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New Apologists for the Muslim Brotherhood

Ronald Radosh

Each day, the apologists for the Muslim Brotherhood continue to carry on their propaganda campaign, meant to gain acceptance for the group’s participation in the new democratic Egypt. The most outrageous example comes from the International Herald Tribune, the English language daily of the New York Times in Europe. It is an op-ed from none other than the would-be moderate Muslim, Tariq Ramadan, who writes that “not only is Islamism a mosaic of widely differing trends and factions, but its many different facets have emerged over time and in response to historical shifts.”

The different facet, as you expected, is the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna. Ramadan continues:

The Muslim Brothers began in the 1930s as a legalist, anti-colonialist and nonviolent movement that claimed legitimacy for armed resistance in Palestine against Zionist expansionism during the period before World War II. The writings from between 1930 and 1945 of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Brotherhood, show that he opposed colonialism and strongly criticized the fascist governments in Germany and Italy. He rejected use of violence in Egypt, even though he considered it legitimate in Palestine, in resistance to the Zionist Stern and Irgun terror gangs. He believed that the British parliamentary model represented the kind closest to Islamic principles.

Al-Banna’s objective was to found an “Islamic state” based on gradual reform, beginning with popular education and broad-based social programs. He was assassinated in 1949 by the Egyptian government on the orders of the British occupiers.

We know, thanks largely to the writer Paul Berman, that Ramadan’s reputation as an insightful moderate is itself a falsehood. In a much discussed 2007 essay in TNR, and later in his important book The Flight of the Intellectuals, Berman notes that the writer Paul Landau describes “al-Banna, in his position as chief guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, as a figure comparable to Il Duce and the Führer. Landau attributes a lot of importance to al-Banna’s friendship with Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem—who, as Hitler’s ally, helped organize a Muslim division of the Waffen-SS and then, after the war, when he was wanted for war crimes (owing to his SS division), succeeded in escaping to Egypt, thanks to help from al-Banna himself.” Berman writes that al-Banna had the following goals:

the creation of a properly Muslim individual person, in thought and belief; of a properly Muslim family; of a properly Muslim people or community; of an Islamic state; and, finally, the resurrection of the ancient Islamic Empire—which al-Banna describes by referring admiringly to what he calls the “German Reich” and to Mussolini’s dream of a resurrected Roman Empire, though naturally al-Banna regards his own resurrected Islamic Empire as vastly preferable and theologically more legitimate than anything Mussolini could have contemplated.

To put it simply, al-Banna had a fascist program in mind, and his conception of the Brotherhood was anything but non-violent, or a parliamentary Western model of government, or legalist. Two Iranian scholars he quotes, Ladan and Royan Boroumand, also point out that “[f]rom the Fascists—and behind them, from the European tradition of putatively ‘transformative’ or ‘purifying’ revolutionary violence that began with the Jacobins—Banna also borrowed the idea of heroic death as a political art form.”

There is much more to learn, which you can do by buying Berman’s book or reading his article. Leave it to the editors of the IHT to run Ramadan’s article, from which readers will gain a false impression about the origins of the Brotherhood, and which, without the antidote of someone like Paul Berman to inform them about the truth, they will accept as proof of the reasonable program of the Muslim Brotherhood.

One other point about Ramadan’s disingenuous article. He refers to al-Banna’s claim that his grandfather favored “legitimate” opposition to the extremist Irgun and Stern gangs in pre-1948 Jewish Palestine, against which he said violence could be used. Those who know anything about the two Jewish terrorist groups know that the mainstream Zionists opposed them as counter-productive and even called them fascist, and that the leader of the Yishuv and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, ordered the Haganah to stop them by force. What al-Banna favored was violence against the entire Jewish community in Palestine, and its just effort to create a Jewish state and to oppose the British control of the Mandate.

Anyone who takes Ramadan’s assurances that today’s Brotherhood is modern, favors “the Turkish example” of Islam (he does not talk about what happened in Turkey with that model in the very recent past), and wishes only to participate in the democratic transition is accepting assurances from a very tainted and unreliable source. Moreover, even Ramadan lets the cat out of the bag when he writes that “the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership has signaled that now is not the time to expose itself by making political demands that might frighten the West, not to mention the Egyptian people. Caution is the watchword.”

Translated, you can get the gist of what the Brotherhood’s leaders really want; i.e., to proclaim their true agenda when the time is ripe, when they can advance to the Islamic state and take the secular Egyptian populace along for the ride, and when they no longer have to worry about frightening the West. It is the tactic of the stealth jihad, of which Ramadan himself is a good example of one of its top practitioners.

Many in this country will not trust Tariq Ramadan, especially after they have read Berman. Others, however, carry on with their own work to whitewash the Brotherhood. The most recent example comes from Foreign Affairs, in the form of a new essay by Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, associate professor of political science at Emory University. Professor Wickham too assures us we do not have to fear the group. She writes:

Those who emphasize the risk of “Islamic tyranny” aptly note that the Muslim Brotherhood originated as an anti-system group dedicated to the establishment of sharia rule; committed acts of violence against its opponents in the pre-1952 era; and continues to use anti-Western, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic rhetoric. But portraying the Brotherhood as eager and able to seize power and impose its version of sharia on an unwilling citizenry is a caricature that exaggerates certain features of the Brotherhood while ignoring others, and underestimates the extent to which the group has changed over time.

Unlike Ramadan, she does not accept his version of the Brotherhood’s program in the early pre-1952 era. Instead, she assures us that they have changed. Readers of PJM, having read many of Barry Rubin’s entries detailing the current Brotherhood program, are by now well acquainted with what its leaders believe in the present. Rubin has pointed to their recent gatherings, as well as the words of its leaders in our own day and age. So has Glenn Beck in this week’s programs about the Brotherhood, in which — contrary to what his critics say about him — he has accurately portrayed what they believe.

But according to Professor Wickham, the Brotherhood always had good aims. Contrary to what Berman has proved, she asserts:

It was initially established not as a political party but as a da’wa (religious outreach) association that aimed to cultivate pious and committed Muslims through preaching, social services, and spreading religious commitment and integrity by example. The group saw its understanding of Islam as the only “true” one and condemned partisanship as a source of national weakness. It called on Egyptians to unite to confront the forces of Zionism and imperialism and pursue economic development and social justice.

Who can oppose such noble goals, like fighting “Zionism and imperialism” — the two are equated — and creating “social justice”?

Professor Wickham then argues that although they eventually entered politics to change the system, the system changed them. The result: “Islamists and Arabists found common ground in the call for an expansion of public freedoms, democracy, and respect for human rights and the rule of law, all of which, they admitted, their movements had neglected in the past.” Evidently she has not read the most recent statements indicating that Brotherhood leaders are still neglecting them.

Rather, she assures us that today “its leadership is more internally diverse today than ever before.” She continues to describe the group’s three major factions, assuring readers that its “pragmatic conservatives” and the weaker yet influential “Islamic democracy activists” are the group’s real future. ElBaradei’s chief spokesman, she informs us, is part of its “reformist wing.” Thus she praises the Brotherhood’s willingness to not play a major role at present, to concentrate on joining with others to force Mubarak to resign immediately, and to create “an interim government palatable to the military and the West.”

I agree that its leaders, as she puts it, are “savvy,” and that hence it does not want to “invite the risk of a military coup by attempting to seize power on its own.” But such an understanding on the Brotherhood’s part does not show anything but a desire to wait until the moment is ripe to attain what it has always wanted — an Islamic state based on sharia law. It hardly proves that the group has changed its openly stated agenda.

Indeed, even Professor Wickham ends with some qualifiers of her own; i.e., “[i]t remains to be seen whether the Brotherhood as an organization — not only individual members — will accept a constitution that does not at least refer to sharia; respect the rights of all Egyptians to express their ideas and form parties; clarify its ambiguous positions on the rights of women and non-Muslims; develop concrete programs to address the nation’s toughest social and economic problems; and apply the same pragmatism it has shown in the domestic arena to issues of foreign policy, including relations with Israel and the West.”

Professor Wickham should not hold her breath. All indications reveal only that she and others are confusing their own wishful thinking with reality. What she says about the Brotherhood, that “the best way to strengthen its democratic commitments is to include it in the political process,” is precisely what so many pundits said about Hamas in the Gaza Strip before it seized power and instituted a mini Islamic state. What happened is exactly the opposite; it used political power to oppose not only democrats, but the secular Fatah that shared its goal of destroying Israel and creating a Palestinian unitary state in place of Israel.

Her final words are these: “With a track record of nearly 30 years of responsible behavior (if not rhetoric) and a strong base of support, the Muslim Brotherhood has earned a place at the table in the post-Mubarak era. No democratic transition can succeed without it.” She has it backwards. The truth is that a democratic transition the Egyptian people want will not succeed with the Muslim Brotherhood. Only its defeat will assure that outcome.

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