ANALYSIS: On The Muslim Brotherhood As "Firewall"


In a recent analysis, academic Marc Lynch, generally supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, has suggested that the Brotherhood might be used as a “firewall” in the fight against Al Qaeda. According to a posting on his blog:

… today’s presentation focuses on a set of claims about how the MB might act as firewall against AQ-style radicalism. This begins with a simple observation: where the MB is strong (Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine for example), AQ has had a hard time finding a point of entry despite serious efforts to do so, while where the MB is weak (Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Lebanon) it has had more success. This begs the question of how to define where the MB is strong and weak and along what indicators – certainly something for further research. Correlation, of course, is not causation. How, exactly, does a strong MB interfere with al-Qaeda style movements? Simplifying a bit, I could see arguments which stress either ideology or organization. The ideology argument would focus on the MB’s avowed ‘wasatiya’ (centrism) and denunciation of Qutbist notions of jahiliya and takfir. It’s clear (to me anyway) that the leadership of the MB is firmly opposed to al-Qaeda and its ideology, and have made this extremely clear in both rhetoric and practice over the last five years. MB leaders themselves seem to prefer this explanation, as do many of the MB members I’ve spoken with about this. But ideology alone does not seem to be enough – ideas tend to be somewhat elastic, adapting to circumstance, and there are lots of different Islamist ideas out there besides those of the Brotherhood. Ideas, as they say, do not float freely. The second argument would therefore stress the MB’s distinctive organization which allows it to effectively monitor and control social space – through mosques, charities, organizational networks, and widespread networks. Put simply, by this argument the MB is aware when radicals move in to social sectors full of Islamically-oriented and politically active people, and are in a position to lock out their challengers. (Think here of Fearon and Laitin’s arguments about in-group policing, for instance.) Of course, the MB isn’t the only kind of organization that can do this – an efficient mukhabarat, tribes or clans, established neighborhoods, gangs, and so forth might all do similar functions. But I do suspect that MB structures have a distinctive advantage with regard to specifically Islamist challengers. That’s where ideology does matter: the MB is present in the religious, pious spaces where AQ might get foothold in way that unions or secular orgs are not. [I’d like to work in something here about Abdullah al-Nefisi’s argument for dissolving the MB based on Qatar’s experience, but haven’t yet.]

CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen provides an example of such a strategy pursued by the U.K. government who facilitated the takeover of a pro Al-Qaeda mosque by the local Muslim Brotherhood:

At another mosque in London, the Muslim Brotherhood joined forces with the British authorities to reclaim the institution from pro-Al Qaeda militants. The Brotherhood is the most powerful Islamist group in the Arab world, with chapters throughout Europe and North America. It has long opposed Al Qaeda’s jihad, a stance that so angered Zawahiri that he published a book, The Bitter Harvest, condemning the organization in 1991. From the late ’90s, the Finsbury Park mosque in London had been dominated by the pro-Al Qaeda cleric Abu Hamza Al Masri. During that time, few selfrespecting jihadists traveling through London passed up the free accommodation in its basement. Visitors included Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called “twentieth hijacker” of the September 11 plot, and Richard Reid, who tried to down a U.S.-bound airliner with a shoe bomb in December 2001. In 2003, British police shut the mosque, but Abu Hamza’s followers continued to have a strong presence in the area. In February 2005, police helped broker a deal for the mosque to re-open under the leadership of the local chapter of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), a Muslim Brotherhood group.

Neither of these analysts take up the question of what the impact would be should efforts such as these actually succeed in strengthening the Muslim Brotherhood either locally or globally. As a report from the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point observes, the Brotherhood and Al Qaeda are competitors not because the Brotherhood is a supporter of liberal democracy but because the the two organizations are vying for the same constiuencies:

Hard-line Jihadist organizations like al-Qa’ida both fear and despise the Islamist political movement called the Muslim Brotherhood, in large part because the Brotherhood effectively garners support from the same constituencies that Jihadists are desperate to court. Because the Muslim Brotherhood and Jihadists share a similar ideological lineage, Jihadists tend to focus their criticism on the Brotherhood’s willingness to participate in secular politics as a vehicle for attacking their Islamic credentials. Yusuf al-Qaradawi is one of the most important symbols of the Muslim Brotherhood today. Zawahiri’s disdain for Qaradawi is so strong that he says he“wished” to be asked a question about the Egyptian legal scholar.

Numerous posts have detailed the role of the global Muslim Brotherhood in promoting fundamentalism, spreading anti-semitism, and supporting terrorism where it deems it justified.

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