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Will Participating in Democracy Moderate the Muslim Brotherhood?

Sunday, 27 February 2011  | Mark Durie

While waves of unrest sweep the Middle East in response to dire conditions which include soaring wheat prices and failed economies, and the yoke of authoritarian rule, the question is: what will remain if and when things settle down?

In this post I would like to focus upon the Western responses, which have reflected naive optimism about the role of radical Islam in the future of these societies, and specifically of the Muslim Brotherhood in the future of Egypt.

The White House, for example, has stated that it supports a role for the Brotherhood in a new Egyptian government, provided it renounces violence and recognizes democratic goals.

Melanie Phillips (here) and Barry Rubin (here) have both expressed dismay about this trend, which imagines that the Brotherhood has turned away violence, and can be reformed by participating in democracy.

For this, Rubin was criticized by Scott Peterson in the Christian Science Monitor:
Rubin paints the Muslim Brotherhood as radicals ready to pounce and do away with Egypt’s cold peace with Israel. “Why does the Brotherhood not engage in violence in Egypt?” asks Rubin. “The answer is not that it is moderate, but that it has felt the time was not ripe.” Experts on Egyptian politics say that such views exaggerate the abilities and the intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood today. The group has been struggling – like all of Egypt’s fractured opposition groups – to keep up with the fast-paced protests on the street.
The ideological position of the Brotherhood, which has been maintained despite intense opposition and persecution going back decades, is that the state must be ruled according to the sharia, and jihad must be pursued against Israel and the United States. It is truly incredible that US leaders could be so foolish as to seek to embrace an organization which holds such an agenda.
This folly has a number of root causes.

One is undoubtedly the success of the Brotherhood in infiltrating US institutions, including groups which advise government. This is grounded on the fact that so many US Islamic organizations were founded by or have long-standing links to the Brotherhood.

The extent of this is apparent from "An Explanatory Memorandum on the general strategic goal for the group (the Brotherhood) in North America": (see Arabic original and translation here, and the analysis by Stephen Coughlin here). The 'Memorandum' declares that the function of the Brotherhood in North America is to 'lead' the 'Islamic Movement', which is to say, to direct and coordinate all 'Muslim's efforts' across the continent.

'Infiltrate' could in some cases be too strong a term to describe the influence of the Brotherhood. 'Invitation' might sometimes be a better word. For example, Lee Baca, LA Countyry Sheriff (in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, here), has justified cosying up to Muslim organizations (including those on the Brotherhood's 'Memorandum' list) on the grounds that any response to terrorism must involve Muslims: "You can’t fight an ideological war if you don’t have the people with you that are close to the problem.” If you say things critical of Islam, Baca argues, then 'No one trusts you and they won't help you.'

Another reason for the folly is deep denial among western analysts concerning the role of religion in shaping the actual agenda of Islamic radical groups. This goes hand in hand with a world view presupposition that all religions are in essence the same, and in any case irrelevant as causes for political actions. According to this view, religion is at best a pretext, but never a true cause. Men may fight over land, money, water or women, but never about religion. The Marxist's claim that religion is an 'opiate' for the masses has been influential: in essence it presupposes that religion is a means of political manipulation, not its cause.

The view that religion is irrelevant is what caused Sheriff Baca to state (in his same Heritage speech) that: "every bit of the conversation about the religion is counterproductive".

The difficulty with such a view, however, is that the Brotherhood is driven by its religious ideology, so to de-emphasize the Muslim Brotherhood's religious character renders analysis blind.

Another cause for denial is the entrenched Western view that if you just respect someone and get to know them, you will find that they are decent, and they will find that you are decent too. By this account, ignorance is the root cause of all intergroup conflicts. If you just get to know people you will like them.

I call this the "To-Kill-A-Mockingbird" world view, because this was the message of Harper Lee's classic text. In the final sentence of the book comes its punch line. Scout is telling Atticus about a character in a story who had been misunderstood and maligned. But, says Scout, when the others in the story 'finally saw him, why he hadn't done any of those things... Atticus, he was real nice...' To this Atticus replies 'Most people are Scout, when you finally see them.'

This seems to be a common view among Western analysts today: "When we finally see the Muslim Brotherhood, they will be real nice, just like us." And the corollary is that if we reach out to the Brotherhood, and they get involved in democray, they will finally 'see us', love our democratic ways, and recognize that we too are 'real nice'. Jihad will be renounced, and we will all get on so much better.

I don't mean to mock, but would point out that To Kill a Mockingbird is a text which has helped form the world view of millions of young people in the West since it was published in 1960. Its message, which was liberating as a response to racism, can be extremely debilitating when applied as an interpretive grid for radical religious movements. In Western societies today, the 'To-Kill-A-Mockingbird World View' has become a self-evident truth. It cannot be questioned: to do so would be heresy. It is this which makes it so powerful, and helps explain the extremely illogical and heads-in-the-sand character of much that is being put out these days by Westerners about the Muslim Brotherhood.

A key to understanding the behavior of the Muslim Brotherhood is their view of the stages of establishing Islam. This is outlined in Sayyid Qutb's Milestones:
First, the method of this religion is very practical. This movement treats people as they actually are and uses resources which are in accordance with practical conditions. ...
The second aspect of this religion is that it is a practical movement which progresses stage by stage, and at every stage it provides resources according to the practical needs of the situation and prepares the ground for the next one. It does not face practical problems with abstract theories, nor does it confront various stages with unchangeable means. Those who talk about Jihad in Islam and quote Qur'anic verses do not take into account this aspect, nor do they understand the nature of the various stages through which this movement develops, or the relationship of the verses revealed at various occasions with each stage.
A third aspect of this religion is that the new resources or methods which it uses during its progressive movement do not take it away from its fundamental principles and aims. From the very first day, ... [Muhammad's] call was one and the same. He called them to the submission to One God and rejection of the lordship of other men. On this principle there is no compromise nor any flexibility. To attain this purpose, it proceeds according to a plan, which has a few stages, and every stage has its new resources, as we have described earlier.
When Qutb says that the method is 'very practical', he means it is pragmatic. There are phases or stages in establishing an Islamic state, and each stage requires distinct methods. The Islamic movement, Qutb argues, must use persuasion and teaching, and also violent jihad, but each in its own time and stage.

Even the Qur'an, he says, must be interpreted according to this doctrine of stages, different verses of the Qur'an applying as circumstances vary. There is a time to call people peacefully to Islam, as the Qur'an teaches, and a time to fight and kill unbelievers, as the Qur'an also teaches.

The challenge is to discern the correct stage, and also to remain committed to the fundamental principle (Qutb's third point), so that whatever the methods being used, the final goal of establishing an theocratic state is never compromised. It is wrong, Qutb says, to argue about whether jihad is defensive or agressive: the answer depends upon the circumstances. Also, just because you are in a phase of peaceful persuasion should not mean that you have relinquished, even to the least degre, anything of the end goal of toppling non-Islamic power and establishing an Islamic political order.

This doctrine of the stages of establishing Islam has been widely promoted and taught by Islamic organizations throughout the West. I have documented examples in The Third Choice, including the following (pp.66-67 - slightly edited):
In October 2002 the Arabic-language quarterly Al-Manar Al-Jadid Magazine (published in Arabic under the auspices of the Ann Arbor-based Islamic Assembly of North America) included a biographical essay by Muhammad ‘Abduh on the achievements of Abdul-Hamid ibn Badis. The essay bore the title ‘The Understanding of Abdul-Hameed Ibn Baadis of the Phases of Da‘wah’. ... Abduh describes the role of Ibn Badis in leading the Islamic revival in Algeria before World War II, through a carefully planned series of phases. Ibn Badis is praised in the essay for his skilful use of deception. Early in his career he focused on training the young. During this initial phase he would assure the French authorities that his efforts were apolitical, and he supported French political ideals:
"We are Algerian Muslim people in the colonial province of the French Republic. So because we are Muslims we act for the preservation of the traditions of our religion. And indeed, a government who is ignoring the people’s religion cannot manage it properly. We are not intending by this to mix religion and politics into all of our matters … And because we are a colony, we seek to fasten the bonds of friendship between us and the French nation. And we call on France to adhere to its three foundational principles: Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood."
Later, when Ibn Badis formed an association of Algerian ulamas, he was careful to include in their (fabricated) constitution the stipulation that "It is not permitted for the Jam’iyyah [Association], under any circumstances to get involved in political matters."
When Ibn Badis was challenged for inciting people against the French authorities, he was then able to protest that he had no interest in politics:
Then what business has the Jam’iyyatul ‘Ulamaa [the Association of Ulamas] in this matter, when it is a religious organisation, merely corrective, and completely far away from politics?!’
Muhammad ‘Abduh comments:
'And that was just to conceal the real activities that were happening. Indeed, the Jam’iyyah got involved into politics by another avenue … his plan was to encircle [colonialism] and to destroy [it] … step by step.'
‘Abduh praises Ibn Badis’ patient strategy, pursued over three decades, which began with a focus on religious education, then progressed through formal organization of the Muslim community to the phase of political engagement and resistance. The movement was being prepared for a fourth phase, the use of force, when Ibn Badis passed away in 1940.
Today, what distinguishes Al Qa'ida from the Muslim Brotherhood is not their basic ideological framework. It is rather their judgement about what stage applies at the present time.

The Brotherhood has been unswerving in its ideological commitments. To this day, Milestones remains a basic text for the movement. It has not been disavowed. The fundamentals have not changed.

In some respects the Brotherhood has already won tremendous gains in Egypt, which is now much more religiously conservative than fifty years ago. Today the Muslims of Egypt are highly sympathetic to sharia law. In a recent Pew poll 59% to 27% of Egyptian Muslims favoured Islamists over modernizers, while around four out of five people support sharia penalties such as stoning adulterers, cutting of thieves' hands and killing apostates — around the same level as in Pakistan, and much higher than for the other Muslim countries in the survey (see Egypt "Lost", or Found by Andrew Bostom in Human Events. An earlier University of Marland/World Public Opinion Survey found that 67% of Egyptian Muslims hanker for an Islamic Caliphate, and 74% of the sample supported a strict application of sharia law. Egyptian school textbooks today teach jihad and anti-infidel hatred (see here), which is a return to the values taught to Egyptian Muslim children more than a century ago (see commentary by Andrew Bostom).

The Brotherhood's work of quiet persuasion and teaching has been bringing great results. It has been winning the grassroots, while Mubarak's grasp of the reins of power has weakened.

A similar story can be told in Pakistan: the Islamic movement has succeeded, in a few generations, in radicalizing the religious allegiance of millions through the work of madrassas and other education efforts. In both nations, long considered allies of America, the grassroots process of Islamization seems set to redirect the nation's policies away from support what Westerners call 'moderation'.

The question remains whether the Brotherhood in Egypt will be able to turn support for conservative Islam into a large swag of votes in a free and fair election. Still outlawed in Egypt, its ability to succeed at the ballot box remains to be tested. What seems sure is that, at the very least, it could constitute a formidable minority party, just as Hezbollah does in Lebanon, and could be able to govern as part of a coalition.

But one thing we can be sure of, that the Muslim Brotherhood is not going to become more moderate simply by participating in democratic elections. On the contrary, increased power will more than likely lead to a reevaluation of the 'stage' it finds itself in, and could trigger the conditions for more violent strategies.

What Islam is All About by Yahya Emerick is a popular American Islamic textbook for school children. In several respects its teaching reflects the Brotherhood's ideology of phases for establishing Islam. It explains that the political sucess of Muhammad in Medina, when Islam became politically dominant through the use of force, had to be preceded by a long preparatory phase in Mecca, during which the Muslims' faith was built up:
We want the ideal of Medina for the next millenium. But we will never get it without the struggle of the Meccan period. ... only when we produce a generation of people who actually fear the Day of Judgment and love to be closer to the Prophet's example, will we be able to make Islam dominant in the earth. (p.378)
Emerick explains to his young American Muslim audience a stock-standard Islamic criticism of Muslim states:
During the era called colonialism ... European Christian countries took over the Muslim world and divided it ... these Western ... Christians forced the people to follow un-Islamic-style political systems. ... The Christians brain-washed these so-called "Muslims" into rejecting Islam and loving the West. Then, when the Christian countries finally were forced to leave the Muslim lands, these traitors to Islam took over the nations and continued the same political system that the Christians brought. ... Thus we see that Muslim countries have not yet returned to being Islamic nations. The Muslim world today is ... ruled by kings, priests, dictators and evil men. (p.383)
No doubt Hosni Mubarak would be considered one of these bad rulers, and western-style democracy an 'un-Islamic-style political system'. Emerick looks forward to the day when Mubarak (and others like him) can be replaced by a genuine Islamic state.

Whether the uprisings in Egypt will usher in an Islamic order—the pristine Sharia state which Emerick eulogizes—remains to be seen. But one thing remains absolutely certain: the pathway to peace in Egypt will not involve the transformation of the Muslim Brotherhood into a peace-loving benevolent pro-democracy party.

(This article first appeared at

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