Writing for the Daily Beast, Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and adviser to the Obama administration, argues that the U.S. can coexist with a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egypt. The Obama administration “should not be afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Riedel writes. “Living with it won’t be easy but it should not be seen as inevitably our enemy. We need not demonize it nor endorse it.”
Here is the key rationale Riedel offers:
The Egyptian Brotherhood renounced violence years ago, but its relative moderation has made it the target of extreme vilification by more radical Islamists. Al Qaeda’s leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, started their political lives affiliated with the Brotherhood but both have denounced it for decades as too soft and a cat’s paw of Mubarak and America.
The first part of the first sentence quoted above is flat wrong. The Brotherhood has not renounced violence; it has simply advocated a more selective approach to using it. The rest of the paragraph is only partially true, and masks a much more complicated relationship between the Brotherhood and al Qaeda.
First, we must understand that the Brotherhood is not confined to Egypt, but actually operates around the globe, with full-fledged branches throughout the Middle East and influence organizations in the West. Everywhere the Brotherhood has implanted its radical Islamist seed the organization has adapted to its environment. So, for example, in Egypt, where the Brotherhood was ruthlessly oppressed by Mubarak’s regime, it began to advocate open participation in Egypt’s elections. This was a necessity, as violent attempts to overthrow Mubarak were systematically crushed. Even so, we cannot pretend, as Riedel does, that the Brotherhood has completely eschewed violence.
Barry Rubin argues convincingly in The Muslim Brotherhood, an excellent compendium he edited, that in fact the Brotherhood has no problem with violence.
“Regarding al-Qa’ida,” Rubin writes, “the Brotherhoods [in Egypt, Syria, and Jordan] approve in principle of its militancy, attacks on America, and ideology (or at least respects its ideologues), but views it as a rival.”
Rubin goes on to quote Rajab Hilal Hamida, a member of the Brotherhood in Egypt’s parliament:
From my point of view, bin Ladin, al-Zawahiri and al-Zarqawi are not terrorists in the sense accepted by some. I support all their activities, since they are a thorn in the side of the Americans and the Zionists. … [On the other hand,] he who kills Muslim citizens is neither a jihad fighter nor a terrorist, but a criminal murderer. We must call things by their proper names!
In other words, Hamida is not concerned with al Qaeda’s attacks against Americans or Jews. Their killing of other Muslims is what he finds objectionable. This should offer us small comfort.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s most influential theologian, Sheikh Yousef al Qaradawi, has repeatedly justified suicide bombings, called on Muslims to support the insurgency against American forces in Iraq, and justified the killing of civilians. “The martyrdom operations carried out by the Palestinian factions to resist the Zionist occupation are not in any way included in the framework of prohibited terrorism, even if the victims include some civilians," Qaradawi said in 2003, according to MEMRI. “Those who oppose martyrdom operations and claim that they are suicide are making a great mistake,” Qaradawi added.
The Egyptian branch has asked Qaradawi to be its leader on multiple occasions, but he has turned them down to continue living it Qatar. Qaradawi has flourished in the Persian Gulf nation, where he has hosted one of Al Jazeera’s most popular programs, “Sharia and Life.”
Qaradawi has never “renounced violence” and it says much that the Egyptian Brotherhood looks to him as its de facto spiritual leader.
Perhaps the best example of the Muslim Brotherhood’s continued support for violence is found in its ongoing relationship with Hamas, which Riedel recognizes. Hamas defines itself as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in its own charter. Hamas is, of course, one of the premier suicide terrorism organizations on the planet today.
Riedel is correct in saying that the Muslim Brotherhood has drawn the ire of al Qaeda’s leaders for being “too soft.” But this glosses over the many ideological similarities between the two organizations. They both want to conquer lands in the name of Islam and establish Sharia law everywhere they can. They simply disagree about how to best accomplish that goal. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, who were recruited by the Brotherhood as young men, did not leave the organization because they disagreed with its long-term goals. They were simply unwilling to compromise at a tactical level.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has been willing to use non-violent tactics, whereas al Qaeda has endorsed violent jihad to the bloody end no matter what. This does not mean the Muslim Brotherhood eschews violence (as illustrated by the quotes above). It simply means that the Brotherhood is more practical than al Qaeda when it comes to achieving its long-term goals, and is willing to use non-violent tactics as well as violence.
Moreover, the rivalry between al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood does not preclude cooperation on the world stage. Here are just a few examples, chosen from many.
Osama bin Laden’s first real mentor was Abdullah Azzam, who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Azzam had his own differences with some Brotherhood members and practices. But Azzam’s teachings are still widely cited by jihadists today, three decades after he first preached jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. And it was Azzam’s connections to Brotherhood organizations in Pakistan that gave bin Laden a firm footing in South Asia.
In the mid-1990s, Osama bin Laden was taken in by another member of the international Brotherhood, Hassan al Turabi. When bin Laden could no longer live in Saudi Arabia, Turabi brought him to Sudan. There, Turabi built a network of connections between various nefarious actors and introduced bin Laden to many of them. Turabi was probably one of the three most influential Brotherhood ideologues at the time – that is, while he was mentoring and sheltering bin Laden and al Qaeda.
Then there is Sheikh Abdul Majeed al Zindani, who remains a prominent Muslim Brotherhood cleric in Yemen. The U.S. Treasury Department has designated Zindani a terrorist because of his close, decades-long relationship with Osama bin Laden. Zindani has frequently recruited jihadists for al Qaeda.
And just this week CNN reported that the Saudis found in a recent investigation that the Muslim Brotherhood maintains ties to al Qaeda. Some members of the Brotherhood have “historic sympathies and connections” with al Qaeda, according to Saudi officials. Thus, Brotherhood money “occasionally” finds its way into al Qaeda’s hands.
Hosni Mubarak’s regime is no friend of freedom, even though it is certainly an ally against al Qaeda.
In all likelihood, an Egypt dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood (if that is how the turmoil plays out) would be neither.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.