The Muslim Brotherhood and the West: A History of Enmity and Engagement
At a roundtable on the subject of Islamism held in Paris in 2005, the French scholar Olivier Roy asserted that Western leaders should consider how to integrate Islamists in the political system if they were genuinely interested in reform.
He argued that up until then, attempts to contain and marginalise Islamic groups in the Middle East had failed. It was four years after 9/11, and the world was as divided as ever. In October that year, the current president George W. Bush said that «Islamic radicalism, like the ideology of communism, contains inherent contradictions that are doomed to failure.»
«When Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, he saw secularism as the most lethal weapon ever devised by Europeans.»
That claim – of course – can be contested. And in a way this is exactly what Martyn Frampton does in his new book. As a reader in Modern History at Queen Mary University in London, he sets out to describe the historic relationship between Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and that account is far from the monolithic picture we often get from Islamism in our times.
It is a movement with many elements, and yes, inherent contradictions are very much a part of the picture, but in the case of the Brotherhood, their contradictions are also some of the key explanations when it comes to its power and survival.
A clever, political player
When Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, he saw secularism as the most lethal weapon ever devised by Europeans. He saw it as a challenge to the core Islamic ideal of tawhid – the unity of life that reflected the nature of the divine. But al-Banna was not anti-Western per se. Rather, he wished to harness the best elements of «the West», which he himself often conflated with modernity, and reconcile this with an Islamic spirit. He is famous for having said that «haram cinema is haram, and halal cinema is halal.»
His worldview was a reflection of what he saw around him in Egypt in those days. The country was under British rule and al-Banna was deeply conscious of the socioeconomic, political and – not least – the cultural influence in Egyptian society. His movement was a wake-up call, an attempt to reignite popular pride and self-awareness. He was not against, for example, modern technology; instead what mattered was content.
The Muslim Brotherhood emerged as a clever political player. It demonstrated a pragmatism that to many Westerners seems to be foreign to Islamic movements. During the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser and his strategic decisions connected to the Cold War, the Brothers by far preferred America to Russia, which at first hand might seem a bit strange. But the Brotherhood maintained that they would have no dealings with the atheistic Soviets. The Americans by contrast were «a people of the book», and therefore they were acceptable despite foreign policy failings regarding Zionism and other regional issues.
When Anwar Sadat took over as Egyptian leader in 1970, he even saw the potential in the Brotherhood, and in spite of his warm relationship to the West he styled himself as the «believer president».
In that way Sadat managed to harness the forces of religion to strengthen his position, and the Brothers played along. In exchange they got a new constitution stipulating that Islam was the official religion of Egypt and proclaiming Sharia a source of legislation.
«During the reign of Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood once again gained influence.»
This apparent coexistence with Secularism came under siege in the second half of the 1970s, when Sadat’s process of «controlled liberalisation» ground to a halt. The events of 1977 proved crucial.
The start of the year witnessed major food riots that made Sadat more determined to define his presidency by foreign policy accomplishments. That November he travelled to Jerusalem, which led to the peace treaty with the Israelis. However, in October 1981 Sadat was assassinated by Islamists.
Fostering both fear and support
But the pendulum bounced back. The new Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak basically reinstated the unofficial covenant that had existed under Sadat, and the Muslim Brotherhood once again gained in influence. But it was a challenging time. 1979 had come to be arguably the most important single year in the recent history of the broad Islamic movement. The Iranian revolution had changed much, and two additional developments – the riots at the Grand Mosque in Mecca and Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan – had created new enmity between secularism and Islamism.
The Muslim Brotherhood had established itself as a bastion of anti-establishment opinion, and still it subscribed to the gradualist, nonviolent strategy. This enabled the leader of the group’s parliamentary group Mohamed Morsi to visit the American Embassy in Cairo during the aftermath of 9/11 in order to reiterate their rejection of terrorism, while other key players in the Brotherhood also denounced the al Qaeda attacks.
Therefore present Western focus on fundamentalism cuts two ways when it comes to the Brotherhood.
On the one hand, it stimulates fears about «crisis cult» and anti-Western attitudes; on the other, the Brotherhood can be seen as the moderate manifestation of the wider fundamentalist wave, and this can be seen as the core message in this important book.