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The BBC and the Muslim Brotherhood

12:44 PM, Mar 11, 2011 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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After Hosni Mubarak’s fall in Egypt, there was a whorl of ambiguous media commentary that either tried to present the Muslim Brotherhood as a conciliatory Islamist movement posing no threat to Egypt, its neighbours (read: Israel) or the West, or tried to challenge the Brotherhood about its core tenets and ultimate goals. Nowhere has this confused and contradictory approach been better exhibited than at the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The BBC and the Muslim Brotherhood

An opening salvo in the image war was fired early on in the Egyptian revolution. On January 31, BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen wrote in an online news article: “Unlike the jihadis, [the Brotherhood] does not believe it is at war with the West. It is conservative, moderate and non-violent. But it is highly critical of Western policy in the Middle East.” Bowen only affirmed what by then had become his news division’s flattering line. On January 28, the BBC posted to its website an info-box summary of the Brotherhood’s orientation, which it unquestioningly described as “reject[ing] the use of violence and support[ing] democratic principles.” 

Yet this characterization was somewhat complicated, if not belied completely, by a 2006 Egyptian parliamentary debate where Brotherhood deputies called for the murder of Bahai’s, whom they labelled “apostates.” So much for the supposed democratic principles some proclaimed the Brotherhood to posses. As to its disavowal of violence, the Brotherhood’s own English-language website from 2007 clearly states its allegiance to “solving the Palestinian cause” through the “paralleled lines of unity and jihad,” certainly consistent with the strategy of Hamas, which identifies itself in its founding charter as the Palestinian offshoot of the Egyptian Brotherhood.

An even more laborious attempt to sanitize the Islamist movement came from Middle East editor of the BBC News website Tarik Kafala, who published on February 20, “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood promotes moderate path.” The article highlighted all the social work that the Brotherhood performed in recent years, particularly its building of “non-political” and not-for-profit medical centers throughout Egypt. Although Kafala later cited the Brotherhood’s “conservative Islamist agenda” and “historical links to radical and sometimes violent groups,” that agenda and those links are happily elided from his piece, as were the scare quotes around the word “moderate” in the headline – typically, the BBC’s house style for casting doubt on the asserted identity of a controversial political group.

The Brotherhood’s vaunted moderation is undermined by what its top-ranking figures have been saying for years and, indeed, what they’re saying now that they’ve gained an international audience.  The former general guide of the Brotherhood, Mahdi Akef, called on all Muslims everywhere to support jihad in Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan in an open letter he wrote titled, “Jihad and Martyrdom are the Way to Glory and Victory.” When asked by an interviewer whether he saw Osama bin Laden as a terrorist or an Islamic freedom-fighter, Akef, in marked contrast to widespread claims that the Brotherhood is inveterately hostile to al Qaeda, replied: “Certainly, a mujahid [freedom fighter], and I have no doubt in his sincerity in resisting the occupation, drawing closer to God Almighty.”

Another senior member of the Brotherhood, Kamal el-Helbawi just attended the 24th International Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran. According to various state controlled news outlets, el-Helbawi spoke of Iran “as a model of resistance against the West’s domination and... a model for the Muslim world and Ummah.” He praised the theocracy for promoting “unity among Shia and Sunni, human rights and respect for humanity.” Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, el-Helbawi said, “speaks bravely against the corrupt regimes.”

Interestingly, el-Helbawi appeared on the BBC television program HARDtalk on February 6, during which he was equally candid. Faced with the kind of rigorous questioning absent from the BBC’s news coverage of Brotherhood, el-Helbawi was shown to advocate Sharia law for all Muslims, abjured the “terrorist” label for Hamas, and twice refused to answer whether under Muslim Brotherhood rule Muslims would be free to consume alcohol. 

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