Response to Patrick Poole’s “Mainstreaming the MB”

Response to Patrick Poole’s “Mainstreaming the MB”

In his March 26th column in Frontpage, Patrick Poole accuses us of “rely[ing] on the reader’s ignorance of the Brotherhood” to present our case in Foreign Affairs.  He then cites a series of instances which he regards as convincing proof of the Brotherhood’s anti-democratic and jihadist vocation.  But it is Poole who relies on the reader’s ignorance by cynically taking Brotherhood statements and actions out of context and expecting the reader to search no further nor to have read our article.  We stipulate that bombastic hawks and crude populists crowd under the Brotherhood’s umbrella, jostling for position alongside quiet conciliators and deep thinkers.  That makes it easy for Poole to yank specimens out of the Brotherhood garden and exclaim: “what an ugly weed!”  But this way the reader will never learn what is growing in the garden or see the snakes next door. 

Anyone who reads our article could see that we are not “U.S. supporters” of the Brotherhood and have no “blind faith” in them. We specifically warn against the possibility that their democratic conduct and rhetoric may fall away should they gain power.  Nor do we expect the Brotherhood “to usher in a Golden age of democracy.” Let’s examine more closely Poole’s charges to determine who exactly is relying on the reader’s ignorance and who is guilty of “misrepresentation and outright fabrication.” We will answer all of Poole’s arguments, notwithstanding that he evaded all of ours.

Poole states that we claim the Brotherhood “rejects jihad.”  But this phrase appears nowhere in our article.  Instead, we asserted that that all factions of the Muslim Brotherhood “reject global jihad.”  We used the term for a reason.

Global jihad is Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri’s unconditional violence against a broad range of targets: “Jews and Crusaders,” America and its allies, Great Britain, Israel , Spain, Turkey, Indonesia, Tunisia, Morocco and even Saudi Arabia. This cannot be demagogically equated with the Brotherhood notion of defensive jihad.  In fact, the Brotherhood began to reject the theological underpinnings of global jihad in the 1960s, with the publication of the volume Preachers, not Judges.  This work aimed to combat the theories of Sayyid Qutb, the group’s most prominent intellectual.  In Foreign Affairs we did not ignore the violent residue in the Brotherhood.  We wrote “the Brotherhood does authorize jihad in countries and territories occupied by a foreign power. As in Afghanistan under the Soviets, the Ikhwan views the struggles in Iraq and against Israel as ‘defensive jihad’ against invaders, the Muslim functional equivalent of the Christian doctrine of ‘just war.’”  This notion allowed the Brotherhood to join the West in fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.  But if we grasp the reason for violence, we do not support it.  We abhor the Brotherhood’s stance on Israel and quarrel with them over other specific policies.  But they oppose Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and global jihad. We hold that this difference is significant enough to make the Muslim Brotherhood collocutors and specifically indicated the U.S. should begin a dialogue “with representatives of the Brotherhood’s reformist wing, especially those already living in the West.”

Poole charges that the Brotherhood’s December 10th 2006 demonstration at al Azhar University signified “a return by the group to the era of “secret cells”…capable of military action,” and was furthermore a kind of coded message to awaken “sleeper cells.” It is true that some Brotherhood members dressed themselves in ninja-style outfits and performed martial arts demonstrations and military- style exercises. But this was to protest the Egyptian dictatorship’s expulsion of Brotherhood students from their dorms and its intervention in student council elections.  It was a stupid, disturbing display, but without violence, despite the hyperventilating of the state- controlled press and the government’s desire to provoke a confrontation.  The Brotherhood leadership condemned the demonstrations, apologized (as Poole notes) and rebuked the students, who also apologized for their actions. The Brotherhood’s peaceful response to an increasingly brutal crackdown actually offers evidence of its non-violent character and not of “sleeper cells” or “military action.”  

Poole wants us to think that the government was suppressing only Muslim extremists. This would come as a surprise to the activists, journalists, bloggers, and everyday citizens who have been arrested, beaten, tortured, and generally intimidated for supporting the very same political reforms endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood.  The U.S. administration has not been similarly fooled which is why it issued a strong condemnation of the government’s recent attempt to shove through unpopular and anti- democratic changes to Egypt’s constitution.

Poole offers unsubstantiated arguments that the “military apparatus” of the Muslim Brotherhood has been attacking the Christian Coptic community.  Sectarian violence does occur in Egypt, but the Muslim Brotherhood has not been implicated.  On the contrary, the BBC reported that the Muslim Brotherhood supported Coptic Christians demonstrating for greater police protection.  The Brotherhood also called one particularly high- profile attack “an attack against all the Egyptian people, Muslim and Copt.” There has been reported cooperation between the Muslim Brotherhood and Coptic candidates in Egypt, and earlier this year a Christian joined the leadership council of the political party affiliated with the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood (although he soon resigned for reasons unclear).

Poole points to statements of Muhammed Mahdi Akef, the current General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, promising to send 10,000 volunteers to the Lebanon conflict. These statements should be seen for what they are; demagogic posturing and populist rhetoric in the effort to capitalize on the very strong support for Hezbollah in the Arab street.  Indeed, the 10,000 never materialized, and many Brothers we spoke with expressed deep embarrassment at Akef’s irresponsible statements.  Akef is a very controversial figure.  For instance, upon learning that we were going to interview him many, including some Muslim Brothers, chortled, rolled their eyes, and told us to take his statements “with many grains of salt.”  Some go so far as to characterize Akef as doddering, slightly embarrassing old uncle.

Poole thinks that we only dare to treat Hamas “obliquely.”  Hamas has murdered Israeli civilians and refuses to recognize the Jewish state, leading many observers to conclude that it wishes to exterminate it.  But it is simply not “one of the most active fronts” of global jihad as claimed by Poole. The acrimony between Hamas and al Qaeda, the sustained fury with which the jihadists criticize Hamas for its policy of waging jihad for territory (in Israel) rather than religion (against all Jews) is documented in our article.

As the Palestinian arm of the Brotherhood (but the relationship is more strained than Poole believes),  Hamas adheres to the Brotherhood policy of “defensive jihad” and has never expanded its conflict to America. Many high- level figures in the Brotherhood take a pragmatic view of Israel.  As one explained to us “we may not like it, but we have to accept the fact that Israel exists and is not going anywhere.  We must start from this point.”

Poole’s alleges that the National Islamic Front (NIF)’s behavior in the Sudan is a good index of how the Brotherhood will rule should it come to power elsewhere.  But though the NIF presents itself as the Muslim Brotherhood in the Sudan, it is a specific creature of Hasan al Turabi, who publicly and contentiously broke from the Brotherhood in the 1970s.  A smaller faction remained closer to the traditional (Egyptian) Brotherhood line.  This faction has considerable disagreement with al Turabi and the current policies of his government.  The head of its political and media office argued that:

the biggest problem of Sudan emerges from the mindsets of its leaders, specially Hassan Al-Turabi and Sadiq Al-Mahdi: both of them want to have the upper hand and to be number one in the Sudanese arena; both of them reject any political participation among various parties; this confirms that they seek a personal interests and glory and they don”t seek the public interest of Sudan and the Sudanese.

Extrapolating from the very specific NIF case how Brotherhood groups in other countries would rule presents other problems.  When groups come to power undemocratically, they tend to rule that way (a good description of the process can be found here).  The NIF came to power in a 1985 military coup, similar to the coups in 1958 and 1969. A more appropriate explanation for the NIF’s behavior lies in the manner it took power (a military coup in a place with a rich history of them) rather than in its character (Islamist). We made it clear in our article that the Muslim Brotherhood “is not revolutionary; it depends on winning hearts through gradual and peaceful Islamization.  Under this Fabian strategy, the Brotherhood seeks a compact with the powers that be—offering a channel for discontent while slowly expanding its influence.”

Poole makes much of the fact that four very hard- line members of a Jordanian political party (the IAF) affiliated with the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood (and officially recognized by the Jordanian government) visited the family of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the top terrorist in Iraq.  We know something about Zarqawi- we wrote the first full account of his emergence as a terrorist leader, and a follow-up article documenting his challenge to Bin Laden.  (Both of these articles, by the way, ran in The Weekly Standard, hardly the home of the “progressives” and “Democrats” among whom Poole demagogically places us). 

Of the four legislators who made the visit, three represented Zarqawi’s hometown (and the fourth was born in Faloujah, now the Israeli town of Kiryat Gat).  The IAF’s base of support is in and around Palestinian camps and traditionally religious constituencies such as Salt and Zarqa.  The IAF, mirroring the views of most Jordanians (and indeed most in the Middle East), very strongly opposed the war in Iraq and the U.S. presence there.  While this does not excuse the deputy’s repulsive behavior, it also says very little about the Brotherhood’s overall stance on jihad.  The IAF leadership distanced itself from the parliamentarian’s actions, and Jordanians were justifiably outraged at the IAF. 

We never “assured” anyone that should the Muslim Brotherhood come to power it would “embrace democracy.” People who argue that the Muslim Brotherhood will prove democrats are as much in the dark as those who argue that they won’t. In Foreign Affairs we gave space to both positions and continued the argument here.  The negative case has many precedents. Cadre parties like the Bolsheviks, Nazis, Sandinistas, Baathists et al. have a history of doffing their democratic costumes once in power.  On the other side our conversations throughout the Middle East, with leaders of all major parties and opposition trends, as well as ordinary citizens on this very point elicited no reservations about the Brotherhood’s willingness to abide by the rules of the democratic game.  These secular partners have the most to lose if the Brotherhood reneges on their democratic promise, and their assurances should not be taken lightly.

Though Poole pretends otherwise, we specifically acknowledged that the legacy of Sayyid Qutb remains imprinted on the group today.  We wrote:

One issue of enduring concern is Qutb’s ambiguous legacy in the Brotherhood… Today, the Brotherhood lionizes Qutb, admittedly a major figure whose views cannot be reduced to jihad. But it straddles a barbed fence in embracing Qutb while simultaneously arguing that his violent teachings were “taken out of context.” What lessons will younger members tempted to radical action draw?

The reader can judge how accurate Poole’s claim is that we argue that the Brotherhood has “forsaken the legacy of Qutb.” 

It is more accurate to say that the Brotherhood “revises” Qutb in much the same may that Lenin accused Bernstein and Kautsky of “revising” Marx.  European Social Democracy was our key ally in the Cold War. Without it we would have lost Europe to the Communists.  Without the Muslim Brotherhood, and with Poole’s policies, we stand to lose the Middle East and the entire Muslim world.  The analogy fits: the Muslim Brotherhood is to jihadism as Social Democracy was to Communism. But an armchair (or maybe internet) intellectual, happier to sound off than to act wisely, prefers to exhibit the weeds in the Muslim Brotherhood to the uninformed crowd.  In this way, to switch metaphors, we lose the forest for the trees.  A wise policy demands a full picture.

Another example of obfuscation is Poole’s citation of the 1981 statement from Mustafa Mashhour, later to become the Muslim Brotherhood’s General Guide.  Poole quotes Mashhour saying that “Democracy contradicts and wages war on Islam. Whoever calls for democracy means they are raising banners contradicting God’s plan and fighting Islam.” 

Mashhour was one of the most controversial General Guides in Muslim Brotherhood history, prone to outrageous statements that he was later forced to retract by other Brotherhood members, such as on the Coptic issue.  Poole neglects to inform the reader that three years after that statement the Brotherhood decided to contest the 1984 parliamentary elections in Egypt.  Since then (especially under Mashhour’s leadership from 1996-2002) they have competed in numerous elections in Egypt, Jordan, and many other countries (as well as the recent elections in Palestine), and justified democracy in hundreds of statements, pamphlets, and fatwas.  As we stated, the Brotherhood’s position on democracy is an evolving one.  And it has evolved considerably in the 26 years since Mashhour’s statement. 

Poole writes that “If it is the case that the Brotherhood has actually embraced democracy, it must be admitted that it has constricted the notion so much so that it would be unrecognizable to anyone in the West.”  Maybe, maybe not; but what if it were?  (And by the way, surely Poole would agree that Egypt’s current “democracy” hardly resembles ours).  Are we really prepared to demand that all other countries embrace Western democracy- itself a product of hundreds of years of struggle, custom, philosophy, religion, and law?  This simpleminded and quixotic approach was tried in Iraq and has failed, leaving us wedded to a sectarian Islamist regime and a civil war led by Islamist factions. Arguments persuasive in the narrow decision- making meetings of the Bush administration or on ideological websites are exploding in all our soldiers’ faces.

Poole charges, again without evidence, that the Brotherhood’s behavior in the syndicates (essentially Egyptian unions) shows that the Brotherhood will one day rule Egypt dictatorially.  Corruption and mismanagement are problems for all syndicates, as they are for much of Egyptian society.  But careful researchers must parse facts from sour- grapes accusations by political operatives on the losing end.

We note a study by the prestigious Cairo-based Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.  According to the Arab Strategic Report, in the 2001 Lawyers Syndicate elections, the Brotherhood

presented a list of 24 candidates which included members from outside the brotherhood. The list included 8 brothers, 3 NDP members, one Nasserist, one Labor party member, one liberal Copt, and one Wafd member. The rest were independents….The Brothers were able to score more successes within the lawyers syndicate during 2002. They cooperated successfully with other opposition forces especially with the Nasserists.

The behavior of a dictatorial movement in training?  The facts are that, since the Brotherhood began to win elections and take power on syndicate boards during the early and mid 1990s, the syndicates have, by and large, improved in both the quality and range of services they offer to their constituents.  The Brotherhood proved so adept at syndicate work that the government interfered to block the Brotherhood from gaining more support (For more information about the Muslim Brotherhood in the syndicates readers may wish to consult the excellent book by Carrie Rosefsky Wickham for more information). 

Poole accuses us of using a “shifting scale” on who exactly is a radical and who is not.  Here he strikes a vein of truth. Rather than sticking to the same metric available in 2001, we recognize that the ground has shifted beneath our feet. Our various blunders and misadventures have steadily whittled down our options in the Middle East, and we should be prepared to search for options in places where we may have not have had to look before we created such a mess. .  

Probably the most important development of the past five years is cited by Poole himself, the “upward trend of Islamic radicalization.”  But what Poole ignores is that U.S. policies have been responsible for this radicalization.  It is hard to argue that the Iraq war, whatever its original merits, has not vastly increased Muslim anger at the U.S. nor been directly responsible for the intensity and growth of global jihad.  To ignore this simple fact and the necessity to examine different options is to don a strategic blindfold.  That is why we advocated examining the Muslim Brotherhood closely, dispassionately, not as apologists or assailants, but to begin to determine whether or not dialogue furthers American national interests, to see if they hold promise.

That is what Nixon and Kissinger chose to do with China during the Cold War – a policy ratified by all their successors including Ronald Reagan.  Neither Nixon nor Reagan embraced Marxism-Leninism when they allied with China against the main danger, thus splitting the ranks of the Communists and giving us a strategic ally. The polemics between the “revisionists” and the “Maoists” were the necessary precursor for these overtures.  Today the polemics between the jihadists and the Brotherhood offers us a somewhat similar opportunity.


But Poole prefers instead to fling childish and diversionary charges that we are “Democrats” and “progressives.”  If Poole had cared to inquire, one of us was a leader of the American effort to oust the Sandinista Communists from power in Nicaragua, was attacked regularly in more or less similar fashion to Poole’s in the pages of the Nation, Rolling Stone and other leftist periodicals. But he was twice cited (once on April 15, 1985) for outstanding work on Central America by Ronald Reagan. Poole also might want to check with Frontpage’s own David Horowitz, who eagerly recruited Leiken to join his Second Thoughts movement, to be a featured speaker in the inauguration of the movement and to write two chapters in Horowitz’s edited volume on the issues. Leiken has changed neither his views about the subject nor his method: seek truth from facts.

Those are our answers to all of Poole’s specific charges.  Poole chose not to recognize, still less to answer, the specific arguments we raised in Foreign Affairs.

-with the publication of Preachers, not Judges the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood rejected war, violence, and revolution as a way to change society.
-this volume constituted a rejection of Qutb’s jihadist ideas.
-The MB split over this issue, with the jihadists going on the form al Jihad and similar groups, whose leaders surround Osama bin Laden today and who cordially detest the Muslim Brotherhood.
-the Muslim Brotherhood publicly rejects the global jihad of Bin Laden et al.
-the jihadists regularly attack the Muslim Brotherhood for their rejection of global jihad as well as their democratic views and strategy.
-the Muslim Brotherhood has embraced a gradualist strategy through democratic means.
-there are two currents in the Muslim Brotherhood, reformist and conservative, and the reformists have been gradually gaining influence
-These divisions remain veiled partially as a result of repression but also because the Brotherhood follows a vanguardist, cadre model of organization; one that it should abandon so that internal debates may become public.
-That the Muslim Brotherhood’s “International Organization” is no Islamic Comintern.  Policy is shaped by national experience and thus is increasingly pragmatic and even collaborationist (in the case democratic regimes in Europe).
-The Brotherhood led organization in France, the UOIF, is moderate and collaborates with the conservative government and its Interior Minister and presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy.
-The Brotherhood led organization in Britain, the MAB, is relatively moderate, especially compared with groups like Hizb ut Tahrir, and has worked with the British government against radicals, most conspicuously in the case of the once notorious suicide factory, the Finsbury Park Mosque.
-It was we who cited Bernard Lewis’ warning about “one man, one vote, one time” in the context of a balanced discussion of the question whether such would be the outcome in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood. Again we remit the reader to our article if they wish to measure Poole’s reliability and learn who of us is “relying on the reader’s ignorance.”

Though it may be daunting, messy and time consuming, charting the forces in the Muslim world is the first step toward crafting policies that are wise and effective.  Our preferences and inclinations cannot be the basis of policy. If the war in Iraq has taught us anything, it shows that policy must be grounded in a thorough analysis of the presenting situation.  Exhibiting weeds from the Brotherhood garden (how many weeds grew in the gardens of Kautsky, Bernstein and the Chinese Stalinists?), charging those conducting independent and dispassionate investigation with political agendas, “designate[ing] the Muslim Brotherhood as a Specially Designated Terrorist Organization” and generally muddying the windshield will land us in more Iraqs.

Robert S. Leiken is Director of the Immigration and National Security Programs at The Nixon Center and the author of the forthcoming “Europe”s Angry Muslims”. Steven Brooke is a Research Associate at The Nixon Center.

Other Articles by Robert S. Leiken:


We must prepare for the ultimate threat to nations. Thoughts from one of America’s leading grand strategists.


The Islamic Army is calling for negotiations with America—pointing the way to evicting the jihadists.


European politicians suggest a focus on the “common Persian enemy” and an outreach to former Ba’ath members could splinter the insurgency, create an Iraqi unity government and allow America”s exit.


A tale of Mexican-American romance and disappointment, with proposals preferred to save a friendship.


Other Articles by Steven Brooke:


People lament the absence of Muslims who can punch holes in the radicals” arguments, but unfortunately we won”t get to hear this one.