Muslims?
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was very quick to distribute Leiken’s and Brooke’s piece to its readership last week without criticism. An apparent endorsement is posted at their site. Our greatest hope in countering the global Islamist political movement is from pious American Muslims who understand the central incompatibility of Islamism with Americanism. The fact that CAIR, an organization which stands to receive $100 million from Saudi Arabia and Dubai combined in just one year, met this U.S.-Brotherhood détente piece with approval should stand as clear and convincing evidence that such a foreign policy of soft engagement puts our long term security in peril domestically. We need to begin to develop a long term policy of hard critical engagement with Islamists. We should engage the “moderate Islamists” via an American Muslim anti-Islamist critique through new think tanks and centers of learning. This should be done while we continue to engage the militant Islamists on the battlefield.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not America’s ideological friend. Islamism and Americanism are not compatible. We are in a global competition to sell our ideology to Muslims as they come to terms with modernity, individual freedoms, and pluralism. Ignoring this fact is very short-sighted. Americans who happen to be Muslim will have to endorse and facilitate an anti-Islamist position in order ultimately to avoid the question of “ideological insurgency”. The battle of ideas between Islamism and Americanism needed to be waged yesterday, not tomorrow.