The irrelevance of the international Muslim Brotherhood

The irrelevance of the international Muslim Brotherhood

A while after the election of Muhammad Badi‘ as “general guide” of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the international Brotherhood organization — a contentious and unusually public process — I shared a lunch with some leaders of a Brotherhood-inspired movement in another Arab state. The conversation was mostly in English, but sometimes turned to Arabic (particularly when the Brotherhood leaders were speaking to each other). One of them asked me in English, “Nathan, what do you think of what is going on in the Brotherhood in Egypt?” Before I could reply, another leader asked my questioner in Arabic “Who is the new general guide?” Neither of them could remember so I piped in with Badi‘’s name. Neither one noticed me at first, so I repeated it. At that point, one of them replied vaguely to the other, “Yes, I think it is Muhammad something.”

How disciplined and well-organized can an international organization be when followers struggle to recall their supreme leader’s name? In press interviews, personal meetings, and material designed for their own members, Muslim Brotherhood leaders in various Arab countries refer very respectfully to the Brotherhood way of doing things but almost never to the authority or even existence of the international organization. Yet increasingly, awareness of Islamist movements in the West has lead to some dark talk of an international Brotherhood that serves as a cover for all sorts of missionary, political, and even violent activity. From a solid core in the Arab world, the Brotherhood’s tentacles are said to be reaching out from Oslo to Oklahoma City.  

I have conducted little research on the Brotherhood in Europe and the United States, but I have studied it in various Arab countries where the movement is the strongest and most active. Is there such a thing as an international Muslim Brotherhood uniting these branches? Yes. But the odd truth is that the international Brotherhood does not matter much. And perhaps the odder truth is that it does not seem to matter that the international Muslim Brotherhood does not matter.


There is an international Muslim Brotherhood. Chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood exist in a number of societies; each one of them is headed by a “general supervisor.” Most chapters are members of an international body; they also accept the overall leadership of the “general guide,” a figure who has almost always doubled as the leader of the Egyptian organization (the original branch, often referred to in other countries as “the mother movement”). The international organization is rather bashful: we know little about its internal operations; we learn about its meetings and actions only when it takes a public decision. 

There are a few movements that are clearly inspired by the Brotherhood (in Israel, Kuwait, Iraq, and Indonesia, for instance) that do not acknowledge an open association with the international movement; some have formal ties that are not openly acknowledged and all have informal ties. And there are other organizations besides the international Brotherhood — such as the International Forum for Islamist Parliamentarians — that are informally associated with the Brotherhood and work to gather members from Brotherhood chapters and Brotherhood-type movements in various countries.

Why does this international organization not matter? Because it has not (and probably cannot) do very much. First, it is sluggish and unresponsive. On the few occasions it has been called in to settle difficult organizational questions, it has not responded with efficiency or alacrity. For instance, in 1989 a dispute among Jordanian Brotherhood members about whether to accept an invitation to join the cabinet proved so contentious the disputants tried to kick the question upstairs to the international organization. The answer came far too late and contained too much ambiguity to resolve the issue. In 2007, Khalid Mish‘al sought to have Hamas recognized as a distinct member of the international organization, setting off a complex organizational tussle inside the Jordanian organization. (Hamas has largely subsumed the Palestinian Brotherhood, which in turn was formally attached in the eyes of the international organization to the Jordanian branch — and some vestigial links survive between Hamas and the Jordanian Brotherhood as a result). One chief bone of contention focused on what would happen to Palestinian and Jordanian members in the Gulf (an important source of funds but also a group that sent representatives to the leadership bodies of the Jordanian organization, tilting it in a Palestinian direction). Three years later, the issues are still not fully resolved.

Second, the international organization is not only sluggish, it is also Egyptian dominated. Its leader is always an Egyptian and Egyptian Brotherhood members have scoffed at the idea that a non-Egyptian might be selected. Badi‘’s election was approved by the international organization, but there was some grumbling about the rubber-stamp nature of the process. Most members do accept that the “mother organization” will inevitably have a leading role, but many also find the Egyptian leaders far more interested in Egyptian than international affairs. Egypt’s harsh security climate also hampers its leaders from becoming more active internationally — many Egyptian leaders cannot travel outside their country.

Finally, various chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood have developed an ethos of mutual deference: they increasingly hold fast to the idea that each chapter should be free to react as it sees fit to local conditions. The various chapters do consult each other, but they are free to reject the advice they receive. The Iraqi Islamic Party participated in a political process sponsored by the United States at a time when Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood refused contact with American officials because of the country’s occupation of Iraq.  Aware of the conflicting stances, leaders of both organizations simply agreed to disagree. Hamas was advised by both Jordanian and Egyptian leaders not to try too hard in the 2006 parliamentary elections. “Participation, not domination” (that is, run but do not win) was the formula suggested to them. They listened to the first half of the message (they ran), but not the second (they won). Unlike their Jordanian and Egyptian comrades who only contest a minority of seats, they submitted a complete slate of candidates for parliamentary seats, enabling their surprising (and in the eyes of some Brotherhood leaders elsewhere) ill-advised victory.

Mutual deference extends quite far: all Brotherhood movements agree on the general principle that they will work only for peaceful change. The exception is that violent resistance to occupation is legitimate. When is a country occupied and when should resistance be used in such a case?  That is for each branch to evaluate. Hamas has universal support for its violent “resistance” but Brotherhood members also make clear that it is up to Hamas to decide when and how to employ violence. 

But doesn’t the international organization seek to recreate a global Islamic caliphate?  Well, there are certainly some older ideological documents suggesting such a distant goal but there is precious little evidence that the matter weighs much on the minds of current leaders, focused as they are on their domestic scenes. If the international organization were the germ of a recreated unified Islamic world, membership might be a bit more portable than it currently is. For instance, a member of a Palestinian branch temporarily residing in the Gulf might be treated in the Gulf state as a member of the local organization.  That sort of inter-branch linkage often did happen earlier in the Brotherhood’s history but has declined significantly in recent years. Brotherhood branches offer each other moral (and in a few cases material) support, but membership in a national organization is hardly treated as membership in a single, international movement.

So the international organization exists but does not matter much. But here is where we come finally to the more profound irrelevance: it may not matter much that the international organization does not matter much.

Brotherhood-type movements — whether formally affiliated or not, whether nominally accepting of the leadership of the Egyptian general guide or completely independent — still show two characteristics that make formal coordination seem unnecessary, even counterproductive. 

First, the various branches have no problem trying to follow a common general model –but that is because the model is so general it can be applied very differently in different settings. Members almost never refer to the authority of the international organization or the current general guide, but they regular refer to the Brotherhood’s model (manhaj) and to the thought of Hasan al-Banna. Al-Banna’s thought in turn, is hardly an abstract philosophy but instead a set of organizational techniques, inspirational speeches, and a general approach that places a tremendous emphasis on social engagement. Brotherhood members and their movements are supposed to work on behalf of reform on all levels — personal, social, political, and religious. They are not to form an isolated community of saints but to build better selves, families, and communities based on Islamic teachings.  This model is flexible but pushes the Brotherhood outwards.  It inspires branches and members to enter politics and run for office, form charitable associations, speak softly to non-members, act as role models in their neighborhoods, embark on self-improvement, participate in study groups, and support Islamic causes. Given the broad range of activities Brotherhood branches are involved in — and given the fact that some of this activity does not take place under the Brotherhood rubric — it is often difficult to discern where a Brotherhood’s formal organizational reach begins and ends. Brotherhood members are often involved in a host of projects, hospitals, schools, clubs, and associations, but it is not always clear how closely those other organizations are associated with the Brotherhood movement. It is this organizational feature that is a both a secret of the Brotherhood’s influence and a source of the suspicions and confusion that surround the movement.

The second reason for the limited relevance of the formal international organization is that Brotherhood members recognize each other without it. It may be difficult to tell where each Brotherhood branch organization begins and ends, but it is generally clear to people in the movement who is following the general model and who is not. Ask an Egyptian Brotherhood leader who represents the Brotherhood movement in Kuwait and one will get a clear answer (even though the Kuwaiti movement cut its formal ties with the international two decades ago). 

At a global level, the Brotherhood is no Mafia. Nor is it a rigid and disciplined Stalinist-style Comintern. It most closely resembles today’s Socialist International: a tame framework for a group of loosely linked, ideologically similar movements that recognize each other, swap stories and experiences in occasional meetings, and happily subscribe to a formally international ideology without giving it much priority. There is every reason to be interested in the Brotherhood’s myriad (and surprisingly diverse) country branches, but there is no reason to fear it as a menacing global web.

Nathan Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, a fellow at the Woodrow Willson International Center for Scholars, and a 2009 Carnegie Scholar for the Carnegie Corporation of New York.