The Muslim Brotherhood: Enemy or Ally?

The Nixon Center hosted discussion with John Voll, Professor at Georgetown Univerity, on the Muslim Brotherhood, on Tuesday November 28. The discussion focused on the current status of the Muslim Brotherhood and also U.S. policy options towards it. The discussion was moderated by Robert S. Leiken, Director of of Immigration and National Security Programs.

It is interesting to see how the call to engage in direct dialogue with the MB is gaining momentum in the West. The Muslim Brotherhood on its part welcomes any dialogue with Western institutions or governments’ officials, based on mutual respect and understanding, in order to reach a common ground that enables us to tackle the major challenges that face our world today. Although we disagree with Dr. Voll’s assessment of the European branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he is certainly one of many respected voices in the West who are able to recognize the true moderate nature of the Muslim Brotherhood and the clear distinction between its ideology and other violent Islamist groups.

The following article “Talk to the Brotherhood” was written by Marisa Morrison with the National Interest Online, in which she summarizes Dr. Voll’s speech during the discussion.

Ikhwanweb, New York

Talk To The Brotherhood

By Marisa Morrison, The National Interest Online

To emphasize the diversity among Islamist groups, Georgetown University professor John Voll employed an analogy from his Midwestern, Methodist childhood.  Speaking at the Nixon Center yesterday, Voll recalled that his father, a minister, staunchly believed that one day Christianity would become humanity’s only religion. The minister strove towards the creation of this Christian world by promoting social justice. Other Midwestern Christians, like the Lutherans or the Catholics, also shared this broad goal of spreading Christianity but utilized different tactics in their attempts to achieve it.

Voll argued that it is similarly incorrect to suggest that all Islamist movements are alike. Though these movements all try to advance the cause of Islam, they use varied means to achieve this end. The Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, cannot simply be lumped together with Al-Qaeda.

In fact, the Brotherhood, also known as the Ikhwan, has consistently taken a “non-jihadi” approach since its inception in Egypt in 1928. While the Islamist organization, or at least its Egyptian branch, has always regarded Egyptian society as sinful and corrupt, the Brotherhood has directed its adherents to “judge, not preach.” Thus, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has refrained from accusing other Egyptians of being non-believers.

Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood has deemed it acceptable to participate in preexisting political processes. Most of the current leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood lacks the “political theory imagination to create an alternative system.” Although the Brotherhood’s stated objective is to establish governments based on the principles of sharia—Islamic law—members of the Brotherhood disagree on what sharia actually constitutes.  Voll emphasized that the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood interprets sharia as a series of divine norms rather than as a tradition of jurisprudence. According to the scholar, the Brothers he interviewed recognized that it seemed wrong to enforce medieval values in the 21st century.   

While there are voices of moderation within the Ikhwan, the Islamist movement has also served as a “feeder organization” for jihadists.  These Brothers, angered by the Ikhwan’s refusal to condemn non-believers, leave the organization to join terrorist groups.  It is the disagreements with the Brotherhood’s ideology—rather than that ideology itself—that breed radicalism.

The Egyptian branch of the Islamist movement has actually confronted radicalism in the past. When Sayyid Qutb, an imprisoned Muslim Brother, published his radical manifesto Milestones on the Path in the 1960s, other jailed members of the Ikhwan implicitly repudiated his work with their own writings.  Ironically, Sayidd Qutb remains a popular figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, but not because of his opinions. The Ikhwan’s younger generation, who generally have not read Qutb’s work, admire Qutb’s martyrdom—he was executed because of his Brotherhood affiliation—and his opposition to the secular Egyptian regime.

On the other hand, the mainstream Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood should not be confused with Muslim Brotherhood groups in other countries. The Ikhwan is not the product of an Egyptian “grand plan”; it has no global hierarchical organization.  The Egyptian Brotherhood does not even dictate the actions of its counterpart in neighboring Sudan.

Troublingly, since there is no central figure to unite the entire Muslim Brotherhood movement, the European Muslim Brotherhood groups have drifted towards radicalism.  European members of the Ikhwan, unlike their Middle Eastern counterparts, seek to destroy the society in which they live.

Despite the problems that the Muslim Brotherhood presents, Voll believes that it is in the United States’ interest to forge closer ties to the movement.  To effectively promote political reform in the Middle East, the United States will have to assist opposition groups within stubbornly autocratic Middle Eastern states.  In many of these countries, the Muslim Brotherhood is the only organization capable of challenging the government. Strengthening the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, for example, would help the United States to gain some leverage over the Syrian regime.

For such a policy to be successful, the U.S. government must be mindful of the character of the movement.  Different Muslim Brotherhood organizations operate in different contexts. In some states, the Brotherhood is legal, in others it is banned but ignored, and in still others, it is repressed.  While may be difficult for the United States to deal with a non-governmental entity, Voll stressed the utility of “talking to, learning from and cooperating with” the Muslim Brotherhood.  The scholar used another analogy to acknowledge his bias towards engagement: “Should Faust have talked to the Devil? Yes.”

Marisa Morrison is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.

Other Topics:

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Open Forum on The Muslim Brotherhood
Ikhwanweb, London-UK
United States stops entry of British Muslim leader
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Muslim Brotherhood Opens Office in Washington
AINA – Modesto,CA,USA
Engaging Moderate Muslims—Really?
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Talk to the Brotherhood
The National Interest Online – Washington,DC,USA