RECOMMENDED READING: "The Brotherhood in the Salafist Universe"


In a paper written for the Hudson Institute, French scholar Giles Kepel highlights important issues helpful in understanding the Muslim Brotherhood in the contemporary world. He traces the origins of what is referred to here as the “Global Muslim Brotherhood” to the fusion of Muslim Brother and Saudi “Wahhabist” influences:

After being driven out of Egypt in the 1950s and ’60s, many Brothers found shelter in Saudi Arabia. The Saud family establishment was extremely hesitant and cautious vis-à-vis the Brotherhood, and they were never permitted access to the core of Saudi society, and to deal openly with religious issues. This was seen as the exclusive domain of the Wahhabis, who had formed an alliance with the ruling family. But the Saudi elites nonetheless saw the Brothers as useful because—to put it bluntly—they could read and write. While the Wahhabi ulama were ill at ease in dealing with the modern world, the Brothers were well traveled and relatively so- phisticated. They knew foreign languages and, unlike the Wahhabi ulama, were aware that the earth was not flat. The Brothers had been in jail, had political experience, and were skilled in modern polemics that resonated widely with ordinary people. Most of all, they had stood courageously against Saudi Arabia’s archenemies, the communists and secularists, and were eager to continue the fight. At the behest of the World Muslim League—which Saudi Arabia created in 1962 to counter Nasser’s attempts to internationalize Al Azhar University and promote the view that Islam was compatible with socialism—the Brothers argued in a variety of public forums that communism and socialism were totally antithetical to Islam. As in Egypt, the Brothers became especially active in the field of education, which was considered by Saudi and Gulf rulers to be innocuous at the time…..a cross-fertilization of ideas took place between the exiled Brotherhood and the austere teachings of what might be described as the Wahhabi rank and file. That interaction, combined with the new organizational and financial backing of groups like the Muslim World League, would eventually lead to the rise of a new, internationalist form of Salafism. The Brotherhood played a crucial role in shaping this new ideological universe, which is now, in important ways, the dominant cultural force in the Arab Middle East.

Further supporting the development of the new international networks were developments in Egypt following the 1971 reforms of Anwar Sadat:

Sadat freed most of the Brothers from prison, and many of them soon wound up on university campuses, where the government granted them relative freedom to organize and propagate their message, as Sadat needed conservative allies to help him break the bones of the left in the academy. Sadat also sent for Omar al-Telmesani, a lawyer who was then the Brothers’ Supreme Guide, and offered to give him a license to publish the Brotherhood’s long-suppressed monthly bulletin, Call to Islam. The Egyptian Mukhabarat, or intelligence organization, also subsequently befriended the Brotherhood, and in addition to receiving support from the state apparatus, they were freed to mobilize new funding channels in the Gulf. Taken together, these activities helped bring about the spirit of religious conservatism that characterized Egypt in the first half of the 1970s….In the early 1970s, the Brotherhood’s establishment in Egypt by and large responded warmly to Sadat’s conciliatory policies and efforts to court them. These Brothers were pursuing a reformist agenda, hoping that access to the regime would allow them to manipulate it from the inside and eventually cause it to fall.

It should be noted that although not mentioned in this piece, Kepel has in the past identified Youssef Qaradawi as a member of the editorial board of the Brotherhood publication Call to Islam which was funded largely by “petrodollars” flowing from the Gulf States.

Kepel also goes on to identify a split that developed with the Muslim Brotherhood movement:

But as the Brotherhood was being crushed in Egypt, it came under increasing criticism from within its own ranks and from Islamists outside, and was held accountable for its failures. Why had the Brotherhood been unable to resist Nasser’s oppression when they were such a strong mass movement in the early 1950s? What kind of mistakes had they made? Wasn’t it time for the Islamist movement to find and adopt a new course in order to overcome its shortcomings? These questions created deep disputes and, ultimately, a schism within the Brotherhood movement itself that came increasingly to the fore after 1971. On the one hand were those who supported the more radical ideas of Said Qutb, and on the other, those who supported the more traditional, politically-oriented views of Hasan Hudaybi, the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide in the 1960s. That ideological schism, combined with the general autonomy that the Brotherhood’s international branches gained after its central leadership in Egypt was crushed by Nasser, created even more rifts within the Islamist movement, and led to the formation of a diverse new range of organizations.

As Kepel points out, the teachings of Qutb became the inspiration for new Islamist groups:

Qutb’s teachings inspired many of the Islamist groups that emerged in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world in the 1970s, and especially those whose leaders came up through the universities. Among those groups was the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which was responsible for the assassination of Sadat in 1981. One of the key figures in that group was, of course, Ayman al-Zawahiri, although he did not actually favor Sadat’s assassination at the time.

It is this development that split the Muslim Brotherhood as Kepel earlier alludes:

Today, the Brotherhood itself can no longer be considered the single, unified entity that it once had been before Nasser’s repression. The divergent roles of the Brotherhood’s branches in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and a number of other countries attest to this fact. Several Islamic political movements—the AKP in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, the Algerian Hamas movement, among others—are ideologically and politically indebted to the Brotherhood, though they don’t necessarily claim the lineage and can not be considered “true green” Brothers. Similarly, the jihadist wing of the Salafist movement, which is today led by al-Qaeda, is clearly an ideological offspring of the Brotherhood, though they have emphatically repudiated their connections totheir parent body.

In this article, Kepel does not place the U.S. and European Muslim Brotherhoods which might be said to constitute a third development, the global Muslim Brotherhood led in some sense by Youssef Qaradawi who Kepel identifies as part of the original group that sought the collapse of the Egyptian government from within as opposed to the military action engaged in by those who followed Qutb. Yet, even in the case of Hamas, supported by the global Brotherhood and a case where the Brotherhood is supporting military action, Kepel notes a tension between military and political action citing a statement by a Hamas leader in this regard and then concluding that it symptomatic of the Brotherhood’s weakened position within the Islamist movement:

…I think that such a statement is nonetheless significant because of what it reveals about the Brotherhood, not only in Palestine, but also in Egypt, Turkey and other countries—namely, that the Brothers’ own political practice now stands in contradiction to its ideology. The Brothers are torn between radical politics, which have been somewhat discredited by al-Qaeda’s failure to move forward, and a mode of dealing with the West and with the democratic system that they fear will destroy them. In the 1930s and 40s, the Brotherhood was a cohesive movement with a coherent ideology. It had a very clear set of ideas that it sought to implement, and this attracted many followers. I would contend that today the doubts and contradictions arising from the Brothers’ loss of a clear message, as well as from the divisions within the larger Islamist movement, have relegated the Brotherhood to a position of political and ideological weakness. In light of the Brothers’ apparent strength in electoral terms, this conclusion may seem paradoxical. But a sound analysis of the Brothers’ current thinking and activities is necessary to understand fully the reasons for this weakness. But a sound analysis of the Brothers’ current thinking and activities is necessary to understand fully the reasons for this weakness.

Whether this is truly weakness or not, the contradiction between radical politics and participation in democratic systems may help to explain some of the tortured statements expressed by elements of the global Muslim Brotherhood in their attempts to justify Islamist violence.

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