The Muslim Brotherhood: should we engage?

Rethinking Islamism V.

Last summer I began a series of posts entitled "Rethinking Islamism". I did this not, as some readers appeared to think, to apologise or even propagandise (!) for political Islam, but because it is a dominant ideology in many countries, and to understand it, and then decide how to engage with it, seemed important to me – not least because at that particular time a great deal of attention was being paid to Turkey, whose AKP government represents either the dangers or the possibilities of an Islamist (or at least Islamist-leaning) party coming to power, depending on your point of view.

One book published in the past few months, but overlooked by most literary sections (apart from that of the Economist), adds significantly to the subject. So what follows is a review of a title I would highly recommend, especially to those who see radical Islam, jihadism, Wahhabism, Salafism and Islamism as one huge monolith and all equally to be feared: The Muslim Brotherhood: the Burden of Tradition by Alison Pargeter (Saqi Books, £20).

As the author states at the beginning, the Muslim Brotherhood, or Ikhwan, "is one of the longest-surviving but also perhaps the most controversial of all Islamist movements to have emerged from the Middle East. The interest and controversy over the Brotherhood spring from the fact that it represents a complete conundrum to many of those trying to fathom it." Is it a social movement? A political party? A transnational organisation? Committed to democracy or to the imposition of an Islamic state?

Has it always been a fomenter of bloodshed, as the former Kuwaiti minister Ahmad al-Rabi is quoted as saying: "The founders of the violent groups were raised on the Muslim Brotherhood, and those who worked with Bin Laden and al-Qaeda went out under [their] mantle." Or is it now a moderate movement with which the west should engage, as an influential 2007 article in Foreign Affairs argued?

The difficulty is that it has been all of the above since Hassan al-Banna formed the MB in 1928. At times, more moderate voices have been in the ascendant, at others more extreme. Frequently in different countries (or even within individual countries), both tendencies have been vocal simultaneously, and the MB has had difficulty reconciling these or disowning members whose views do not help the Brotherhood present itself as progressive.

Ultimately, as Pargeter makes clear throughout her book, the MB cannot do so, because it is constantly in danger of being outflanked by the real jihadists. In order to maintain its popular support and Islamist legitimacy – primarily in Egypt, where it was founded and from where the Murshid, or Supreme Guide, has always come, but also in the Arab Middle East and North Africa, where it is also strong – the MB has to appear to imbue its slogan, "Islam is the solution", with force and fire.

Foremost in this is the problem of the legacy of Sayyid Qutb. It was Qutb, the most famous figure in the MB's history (more so, probably, than al-Banna himself), who developed a new theory of takfir, which allowed Muslims to consider nominally Muslim governments as having apostasised. It is this theory that has since given impetus to a host of extremist and confrontational groups.

In 1969 Qutb's views were rejected by the then Murshid, Hassan al-Hodeibi, in his book Preachers Not Judges. But by then the younger man had already become a martyr figure, having been executed in prison by the Egyptians. As Pargeter notes, the Brotherhood

. . . may reject the concept of fighting against the state and Qutb's more radical ideas, but it seems they cannot relinquish him as a hero. He is considered one of the most important thinkers in the contemporary Islamic movement and as such there is a strong pride in him, all the more poignant because he died for his beliefs.

This taints the MB to this day, as while the likes of al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are scornful of the Brotherhood's moderation, Qutb and his writings are one of the Brothers' main influences and justify, in their eyes, their terrorism. The more consistent view of the MB has been to make a distinction between "resistance" to occupation and "violence". Thus armed action is legitimate when carried out by Hamas, but generally the Brotherhood's line is for peaceful change – sometimes remarkably so.

Pargeter quotes Robert Leiken and Steven Brooke, authors of the Foreign Affairs article mentioned above: "Every Muslim Brotherhood leader with whom we spoke claimed a willingness to follow suit should Hamas – the Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood – recognise the Jewish state."

These, at any rate, are not the bogeymen of popular myth. Nor are the Brotherhood's adherents in Europe who, according to Pargeter, are so marginal in Britain and Germany (where their Arab origins leave them vastly outnumbered by Muslim groups of south Asian provenance in the former and Turkish in the latter) that they would make poor shock troups for "Eurabia", were that state envisaged by the conspiracy theorists even their aim.

In fact, the Ikhwan, as presented in Pargeter's book, come across much of the time as divided, uncoordinated, ineffective ditherers, and certainly not sufficiently dangerous to warrant being designated an international terrorist organisation, as was feared in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Why, then, do the Brothers matter at all? Well, despite their lack of international organisation or overall programmatic coherence, they are the main representatives of moderate political Sunni Islam, and in many if not most parts of the world, the Islamist parties most likely to participate in government take a lead from or are in some way affiliated with them.

Most particularly, if Egypt ever had free and open elections, the MB would almost certainly win.

It is not at all clear what the Muslim Brotherhood meant, when its Cairo HQ declared in 2004 that it was in favour of a "democratic, constitutional, parliamentarian" regime within "the framework of Islamic principles". But when they have worked out what precisely that could be, it should be of very great interest indeed to the wider world.

As Pargeter quotes a US state department official as saying: "The region is going Islam . . . We see this in nearly every country in the Middle East. We either understand it and engage with it or find ourselves completely out of the picture."

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.