The Magazine

O Brotherhood, What Art Thou?

Don't mistake Islamic extremists for moderates.

Apr 23, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 30 • By ZEYNO BARAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Even though Congress was in recess the first week of April, a number of lawmakers kept busy. A bipartisan delegation led by House majority leader Steny Hoyer paid a visit to Cairo, meeting with several Egyptian members of parliament, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a controversial Islamist group officially banned in Egypt. Hoyer's contacts with the Brotherhood have added new intensity to the debate over whether or not the U.S. government should "engage" with the group as an ally in the war on terror.

Making the case for such engagement, Robert Leiken and Steven Brooke wrote an article in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs entitled "The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood." They conclude that the Brotherhood consists of "moderate Muslims with active community support" and that engaging with its members "makes strong strategic sense."

Yet this could not be further from the truth. The argument for a strategy of engagement flows from the incorrect belief that if Islamist groups that denounce violence are strengthened, they will then confront their more violent brethren and rob them of their support base. Although various Islamist groups do quarrel over tactics and often bear considerable animosity towards one another, a "divide and conquer" strategy will only push them closer together. This is illustrated perfectly by the response to Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to ban the revolutionary Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) after the July 7, 2005, bombings in London. HT reached out to various British Islamist organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood (despite their intense historical rivalry), and urged them all to stand united or "be the next in line to be proscribed." Sadly, HT's effort was successful and Blair was forced to withdraw his proposal.

Allies in this war cannot be chosen on the basis of their tactics--that is, whether or not they eschew violent methods. Instead, the deciding factor must be ideology: Is the group Islamist or not? In essence, this means that a nonviolent, British-born Islamist should not be considered an ally. Yet a devout, conservative Muslim immigrant to Europe--one who does not even speak any Western languages but rejects Islamist ideology--could be.

Moderate, non-Islamist Muslims have long tried to explain the inherent incompatibility of Islamism with a Western society that extols pluralism and equality. Islamists seek the total imposition of Islamic law upon society at large. To the Brotherhood and groups like it, the Koran and Islam are not a source of law but the only source of law. As the Muslim Brotherhood declares in its motto, "Allah is our objective, the Prophet is our leader, the Koran is our law, jihad is our way, dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope."

Moreover, engaging with Islamist organizations such as the Brotherhood lends legitimacy to an ideology that does not, in fact, represent the views of the majority of Muslims. Thus, American policymakers who advocate pursuing such a strategy are actually facilitating Islamism by endorsing it as a mainstream ideology. Some have already endorsed organizations that were founded by Brotherhood members and maintain a close ideological affiliation with the group, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Whether at home or abroad, such a policy is leading to disaster, as liberal, non-Islamist Muslims--having already been denounced by Islamists as apostates--are now being told by Western governments that they do not represent "real" Islam.

Empowering Islamists at the expense of non-Islamists hardly seems a wise strategy for the United States to pursue if it wants to win the war of ideas. After all, non-Islamists are already tremendously disadvantaged in terms of organization and funding. The Muslim Brotherhood has well-established networks of institutions, educational centers, and think tanks, as well as millions of dollars in donations from the Middle East. At the same time, many moderates are deterred from speaking out because of the ire doing so would provoke from Islamist groups. In the West, not only do critics have to worry about a fatwa calling for their death, but they are also faced with the prospect of getting sued for millions of dollars.