The Magazine

Living with Islam

Begin with Western strength and confidence in our principles.

Sep 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 02 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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To the Western eye, the differences between Islamists may seem small. For Western intellectuals who watch the turbulence that has come to the Middle East with the Great Arab Revolt and see now only “madness” among the masses, dilating upon the differences among fundamentalists may seem pedantic, if not insane. But those differences are critical to Egypt’s future and America’s security.

We do not know, for example, whether elected Islamists will support, openly or covertly, jihadists targeting the United States. It’s entirely possible that the recent attacks were orchestrated by al Qaeda-affiliated groups. It’s a reasonable conjecture that the Salafist leaders who drove their followers over the embassy’s walls would be inclined to give jihadists more running room in Egyptian society than would the Brotherhood. Even though the Brotherhood intellectually spawned the Salafists in Egypt, the children appear considerably more violent than their parents.

Look at tourism. The Salafists want to kick the European tourists—carriers of rotten mores and skimpy beachwear—out of Egypt and replace their hard currency with the export of baskets. The Muslim Brotherhood is trying, or at least so it seems, to figure out how to keep the tourists but neutralize their potential for contamination. A Brotherhood-dominated Egyptian government will likely fall back on the traditional Muslim view of foreign tourists as dhimmis, that is, religiously protected minorities who will be allowed to do more or less what they want (drink alcohol, wear bikinis, and even engage in sexually provocative behavior) so long as they do it away from Muslims (resort staff excluded).

Getting to this dispensation will not be easy for many in the Brotherhood, especially the older leadership. If they get there, it will be an astonishing achievement for a group that has been absolutely frantic about the Western assault on Egyptian mores. Sayyid Qutb will be turning over in his grave.

Now take that attitude and apply it to foreign affairs. A democratically elected Brotherhood has already confronted Israel-targeting jihadists who killed Egyptian troops in the Sinai. That was a shock. Salafists, who’d been encroaching on the Brotherhood’s social terrain in the Nile Delta for over 20 years, have openly and aggressively challenged Brothers in elections, suggesting that they, not the Brotherhood, are the truer Muslims. Now Egyptians have seen Salafists go over the U.S. embassy walls.

Although it’s possible that the Brotherhood could try to reach a “grand bargain” with the more radical upstarts—peace on the home front in exchange for greater hostility toward the West—it seems more likely that the Brotherhood will be consistent: They will try to diminish the Salafists everywhere. The Salafists—not Egypt’s fractured, intellectually immature liberals and secular nationalists—are the Brotherhood’s real rivals. Al-Azhar, Egypt’s historic theological center, has always kept its distance from the Brothers, whose populist, nonclerical roots scare the traditional religious establishment. But compared with the Salafists, the Brotherhood is a pillar of orthodox rectitude. We should expect to see a Brotherhood–Al-Azhar alliance against the rise of the Salafists, who, like all who go in for ultra-strict observance, are highly suspicious of the status quo.

We want to see that happen. We want to see the Brotherhood move further down the path from an explicitly jihadist organization to a more politically pragmatic Islamist group that, while it hates the United States and Israel, is unwilling to countenance terror. (Think the post-Communist European left.) We want to see the Brothers invested in Egypt in ways that make them compromise—stretch—their Islamic virtues.

The United States shouldn’t want to stop giving money to Egypt because the Brotherhood has won. We should be inclined to give the country even more money provided the Brotherhood keeps the peace with Israel, keeps the European tourists coming, and allows opposing political parties and the press freedom to criticize and grow.

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