Prominent Sunni rulers — Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah — have railed against a “Shiite arc” of power forming in the Near East, only to see few echoes develop outside of the region’s officially controlled media. Although the Sunni Arab rulers have sometimes shown considerable anxiety about the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon, Sunni fundamentalist organizations affiliated with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the mother ship for Sunni Islamists, have been much more restrained in expressing their trepidation. With strong ties to its fundamentalist brethren along the Nile, Hamas has given Iran (really for the first time, and so far at little cost) an important ally within the fundamentalist circles of the Muslim Brotherhood. One of the Islamic revolution’s great disappointments was that it failed to produce more allies within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its many offshoots.
The possibility of closer ties between Iran and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is supported by recent statements made by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide: (See Note 1)
The statements by Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Guide Mahdi Akif about his support for the Shiite tide have aroused a wide controversy. Politicians have accused him of establishing contact channels with Tehran at a time when the relations between Egypt and Iran are going through their worst stage. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood guide confirms that his statements, which were conveyed by the Kuwaiti newspaper, Al-Nahar, are correct. In these statements he said in reply to a question about the Shiite tide in the region: “I consider that there is no objection to this, because we have 56 Sunni countries in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC); therefore, what are the reasons for being apprehensive about Iran, which is the only Shiite country in the world?” He added: “I also support Iran’s nuclear program, even if it were aimed at producing a nuclear bomb.” Al-Sharq al-Awsat asked Akif whether his answer was distorted or misunderstood. He said: “No, the answer is correct and was not distorted.” He pointed out that what he said “is general support for a general principle.” He added: “If there were a persecuted Christian, we would stand by him.” Akif considered the attack against him to be “repetitive,” and “subjective,” not to mention “immoral.” Al-Sharq al-Awsat asked Akif about the accusations by some people that there are contact channels between the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. He said: “Despite the fact that there are no contact channels, we welcome such channels. We have nothing to hide, because we say: what is right is right, and what is wrong is wrong.
Such statements would seem to put the Muslim Brotherhood at odds with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. However, while the entire Global Muslim Brotherhood in general has always been close to Saudi Arabia and particularly to the major Saudi religious institutions such as the Muslim World League and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, this would not be the first falling out between the Egyptian organization and the Saudis. During the first Gulf War, a conflict between the two was reported over the Egyptian Brotherhood’s support for Saddam Hussein.
It must always be remembered that the Muslim Brotherhood has become a global network and that the Egyptian mother branch is not necessarily the most important part of the movement. Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi, perhaps the most important leader of the global Brotherhood and close to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, has recently been making tours of Arab capitals including meeting with the Saudi king, presumably to drum up financial support for Hamas as discussed in an earlier post. It should also be remembered that it was Qaradawi who recently created a firestorm in the Islamic world when he accused the Shiites of being heretics intent on invading Sunni societies. The seeming split within the global Muslim Brotherhood over the Iranian issue may be reflective of splits with Hamas itself reported by analysts. A former FBI analyst has reported what he calls the emergence of a “hardline” Hamas leadership based in Gaza tied to the groups military wing:
With its electoral victory in January 2006, and even more so after it defeated Fatah and forcibly took over Gaza in June 2007, the external leadership of Hamas based in Damascus lost some control to the group’s Gaza leaders. While the Damascus leadership remained dominant, in large part because it still controlled the organization’s purse strings and oversaw relationships with Hizballah, Iran, and other foreign entities, Hamas leaders in Gaza were making the day-to-day decisions. Then, in August 2008, Hamas hardliners dominated the secret ballot election for Gaza’s Shura council. Less-extreme Hamas leaders like reportedly did not even bother to run when they saw the electoral slate dominated by young Hamas members affiliated with the Qassam Brigades. The election reportedly brought hardline Hamas military officials into the movement’s Gaza political bureau, and chief among them was Ahmed Jabari, Hamas’s “chief of staff,” who oversaw the group’s military wing. The emergence of Gaza’s hardline Hamas leadership, one that is closely affiliated with the movement’s military wing, provides critical background to understanding recent events. It provides context not only for Hamas’s decision to terminate the ceasefire and resume rocket attacks against Israeli civilian communities, but also for the Israeli decision to strike back hard — first from the air and then on the ground — at the group’s military and political infrastructure in Gaza.
An Israeli analyst has recently reported on what he see as the rising popularity of an “Al-Qaida-type Salafi Islam” within Hamas and tied to the same military wing:
Al-Qaida-type Salafi Islam is rising in popularity within the ranks of Hamas. This trend is particularly noticeable in the movement’s armed wing, the Izzadin Kassam Brigades. Observation of this process shows that attempts to draw a clear dividing line between the “nationalist” Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Islamism of Hamas and the Salafi trend can no longer be sustained. The growth of Salafism within Hamas is part of a larger pattern of increasingly extreme Islamic piety and practice in Gaza. The existence of Salafism within Hamas is not a new development. Indeed, Hamas leaders have long been aware of the potential threat this outlook represents to their authority. As long ago as December 2001, the Israeli authorities intercepted a document produced by Hamas prisoners in Israeli custody which warned of the spread of al-Qaida-type ideology among Hamas members. However, supporters of Salafism now appear to be achieving positions of real power within Hamas.
(Interestingly, one of the individuals identified as leading the Salafi trend was Nizar Rayyan, recently killed by an Israel air strike during the Gaza operation.)
Taken together, these different analyses result in a somewhat complex and confusing picture with Iran seen as gaining ground within the Egyptian Brotherhood through its support of Hamas but Iran also losing control of Hamas as “hard liners” within Gaza, possibly representing an increasing Salafi trend, took control of the organization there. Meanwhile elements of the global Brotherhood aligned with Qaradawi continue to support Hamas and its funding while the rhetoric of the entire global Brotherhood, largely supported by Saudi and Gulf sources, is solidly behind Hamas. The confusion likely represents the complexity of Islamist internal politics, not often reflected in reporting on the subject.
(Note 1: Report by Ahmad al-Jazzar, from Cairo: “Muslim Brotherhood Guide: I Do Not Object to the Shiite Tide as a General Support for a General Principle” Al-Sharq al-Awsat Online Thursday, December 25, 2008 (Description of Source: London Al-Sharq al-Awsat Online in Arabic — Website of influential London-based pan-Arab Saudi daily; editorial line reflects Saudi official stance.)