A Muslim Brotherhood supporter kisses a picture of President Morsi, who has revealed himself to be more totalitarian than many had hoped. (AFP photo)
A nice sociological experiment would be to ask any child of average intelligence what he thinks a fit occupation is for a man who believes all at once that Jews are a subspecies who somehow maintain a monopoly on America’s sources of information, that commercial aircraft piloted by al-Qaeda agents did not destroy the Twin Towers on 9/11, and that everything one needs to learn about life is encoded in the original “Planet of the Apes” film. I might question your sample pool if your responses varied far beyond “squeegie-wielder” or perhaps “syndicated AM radio talk show host.” Yet it is remarkable the ease with which a whole intellectual-industrial complex has sprung up crediting the fitness of such a person for the presidency of the most populous Arab country.
In the last month, we have learned that Mohammed Morsi thought, as few as two years ago, that Jews, or “Zionists” as he likes to call them, are “bloodsuckers” and “descendants of apes and pigs”; that Egyptians ought to “nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred” of them; and that a boycott was in order of all countries that support Israel, including the United States, which only provides Egypt with $1.5 billion in annual subsidies. When confronted with these comments from his not-so-distant past by a delegation of discomfited US senators, Morsi clarified that this was all a big misunderstanding, or rather a willful misinterpretation of what he’d intended. As one senator summarized the Egyptian president’s clarification, “Well, I think we all know that the media in the United States has made a big deal of this, and we know the media of the United States is controlled by certain forces and they don’t view me favorably.”
As a certain force in the media that doesn’t view him favorably, I think I know what Morsi meant by this. What I don’t know is what the New York Times meant in its editorial on the subject, wherein it claimed that such statements, which were revealed after Morsi had arrogated to himself dictatorial powers leading to mass riots in Egypt, “raise serious doubts about whether he can ever be the force for moderation and stability that is needed.” What would confirm those doubts for the Times? And why is the presumption of “moderation” still bestowed on a man and an ideological organization that have worked overtime to prove the opposite about themselves, much as excuses are still made on their behalf?
The original definition of an intellectual was someone who grappled with the Jewish Question and came out on the right side. Today, it seems, that definition has widened to encompass defenders of those who don’t even know or care that such a question ever existed. Yet “apes and pigs” isn’t the half of it. Decades of tracts, sermons and observed behavior did little to prompt a serious investigation into the totalitarian nature of the Muslim Brotherhood by a truly impressive array of policymakers, journalists and academics, some of whom continue to resist the dawning of a new consensus by resorting to pure silliness: comparing Morsi to Abraham Lincoln, or reading in his “constitutional declaration” of November 22 – in which he obliterated judicial review of his executive powers and declared himself the sole steward of the Egyptian revolution – the lineaments of a committed democrat.
Consider first that becoming a Muslim Brother takes as long as becoming a fully licensed medical doctor or reaching Tom Cruise’s stature in the Church of Scientology – surely a sign of some discipline and ideological rigidity. Loyalty to the organization is absolute, with adherents giving an oath to “listen and obey.” Universities are considered fertile recruitment grounds, and those who do the recruiting like to initially avoid identifying themselves as members of the Brotherhood – until, that is, they feel they can trust their quarry well enough on first principles. (I’d pay good money to see campus evangelicals or Young Republicans try to dissimulate as anything but themselves.) Even those who seek out membership in the Brotherhood are severely vetted for the requisite religiosity.
There is a five-step process that starts by joining an usra, or “family,” which monitors your indoctrination and scrutinizes your private life for any sign of waywardness. The second stage involves rote memorization of swathes of the Quran and the texts of Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna. The third stage involves donating a portion of your income (usually between five and eight percent, admittedly below the going L. Ron Hubbard rate) to the organization. The fourth stage entails memorization of the entire Quran and the hadith and having your fealty tested with questions, the “wrong” answers to which might lead to your expulsion. The fifth and final stage gives you voting rights within the organization. The whole process can take between five and eight years. Joining the German Christian Democrats takes five to eight minutes.
The height of the Brotherhood hierarchy is a Politburo-like Guidance Office (Maktab al-Irshad) consisting of 15 senior-ranking Brothers, of which Morsi was one, and headed by a Supreme Guide. These members are put in charge of various departments ranging from education to recruitment to political policy, and the officers are elected by a Central Committee-like Shura Council of 100 Brothers.
If this structure seems inhospitable to dissent and self-criticism, then it’s because it is. One Brotherhood youth group that disagreed with the creation of the Freedom and Justice Party, believing that the organization was better suited to social and cultural outreach, was purged when it formed its own unaffiliated party. Voluntary resignation from the Brotherhood can lead to worse consequences, as 38-year-old Abdel Jailil el-Sharnoubi, an old acquaintance of Morsi and the former editor-in-chief of Ikhwan Online, discovered when men in masks shot up his car with submachine guns.
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