Should the Western powers declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and ban it? Or should they engage it with a view to transforming it into a firewall against Islamist terror?
Though these questions have been posed in Western capitals for a number of years, they are now debated with greater intensity for two reasons.
The first is that with the end of President Obama’s administration in Washington old and well-entrenched suspicions of the Western powers about any form of political Islam are returning to the surface.
The second is that the new US administration under President Donald J. Trump has fixed “the total destruction of Islamic radicalism” as a high priority without spelling out what this exactly means and how it is to be achieved.
Last summer the French presidency compiled a report on the subject with the conclusion that the Muslim Brotherhood, strongly present in the officially recognized France’s Muslim Council, should be regarded as a key interlocutor in developing a national strategy to defeat terrorism.
And in November 2016, the British House of Commons’ foreign affairs committee produced a similar report but fixed a set of conditions that Islamist groups must fulfill before they are “engaged” at an official level in any joint effort to contain and combat terrorism.
Both reports were influenced by Obama’s analysis of radical Islamic movements that seek to transform the Muslim nations if not the entire world. Obama refused to use the label terrorism for any Islamic group and divided the Islamist movements into two categories: violent extremists and non-violent extremists.
As for non-violent extremists, Obama argued that Western democracies should give them full freedom within the law and engage them in pursuit of common interests. It didn’t matter if the extreme views or behavior of those groups, including dress codes and rules of physical appearance, were shocking to citizens of Western democracies. Nor did it matter if they did not share democratic values or even if they arranged their private lives in accordance with the Islamic shari’ah or traditional law.
All that they were required to do was not to have recourse to violence and operate within the laws of the land where they lived.
Obama’s analysis would isolate “violent extremists”, individuals and groups who were prepared to sue force, including terrorism, to advance their views. They could not be given space to use their violent methods in pursuit of their goals.
The British House of Commons report, however, implicitly regarded Obama’s analysis as naïve and potentially counter-productive. It fixed three criteria for engaging what it termed “political Islam” at an official level:
1)-Participation in, and preservation of, democracy. Support for democratic culture, including a commitment to give up power after an election defeat.
2)-An interpretation of faith that protects the rights, freedoms, and social policies that are broadly congruent with UK values.
3)-Non-violence, as a fundamental and unambiguous commitment.
In theory at least there is no reason why any Islamist group operating in a Western democracy should not accept those conditions, at least on the surface.
The problem, however, is that there is no commonly acceptable definition of “political Islam”. One view, espoused especially in the Islamic Republic in Iran, is that, separate from politics Islam would cease to exist. In other words, politics should be regarded as the principal expression of the Islamic faith.
At the other end of the spectrum there are Muslim scholars, especially among Sufis and quietest clerics, who insist that presenting Islam as a political movement damages the very soul of the faith.
The House of Commons select committee report insists that “some political Islamist groups have been a firewall against extremism and violence.”
Over the past two decades a number of prominent figures of the Muslim Brotherhood have closely cooperated with the British authorities, including the anti-terrorism squad, to identify radical groups planning violent action.
More importantly, perhaps, during the “Arab Spring” episode, the Brotherhood worked closely with the Obama administration to channel public anger into electoral politics and share power through parliamentary and presidential elections. So keen was Obama on seeing the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule and the advent of the Muslim Brotherhood power in Cairo that he publicly rebuked his own envoy Frank Wisner for trying to negotiate a transition with Mubarak acting figure-head.
Obama’s critics claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood had “infiltrated his White House”. However, Steven Merley, Editor of Global Muslim Brotherhood Watch Daily, insists that Obama acted according to a clear strategy aimed at transforming the Muslim world into an ally of the United States. To achieve that goal, Obama helped remove international pressure on the Islamic Republic in Iran and brought in a number of Muslim Brotherhood figures into his administration in key positions, and named a special ambassador to the Islamic Conference Organization (OIC).
The Brotherhood’s readiness to cooperate with Western powers on a tactical basis is nothing new. In fact, several historians, notably he French Michel Surat, have shown that the Brotherhood was initially created in Egypt by the Franco-British Suez Canal Company as a force to counter the activities of Communist-inspired trade unions active among canal workers. More recently, and on a smaller scale, the Israeli intelligence services helped created Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood, as means of counter-balancing the PLO.
The Trump administration, however, regards the Brotherhood as an “ante-chamber” of terrorism, if not the actual heart of a global terrorist movement. Frank Gaffney, an analyst close to the Trump administration, has consistently argued in favour of banning the Brotherhood and its affiliates.
Those who want the brotherhood banned cite four arguments:
• The Brotherhood is the principal source of literature used by terrorist groups as ideological template. Chief among brotherhood “thinkers” used in that contest of Sayed Qutb, the activist hanged under President Gamal Abdul-Nasser, and Abu-Ala Maudoodi.
• Many senior leaders of Al-Qaeda, notably Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and, more recently, of Islamic State in Raqqah are former Brotherhood members.
• The Brotherhood has always adopted an anti-West, more recently anti-American, and anti-Israeli position.
• Brotherhood’s history is punctuated by acts of violence, including political assassinations and, more recently, anti-state operations in Egypt.
Opponents of the plan to ban the Brotherhood a terrorist organization reject those arguments with their own assessment:
• The fact that terrorist groups sue literature produced by the Brotherhood should not implicate the brotherhood itself. Many leftist terror groups sued literature produced by Socialist writers or even ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato. In any case, in his time, Qutb was a maverick even within the Brotherhood. As for the Pakistani preacher Maudoodi he wasn’t a member of the Brotherhood and was philosophically closer to Lenin than to any Islamist writer.
• Many senior leaders of terrorist groups are former Brotherhood members. But the emphasis should; be on “ former”. If they have left the Brotherhood how could one hold the organization responsible for their actions?
• True, Brotherhood has often had an anti-West and anti-Israeli posture. But that doesn’t mean that anyone sharing such a posture is linked to the Brotherhood. Many hard-left groups in Europe are anti-American and anti-Semitic without even believing in God, let alone being Muslims.
• The Brotherhood has certainly committed acts of terror and is now engaged in a campaign of violence against the Egyptian government. But this doesn’t mean that it also wants to embark on terrorism in Europe and /or the United States.
Despite those arguments for and against banning the Brotherhood the balance of opinion both in Europe and the United Sates seems to be shifting away from Obama’s aim of an alliance with “ radical non-violent extremist Islam.”
The brotherhood is already banned in six countries, including its birthplace of Egypt. The House of Commons select committee cites some of the reasons why the Brotherhood cannot be trusted but concludes by endorsing the decision not to declare it a terrorist organization:
• Some political Islamists have embraced elections. Electoral processes that prevent these groups from taking part cannot be called ‘free’. But democracy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)—where we focused our inquiry—must not be reduced to ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, and the FCO must encourage both political Islamists and their opponents to accept broader cultures of democracy.
• The Muslim Brotherhood is a secretive group, with an ambiguous international structure. But this is understandable given the repression it now experiences.
• Some communications, particularly from the Brotherhood, have given contradictory messages in Arabic and English. And some of the responses that the group offered to our questions gave the impression of reluctance to offer a straight answer. The FCO is right to judge political Islamists by both their words and their actions.
• Some political Islamists have been very pragmatic in power. Others have been more dogmatic. But fears over the introduction of a restrictive interpretation of ‘Islamic law’ by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Egypt were partly based on speculation rather than experience.
• The UK has not designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. We agree with this stance. Some political-Islamist groups have broadly been a firewall against extremism and violence.