U.S. approves contacts with Muslim Brotherhood: ’Region is going Islam’

The Bush administration has been quietly engaging the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Officials said the State Department has approved a policy that would enable U.S. diplomats to meet and coordinate with Brotherhood leaders in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and other Arab states. They said the program would first be restricted to elected officials from the Brotherhood and eventually be extended to their political chiefs.

“The region is going Islam,” an official said. “We see this in nearly every country in the Middle East. We either understand it and engage with it or find ourselves completely out of the picture.”

The Brotherhood has been regarded as the inspiration for Muslim movements throughout the Arab world. The organization, founded in Egypt, spread through Saudi financing and has served as the inspiration for Al Qaida.

Many Arab countries have banned the Brotherhood. But in Egypt, a party composed of Brotherhood members has won 20 percent of the seats in the National Assembly and plays a major role in domestic policy.

In 2007, officials said, the State Department was quietly fostering ties with the Brotherhood. U.S. embassy staffers in Cairo have attended sessions led by parliamentarians from the Brotherhood and invited the Islamists to official receptions.

“We respect the laws of this country,” U.S. ambassador to Egypt Francis Ricciardone said. “But, at the same time, we’re ready to establish relations and hold meetings with all the legal political elements in the country.

Officials said a U.S. approach toward the Brotherhood was vital in wake of the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in late June. They said the policy could encourage what officials have identified as a pro-Western wing of the Palestinian Islamic movement.

The administration policy has been supported by the Democratic-controlled Congress. On April 7, House leaders, including Democratic whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, attended a reception by the U.S. embassy in Cairo that included Brotherhood deputies. The reception took place at the ambassador’s residence.

The State Department has been discussing the new policy with the U.S. intelligence community. On June 20, the department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research convened a meeting with members of the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency to expand dialogue with the Brotherhood.

The proposal was based on a study by Robert Leiken, a researcher at the Nixon Center. The study, commissioned by the National Intelligence Council, urged the United States to open a formal channel to the Islamic movement.

Such a channel would include formal meetings with Brotherhood leaders throughout the Arab and Islamic world and invite members to study or work in the United States. Officials said the law enforcement community, particularly the FBI, opposes the proposal, concerned that this would facilitate Al Qaida plots to attack the United States.

At the State Department forum, Leiken was opposed by Hillel Fradin, an Islamic expert from the Hudson Institute. Fradkin was said to have argued that engaging the rigidly ideological Brotherhood would dash any hope for reform within political Islam.

“You make them partners,” Zeyno Baran, Fradkin’s colleague at Hudson, told the New York Sun. “They might Islamize the Muslims, but it’s okay because they can think or do what they want as long as they are not violent. That is the misunderstanding and mistake.”