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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."