Is the “Brotherhood” with America Possible?

Is the “Brotherhood” with America Possible?

“There is no chance of communicating with any U.S. administration so long as the United States maintains its long-standing view of Islam as a “real danger,” a view that puts the United States in the same boat as the Zionist enemy. “We have no pre-conceived notions concerning the American people or the U.S. society and its civic organizations and research centers. We have no problem communicating with the American people but no adequate efforts are being made to bring us closer”, said Dr. Issam al-Iryan, chief of the political department of the Muslim Brotherhood in a phone interview.
Al-Iryan’s words sum up the Muslim Brotherhood’s views of the American people and the U.S. government.[1] Other members of the Muslim Brotherhood would agree, so would the late Hassan al-Banna, who founded the group in 1928. Al-Banna viewed the West mostly as a symbol of moral decay. Other Salafi – an Islamic school of thought – have taken the same view of the United States, but they lack the ideological flexibility espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood. While the Muslim Brotherhood believes in engaging the Americans in civil dialogue, other extremist groups see no point in dialogue and maintain that force is the only way of dealing with the United States.

First Problem: The way the Muslim Brotherhood views the United States
Unlike other Islamic political groups, the Muslim Brotherhood is a pragmatic movement that relates in a level-headed manner with regional and international powers. However, the nature of its relations with the United States can be viewed as a somewhat special case. The Muslim Brotherhood has profound reservations about the United States. And Muslim Brotherhood officials doubt that they can maintain a normal liaison with the U.S. government or find a way to promote common understanding. Nonetheless, this article is about the Egyptian Chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, not other branches of the same group that exist in other Arab countries, for each independent Muslim Brotherhood group deals with the United States according to its interests and goals. In fact, some Muslim Brotherhood groups have a cordial relationship with Washington, including those of Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, and Morocco. But the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood takes a grim view of the United States for historical, ideological, and political reasons. That doesn’t mean that there are no “backdoor” channels of communication between the two entities. But the mere fact that communication goes unpublicized is a sign of the fragile nature of relations between Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the U.S. government.
Several factors influence the Muslim Brotherhood’s attitude toward the United States. One is Washington’s political attitude and perceived level of trustworthiness. Another is the degree to which Washington may be willing to make the Egyptian regime stop harassing the Muslim Brotherhood and allow the latter to be “legally” integrated in political life. Besides, Washington may be using the Muslim Brotherhood as a tool to scare the Egyptian regime, and that itself cannot be good for the Muslim Brotherhood reputation.

Second Problem: Doctrinal and other considerations:
The Muslim Brotherhood sees the United States from more than one angle, some of which are influenced by the doctrinal beliefs of the Egyptian group and its history.
The doctrinal angle: The Muslim Brotherhood sees Islam as a complete system incorporating life, man and the world as a whole. This is a vision that Hassan al-Banna, the group’s founder, put together from its inception. Al-Banna wanted Islam to lead humanity toward security, freedom, equality, and justice. Therefore, the Muslim Brotherhood sees the West as a rival that has usurped this position of leadership. It also believes that Western civilization, including American hegemony, is nearing its end.[2]
The civilization angle: Al-Banna’s writings remain the main source for the Muslim Brotherhood’s views of the West. Al-Banna criticized Western civilization in the strongest of terms, accusing it of decay and unbridled decadence. For him, Western civilisation is a “material civilization” devoid of spiritual and moral substance.[3]
Although al-Banna’s original teachings were centred on European nations, rather than the United States, his views were adopted, almost verbatim, by current Muslim Brotherhood leaders in relation to the United States. In the current Muslim Brotherhood general guide, Chairman Mohammad Mahdi Akef says in one of his weekly letters, that “the new international system led by the United States is an old imperial system using new tools …, combining seduction with repression, infiltration and domination with allegations of partnership…, and breaking up countries while calling on nations to rally against hegemony. The United States is inciting minorities, provoking border troubles, and encouraging ethnic and sectarian sedition as well as civil war. It is trying to separate Arab societies from Muslims societies. It is doing so through fanning nationalism, misguiding communities, misleading the youth, undermining the value system, and spreading feelings of frustration.”
“The West pretends to be benevolent, but it has divided the world into two parts. One is the West itself ‘that must remain strong, rich, armed, conquering, and productive.’ The other is the rest of the world ‘that must remain weak, poor, disarmed, invaded, occupied, and consuming.’ The West is ‘trying to impose its vision through force, just as it is perpetuating disparity among nations. The forms of exploitation may have changed, but the system remains the same. It is a system based on racist concepts. It adopts the ideas of Darwin and Nietzsche, with the West always acting at the center, always at the helm. It is survival of the fittest, and the West wants all others to remain unfit,” says Akef.[4]

Muslim Brotherhood’s Dr. al-Iryan concurs with this overarching view of the West and expresses the following opinion of the United States: “It is difficult to speak of a civilization in the usual sense when talking of a country that’s less than 200 years old. Even assuming that the United States is a civilization, it is one that has been born out of exclusionist tendencies and through the eradication of the Red Indians. It is also a ‘material’ civilization based on the twin pillars of money and power,” he says.[5]

The same view is echoed by Dr. Mohammad Habib, first deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood general guide, who believes that the U.S. civilization is based on “survival for the fittest” as well as on double standards, especially when it comes to the issues of democracy and freedom.[6]

The political angle: The Muslim Brotherhood views the United States as an occupation force. Mahdi Akef speaks of the United States in the same tone al-Banna used when talking about the British, French, or Italian occupation of Arab countries. In fact, al-Banna once wrote that “the days of hegemony and repression are over. Europe can no longer rule the East with iron and fire. Those outdated practices do not tally with the course of events, with the development of nations, with the renaissance of Muslim people, or with the principles and feelings the war has created.” Akef could use the same words today, but only in reference to the United States.

Both al-Iryan and Habib agree that the United States wants to manipulate the Arab region to promote its own interests. The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq are seen as evidence of U.S. intentions, the two would argue. The Muslim Brotherhood is critical of the United States’ close links with Israel and believes that the United States and Israel share the same political agenda. Mahdi Akef rails against the “U.S. and western bias towards the Zionist entity.” Habib says both America and Israel were founded on an ethos of forced expansion and colonialism. Al-Iryan puts it bluntly, “the main reason for our negative opinion of the United States is its ties with Israel. Its ties with Israel will remain a defining factor in our relations with the United States.”
The U.S. support of despotic regimes in the Arab world and its double standards in matters related to freedom and democracy offer another stumbling block in the currently sour relationship. The Muslim Brotherhood has always espoused the view that the “West” bolsters the ruling regime in most of the Islamic world while using them to promote its own interests. Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau member Mahmoud Izzat says that “the policy of the United States in the Arab world is to support tyranny. The U.S. deeds conflict with its rhetoric insofar as democracy is concerned.”[7]
Habib equally has little regard for the U.S. rhetoric on freedom, democracy, and human rights. The United States doesn’t care for democracy but only for its own schemes in the region, he says, referring in particular to U.S. policy regarding Hamas. “The United States is not a charity organization or a reform agency.”[8] In recent years, the double standards issue surfaced following the end of the Egyptian parliamentary elections, in which the Muslim Brotherhood won an unprecedented 20 percent of the seats (88 out of 454 seats). When the Muslim Brotherhood was later subjected to various acts of persecution and harassment, the United States turned a blind eye.

Third Problem: The course of relations

Relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the United States go all the way back to World War II, when the United States was about to inherit the British Empire and the Muslim Brotherhood was one of the most popular movements in the region. The British, acting with U.S. blessing, wanted to establish a rival group to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood. The new group, named Freedom Brothers, was supposed to attract the youths with its cultural, social, and liberal programs, but never quite made it. Afterwards, the United States began flirting with top Islamic figures in Egypt. At one point, a U.S. embassy official talked with al-Banna about cooperating against the prevailing communist threat, but the gap in views proved too wide to bridge. In the late 1970s, the U.S. sought the help of Muslim countries in organizing jihad-style resistance against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The Americans wanted Anwar al-Sadat to get the Muslim Brotherhood to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, but the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t enthusiastic.

Later on, the Carter administration needed help with the hostage crisis in Tehran. The U.S. embassy asked Omar al-Telmesani, then Muslim Brotherhood general guide, to intervene and use his good offices with the Iranian President Ali Khomeini. With al-Sadat’s permission, al-Telmesani asked the Iranians to let him come to Tehran for talks. “You’re welcome,” Tehran’s answer was brief. “But we’re not going to discuss the U.S. hostages.” The visit didn’t take place. The Iranians waited till Carter lost the elections to Ronald Reagan and then released the hostages.[9] In the 1980s, relations between the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood improved as the United States, with Saudi mediation, sought closer ties with Islamic political groups in the region as part of its quest to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan.

However, the Sept. 11 attacks represented a watershed in the relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the U.S. administration, so much so that one can speak of both a pre-Sept. 11 phase and a post-Sept. 11 one in their relations.

1. The pre-Sept. 11 phase: This phase covers most of the 1990s. In 1995, the Muslim Brotherhood won some seats in the People’s Assembly, and reports spoke of exchanges between the Muslim Brotherhood and the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Former U.S. Amb. Daniel Kurtz said that he met Muslim Brotherhood officials or people representing them.[10] Some Muslim Brotherhood members denied the reports at the time, but others confirmed them. The talks didn’t amount to negotiations, since the Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to negotiate about, but involved an exchange of views as Muslim Brotherhood General Guide Mamoun al-Hudeibi said at the time. [11]

Furthermore, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak confirmed the meetings when he said in 1995 that Washington had exchanges with the Muslim Brotherhood, which he described as a “terrorist” group.[12] The Egyptian regime consistently attempted to undermine any form of rapprochement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the United States. And it was in that same year (1995) that the Egyptian government arrested a large number of Muslim Brotherhood leaders in connection with what became known as the Salsabil Case. Several Muslim Brotherhood leaders were sentenced to three to five years in prison, including the current General Guide Mahdi Akef, al-Iryan, Habib, and Khyrat al-Shatir.

The post-Sept. 11 phase: In this phase, the United States turned against many Islamic political organizations, mainly those engaged in acts unbridled of violence. But the difference between moderate groups and violent ones was not always clear for U.S. policy makers. When Hamas won the Palestinian elections, the United States reversed its earlier rhetoric about democracy. Up until the conclusion of the Palestinian elections, the United States was sending positive signals to the Muslim Brotherhood and all moderate Islamists. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice both suggested that a moderate Islamic government anywhere in the Arab world would be acceptable to the United States. Here are a few samples of this view:

– Speaking to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, said that the United States does not oppose Islamic parties and knows that democracy may bring Islamic parties to power, due to the fact that the latter were the best organized opposition groups around.[13] The remarks were in recognition of the political gains the Islamists were making in Turkey, Morocco, and Bahrain.
– The Rand Corp. released a report by Shirley Bernard about the possibility of the United States supporting liberal Islam in the Middle East. The report implied that moderate Islamists were about to become part of the mainstream political process.[14]
– Following a Middle East tour, Rice, speaking on June 23, 2005, hinted that the United States was not alarmed by the prospect of an Islamist victory in free elections anywhere in the Arab world.[15] After the Muslim Brotherhood won about 20 percent of the Egyptian parliamentary seats, some U.S. officials seemed in favor of communicating with moderate Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood. But the White House hawks and the neoconservatives were not in favor of such a course of action.

For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t mind holding meetings with U.S. government officials. Al-Iryan says that the Muslim Brotherhood was willing to engage in dialogue with the United States, referring to similar statements he made to Agence France Presse to this effect, following the 2005 parliamentary elections. “The Muslim Brotherhood position is that we believe in dialogue and in cooperation among civilizations, so long as it is conducted on an equal footing. We also believe that there are common values that bind all cultures and nations.”[16]

Nonetheless, the Muslim Brotherhood insists that a representative of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry be present in all Muslim Brotherhood meetings with U.S. officials. This is what Akef told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on Dec. 11, 2005. “Any such meeting should be arranged through the Egyptian Foreign Ministry,” he said.[17] This precaution is designed to allay the Egyptian regime’s fear of exchanges between the group and the Americans. The Muslim Brotherhood also wants to make sure that the Mubarak regime is not going to use its contacts with the Americans to tarnish its reputation. No direct dialogue existed between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Americans in this phase, but the relations between the two were fraught with optimism. The U.S. and the Muslim Brotherhood sought out ways to circumvent the regime’s reservations, perhaps through the intercession of Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarians.

However, things changed after Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections on Jan. 26, 2006. The Hamas victory revived old U.S. fears that a tide of radical Islam was sweeping over the region. Since then, there have been no reports of U.S.-Muslim Brotherhood exchanges. Hamas, originally started out as an Muslim Brotherhood group. So the United States cannot claim to be in good terms with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt but unable to talk to Hamas. Interestingly enough, the United States refrained from denouncing the arrests of Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt following the group’s impressive performance at the March 2006 elections. For the time being, the United States seems to be revising its ideas about democracy in the Middle East.

Fourth Problem: The impediments of dialogue

Even if the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood were serious about talking to each other, several issues still hamper the chances of having a fruitful dialogue:
a. The lack of trust: Muslim Brotherhood leaders are not convinced that the United States is serious about talking to them. They also question the U.S. commitment to promoting democracy in the Arab world. Writing in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, al-Iryan said that the United States must make its position clear on a few matters before holding a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood. First of all, it should renew its commitment to international law, refrain from interfering in the internal problems of other countries, and respect the national sovereignty of other states. Also, the United States must accept democracy even if it were to bring its adversaries to power in other countries. Washington, he added, needs to show more respect for other cultures and for the interests of other nations.[18] Undoubtedly, the Muslim Brotherhood has strong doubts about the true intentions of the United States. For example, is the United States really interested in engaging in dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, or is it just calling for dialogue so as to pressure the Egyptian regime into taking sides with it on Iraq, Palestine and Sudan. The United States also has a history of turning the opposition against governments of the region, as happened in Iraq and Syria, with devastating results. This is something that the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t want to be part of, explains al-Iryan.
b.The popularity factor: The Muslim Brotherhood knows that the public mood has turned against the United States, and it doesn’t want to risk its own popularity by associating with the Americans. Also, the Muslim Brotherhood does not want the Mubarak regime to use such dialogue to defame it, something which has happened in the past. Al-Iryan recalls that in 1954, the Muslim Brotherhood conducted talks with officials of the British Embassy and this was done with the knowledge and support of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government. Afterwards, the regime accused the Muslim Brotherhood of holding secret talks with the occupiers just to tarnish its image. But, in actual fact, the Muslim Brotherhood was taking a hard-line stance in those talks with the British, just in order to strengthen the regime’s hands, al-Iryan notes.[19]
c. Ideological differences: The greatest impediment to dialogue is that the Muslim Brotherhood and the United States have a significantly different world view. The Muslim Brotherhood believes that the United States is seeking world domination. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood says it is dedicated to Islamic reformation and renaissance across the world. In his above-mentioned article, al-Iryan says that the Islamic project for renaissance aims at liberating Muslim land from all forms of foreign domination and at reforming governments in Islamic countries and establishing “Islamic” freedom and democracy.
d. Fear of reprisal: The Muslim Brotherhood has a precarious legal position, for it is still treated as a “banned” group. This position puts it at the mercy of the Egyptian regime, which often cracks down on groups with ties to the United States. The Egyptian regime doesn’t want anyone talking to the Americans behind its back, if at all.

Fifth Problem: Prospects of dialogue

The impediments mentioned above would seem to preclude a dialogue between the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood. But the need for the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood to talk with each other may prove greater than all existing impediments. It is true that the ideological differences between the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood are unbridgeable, but self-interest may leave much to talk about. Still, any future dialogue would remain unlikely unless a few things happen first. One is that the United States would need to talk to the Egyptian regime about its repression of the opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Another is that the United States should acknowledge – yet again – that democracy may bring the Islamists to power. Also, the United States would have to distance itself somehow from Israel, for no Islamic group would want to associate itself with Israel’s alter ego.
The United States has two reasons to talk to the Muslim Brotherhood: (a) it knows that the Muslim Brotherhood is a likely political alternative in the event of a “sudden” power vacuum developing in Egypt, and (b) an improvement in U.S. relations with the Muslim Brotherhood may soften the view which other Islamists have of the United States. So far, there seems to be three possible channels for talks between the United States and the Muslim Brotherhood:

U.S. officials can actually meet with Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarians, which is already happening, but all interaction can occur on a more regular basis. This is because the U.S. Congress can, for example, invite Egyptian parliamentarians, including Muslim Brotherhood members, for an official visit.
U.S. academic and research centres may engage in dialogue with Muslim Brotherhood officials. This is something that Muslim Brotherhood leaders welcome, but it can only happen if the regime relaxes restrictions on Muslim Brotherhood travel.
The United States may exert pressure on the Egyptian regime into legalising the Muslim Brotherhood. This may sound like a tall order, considering the regime’s resistance to “interference” in internal affairs. But the United States can argue that the Muslim Brotherhood is already in parliament and is a peaceful movement.

This study was published at Arab Insight journal at:

[1] Telephone conversation with Issam al-Iryan on Friday 2 February 2007.
[2] Hassan al-Banna, Collection of the Letters of the Martyred Imam, Message to the Fifth Conference. (Alexandria, Dar al-Daawa, 1988).
[3] Hassan al-Banna, The Fundaments of Islam as a Social System. (Al-Shihab Magazine, issue 2, 14, December 1947)

[4] The weekly address by the General Guide, from ikwanonline, 3 January 2007.
[5] Telephone conversation with Issam al-Iryan on Friday 2 February 2007.
[6] Telephone conversation with Mohammad Habib on Saturday 3 February 2007.
[7] Interview with Mahmoud Izzat by the Washington Post on 27 June 2006, cited by ikhwanonline.
[8] Telephone conversation with Mohammad Habib on Saturday 3 February 2007