RECOMMENDED READING: "Politics, Terrorism, and the Sunni Divide"


Samuel Helfont, a Princeton University graduate student and U.S. military intelligence officer, has written an analysis of what he describes as the “Sunni divide” between Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood which he views as the impost important conflict within the Muslim world. The article opens with an explanation of the difference between these two movements:

Wahhabism stems from the theological teachings of Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab, the eighteenth century reformer. Abd al-Wahhab was one of several “revivalist” thinkers to emerge from that century. The mission of these revivalists was to purify and thereby revitalize Islam. They carried the banner of reform but unlike modern reformers, they wanted to transform Islam on traditionally Islamic grounds. They did not attempt to adapt it to other systems of thought, politics, or culture. Their goals did not include modernizing Islam to meet the demands of a changing world. In this sense they were pre-modern. Wahhabism is thus, at its heart, a pre-modern theological movement and Wahhabists continue to make mostly theological arguments about the oneness of God and proper forms of worship. Their historical mission has been a call to reform Islam according to a strict and narrowly defined theology. There are, of course, political implications to this understanding of Islam, but Wahhabism is still best understood as a theological reform movement. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, is a political organization originating in Egypt’s cosmopolitan cities during the twentieth century. The Brotherhood’s Islamism is one of several political ideologies to emerge out of Egypt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Like Pan-Arabism, nationalism, and socialism, which also emerged in Egypt at that time, the Brotherhood’s Islamism is at its heart a political identity. The historical mission of the Brotherhood has been political reform based on an Islamic political identity. Just as nationalists promoted an ethno-national identity, and socialists promoted a class-based identity, the Brotherhood promoted a political identity based on Islam. Unlike the Wahhabists, however, the Brotherhood was not concerned with implementing a particular theology. It recruited members who held various understandings of Sunni Islam and its leaders were laymen, not Islamic scholars. The Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna was a school teacher, as was the important brotherhood theorist, Sayid Qutb. Al-Banna’s successor Hassan al-Hudaybi was a lawyer. Thus, the reforms that the Brotherhood has called for have almost always been political, not theological. In fact, they often mixed traditional Islam with modern political thought. For example, the Brotherhood has embraced nationalism, constitutionalism, and participation in elections. Its rhetoric was—and continues to be—full of anti-Imperialist arguments that are common throughout the third world. These were not strictly Islamic concepts.

He goes onto to explain the essential conflict between Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood:

It should be clear, then, that Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood are two distinct movements. Indeed the Muslim Brothers and the Wahhabists have often been fierce critics of one another. They each consider the other to have divided the Islamic community. Wahhabists blame the Muslim Brotherhood for what it calls hizbiyyah (partisanship). They claim that because the Brotherhood supports the formation of political parties, it has divided the Muslim world into competing factions. Further, Wahhabists criticize the Brotherhood’s theological leniency, as well as its modern political influences. As one Wahhabist recently put it, the Muslim Brothers “have consistently overlooked the principal aspect of calling their followers to tawhid (the oneness of God) and forbidding them from polytheism, because these are matters which require time and effort to change, matters which people do not find easy to accept. [The Muslim Brothers] were more concerned with amassing groups of people together rather than calling the people to the way of the Prophet.”1 The Brotherhood, on the other hand, has accused the Wahhabists of being so strict in their interpretations of Islam that they have caused fitnah (schism). They argue that this fitnah pits one group of Muslims against another and that Islam strictly forbids such divisions.

The remainder of the article deals with topics such as the Brother alliance with the Shias, the different views of Jihad held by the two camps, and the varying views on apostasy.

He concludes by recommending that U.S. policymakers should not support the Muslim Brotherhood “in its current form”:

Conversely, the Muslim Brotherhood, while not an organization that U.S. policymakers should support in its current form, is open to modernity and modernist arguments. The Brotherhood has made clear that, at least in theory, it accepts the validity of modern norms such as nonviolence, non-aggression, human rights, democracy, and constitutionalism. Policymakers concerned with public diplomacy should, therefore, identify where they feel the Brotherhood is not living up to these norms. For example, when the Brotherhood claims to be nonviolent, it should be challenged over its support for violence in Israel, Iraq, Chechnya, and Kashmir. When the Brotherhood claims to accept human rights, it should be shown where it falls short concerning religious minorities and women’s rights. When the Brotherhood claims to be democratic, it should underscore where its proposed policies fail to meet democratic standards. Thus far, the United States has failed to articulate these types of arguments well. It has, therefore, let the Brotherhood’s propaganda stand unchallenged; causing many in the Islamic world to conclude that the United States opposes the Brotherhood not because it is an undemocratic and often militant organization, but because it is Islamic. Policymakers should make clear that they intend to treat the Muslim Brotherhood as they would any other political party, regardless of religion. The more the debate focuses on the Muslim Brotherhood’s politics and the less it focuses on its religion, the more successful U.S. policy will be. Through engaging the Brotherhood indirectly in the battle of ideas, the United States can challenge the Brotherhood to live up to the principles that it already claims to accept. By refusing to favor either the Brotherhood or the Wahhabists,, U.S. policymakers might neutralize the most radical elements of each movement. This impartial approach might also avoid destabilizing the regional balance of power. The United States could then form policies that pull the Muslim Brotherhood away from militancy without pushing it toward Wahhabism. Concurrently, it could attempt to limit the extremes of Wahhabism without pushing this group toward the Iranian-led anti-Western camp. The United States would, therefore, be able to pursue its interests in long-term liberalization/democratization while continuing to support short-term stability.

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