• May 13, 2008

Assessing the Muslim Brotherhood “Firewall”

Assessing the Muslim Brotherhood “Firewall”

So that I don”t feel like such a bad blogger, here”s a lightly edited version of my presentation notes for the public session of yesterday”s Institute for Middle East Studies workshop on political Islamist movements. This was very much a workshop, not a place to present finished work, and I”m still digesting a lot of the critiques and suggestions. Here it is in rough form nonetheless – and sorry, I really don”t have time to go through and add the links that are so richly deserved. Welcome to the virtual workshop!

In a number of recent articles I have argued that the Muslim Brotherhood can serve as an important “firewall” against al-Qaeda style radicalization in Arab countries (while simultaneously taking seriously the concerns that it might act as a “transmission belt” towards radicalization under certain conditions). While this makes intuitive sense, and seems to be empirically plausible in some key cases, much needs to be done to flesh out the contention into a more rigorous causal argument which specifies mechanisms and can be made subject to empirical analysis. In today”s presentation, I don”t yet presume to go that far. But I do want to put forward three key areas for research.

Before getting to that, a word on the rising centrality of the MB-AQ divide across a wide range of issues in the world of Islamist politics. This is a key theme of influential analysts such as the Jordanian journalist Mohammed Abu Roman and Akram Hijazi (whose writings are widely circulated in a range of jihadist internet forums). It can certainly be seen in the many recent statements by Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose obsession with the Muslim Brotherhood is well documented; in his recent “Q+A” session he devoted a remarkable amount of space to the MB-friendly Yusuf al-Qaradawi and to a detailed critique of the Brotherhood”s party platform. He has also made a determined effort over the last few years to claim the mantle of reform (islah) from the Brotherhood, dismissing their attempts to work within the system and trying to redefine reform within a salafi-jihadist framework. Zawahiri has sharply criticized the Egyptian MB and the Palestinian Hamas for their participation in elections (both groups responded with sharp, scornful dismissals).

The main driver, though, is probably Iraq, where the conflict which erupted between the Islamic State of Iraq and the various “nationalist-jihadist” factions has been framed as “salafi-jihadist vs ikhwani” even though few of those groups other than perhaps Hamas Iraq really merit the label. This often seems to be reduced to a catch-all for “groups which claim to be Islamist but aren”t because they are willing to work within existing political institutions, prioritize the national rather than the universal jihad, and put pragmatism ahead of principle”. The irony is that while the Muslim Brotherhood party (Tareq al-Hashemi”s Islamic Party) does enjoy political power due to its decision to contest elections, Iraq has not had a serious MB presence for a long time because of Saddam”s refusal to tolerate competing movements or power centers – indeed, I remember back in 2002-03 that at least a few influential MB-affiliated writers argued against siding with Iraq against the US because of Saddam”s treatment of the movement over the years.

At any rate, today”s presentation focuses on a set of claims about how the MB might act as firewall against AQ-style radicalism. This begins with a simple observation: where the MB is strong (Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine for example), AQ has had a hard time finding a point of entry despite serious efforts to do so, while where the MB is weak (Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Lebanon) it has had more success. This begs the question of how to define where the MB is strong and weak and along what indicators – certainly something for further research.

Correlation, of course, is not causation. How, exactly, does a strong MB interfere with al-Qaeda style movements? Simplifying a bit, I could see arguments which stress either ideology or organization. The ideology argument would focus on the MB”s avowed “wasatiya” (centrism) and denunciation of Qutbist notions of jahiliya and takfir. It”s clear (to me anyway) that the leadership of the MB is firmly opposed to al-Qaeda and its ideology, and have made this extremely clear in both rhetoric and practice over the last five years. MB leaders themselves seem to prefer this explanation, as do many of the MB members I”ve spoken with about this. But ideology alone does not seem to be enough – ideas tend to be somewhat elastic, adapting to circumstance, and there are lots of different Islamist ideas out there besides those of the Brotherhood. Ideas, as they say, do not float freely.

The second argument would therefore stress the MB”s distinctive organization which allows it to effectively monitor and control social space – through mosques, charities, organizational networks, and widespread networks. Put simply, by this argument the MB is aware when radicals move in to social sectors full of Islamically-oriented and politically active people, and are in a position to lock out their challengers. (Think here of Fearon and Laitin”s arguments about in-group policing, for instance.) Of course, the MB isn”t the only kind of organization that can do this – an efficient mukhabarat, tribes or clans, established neighborhoods, gangs, and so forth might all do similar functions. But I do suspect that MB structures have a distinctive advantage with regard to specifically Islamist challengers. That”s where ideology does matter: the MB is present in the religious, pious spaces where AQ might get foothold in way that unions or secular orgs are not. [I”d like to work in something here about Abdullah al-Nefisi”s argument for dissolving the MB based on Qatar”s experience, but haven”t yet.]

So far, so good. But even if the firewall argument has been true in the past, can the firewall hold when it”s being actively degraded? The current wave of official crackdowns on the MB in places like Jordan and Egypt might similarly hinder their capability (if not willingness) to act as a firewall. Repression after choosing political participation discredits the pragmatists within the organization, and it”s possible to imagine politicized youth growing frustrated at feckless leadership or to see the MB struggle to hold on to some of its constituencies (what Amr Hamzawy terms the ‘facebookiyin’, angry and impoverished workers, pious salafis, marginal urban areas). What”s more, the repressive efforts increasingly target precisely the charities (Jor) and financial underpinings (Eg) which make the organization so formidable. There”s precedent for such degraded capacity: during the Egyptian insurgency of 1992-97, for instance, the MB found itself caught up indiscriminately by the regime”s repressive response despite its efforts to differentiate itself from the Gamaa and Islamic Jihad and was thus perhaps less able to contain radical challengers.

There are obviously a lot of other variables to consider here, and a lot of cases beyond the paradigmatic ones which would change the picture. The focus on the organization rather than the ideology would arguably make the global MB less relevant of a “firewall” than specific national MB organizations. It would also raise cautionary concerns about the likely impact of the repressive measures currently being taken by Arab regimes – by weakening the MB organizationally, they could be opening up those spaces for more radical competitors. Jordan seems to be a particularly relevant test case here, with the MB and IAF discredited after the response by some of its members to Zarqawi, highly publicized internal splits, the fallout of Hamas over the last few years, its poor electoral performance, and in general the breakdown of the long-standing accord between the regime and the MB. Syria might also emerge as a national arena upon which to focus, just as Lebanon has to such widespread alarm over the last year.