As Egyptian ex-president Muhammed Morsi sits in jail, the Egyptian armed forces appear to have “broken the back” of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian security forces have killed more than a thousand and arrested at least as many since they dispersed two Brotherhood-led sit-ins by tens of thousands of Morsi supporters. In addition to detaining Morsi, the police have arrested the Brotherhood’s top spiritual leaders and much of its governing board.
But who is the Muslim Brotherhood? With tentacles of influence everywhere, both in the Islamic world and in the West, the Muslim Brotherhood is known as the most important Islamic organization in the world, wherever its purpose — the establishment of a Sharia-enforcing caliphate – can be achieved.
Founded by Hassan al-Bana in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood believes in the establishment of a fundamentalist state ruled according to the strictest interpretation of Shari’a (Islamic law), the basis for any Islamic government. The Brotherhood believes Muslims should be unified under a Caliphate, and includes “liberating Arabs and Muslims from foreign imperialism”. Its credo is: “Allah is our objective, the Quran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader, jihad is our way and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.” This credo represents a statement that even the most radical, jihadi Muslim would embrace, for it captures all the essentials of radical and jihadi Islam, the sort of Islam practiced by terrorist organizations. Similarly, the Brotherhood’s English-language website describes the “principles of the Muslim Brotherhood” as including firstly the introduction of the Islamic Sharia as “the basis for controlling the affairs of state and society”; and secondly working to unify “Islamic countries and states, mainly among the Arab states, and liberating them from foreign imperialism.” In other words, working to unite the Muslim world under a caliphate which it still openly insists is its ultimate goal. Indeed, not too long ago, Muhammad Badie, the current General Guide of the Brotherhood [arrested August 19, 2013], openly declared that “The Imam [Bana] delineated transitional goals and detailed methods to achieve this greatest objective, starting by reforming the individual, followed by building the family, the society, the government, and then a rightly guided caliphate and finally mastership of the world.”
The Brotherhood founded its first branch in Britain’s Palestine mandate to fight against the creation of Israel in 1945. Hatred of the Jews has been consistent Brotherhood policy before and during World War II when Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna teamed up with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Amin al-Husayni and Adolf Hitler in trying to create a Jew-free Middle East. In a lecture delivered in 2010, Morsi referred to the Jews as “descendants of apes and pigs”. The Brotherhood is also anti-Western and anti-Christian.
In 1954, secular nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser banned the Brotherhood, and it had remained prohibited in Egypt until Mubarak’s demise, due to its insistence on governance by Sharia law. The Brotherhood’s ideology had placed it on a collision path with the Egyptian state for more than 60 years, forcing it to come up with a pragmatic, slow moving tactical road map that sought to work within the current political order in order to undermine it. The Brotherhood functioned effectively but without full legal sanction. Abroad, the Brotherhood advocated anti-Americanism, violence against the United States as well as terrorism against Israel; that country’s extinction; and anti-Semitism, proclaiming that Jews were innately evil and the enemies of Islam.
After being underground for decades due to its reputation for tyranny and terrorism, the Arab Spring allowed the Brotherhood to step out of the shadows. In February 2011, a huge demonstration headlined by the Brotherhood’s most influential ideologist, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, called out an estimated one million plus people in Cairo, dwarfing the liberals’ events. From that point on, the Brotherhood took the lead in the revolution.
In its main expression of goals, Brotherhood leaders circulated a political platform in 2007 platform stating that under its rule, “Islam is the official state religion and that the Islamic Sharia is the main source for legislation.”
The Brotherhood’s patience and perseverance, by playing the political game, co-opting Western language and paradigms, formally disavowing violence and jihad, have turned it into a legitimate player in the eyes of many, to the point that the U.S. government has expressed support of it even though it was once banned. Yet this does not make the Brotherhood’s goals any less troubling.
Many observers in the West — including government officials, academics, and journalists — argued that the Brotherhood had become moderate. It was argued that participation in elections and in governance would inevitably moderate the Brotherhood. A serious problem with this thesis, however, was when the Brotherhood adopted an extremely radical stance during the presidential elections, calling for a Sharia state and the restoration of the Caliphate. More broadly, the Egyptian Brotherhood, using the state to whatever extent, had placed itself at the head of a Sunni Islamist bloc including Hamas, which governed in the Gaza Strip; the Tunisian government; the Syrian branch, which was playing a leading role in the civil war there; and the Jordanian branch, along with smaller groups in Libya, Lebanon, and elsewhere. It is perhaps ironic that the Brotherhood’s greatest opponents at the current time are not Western governments or human rights groups but Egyptians themselves, including a great many Muslims.
With its leading role in many Muslim communities in Europe and North America, the Brotherhood has emerged as a considerable international force. Clearly the leading Sunni Islamist group in the world, it is arguably the most important revolutionary organization in the world as well.
Faced with this latest conflict, what remains to be seen is if the Brotherhood will be imperiled or emboldened?
Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)
A scholar at FDD noted for working democratic reform in the Arab world with a particular focus on Egypt. His columns appeared in a number of North American publication and is a regular commentator in North American and international media outlets. He was previously an official in the liberal Wafd party in Egypt for a decade and was on the board of a number of organizations supporting democratic reforms in the Arab world such as the Alliance of Egyptian-Americans and the Center for Liberty in the Middle East. Abaza divides his time between Washington DC and Egypt.