“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 think tanks. 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. Other members of the Muslim Brotherhood would agree, as 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 Salafis – an Islamic school of thought that relies on ancestors as exemplary models – have taken the same view of the United States, but 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.
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. The Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, however, 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.
Doctrinal and other considerations
The Muslim Brotherhood sees the United States from more than one angle, some of which are in.uenced by the doctrinal beliefs of the Egyptian group and its history.
a. The doctrinal angle:
The Muslim Brotherhood sees Islam as a holistic sys- “The Muslim Brotherhood views the United States as an occupation force in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it supports despotic regimes in the Arab World.”
tem incorporating life, man and the world together. 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.
b. 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 civilization 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. The current Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide, 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, targeting the minds of 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 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 no more 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 Native Americans. It is also a material’ civilization based on the twin pillars of money and power,” he says.5The same view is echoed by Dr. ohammad Habib, first deputy of the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide, who believes that the U.S. civilization is based on “survival of the fittest” as well as on double standards, especially when it comes to the issues of democracy and freedom.6 The Muslim Brotherhood views the United States as an occupying force in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it supports despotic regimes in the Arab World
c. The political angle:
The Muslim Brotherhood views the United States as an occupying force. Mahdi Akef, the Brotherhood’s supreme guide 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 .re. 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. Akef rails against the United States and “Western bias towards the Zionist entity.” Habib says both America and Israel were founded on an ethos of expansionism and colonialism. Al-Iryan puts it bluntly, “One of the main reasons 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. U.S. deeds conflict with its rhetoric insofar as democracy is concerned.”
Habib equally has little regard for U.S. rhetoric on freedom, democracy and human rights. The United States is interested not in democracy but rather in its own schemes in the region, he says, referring in particular to U.S. policy towards Hamas. “The United States is not a charity organization or a reform agency.” 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.
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 was none too 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 leader of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. With al-Sadat’s permission, al-Telmesani asked the Iranians to let him come to Tehran for talks. Tehran’s answer was brief. “You’re most welcome, but we’re not going to discuss the American hostages.” The visit didn’t take place. The Iranians waited till Carter lost the elections to Ronald Reagan and then released the hostages. 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 phase 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. Some Muslim Brotherhood members denied the reports at the time, but others concerned 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 Supreme Guide Mamoun al-Hudeibi said at the time.
Furthermore, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak concerned 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. The same year, the Egyptian government arrested a large number of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and sentenced several Muslim Brotherhood leaders to three to five years in prison, including the current supreme guide Mahdi Akef, al-Iryan, Habib, and Khairat al-Shatir.
- The post-Sept. 11 phase:
In this phase, the United States turned against many Islamic political organizations, mainly those engaged in unbridled acts 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. President George W. 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 Corporation released a report by Cheryl Benard 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.
• 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 operation
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.”Nonetheless, the Muslim Brotherhood insists that a representative of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry be present in all Muslim Brotherhood meetings with American officials, as Akef told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat in December 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 hardly claims to be on 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.
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:
- 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.17 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.
- 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 factual fact, the Muslim Brotherhood had been taking a hard-line stance in the talks with the British in order to strengthen the regime’s hand, al-Iryan notes.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
(1) it knows that the Muslim Brotherhood is a likely political alternative in the event of a “sudden” power vacuum developing in Egypt, and (2) an improvement in U.S. relations with the Muslim Brotherhood may soften the view that 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:
1. U.S. of.cials 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.
2. U.S. academic institutions and think tanks 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.
3. The United States may exert pressure on the Egyptian regime into legalizing the Muslim Brotherhood. This may sound like a tall order, considering the regime’s resistance to “intervention” in internal affairs. But the United States can argue that the Muslim Brotherhood is already in Parliament and is a peaceful movement.
Interview with Dr. Issam al-Iryan
Chief of the Muslim Brotherhood Political Department
Q: How does the Muslim Brotherhood see the United States?
This question can be answered on three levels. The first level is the way the Muslim Brotherhood sees the U.S. government. We believe that the United States embraces a pre-conceived idea, one that successive administrations have embraced, to the effect that “Islam is a real danger.” This idea is being translated into a strategy that the United States is currently pursuing with regard to the Muslim world. Therefore, I don’t think that there is any chance of communicating with the United States so long as it has this pre-conceived idea, for this idea puts it in the same boat as the Zionist enemy – Israel. The second level is in relation to the Muslim community in the United States.
Here, one can say that there are two main options for communication. One is through Muslim activists, such as the Muslim-American Society, which has recently been established by some Pakistanis. The society used to be an arm of the Pakistani Islamic Group, but has recently become independent. We are holding consultations and coordinating with this group, but this is not taking place on an organizational level because this would be inconvenient for both of us. The other option is to communicate with the rest of the Muslim community in America and learn more about their affairs. The third level has begin part 2 to do with the U.S. media. Since Sept. 11, there has been a growing interest in the Islamists and especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Although U.S. media focuses more on domestic affairs, I have been interviewed repeatedly by U.S. networks, including CNN. The U.S. view of this region is quite negative, unlike Europe which has a more impartial outlook, mostly because it is a cosmopolitan society.
Q: Concerning U.S. society and people, how do you see them?
We have no pre-conceived position against the American people or the U.S. society, its civic organizations, or think tanks. We have no problem communicating with the American people, but no adequate efforts are being made to bring us closer.
Q: Does this mean that you’re in favor of unofficial communication with the United States?
Yes, there is no problem with unofficial communication conducted through non-governmental organizations or think tanks, and the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t have any reservations in this respect. We are fully prepared to communicate with any unofficial U.S. organizations and to accept invitations we may receive in this regard.
Q: What do you think of U.S. civilization?
It is difficult to speak of a civilization in the usual sense when talking of a country that’s no more than 200 years old. Even assuming it is a civilization, it is one that was born out of exclusionist tendencies and through the eradication of the Native Americans. It is also a ‘materialistic’ civilization based on the twin pillars of money and power.
Q: How about U.S. liberal values, don’t they offer a democratic model worthy of respect?
Please excuse my candor, but democracy in the United States is a mere façade. It is hard to speak of a U.S. model of democracy which is comparable with that of the United Kingdom, France and Germany. There is a big difference. The U.S. elections are a commercial phenomenon replete with media campaigns designed to alter public perceptions. For example, there are not equal opportunities for the candidates, because the massive campaign expenditure is beyond the abilities of any ordinary individual. Besides, the liberal values
have ebbed since the 1960s and there is nothing appealing anymore about the American model which – if you ask me – is hard to replicate elsewhere anyway. It is a model based on “manufacturing politicians,” or as Noam Chomsky pointed out, the Americans don’t choose according to what they want, but to what they see. The worst part about U.S. democracy is that it is a “local” democracy with no interest in foreign affairs. The American people cannot determine their country’s foreign policy, for this is the job of the federal government.
Q: But the U.S. society is a multi-ethnic one and as such offers inspiration to others.
I beg to disagree. The U.S. view of others is negative, unlike the European view, which is more cosmopolitan.
Q: But America is a cosmopolitan society.
Yes, but it is a “local” rather than an external cosmopolitan society. American foreign policy has one dimension rather than many dimensions and visions.
Q: How does Israel .t into your view of the United States?
One of the main reasons for our negative opinion of the United States is its ties with Israel. Israel will remain a defining factor in our relations with the United States.