One sizzling summer day in 2012, Tehran was abuzz with talk of an impending “historic moment.” The venue was the brand-new Hall of Conferences, constructed to host the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement during which Egypt was scheduled to hand over leadership to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Cast as creators of the “historic moment” were Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the newly elected Egyptian president, Mohamed Mursi. The two men were supposed to symbolize the triumph of radical Islam, in its different iterations, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.
That Tehran was especially keen for the encounter was underlined by an orchestrated media campaign praising the visiting Egyptian leader in terms that would make professional panegyrists blush. More importantly, perhaps, the leadership in Tehran felt that it was time to claim profit from its political, propaganda and even financial investment in ensuring Mursi’s election.
Khamenei had led the way by speaking of the “Islamic Awakening” in Egypt and the creation of a special secretariat, headed by one of his longest-serving advisers, Ali Akbar Velayati, to help Islamists win power in the Arab world. In a speech, Khamenei had even claimed that modern Islam had had only three “great thinkers of importance,” one of whom was Sayyid Qutb, a theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood whose candidate, Mursi, had just won the presidency of Egypt. (The other two great thinkers, according to Khamenei, were Ayatollah Khomeini and the Pakistani journalist-cum-cleric Abul Ala Maududi.)
To make sure that the “Islamic Awakening” cliché would stick, the Ministry for Culture and Islamic Guidance in Tehran decreed that the media should no longer use the phrase “Arab Spring.” What was happening was an “Islamic Awakening” pure and simple, and it was destined to reel back more than a century of secularization in the Muslim world.
“This is an Islamic awakening inspired by Imam Khomeini’s revolution in Iran,” Velayati asserted. Applying for a permit to publish his new book about the “Arab Spring,” Iranian philosopher Dariush Shayegan was told to change the title to “Islamic Awakening” or risk it being banned.
The fact that Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, had played no role in the early-but-decisive stages of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt was conveniently forgotten. More interestingly, Tehran’s propaganda side-stepped the fact that a majority of Arab Muslims had no taste for the Shi’ite system of velayat-e faqih, under which a mullah claims limitless power on behalf of the Hidden Imam.
For weeks, Tehran had deployed its propaganda machine in support of Mursi. After his election, it tried to influence his political trajectory. There were also reports, hard to confirm because of the secretive nature of the Iranian regime, that, using Egyptian businessmen in London, the Islamic Republic had funneled vast sums of money to help finance the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s election campaigns.
Tehran had other reasons to expect a gesture of gratitude from the global Brotherhood. For over a decade, the Islamic Republic had been a major provider of funds for Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood. It had played host to it leaders and provided its military units with weapons and training. For years, Tehran had also provided financial and propaganda support for the Algerian offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1992, documents leaked in Germany showed that Tehran had deposited more than 7 million US dollars in accounts controlled by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).
Orphans of the Brotherhood
Under President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian branch of Muslim Brotherhood had lost some of its ability to help its many official or semi-official offshoots around the world. In many cases, these Brotherhood “orphans” found a new source of solace and support in the regime in Tehran. In Britain, for example, Tehran financed the group led by the Pakistani “brother” Kalim Siddiqui, as well as the creation of the so-called “Muslim parliament” in London.
In the 1990s, Tehran also channeled funds to the Turkish branch of the Brotherhood, helping them create the machine needed to win local and then national elections. When Necmettin Erbakan, a Turkish politician linked to the Brotherhood, became prime minister in 1996, Tehran forged a close alliance with his government. Together they held grandiose plans for creating an Islamic G8 to challenge the G7 led by the United States.
The first contacts between the Iranian regime and the Brotherhood had been established in the late 1980s, as the Iran–Iraq War raged. The Islamic Republic’s ambassador to the Vatican, Hadi Khosrowshahi, established contacts with a number of Muslim Brotherhood figures in exile in Europe. The Iranian embassy in the Vatican also launched a publishing business that helped translate and circulate a number of Brotherhood books.
Khosrowshahi, himself a mid-ranking mullah, translated a history of the Brotherhood into Persian, the first complete account of the Egyptian movement’s birth and development. Later, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations office in Geneva, Cyrus Nasseri, met a number of Egyptian exiles in Switzerland, some related to Hassan Al-Banna, who founded the Brotherhood in 1928. By the early 1990s, Tehran had also established contact with the Tunisian Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi of Ennahda and Abbassi Madani, the leader of the FIS. Another bridge to the Brotherhood for Iran was Hassan Al-Turabi, a Sudanese politician who, though not a member of the Brotherhood, had managed to charm them into supporting his quest for power.
The various strands of Islamist radicalism were brought together in April 1991 in the so-called Popular Arab and Islamic Conference, hosted by Turabi in Khartoum. Over 70 organizations from some 50 countries were represented. The gathering was a veritable who’s who of Islamist radicalism, fostered and supported by the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime in Iran. According to Muhammad Mahdavi, at the time a diplomat with the Iranian regime, Tehran contributed 3 million dollars towards the cost of the event.
The hope repeatedly expressed in the conference was that the world’s Muslims, then numbered at just over a billion, would unite to create a new superpower that would challenge the American hegemony left unchecked by the disintegration of the Soviet Empire. However, through united by their feigned or real hatred of the United States, the various participants had many different agendas. Having spent vast sums of money, Tehran hoped to establish itself as the leader of the global pan-Islamic movement and seek recognition for its “Supreme Guide” as leader of the Muslim Ummah around the world.
However, such a scenario appeared outlandish to most participants, to say the least. Sunni Muslims, who form the majority of the Ummah, found Shi’ite Iran’s claim that its “Supreme Guide” should be accepted as a watered-down version of the Caliph hard to swallow.
Turabi, the stage-manager of the occasion, had his own dreams of grandeur. He had told his French biographer that he hoped to gain control of “at least one oil-rich country” to secure the finances needed for transforming himself into a global leader for Islam. In one of the many ironies of history, Sudan itself was to become a significant oil exporter. But by the time that happened, Turabi had landed in prison.
The Egyptians present in Khartoum at the time, among them future Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, did not represent the main body of the Brotherhood, but a number of fringe radical groups wedded to terrorism. The top priority of those groups, then engaged in an armed struggle against President Mubarak, was to radicalize the Brotherhood’s base and wean it away from any prospect of compromise with the established order.
The conference elected a nine-man steering committee that included Osama Bin Laden and Zawahiri, and planned to hold a similar gathering every two years. But in practical terms, the whole thing led nowhere and the passionate speeches made in Khartoum faded into oblivion. Nevertheless, the gathering highlighted a number of important points.
It showed that Islamist movements across the globe were, at least implicitly, united in regarding the modern world with various degrees of suspicion. They were conscious that Islam played no role in shaping the international system as we know it. The modern world is shaped by economic, political and philosophical doctrines and methods essentially developed in Western Europe, mainly in France, Great Britain and Germany, all of them predominantly Christian nations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international treaties that regulate virtually every aspect of life in the contemporary world are also products of a few Western Christian nations.
In other words, Islam is an outsider looking into a complex system it did not help create and does not fully understand. Among the questions this raised were how one could regard believers and non-believers as equal in front of the law of the land, and how one might reconcile oneself with the idea that men, and even worse women—mere mortals—have the right to legislate even if it meant circumventing or ignoring the Divine Law?
Seeking a compromise
Since the 19th century, many Muslim thinkers have tried to find a way that Islam could accept this new, alien world and participate in its further development while negotiating a greater space for its own specific religious and traditional requirements.
Apart from suspicion of the modern world, that 1991 gathering of radical Islamists from around the globe also indicated a high level of fear—fear that the Western civilization, in ascendance since the 17th century, might soon bulldoze its way through the Dar Al-Islam and capture the imagination of a majority of Muslims. That fear has been frequently expressed by various representatives of radical Islamism. “The enemy is attacking us on the cultural front,” as Khamenei likes to say. That fear is echoed by Muslim Brotherhood leaders, who claim that “the West,” which they never manage to define, is engaged in a cultural war against Islam.
The third theme that Islamists, ranging from the Khomeinists to various versions of the Brotherhood, have in common is their belief that all politics, domestic and foreign, consist of a series of conspiracies. To them, nothing is as it seems and nothing would or could happen without some Star Chamber plotting it in secret.
The fourth common theme of Islamists is their belief in the necessity and efficiency of violence, which in many cases would mean terrorism, in the service of political goals. “Islam achieved victory with the sword,” Banna liked to assert. He ignored the fact that a majority of those now classified as Muslims in more than 57 countries worldwide were not conquered by the sword. The common belief in the necessity and efficiency of violence has led the modern Islamists into interpreting “jihad” solely in terms of assassination, suicide bombing, kidnapping and war.
The fifth common point of Islamists is the belief in the almost magical powers of a charismatic leader, often labelled the “Supreme Guide.” Persuaded that “ordinary people” are incapable of making positive contributions to decision-making in society, both Khomeinists and Brothers, seek a system of elite rule in which the “Supreme Guide” stands at the top of the decision-making pyramid.
Finally, Islamists of all ilks suffer from a deep-rooted inferiority complex disguised with a mask of arrogant defiance. They do not seem to believe that Islam is strong enough to hold its own in competition with other religions or, if we regard Islam also as a culture, other civilizations. That inferiority complex is highlighted in a number of ways. Notice how many Islamist leaders like to use the Western academic title of “doctor.”
The way the Brotherhood leadership is presented in its literature gives the impression that we are dealing with a medical gathering, full of “doctors.” Hassan Rouhani, the current president of Iran, insists on being called “doctor” on the strength of a degree he obtained from a university in Scotland, rather than Hojjat Al-Islam. Before him, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also boasted about being a “doctor,” as did the Islamic Republic’s first president, Abulhassan Banisadr. Needless to say, Mursi, too, is a “doctor” before being a “Brother.”
Also notice how many of them spice their sermons with quotations from Western, and thus kafir (infidel), philosophers and scholars. Morteza Motahari, a mullah now regarded as the chief theoretician of the Islamic Revolution, was fascinated with Hegel, although all he knew about the German philosopher came from a short biography written by an Englishman and translated into Persian by Hamid Enayat.
Despite warning Muslims not to fall for Western culture, many Islamists have become unwitting victims themselves. They send their children to study in European and American universities, travel to the West for holidays and medical treatment, and invest their money in Western banks and real estate. When forced into exile, they end up in Paris, London and New York, rather than Dakha, Kabul or Lagos.
Now, let us fast forward to that hot August day in Tehran two years ago.
“Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei is sitting in a room next to the conference hall waiting for the visiting Egyptian president, Dr. Mursi, to call. Such a call would enhance Khamenei’s claim that, being the “Leader of All Muslims,” leaders from other Muslim countries come to pay their respects and acknowledge his supremacy.
However, while Khamenei waits in his room, Dr. Mursi is in another room, some 15 meters away, holding his own meetings with a series of Non-Aligned leaders from around the world. The meetings having finished, Mursi announces that he is going to the airport to catch a flight back to Cairo, ending a visit that lasted just a few hours. No, he has no time to see Khamenei. That would have to wait for another time!
The reason? Mursi regards Khamenei as a politician masquerading as a religious leader, while Khamenei regards Mursi as a religious man masquerading as a politician. If one goes to the other, he would be endorsing the other’s superiority in an imaginary hierarchy of claims for the leadership of political Islam.
When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hears the bad news, he is livid. He has lost face in front of the “Supreme Guide,” who had been promised that all participants in the summit would come and pay their respects. Iran has spent 600 million dollars building the new conference hall and paying for the gathering, and is now ending up with nothing. Worse still, Mursi has had the temerity to pronounce the names of Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman, three of the four men Sunnis see as the rashidun, the Rightly-Guided Caliphs of Islam, during his conference address that is broadcast live on the state-owned television. State television censors, who had managed to cut parts of Mursi’s speech just in time, failed to cut that bit. What a disaster for Khomeinism!
In the next part of this series, Amir Taheri looks at how the deep ideological and, more recently organizational, ties between the Islamic movement now in power in Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood were established.