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.
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.
BBC radio, too, has better scrutinized the Brotherhood by asking probing questions of its representatives. On the BBC World Service program, “World Have Your Say,” aired on February 14, moderator Mark Sandell put questions phoned-in by global listeners directly to Dr. Ahmed Fahmi, the U.K. spokesman for the Brotherhood, and Mohammed Morsi, a member of its executive council. One question came from an American attorney whose client was an Egyptian Christian that had been forced by the Brotherhood to sign a declaration stating that he had converted to Islam, after which their coercers persecuted both him and his family. Morsi termed this incident an “accident” three times on the air. Fahmi, for his part, disavowed that the Brotherhood was a political organization at all by way of parrying a question about whether he recognized Israel’s right to exist. In fact, Sandell collectively asked Fahmi and Morsi this question a total of seven times during the broadcast, never receiving an answer. And when Sandell confronted them with the Brotherhood’s draft manifesto from 2007, which prohibits women and Coptics from holding the Egyptian presidency, Morsi acknowledged this as “our platform,” nevertheless affirming the Brotherhood’s pledge to gender equality.
A March 3 broadcast of BBC Newsnight also carried a segment on the Muslim Brotherhood, and while its overall tendency was to suggest that the group was not nearly so powerful or extremist as Western commentators have said it is, narrator Tim Whewell interviewed some provocative figures. One included Doha, a young female law student member of the Brotherhood, who strongly advocated the implementation of sharia in Egypt:
Egypt follows French law, and we do not want that, because when someone steals for example, he spends a month in jail and then he’s released to do the same again. But under Sharia law he gets his hand cut off and that’s better.
As to whether or not Egypt ought to maintain its peace treaty with Israel, Doha was similarly adamant:
The first thing to do is to sever all ties with Israel because it is the cause of our ruin. And Mubarak was their agent… In my opinion America is exactly the same as Israel, as long as it harbors bad intentions towards us. We don’t want aid from anyone, we just want other nations not to interfere with us, and we can manage.
Whewell also inquired of Egyptian lawyer Sobhi Saleh, who represented the Muslim Brotherhood on the committee to change the Egyptian constitution, about his view that women and Christians ought not serve as president of Egypt:
They should not occupy the highest post of the presidency. It’s the same policy as in Greece, Spain and in England. We are the majority. We represent 95 percent of the population.
When countered by Whewell that no such laws exist in any of those European countries and that women constitute half the Egyptian population, Saleh replied that the Egyptian president would be tasked with leading the people in prayer. “Islam gives women all the rights except the right to do that, which is one single post among 82 million. How can a woman lead the people in prayer?”
Revealingly, the BBC has been more or less silent in recent days on Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s chief cleric who returned to Egypt after Mubarak’s departure and gave a Friday sermon in Cairo the other week to a crowd of hundreds of thousands. The BBC’s live blog on February 18 cited Qaradawi a few times, mostly in relation to what other commentators were saying about him. Ironically, one reference was a recycled tweet by Shadi Hamid of the Brooking Institution’s Doha Centre, which read, “Can't wait for western coverage of qaradawi's return: ‘Khomeini redux,’” surely not characteristic of the BBC’s coverage. On the whole, there was just one BBC news story published about the rally and it fleetingly described Qaradawi as “influential,” quoting his desire to see the Egyptian army “liberate us from the government that Mubarak formed.” No mention here of his hosanna to “liberate Palestine” or that his “influential” status has been somewhat complicated by his well-documented remarks about the Holocaust (God’s divine justice against the Jews), homosexuals (worthy of being killed) or suicide bombings in Israel (he’s for them). This elision was especially odd considering that Qaradawi was banned from England for inciting violence after he told Newsnight in 2004 that “an Israeli woman is not like women in our societies, because she is a soldier. I consider this type of martyrdom operation as an evidence of God’s justice.”
Given that the BBC has exposed the Brotherhood’s extremism in its broadcast programming, it’s remarkable that the BBC online editors remain wedded to a policy of presenting the organization in its own preferred terms.
Michael Weiss is the executive director of Just Journalism, a London-based think tank that monitors the British media's coverage of Israel and the Middle East.