February 6, 2011

THE MAN IN THE RING:

Washington’s Secret History with the Muslim Brotherhood (Ian Johnson, 2/05/11, NYRB Blog)

Why the enduring interest in the Brotherhood? Since its founding in 1928 by the Egyptian schoolteacher and imam Hassan al-Banna, the Brotherhood has managed to voice the aspirations of the Muslim World’s downtrodden and often confused middle class. It explained their backwardness in an interesting mixture of fundamentalism and fascism (or reactionary politics and xenophobia): today’s Muslims aren’t good enough Muslims and must return to the true spirit of the Koran. Foreigners, especially Jews, are part of a vast conspiracy to oppress Muslims. This message was—and still is—delivered through a modern, political party-like structure, that includes women’s groups, youth clubs, publications and electronic media, and, at times, paramilitary wings. It has also given birth to many of the more violent strains of radical Islamism, from Hamas to al-Qaeda, although many of such groups now find the Brotherhood too conventional. Little wonder that the Brotherhood, for all its troubling aspects, is interesting to western policy makers eager to gain influence in this strategic part of the world.

But the Brotherhood has been a tricky partner. In countries where it aspires to join the political mainstream, it renounces the use of violence locally. Hence the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt says it no longer seeks to overthrow the regime violently—although its members there think nothing of calling for Israel’s destruction. In Egypt, the Brotherhood also says it wants religious courts to enforce shariah, but at times has also said that secular courts could have final say. This isn’t to suggest that its moderation is just for show, but it’s fair to say that the Brotherhood has only partially embraced the values of democracy and pluralism.

The group’s most powerful cleric, the Qatar-based Youssef Qaradawi, epitomizes this bifurcated worldview. He says women should be allowed to work and that in some countries, Muslims may hold mortgages (which are based on interest, a taboo for fundamentalists). But Qaradawi advocates the stoning of homosexuals and the murder of Israeli children—because they will grow up and could serve as soldiers.

Qaradawi is hardly an outlier. In past years, he has often been mentioned as a candidate to be the Egyptian branch’s top leader. He is very likely the most influential cleric in the Muslim world—on Friday, for example, thousands of Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square listened to a broadcast of his sermon. He has also declared those demonstrators who have died defying the government to be martyrs.

That is an indication of the Brotherhood’s growing influence in the wave of protests around the region. In Egypt, the Brotherhood, after a slow start, has become a key player in the anti-government coalition; on Thursday, the new vice president, Omar Suleiman, invited the Brotherhood for talks. In Jordan, where the group is legal, King Abdullah met with the Brotherhood for the first time in a decade. And in Tunis, the Islamist opposition leader Rachid Ghanouchi, who has been a pillar of the Brotherhood’s European network, recently returned home from his London exile.

All of this points to the biggest difference between then and now. Half a century ago, the West chose to make use of the Brotherhood for short-term tactical gain, later backing many of the authoritarian governments that were also trying to wipe out the group. Now, with those governments tottering, the West has little choice; after decades of oppression, it is the Brotherhood, with its mixture of age-old fundamentalism and modern political methods, that is left standing.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 6, 2011 6:07 AM
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