Contemporary Ideological Developments Within the Muslim Brotherhood

Contemporary Ideological Developments Within the Muslim Brotherhood

Editor’s Note: This is the text of Israel Elad-Altman’s remarks at Hudson Institute’s recent conference on the Muslim Brotherhood. This paper, along with the papers of other conference speakers, will be published in the forthcoming Volume 6 of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, which will be a special issue devoted to examining the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.

Perhaps the most important ideological development in the recent history of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) movement has been its adoption of participatory politics as a major strategy. This engagement in the electoral process has been accompanied by a new democratic narrative that promotes the creation of a “civil state” and, in some cases, Brotherhood-formed political parties.

It has been argued that Islamist movements would be moderated by integrating them into the political process, and radicalized by being excluded. Has the MB”s track record lent credence to this hypothesis? Has its participation in politics and in elections been accompanied by a fundamental ideological change? Has it changed the nature and objectives of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan)? Two cases shed light on these questions: that of Egypt, where the brotherhood is officially forbidden, and that of Jordan, where it is legal and has its political party.

The Brotherhood’s strategy of political participation has, in fact, precipitated a deep crisis in the movement. While participation has produced considerable electoral success, those very achievements have led the Egyptian and Jordanian regimes to move firmly to deny the Brotherhood new electoral gains and to reduce its political role. Neither Arab nor foreign officials, moreover, fully recognized Hamas”s victory in the January 2006 legislative elections in Gaza. And in the Moroccan legislative elections of September 2007, which were relatively free, the MB’s Justice and Development Party did much less well than expected.

It appears, then, as the Egyptian scholar Khalil al-Anani recently put it1 that “the Islamist Spring” may be over. Has the MB”s route to influence and eventually to power through elections reached a dead end? If it has, what will the Brotherhood do now? Hamas provided one response to this question when it took over Gaza by force. Some see that response as the model likely to be followed by other Brotherhood branches. On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, is the example offered by the victory of the Islamic AKP (Justice and Development Party) in Turkey’s July 2007 legislative elections. This achievement may be taken as proof that breaking with traditional Ikhwani ideology can be the Islamists’ route to taking power and keeping it. How does the MB see the AKP”s experience? Our second inquiry, then, will shift from ideological issues to more practical matters—how the Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan has responded to the new constraints on its political role, and what its position is regarding the AKP”s model.

Lastly, this article will address a few important related questions. Some Brotherhood leaders express interest in opening a dialogue with the United States. How does this square with the Brotherhood”s ideology, and with its support of the anti-American, Iranian-led “resistance axis?” And where does the Brotherhood stand on the Sunni-Shia, Arab-Iranian conflict?

Between Dawa and Siyasah

It is important to note that the MB’s decision to engage in political and electoral processes (siyasah) as a strategy to reach power did not replace its traditional strategy, dawa, which combines missionary and social activity. Some Brotherhood branches created political parties and others did not, but none of them replaced dawa with siyasah; rather, they merely added it to their established activities. MB organizations have not abandoned their universal mission, which seeks to establish the sovereignty of sharia (Islamic law), and metamorphosed into a civil political party that accepts the separation of religion from politics and the sovereignty of the nation.

The Brotherhood’s political activities, and their political parties where they exist, are meant to advance the Islamizing objectives of the dawa movement. In organizational terms, for example, the parties are not really separated from the dawa organization. This is true even in Morocco, where the Brotherhood’s political party –the Justice and Development Party (Hizb al-Adalah wal-Tanmiyah)—is said to have gone further than others in distancing itself from the dawa organization and its movement of origin, the “Monotheism and Reform Movement” (Harakat al-Tawhid walIslah).2

The dawa movement claims to possess the sublime truth, which it seeks to spread, and sees itself as morally superior to all others. It cannot accept ideological pluralism and cannot make ideological compromises because divine truth cannot be subject to negotiation. Compromise, however, is central to politics. The two strategies of dawa and siyasah are, therefore, in many ways contradictory and inevitably produce an ambiguous ideological message. For example, the dawa movement, which calls for the implementation of sharia and the establishment of an Islamic state, cannot accept non-Muslims as citizens fully equal to Muslims, which should be a sine qua non for a civil political party. Engagement in political and electoral activity, moreover, requires dialogue and partnership with other political forces, including with ideological rivals. But that could contradict the message of dawa and the Brotherhood doctrine regarding loyalty to Muslims and non Muslims (al-wala wal-Bara). Such tensions give rise to the famous “grey zones”—the ambiguous positions on ideological issues that provide key benchmarks for gauging an organization’s commitment to democratic and pluralistic values.

The Egyptian MB: Seeking a Civil or Sharia State?

Since the beginning of the Egyptian Brotherhood”s involvement in electoral politics in the 1980s, its public statements have emphasized its commitment to promoting democracy, freedom, justice, human rights and common citizenship for members of religious minorities. Its participation in politics has also created the need for a political party.

The Brotherhood leaders most in favor of establishing a political party belong to the “second generation” or “middle generation” (jil al-wasat) of leaders. These men, who were activists in Islamist student organizations in the 1970s, are better skilled and more interested in political work than in dawa. Some have advocated setting up a party along side the Brotherhood”s structure, while others have suggested that the Brotherhood transform itself into a political party. The Brotherhood”s discourse is abuzz with references to the future party, describing it as “a civil party with a religious source of authority” (marja’iyyah) and arguing that it will not seek to set up a religious state or a religious government. Its goal, instead, will be to establish a civil government and a civil state (dawlah madaniyyah) with an “Islamic source of authority.”

The concept of a “civil state with an Islamic source of authority” is seen in contemporary Islamist thought as an alternative to the concept of a state operating under divine rule (hakimiyyah) that requires the implementation of sharia. But while the Egyptian Brotherhood talks about a civil party and a civil state, it still adheres to the principle of hakimiyyah and seeks a state ruled by sharia. It regards itself as a comprehensive movement, combining—just as it views Islam as combining—religion and the state.

The Brotherhood’s mission statement, which is permanently posted on its official Arabic-language website3, defines the Brotherhood as a community (jama’ah) of Muslims who preach for and demand the rule of Allah’s law (tahkim shar’ allah). It recapitulates the Brotherhood”s fundamental creed, formulated at its fifth conference (January 1939), which declares Islam to be a total system, complete unto itself, the final arbiter of life in all its aspects, for all nations and in all times4. The “Reform Initiative,” which the Brotherhood launched in March 2004, states clearly that the ultimate goal of reform is the implementation of sharia. It also says:

We have a clear mission—to implement Allah’s law, on the basis of our belief that that it is the real, effective way out of all our problems—domestic or external, political, economic, social or cultural. That is to be achieved by forming the Muslim individual, the Muslim home, the Muslim government, and the state which will lead the Islamic states, reunite the scattered Muslims, restore their glory, retrieve for them their lost lands and stolen homelands, and carry the banner of the call to Allah in order to bless the world with Islam’s teachings5.

Even the most ardent advocates of the siyasah strategy have neither accepted the separation of religion and state, nor abandoned the principle that Islam is both religion and state (din wa-dawlah). And they, too, uphold the Brotherhood’s identity as a religious dawa movement, committed to Islam’s total and universal nature. Thus, according to Abd al-Mun’im Abu al-Futuh, one of the most outspoken “second generation” advocates of the political strategy, the most important achievement of the Brotherhood has been its success in spreading the concept of a universal and comprehensive Islam and of the inseparability of state and religion6. And Issam al-Aryan, another prominent “second generation” leader and promoter of the siyasah strategy, defined the Brotherhood”s objective as

the construction of a total revival on the foundations and principles of Islam, which begins with reforming the Muslim individual, the Muslim home and the Muslim society, continues with reforming government and restoring the international entity [al-kiyan al-duwali] of the Islamic nation, and ends with being the masters of the world [ustadhiyat al-‘alam] through guidance and preaching [bil-hidayah wal-irshad wal-dawa].7

This self-understanding of the Brotherhood as a guide to society obviously does not conform to the idea of a civil party, one among many parties that compete with one another without claiming possession of the absolute truth or pretending to lead the others. Neither is the concept of the “Guide” as the title of the Brotherhood”s leader indicative of a democratic organization. The Brotherhood has, therefore, made it a point to refer to its leader as the “Chairman” of the MB group on its English-language website, to his deputy as the “Deputy Chairman” and so forth. On the Brotherhood’s Arabic-language sites and in its publications, however, the leader is still the “General Guide” (al-Murshid al-‘Aamm), the organization”s highest institution is the “Guidance Bureau” (Maktab al-Irshad), etc.

Far from regarding itself as one political actor among many, the Brotherhood views itself as speaking for Islam. The Brotherhood”s claim to be the true representative of Islam is reflected in its electoral slogan, “Islam is the Solution” (al-Islam huwa al-hal). The slogan has been sharply criticized, but the Brotherhood has refused to give it up. That is why the Brotherhood would not transform itself into a political party: If Islam is comprehensive, and the MB is Islam, then it must be a comprehensive movement and cannot be reduced to a political party. The underlying notion is that the MB is the real Islamic community—it is a whole and cannot be just a part of that whole.

The MB Party’s Program in Egypt

In 2006 the Egyptian Brotherhood made several public relations mistakes that hurt its efforts to project itself as a nonviolent, civil movement and helped the regime depict it as a violent movement posing a threat to Egypt”s national security. Facing the regime”s pressure and wanting to improve its image and acquire legitimacy as a civil movement seeking democratic reform, the MB started in early 2007 to focus public attention on its future political party and its program. The Brotherhood announced that it had decided to establish a party and was on the verge of publishing the party”s program. Though this party has not yet been established, nor has its official program been published, however, unofficial draft texts of its platform—not formally endorsed by the Brotherhood—have been circulated and have aroused public debate.

The unofficial texts not only support the supremacy of sharia in the Brotherhood”s future state, but also institutionalize it. Thus the future party seeks to implement “the authority of Islamic Sharia” (marja”iyyat al-shari”ah al-Islamiyyah) in the following manner8:

  • The legislative branch should consult an assembly of religious scholars.  The president of the state, too, must consult this assembly of religious scholars whenever he issues decisions that have legal power.

  • Whenever there is a definitive sharia ruling, backed by a definite holy text (nass), the legislative branch has no authority to legislate differently. When a clear holy text is not available, the position of the assembly of scholars can be put to vote in the legislative branch. Rejecting that position requires an absolute majority of the members of the legislative branch.

  • That assembly of religious scholars should be elected by religious scholars, and enjoy total freedom from the executive branch.

The Brotherhood thus seeks to institutionalize sharia rule by establishing its own version of the “rule of the jurist.”

The draft program says that the state has fundamental religious functions, as it is responsible for protecting and defending Islam. Those religious functions are represented by the head of state, and consequently the head of state must be a Muslim. That is also so because decisions on matters of war are sharia decisions, requiring that whoever makes them will be a Muslim. (Other drafts, too, stated that the president must be a Muslim male).9 The draft declared as well, however, that the state will be based on the principle of citizenship (muwatanah), that all citizens will have equal rights and obligations, and that “the woman will enjoy all her rights, to be practiced in conformity with the fundamental values of society.”

But how does the equality of all citizens square with the exclusion of non-Muslims and women from the top state position? What are “the fundamental values of society” that govern women rights, and who defines them? Those and similar questions abounded following the appearance of the drafts. First Deputy General Guide Muhammad Habib clarified what he described as the Brotherhood”s “red lines” on these issues: Copts and women cannot be the head of state.10 And the Brotherhood’s leadership rejected a proposal to insert into its draft program wording that would present the authority of sharia as reflecting the people”s, rather than the divine, will. This unacceptable formulation stated: “The authority of the Islamic sharia is a constitutional principle chosen by the nation by its free will… That authority is not imposed on the nation, and becomes an authority only due to the nation”s choice.”11

The draft program met with harsh criticism on these issues. There was even some criticism from within the MB. In defense of the draft, Abd al-Futuh argued that any misunderstanding resulted simply from “mistaken phrasing,” and that the assembly of religious scholars should be a consultative body only and that a women could be the head of state. He did not say, however, that a non-Muslim could be head of state.12

The Brotherhood’s Strategy in Face of a Political Crisis

Since the November 2005 legislative elections, the Egyptian government has undertaken a series of measures that have effectively denied the Brotherhood any political role and blocked its access to elections. Those measures have included large-scale and ongoing arrests, which have affected top MB leaders; the use of military courts; a crackdown on the organization’s financial infrastructure; and constitutional amendments, adopted in March 2007, designed to undercut the Brotherhood”s electoral activity. As a result of these actions, not one Brotherhood-supported candidate was elected in the Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council) elections of June 2007.

As the crisis has deepened, the Brotherhood”s strategies have come under increasing criticism from within both the Islamist movement and the Brotherhood itself. In early 2007 Ali Abd al-Hafiz of Asyut University led a group of Brotherhood members out of the organization, and formed what he called “the Alternative Trend” (al-Tayar al-Badil). He called on the Brotherhood to separate itself from the political realm, arguing that one cannot claim to be a religious and moral guide to society while, at the same time, competing in elections against those one pretends to guide.13

In January 2007 Abdullah al-Nafisi, a former Brotherhood member and a well- known Islamist scholar, went even further, calling on the Egyptian Brotherhood to dissolve itself. He contended that the organization had become a sponge, absorbing and freezing energies and thus, in effect, serving the regime. The Brotherhood had exhausted itself in endless skirmishes with the regime, and had few valuable achievements to show for it. By being so immersed in daily political struggles, it had lost strategic direction and long-term systematic thinking, and had become a burden on the Islamist movement. It was better for it to dissolve itself, therefore, and turn into a school of thought.14

Expressing similar sentiments, Muhammad Salim al-Awa—a well-known Islamist thinker, former Brotherhood member and close associate of Shaykh al-Qaradawi—urged the Brotherhood in June 2007 to leave politics altogether for ten years. It should focus instead on educational, cultural and social work. The right way to fight injustice and tyranny is not by running for parliament, he said, but by educating the people and caring for them. The Brotherhood”s political action had given nothing to the Muslim people of Egypt.15

To date, the Brotherhood”s leadership has reacted both to the regime”s pressure and to the criticism by staying its course. It did not resort to public protests and demonstrations in response to the regime”s crackdown, nor has it shown signs of changing its strategy. In response to its critics, the leadership tells its followers that the movement had seen worse repression in its long history—and survived by patience and perseverance.

The MB rejects ideological and organizational change, asserting that the movement has its course, its constants (thawabit) and its historical heritage. Whoever chooses to follow a different path, which is not in harmony with the movement’s course and with its constants, is free to do so—outside the movement. But the ideological and organizational constants must be respected and followed, lest the movement disintegrate into factions and parties. It is “our belief that Islam is total, comprehensive, and an integrated whole…it is unimaginable therefore that someone from the ranks should show up, calling for the breaking up of Islam, trying to push the movement into the unknown….”16

Those “calling for the breaking up of Islam” are obviously the advocates of separating siyasah from dawa, or of quitting politics altogether. The Brotherhood”s rejection of separating the religious and political realms derives from its commitment to being a comprehensive movement. But why does it refrain from violent reaction? This is apparently explained by the Brotherhood”s doctrine for reaching power.
That doctrine is based on its long-term strategy of Islamization from the bottom of society up. According to this plan, the Brotherhood will be able to take power only at the stage of tamkin, when the movement will have won the hearts and minds of the people. At this stage all the necessary steps to prepare the whole society will have been taken. These steps include, among others, the penetration and mobilization of “influential institutions” like the military, the police, the media, al-Azhar, the legal institutions and parliament, and of key social groups. The external, international environment will also need to be prepared for the Brotherhood’s ascension to power.17

The Brotherhood’s reaction to the regime’s pressures seems to reflect its assessment that the ground is not yet sufficiently prepared for it to attain power. It has apparently decided, therefore, that it should avoid making provocative moves. It does not want to provide the regime with a legitimate excuse for taking measures that could put at risk the very the survival of the Brotherhood. Its leaders” public position is that the organization is still far away from reaching power. General Guide Muhammad Mahdi Akif characterized all the recent cases where Islamists took power—in Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan and Somalia—as failures, because those regimes were not raised to power by the people’s will. The Brotherhood will be willing to assume power, he said, only once the people accept its message and want it in power.18

Hamas’s election victory in Gaza in 2006 and its subsequent formation of a government did not conform to the Egyptian Brotherhood’s concept of reaching power either. Both the the domestic and external environments were unprepared for it. In August 2007 Deputy General Guide Muhammad Habib stated that Hamas”s election victory had negatively affected the political reality in Egypt and in the Arab world.19

It should be noted that the Brotherhood does not rule out resorting to violence  in principle. Although Akif did indeed say in March 2007 that violence was not one of the Brotherhood’s means for reacting to its exclusion from the political system,20 he moderated that remark in August 2007. At that time he did not abjure violence—given the right balance of power—but currently, he assessed power to be in the regime”s favor: “It is not in everyone”s interest that violence or a clash take place now [italics added], and it is not in [our] interest now [italics mine] to conduct resistance against the government, because it has millions who have been prepared to confront protests, to repress demonstrators, and to beat and arrest them.”21

The Brotherhood”s leadership may well be calculating that there is little advantage in risking further trouble now. Rather, it should invest in preparing for the day when President Mubarak departs and the Brotherhood will have a chance to play a key role in shaping the new order. Waiting patiently for that moment seems to be the chosen option, at least for now.

The Jordanian MB

The Jordanian branch of the Brotherhood was established in 1945 to pursue several objectives, including the Islamization of society, the creation of an Islamic state that would implement sharia, the conduct of jihad to liberate occupied Muslim lands, the unification of the Muslim nation, and the liberation of the globe from idols (tawaghit).22 Initially, the Brotherhood in Jordan allied itself with the Jordanian state to undertake their common struggle against Nasserism, pan-Arabism and Arab socialism. That alliance ended in the 1980s, however, when Islamism became the main ideological rival to the monarchy.

Since then the Jordanian MB has come under the influence of the radical, takfiri ideology of Sayyid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam and others. It has also been more and more influenced by Hamas, which reflects the growing Palestinian element in the movement. This has led to the Brotherhood’s increasingly confrontational posture toward the regime and, in turn, the regime’s efforts to contain and reduce the Brotherhood”s power.

One reason the Brotherhood created a distinct political party in 1992—the Islamic Action Front (IAF)—was to protect its dawa activities from any measures the government might adopt against its political activities. The IAF’s declared objectives include fostering a return to Islamic life and applying sharia in all fields, preparing the nation for jihad against Zionist and imperialist enemies, helping the Palestinian cause and seeking to liberate Palestine, achieving national unity and liberty, confronting and reducing foreign influences, and establishing a system of government based on democratic principles and shura, or consultation.23
The party’s blueprint for a new Jordan, entitled “The Islamist Movement’s Vision of Reform in Jordan,” states that “Islamic sharia is the source of the laws and of legislation” (al-Shari’ah al-Islamiyyah hiya masdar al-qawanin wal-tashri’at). It demands, furthermore, that it be “clearly stipulated that Islam is the source [italics mine] of legislation.” The document also states that the “Islamic Movement” seeks to establish Allah”s sharia on earth and to construct life on the basis of justice and liberty, in a civil society whose source of authority is Islamic.24 Far from abandoning the idea of creating an Islamic state that will implement sharia, the MB has established a political party committed to advancing that goal. The formation of a MB political party, therefore, does not in itself signify a change in the movement”s objectives.

The Brotherhood and the Political Crisis in Jordan

The MB and IAF oppose the Jordanian government on the most critical strategic issues. In fatwas issued by the IAF”s Committee of Sharia Scholars, the IAF denounced Jordan”s alliance with the United States and Israel and its assistance to American and allied forces in Iraq, and attacked the Jordanian king directly, stating that a ruler who allies himself with the enemies of his religion and his nation becomes one of them.25 Another IAF fatwa proclaimed that Jordan’s relations with Israel contradicted sharia and must be severed. It said that maintaining those relations amounted to a betrayal of Allah, the Prophet and the faithful.26 The MB and the IAF support the Iran-Hezbollah-Syria-Hamas axis and maintain close contacts with the Syrian regime, despite that regime’s persecution of the Syrian branch of the MB.

The Jordanian Brotherhood”s strong ties to Hamas raise the question of whether it still is a truly Jordanian organization. And unlike their Egyptian counterparts, the Jordanian Brothers state clearly that their aim is to reach now. Following Hamas’s 2006 victory in Gaza, IAF leaders expressed confidently that they, too, would soon win an electoral victory and boasted that the Islamic movement was ready to assume political power.27

As the Brotherhood became more radical, however, the Jordanian government moved to limit its power and influence. It passed legislation limiting the Brotherhood’s dawa activities and implemented new measures to control the Brotherhood’s financial arm and thus reduce its ability to sustain its wide network of social, educational and religious institutions. In July 2007 the Brotherhood escalated the standoff with the government by withdrawing from the Jordanian municipal elections while they were in progress, accusing the government of excessive fraud and threatening to boycott the November 2007 legislative elections. The government then responded that it might move to exclude the Brotherhood from politics.
This confrontation led to an internal dispute within the Brotherhood. Ultimately, more pragmatic voices overcame the opposition of hardliners, and the Brotherhood declared that it would participate in the legislative elections. But the ongoing crisis produced criticism of the MB leadership and calls for a dramatic change of direction.

Ibrahim Gharaibah, a former senior MB member, proposed a fundamental organizational and ideological change. He argued that the Brotherhood had outlived its original mission and that it had lost its direction.  He said that the Brotherhood had to choose among the three courses of action it pursued—namely, dawa, politics and social work—because it was impossible to combine them. He urged the Brotherhood to become a social movement that would help organize and lead the middle classes in the face of the new challenges posed by globalization and privatization. Alternatively, he suggested that the Brotherhood could either transform itself completely into a political party or turn its political arm into a truly independent political party.28

An article on the Brotherhood”s official website offered yet another strategy. It suggested that the Jordanian MB should react more aggressively to the regime’s repression and follow Hamas’s example by putting an end to the “Meccan period” in the Brotherhood’s thinking. (The “Meccan period” alludes to the time when the Prophet Mohammed and his followers were persecuted by the tribes of Mecca, which Mohammed ended by immigrating to Yathrib). “If the Brotherhood”s bones are to be broken, why not break the enemy”s bones too?” asked the writer, who urged the Brotherhood to think “creatively” about new ways to confront repression and to change the rules of the game. One option he proposed was large-scale civil disobedience.29      

MB Views of the “Turkish Model”

The AKP’s July 2007 victory generated mixed reactions in the MB in general. Some saw the AKP’s success as a vindication of the Brotherhood’s strategic decision to participate in electoral politics. Others were doubtful about whether the AKP is actually an Islamist movement and about whether the AKP’s victory should rightly be considered a victory for the Islamic movement.

Among AKP supporters Shaykh Faisal Mawlawi, head of the Lebanese Brotherhood branch, Al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyyah, had no problem with the AKP’s professed commitment to secularism. The AKP did not abandon its Islamic principles, he said, but only tried to achieve what was possible in difficult conditions. And it had indeed succeeded in moving a step closer to an original Islamic solution that could be developed in the age of materialistic globalization.30 Abdelilah Benkirane, a leader of the Moroccan Justice and Development Party, was more skeptical: “They [the AKP] are far more advanced in politics than us: We are still in the dawa phase. And they may be a role model, but they make too many concessions on Islam: They even serve alcohol at their official receptions, it’s shameful.”31

Members of the Egyptian Brotherhood, for their part, moved quickly to refute any suggestion that their organization was analogous to the AKP. That was probably in reaction to suggestions that the Egyptian MB should emulate the AKP by shedding the traditional Ikhwani ideology, which was seen as unpopular. Additionally, the Egyptian Brotherhood”s leadership argued forcefully that the AKP was not the right role model for the Islamic movement.32 They said, among other things, that the AKP”s goal was merely to assume political power without generating a tangible, substantive Islamic change in the nature of society. The Brotherhood, by contrast, seeks to create a fully Islamic society in addition to gaining political power. The Egyptian leaders pointed out that Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan adheres to the rules of the Turkish political system, to Turkey’s constitution, and to the country’s secular identity. This adherence to secularism, which they described as the “AKP’s choice,” cannot be the Egyptian Brotherhood’s position in any form. While the Brotherhood seeks to revive the unified Islamic nation, restore its leading global role and reestablish the Islamic Caliphate, the AKP has no universal Islamic agenda.

The MB and the United States

Neutralizing American opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood is a crucial element in the Egyptian Brotherhood’s strategy to assume political power. The Brotherhood’s “Reform Initiative” of March 2004 was launched to persuade outsiders that the Brotherhood was in fact a “moderate Islamist” movement. The MB is unwilling, however, to pay for dialogue with the United States by making any substantial ideological or political concessions. And as the self-appointed leader of the Arab and Islamic struggle, the Egyptian MB continues to hold firm to the position that its overall project is in total conflict with that of the United States.
In the view of General Guide Akif, the United States pursues particularly hostile policies toward the Arab and Muslim world.33  He stated in a recent missive that Islam is the only way to save the international community from American tyranny, which is bound to spread a “destructive chaos” and destroy the whole world.
In another recent missive Akif called on young jihadis, like those who committed the suicide attacks in Morocco and Algeria, to direct their resistance, using all possible means, “against the real enemy of the Nation, (Umma) the enemy which occupies, kills, desecrates and plunders … in al-Quds, in Baghdad and in Kabul.”34 Akif’s deputy, Muhammad Habib, said recently that the role of the Brotherhood was to resist “the American project, which seeks to bring the Nation (Umma) down to its knees, to weaken its faith, to corrupt its morality, to plunder its resources, and to eradicate its cultural particularity.”35

Even those leaders like Issam al-Aryan of the Brotherhood”s “second generation” who express interest in a dialogue with the United States uphold the position that the Brotherhood”s project is fundamentally opposed to the American one. They claim to welcome dialogue “as a cultural and human value.” But at the same time they point to a basic conflict between, on the one hand, “the growing American project of empire and hegemony,” and on the other, the Brotherhood”s project. This is to construct an Islamic reformist revival to liberate Muslim lands from any foreign hegemony and to create true, lasting Arab unity and an international Islamic order (kiyan dawli islami).36

In July 2007 al-Aryan called for opening relations with the West, but he warned that the Muslim Brothers should not submit to Western dictates and unfair preconditions. The purpose of any dialogue with the West, as he saw it, was to demand that the West respect the right of Muslims to choose their way of life and Islamic form of government (wa-shari’atihim allati tahkumuhum) and to not impose an un-Islamic system on Muslim countries.37 It would be wrong, therefore, to construe the Muslim Brotherhood’s opening up to the West as indicative of a trend toward political moderation. The Brotherhood is unwilling to make any changes to its basically radical ideology; it shows virtually no signs of abandoning its goals of establishing the rule of the sharia and constructing a universal Islamic order.    

The MB’s View of Iran, the Shi’a and the Sunni-Shi’a Rift

While Egyptian Brotherhood leaders have voiced deep reservations about Iran”s role in Iraq and the Shi”a resurgence, they also see Iran and Hezbollah as major partners in the struggle against Israel and against U.S. forces in Iraq. In the past this has meant that the Egyptian MB has routinely rejected the view that Iran constitutes a strategic threat to Arabs. It has generally welcomed Iran’s nuclear program as well—reiterating  the Iranian regime’s claim that the program was for peaceful purposes but adding that any possible military purpose would simply “create a sort of a balance between the two sides, the Arab and Islamic side and the Israeli side.”38
The Egyptian Brotherhood has also tended not to show much concern over Iran’s efforts to spread Shi’a Islam in Arab countries. Akif has repeatedly dismissed the phenomenon of Sunni conversions to Shi’a Islam in Egypt as marginal, and has rejected the idea of a rising, increasingly powerful “Shi’a crescent” as neither logical nor realistic.39 His position has been that the bitter, often violent conflict between Sunnis and Shi’a should be postponed until after Muslims as a whole have won their battles with the West and the Arabs have recovered all their rights.

In May 2007, however, the Egyptian Brotherhood’s public pronouncements about Iran and the Shi’a as a whole seemed to change somewhat after meetings between the United States and Iran were announced. Akif, for instance, warned that such negotiations were likely to make Iran the dominant regional actor and thus diminish the power of Iraq and the Arab states.40 And Deputy General Guide Habib said more recently that Iran was seeking to enlarge its sphere of influence into Arab societies and that its role in the Middle East was “raising concerns.” He added, however, that Iran’s strategy was a legitimate response to American policies in the region, and roundly criticized what he called the “Arab moderate axis” for serving American interests. He further urged Arab countries to stand up to the United States and support Islamic “resistance projects” (mashru”at al-muqawamah) around the world.41
The attitude of the Jordanian Brotherhood toward Iran and toward Shiism as a whole appears to be much less coherent than that of the Egyptian branch. This is because the Jordanian Brotherhood is internally divided on these matters. The takfiri, anti-Shi’a sentiment within its ranks conflicts with its professed solidarity with Hamas, Iran”s ally. While the Jordanian Brotherhood highly values Iran”s support of the Palestinian cause, therefore, it has been deeply critical of Iran”s role in Iraq, going so far as to allege that Iran facilitated the American invasion of Iraq and that it continues to be involved there in the destruction, sectarianism and violence against Sunnis. Iran is also seen by some Jordanian Brothers as having helped the United States topple the Sunni Taliban regime in Afghanistan.42


In both Egypt and Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to participate in electoral politics as a strategy for assuming power has not been accompanied by changes in its ideology or objectives. The MB continues to be committed to the creation of an Islamic state, which it still seeks to accomplish through dawa. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the Egyptian MB”s party program calls for a state ruled by sharia.        

The innovation behind the MB’s new political strategy is not its rejection of its basic ideology, nor its abandonment of dawa in favor of participatory politics. Rather, what is new is the way the MB now seeks to institutionalize its rule—namely, through an assembly of jurists. That may help explain, incidentally, the Egyptian Brotherhood”s professed solidarity with Iran. Not only does the MB approve of Iran’s anti-American and anti-Israeli positions, but it is also in basic ideological sympathy with the radical Shi’a concept of the Islamic state. From the MB’s point of view, Islamic parties like Turkey’s AKP represent an adjustment to new global realities and a desire to integrate into the global system.  By contrast, the Iranian regime, like the MB, rejects the current world order, and seeks to construct an alternative world order in which Islam reigns supreme within Muslim countries.
The crisis in which the MB organizations in both Egypt and Jordan find themselves is very much of their own making. It is a product of the MB being both a dawa movement committed to the creation of an Islamic order, as well as a political actor that is forced to work within the existing framework of nation states and popular politics. Despite the ideological incongruities and incoherence that these dual approaches and roles produce, the MB has shown itself to be unwilling to alter its basic ideological agenda or to modify its organizational structure. Some point to a generation gap inside the Brotherhood and presume that a younger generation is more pragmatic and political and less ideological than the “old guard.” They argue that this younger generation will ultimately transform the MB into a political organization, which will, in turn, moderate the Brotherhood’s radical ideology. In fact, however, the generation gap does not correspond to an ideological one. Although they may differ in their choice of tactics, the “second generation” leaders in Egypt share the ideological commitments of their elders regarding the Brotherhood”s main objectives.

Writing in defense of Arab Islamists, the Jordanian journalist Muhammad Abu Rumman has suggested that the ideological stagnation within the Arab Islamist movement derives from the fact that its adherents’ preoccupation with state repression has hindered their ability to develop and change. But the Turkish Islamist movement was also besieged and persecuted for decades, and its leaders nonetheless managed to develop, innovate and thus lead the movement beyond its siege mentality.43 Neither can regime repression explain the modest electoral gains of Morocco”s Justice and Development Party. According to the Egyptian analyst Khalil Anani, those electoral gains may indicate that Arab societies as a whole are not deeply convinced of the effectiveness or desirability of “the Islamic solution” offered by the Islamists.
The MB movement is facing a crisis. Its generation-old project is being blocked, and the movement is being called on to reexamine its objectives and strategies. So far the Brotherhood has not opted to make any fundamental change. It survived major crises in the past by being able to exploit opportunities and turn adversities to its advantage. But how it will come out of the present crisis remains to be seen.

For citations and source information, please consult the forthcoming PDF version.

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By Dr. Israel Elad Altman