by Zeyno Baran February 27, 2008
Washington, D.C. has suddenly become very interested in the Muslim Brotherhood. American policymakers are debating whether to engage non-violent elements of the Muslim Brotherhood network, both inside and outside the United States, in the hope that such engagement will empower these “moderates” against violent Wahhabi and Salafi groups such as al-Qaeda. Unfortunately, this strategy is based on a false assumption: that “moderate” Islamist groups will confront and weaken their violent co-religionists, robbing them of their support base.
This lesser-of-two-evils strategy is reminiscent of the rationale behind the Cold War-era decision to support the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet army. In the short term, the U.S. alliance with the mujahideen did indeed aid America in its struggle against the Soviet Union. In the long term, however, U.S. support led to the empowerment of a dangerous and potent adversary. In choosing its allies, the U.S. cannot afford to elevate short-term tactical considerations above longer-term strategic ones. Most importantly, the U.S. must consider the ideology of any potential partners. Although various Islamist groups do quarrel over tactics and often bear considerable animosity towards one another, they all agree on the endgame: a world dictated by political Islam. A “divide and conquer” strategy by the United States will only push them closer together.
Even though the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) does not openly call for violence or terrorism, it still does little to oppose it. In fact, it may provide an ideological springboard for future violence. This is not to say that all Salafis will one day become terrorists; the vast majority will never engage in violence and likely abhor terrorist acts. Nevertheless, the first step on the road to jihadi terrorism is instruction in Islamist ideology. Nearly all individuals involved in terrorism—whether as a foot soldiers executing the attack or an upper level mastermind, financier, or recruiter—start out as non-violent Salafi Islamists, and many were once Brotherhood members. For example, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the September 11 terrorist attacks, told U.S. interrogators that he was first drawn to violent jihad after attending Brotherhood youth camps. It is therefore inexplicable that policymakers should seek to empower Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood as a strategy to combat terrorism.
The deciding factor in determining which Muslims can be allies in the “long war” cannot be based on tactics—that is, whether or not a group eschews violent methods. The deciding factor must be ideological: Is the group Islamist or not?
What do I mean by “Islamist?” The term was coined by the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, in an effort to politicize Islam. Broadly, the label Islamist applies to individuals or groups who believe that Islam should be a comprehensive guide to life. Islamists do not accept that the interpretation of Islam could evolve over the centuries along with human beings’ understanding, or that the religion could be influenced or modified by the cultures and traditions of various regions. Nor do they recognize that Islam can be limited to the religious realm, or to simply providing its followers with a code of moral and ethical principles. With this definition in mind, a nonviolent, American-born Islamist should not be considered an ally of the U.S. Yet a devout, conservative Muslim immigrant to Europe—one who does not even speak any Western languages but rejects Islamist ideology—could be.
Islamists are strenuously opposed to secular governance. Instead, they believe that Islamic rules and laws based upon the Quran and the sharia code must shape all aspects of human society, from politics and education to history, science, the arts, and more. Islamic jurisprudence developed and codified over the course of the 8th and 9th centuries and has not changed since then. In wholly sharia-based countries such as Iran, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, there is little distinction between religion and state, leaving no room for liberal democracy. The institution of electionsmight be maintained, but this will inevitably be an illiberal system without dissent, individuation, or critical thinking.
Today’s Islamists adhere first and foremost to the works of the Muslim Brotherhood’s most famous ideologue, Sayyid Qutb, and are not necessarily concerned with Islam’s spiritual or cultural aspects. Qutb, like his ideological predecessors Ibn Taymiyya and Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, was preoccupied with the relative decline of the Muslim world. All three believed this deterioration was a result of Muslims having strayed from pure Islam. Qutb argued that Islam’s crisis could be reversed only if “true” Muslims, emulating the ways of the Prophet Muhammad, worked to replace existing governments in the Muslim world with strictly Islamic regimes. Accordingly, followers of Qutb desire the overthrow of their current governments and declare armed jihad against non-Muslim states. It is important to underline that this step is often viewed as “defensive jihad,” an interpretation which has broad acceptance among many Muslims. This logic has been be used to justify attacks in Spain (which was ruled by Muslims for several hundred years) and any other Western countries that are deemed to be waging a war against Islam, either militarily or culturally. The next step is the establishment of the caliphate. Islamists believe that bringing about such changes is an obligation for all Muslims. They are not bound by constraints of time—they have been fighting this war for many decades already and will continue as long as it takes. Nor are they hindered by location—the new caliphate can be established anywhere.
Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood are engaged in a long-term social engineering project. The eventual “Islamization” of the world is to be enacted via a bottom-up process. Initially, the individual is transformed into a “true” Muslim. This Islamization of the individual leads that person to reject Western norms of pluralism, individual rights, and the secular rule of law. Next, the individual’s family is transformed; then the society; then the state; and finally the entire world is expected to live, and be governed, according to Islamic principles. This ideological machinery is at the core of Islamist terrorism and it works to promote separation, sedition, and hatred. The tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood may be nonviolent in the West and less violent than other groups in the Muslim world, but the ideology behind those tactics remains fundamentally opposed to the Western democratic system and its values.
Many critics of the War on Terror complain that it fosters an “us versus them” attitude between Muslims and non-Muslims. In reality this mentality did not begin with the Bush Administration; it has long been part of the Islamists’ rhetoric. For decades, Brotherhood-affiliated organizations have been telling Muslims that they are different—in fact, superior—and must remain separate from non-Muslims. While more recently, some Islamists in the West have begun talking about integration or participation, these concepts are meant to be followed only if they serve the long-term Islamist agenda.
Non-Islamist Muslims understand the inherent incompatibility between Islamism’s desired imposition of sharia law upon society at large and Western society’s pluralism and equality. To the Brotherhood and groups like it—whether in the Middle East or the United States—the Quran and Islam are not merely one possiblesource of law; they are the only source of law. As the Muslim Brotherhood declares in its motto, “Allah is our objective, the Prophet is our leader, the Quran is our law, jihad is our way, dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”
When the U.S. government engages with Islamist organizations in conferences or government outreach programs, it lends legitimacy to an ideology that does not represent—at least not yet—the views of the majority of American Muslims. American policymakers who advocate pursuing such a strategy are actually facilitating Islamism by endorsing it as a mainstream ideology. Both at home and abroad, this policy is leading to disaster. Liberal and non-Islamist Muslims—having already been denounced by Islamists as apostates—are now being told by Western governments that they do not represent “real” Islam.
Through engagement, the U.S. government effectively legitimizes the Islamists’self-appointed status as representatives of Muslim community. This also legitimizes the Islamists’ self-appointed ability to judge “Muslim-ness” of others. Bestowing this status and capability upon Islamists is particularly dangerous in America. Muslims living in the U.S.—particularly converts and those born to immigrants—are more vulnerable to being won over by Islamist ideology because America does not have a strong native tradition of Islam. American Muslims searching for a greater understanding of what it means to be Muslim often find little information available except the Islamist perspective. This is because most prominent Muslim organizations in America were either created by or are associated with the Brotherhood—and have therefore been heavily influenced by Islamist ideology.
The Brotherhood Infiltrates America
The Muslim Brotherhood began operating in the U.S. in the 1960s upon the arrival of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia. These individuals sought a university education (mostly at the leading state schools of Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan) and greater professional opportunity. A number of these Muslims were Brotherhood members escaping the persecution and repression of their native lands. Starting in the 1950s, many Middle Eastern governments began cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly in Egypt. The Ikhwanis soon recognized that American social and political liberties would enable them to easily spread their Islamist ideology. Still, they cloaked themselves in secrecy from the start, publicly referring to their organization as “The Cultural Society.”
The 1960s was also when Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi establishment began its global Islamization project, partnering with Brotherhood members who had left countries where the group was targeted for repression. One former U.S. Treasury official estimated that the Saudi government has spent some $75 billion supporting Islam and Islamic institutions worldwide. In 1962, the Muslim World League (MWL) was estab lished in Mecca, with Brotherhood members in key leadership positions, to propagate Wahhabism worldwide. Over the ensuing decades, the MWL has funded many legitimate charitable endeavors but also a number of Islamist projects. Some of this money has come to support Brotherhood activists in the U.S., in part to change the perception of Wahhabism in America from “extremist” to “mainstream.”
A primary focus of the MWL and the Brotherhood has been on education and indoctrination—especially of the youth—as the critical first step of their bottom-up approach. According to the Brotherhood’s own documents, “In 1962, the Muslim Students Union was founded by a group of the first Ikhwanis in North American and the meetings of the Ikhwan became conferences and Students Union Camps.” The next year, a more formal organizational structure was created by two Brotherhood members, Ahmed Totonji and Jamal Barzinji, who helped found the Muslim Students Association (MSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In its early years, the MSA distributed at its chapter meetings English translations of the writings of al-Banna, Qutb, and other Islamist ideologues. Arab Muslim members of the MSA who adopted these ideologies would then be recruited into the Brotherhood.
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