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The “Ikhwanophobia”: A Reading in the Fear of the Muslim Brotherhood
By: Dr. Mohsen Moh’d Saleh
The fear of the Muslim Brothers or intimidating others from them became more prominent upon the outburst of the Arab uprisings. This fear was mostly common among liberal or leftist figures or those affiliated with official bodies. In addition to this fear, there were the common concerns expressed by the Israeli and American sides and by Western media outlets.
In fact, concerns regarding Islamists increased especially after the Muslim Brothers have spearheaded the change movements in Egypt, Yemen and Jordan and assumed a strong role in the uprisings in Libya and Syria. Another reason for these fears is the role played by the Palestinian Brothers represented in Hamas.
Intimidation from the Muslim Brothers is usually based on depicting them as a title for terrorism and extremism, backwardness and obscurantism, opposing freedoms and women rights or as a title for theocracy and dictatorship in the name of religion.
In addition, the Muslim Brothers are accused of opportunism, collaboration with foreign forces, failing to understand reality and the inability to provide genuine programmes for running the state, society and foreign relations.
Remarkable in this sense is that some accusations, if true, are enough according to social and political theories to transform the Muslim Brotherhood into a marginal movement which does not attract any attention. Yet, 80 years after its establishment, this organization still enjoys wide support in the countries which are eager for change, liberation, democracy and prosperity. This fact makes those accusations and fears questionable unless there are intentions to reconsider social and political sciences.
Many reasons have triggered the emergence of the ikhwanophobia the most important of which is the ignorance of the organization’s ideology. Indeed, most of the literature concerning the Muslim Brotherhood and what is said in the media by so-called experts do not reflect any knowledge of what has been written by the founder of the organization, Hassan al-Banna, or the books approved by the organization.
Indeed, there is a confusion, whether in good or bad faith, between the partial reading of what has been written by the Muslim Brothers and what is attributed to them by their enemies on one hand, and the slips of tongue by some of those who are considered to be affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood yet who do not in fact represent it on the other hand.
Thus, the outcome is a stereotype image of the Muslim Brothers who are not given the chance given to other sides to express their ideas and convictions whereas the layman tends to believe what he sees and hears.
Light is often shed on the writings of Sayyid Qutb rather than any other thinker from the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, he is usually presented as the father of takfir (accusing other Muslims of apostasy) without taking into account the objective circumstances which prevailed at the time of writing. Moreover, much of what he has written is quoted out of its context.
Nonetheless, a careful, objective reading of Sayyid Qutb’s writings shows that, even when he used sharp language to describe the existing regimes and the need to change them, he did not intend to accuse individuals or society of apostasy. Rather, he encouraged mixing with people and dealing with them in a spirit of compassion, understanding and mercy. And when he talked about “emotional isolation,” he never called for abandoning people but for the preserving Islamic morals and conduct within non-Islamic environment.
Sayyid Qutb must have been read the entirety of his writings including Fi Zilal al-Qur'an (In the Shade of the Qur'an), Afrah al-Rouh (Joys of the Spirit) and Al-Adala al-Ijtima'iyya fi'l-Islam (Social Justice in Islam) instead of a selective reading of some texts in Ma'alim fi'l-Tariq (Milestones) or any other book.
Still, many authors and thinkers from the Muslim Brotherhood played a significant role in clarifying any extremist ideas, which have been attributed to Sayyid Qutb, thus stressing the moderate trend of the Sunnis.
Another reason for fearing the Muslim Brothers is ideological differences. In this respect, the modern state in the Arab and Western world has adopted a secular system which tends to separate politics from religion and which is sometimes hostile to religion and based on nationalistic, socialist and liberal ideologies.
While the trends leading the modern state have managed to subject and absorb the traditional religious streams, they were challenged by the “dynamic” and “activist” Islamic trend spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood, which provided serious vision for change and reform, based on Islamic principles, and presented lots of figures able to fulfill people's aspirations. Regardless of their ability to implement their vision, the Muslim Brothers were viewed as a “nightmare,” due to the wide support from large segments of the society.
A number of nationalist, leftist and liberal trends have identified themselves with modernity and the institutions of the secular state which emerged in the West. Accordingly, they perceived the “dynamic” and “activist” Islamic trend as discordant with secularism, as it combines politics and religion and belongs to the so-called periods of theocracy and times of “sultans and slaves!” Furthermore, modern trends linked this Islamic track with underdevelopment and obscurantism without realizing (or wanting to realize) that the “dynamic” Islamic trend has offered critical reading of the ages of backwardness and the regimes which ruled in the name of Islam.
Moreover, this trend draws a line between genuine Islam and its vitality and its relevance to every time and place on the one hand, and the practices which were exercised in the name of Islam during the eras of backwardness on the other hand.
The third reason for fearing the Muslim Brothers is attributable to the hostile propaganda, which targeted them over many years in different Arab countries. The Muslim Brothers were accused of collaboration and opposing nationalism especially during Nasser’s rule of Egypt from 1954 to 1970. Consequently, the Muslim Brothers continued to suffer persecution and security threats, besides the efforts to marginalize them, without being allowed to defend themselves or explain their views. This was true over long periods of time in such countries as Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Libya with some exceptions in other countries which were of limited scope and impact.
On a fourth level, the fears from the Muslim Brothers increased due to the deliberate selective reading of their history and experience, such as their underground and military organizations and the assassination of the former Egyptian PM al-Naqrashi Pasha and the attempt to assassinate Gamal Abdul Nasser.
In fact, these issues fell under objective circumstances and some of them were exaggerated whereas some others were not based on solid grounds. However, repeating these issues over and over again made people take them for granted.
Those who repeat these accusations do not mention, for example, that the “Special System” that was established by the Muslim Brothers in Egypt in 1940 aimed at expelling the British colonization from Egypt and supporting the resistance movement in Palestine. Indeed, this is what this organization worked for during the 1948 war and upon the Egyptian resistance in Suez Canal from 1951 to 1954. Moreover, nobody questions the accuracy of the accusations holding the Brothers liable for attempting to assassinate Nasser, although several historians shed doubt on it.
Fifth, the Israeli and Western concerns regarding “political dynamic Islam” are based on Zionist and Western religious, cultural, historical and political background. They are also based on the fear of the rise of this trend which totally rejects the Zionist project in Palestine and presents a project, which does not necessarily comply with the standards of the secular state, as defined by the West. Fearing the Muslim Brothers also emanates from their rejection of Western hegemony over the region and their calls for changing or reforming the corrupt authoritarian Arab regimes allied with the West.
All these points caused Western powers to reject the Muslim Brotherhood and pursue a hostile position towards the organization. This position has contributed to defaming the Muslim Brothers over the recent decades and helped prevent them from assuming power, through supporting (directly or indirectly) local regimes in using means which are not compatible with the Western norms and standards, such as dictatorship, suppression of freedoms, torture and rigging of the elections.
Ironically, the “credentials” offered to the West by some Arab rulers would be their ability to hunt down Islamists and marginalize them. In addition, some regimes and intelligence services tried to win Western confidence through intimidation from the Muslim Brothers and the potential dangers they impose.
Muslim Brothers Themselves
The sixth reason is related to the Muslim Brothers themselves given that they are human beings, who are likely to err and succeed, or fail in their practices. Moreover, some members do not present the desired positive image, while political competition and partisan interests might have led them to assume hostile stances. Besides, partisanship and organizational affiliations may have to some extent curbed the ability to attract new competencies and energies rather than opponents.
Even worse, many of the Muslim Brotherhood members were reluctant to continue working especially after graduation. This reluctance was due to different reasons related to frustration and the inability of the organization to meet their aspirations, or present compelling visions to deal with the challenges they face.
Sometimes, the ceiling of the mottoes raised by the Muslim Brothers was far higher than what they can achieve Moreover, the expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood in all Arab countries and tens of Muslim countries revealed different capacities of dealing with the ruling regimes and the political, economic and security conditions. Consequently, the behavior of the Muslim Brothers oscillated between moderation and inflexibility, appeasement and confrontation, and between the ability to accommodate the needs of the public and the failure to understand the dynamics of political, social and economic work.
Probably, the organizational capacities and the wide recruitment potential might have increased the fears from the Muslim Brothers and their probable control of workspaces and preventing others from participating in and assuming responsibility.
In addition to what have been mentioned above, the Muslim Brothers pursuit of underground work and their attempts to penetrate the military forces in some countries increased doubts about their programs and real intentions.
The models for Islamic rule in Afghanistan, Iran and Sudan which were presented in the media as failed models that should not be repeated with the Muslim Brothers should be indeed criticized for their mistakes. However, it should be noted that these regimes were not given the opportunity to defend themselves in the media. Besides, the Muslim Brothers tend to present a vision for the reform process which is different from that presented by Taliban in Afghanistan or the Shiite regime in Iran.
The Sudan experience, in particular, has a Muslim Brotherhood background and should be revisited. Although the regime there has diverged from the general trend of the Muslim Brothers since the late seventies of the twentieth century, it remains an extension of this Islamist thought, eventhough it no longer represents its official organization.
In any case, if the opponents of the Muslim Brothers refuse to accuse the leftist, liberal and nationalist trends of the responsibility of the ill practices of those corrupted leaders, who adopt their schools of thought, then they should accept the fact that the Muslim Brothers do not bear the responsibility of the negative implementation of the Islamic model as carried out by others. By the same token, the Muslim Brothers should not be exempted from the responsibility for any wrongs they have committed.
Striking by, most of those who intimidate others from the Muslim Brotherhood, be they liberals, nationalists or leftists, belong to political trends that assumed power in the Arab world through force rather than free, democratic elections!!
This applies to the Nasserite nationalist socialist trend in Egypt and to the Ba‘ath nationalists and socialists in Iraq and Syria. It is also true for the regimes which have raised leftist and socialist slogans as the Numeiri regime in Sudan, Houari Boumediene regime in Algeria and the Gaddafi regime in Libya. Furthermore, it applies to Wild Tayei regime in Mauritania and Ali Abdullah Saleh regime in Yemen.
The same is true for these regimes which continued with their authoritarian practices even after they diverted towards liberalism and entered the “American house of obedience.” Although Bourguiba did not assume power by military force upon the independence of Tunisia, but he and his successor Bin Ali would rule the country against the will of their people in the years to come.
Hereditary regimes, for their part, pursue liberal trends which exclude and marginalize the activist Islamic trend particularly represented in the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet, some countries, as Jordan and Kuwait, might allow the Muslim Brothers to be involved in political activities, within certain limits they cannot exceed.
Liberalists, nationalists and leftists who are intimidating others from the Muslim Brothers should reveal which Arab regime bore their convictions and respected freedoms and human rights and peaceful rotation of power!
The Arab regimes which have depicted the Muslim Brothers and the Islamists in general as a problem are the same regimes which suppressed freedoms, rigged the elections, established intelligence apparatuses and allowed corruption and injustice to flourish in their countries. In addition, these regimes were hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and to their peoples, besides their fear from the ballot box.
In fact, these regimes have suppressed freedoms in the name of protecting freedoms, usurped power to prevent the Islamists from ruling and established corrupt, despotic regimes under the claim of avoiding the “injustice” of the Islamists!!
Thus, under the pretext of the fear from the “victim” the executioner would torment and torture it. This is what we have seen on the ground in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and this discourse was even supported by the so-called “liberal” and “leftist” intellectuals, media persons and academics.
Noteworthy is that in most secular leftist, liberal and nationalist trends (in the Arab World) the leaders pursued suppression against party members, excluded them and prevented internal elections!!
Any objective comparison shows that the Muslim Brothers -despite their internal problems- are ahead of others regarding the practice of democratic “Shura” and holding internal elections. This is one of the reasons which allowed them to preserve their presence and understand the changes taking place around them.
The official Arab regimes hostile to the Muslim Brothers tried to intimidate people from them, as enemies of freedom, who use democracy only once, as a means to take control of the state establishments and later suppress people in the name of religion. Definitely, the Muslim Brothers and the Islamists owe people the explanation of these issues. However, the Islamists were usually not allowed to defend themselves in the media, while the accusations were targeting them continuously.
Moreover, secular liberal, nationalist and socialist ideologies were deliberately linked to national freedoms and human rights, while on the other hand the Islamic approach for the state is associated with repulsion of democracy, freedoms and human rights. The Brothers (and the Islamists in general) have always refused this stereotyping. Ultimately, they perceive their Islamic vision as a response to the will of the nation, which has overwhelmingly chosen Islam as a track which is compatible with its psychological and cultural structure and more capable of mobilizing the masses in the battle for development and progress.
As a matter of fact, the Islamist vision of governance is not entirely compatible with the prevailing democratic systems. This is because it is based on different ideological and cultural background and on criticism of the faults of the Western system, mainly represented in its greedy capitalism, degradation in the approach to family and society. At the same time, many Western democracies are subject to the influence of businessmen, corporations, Zionist and conservative Christian lobbies besides owners of media networks. Accordingly, a minority becomes in control of decision making.
However, Islamists in their entirety support free and fair elections and peaceful transfer of power. They further believe that there is no coercion in religion. Thus, when people choose Islamists’ programme and vision then it is only fair to respect their will and choice.
On another level, intimidation from the Muslim Brothers is usually accompanied with linking them, deliberately, with the extremist movements in the Muslim world. In this context, the Muslim Brothers are accused of adopting these movements or standing behind them. As a matter of fact, the Muslim Brothers have their books and publications which reveal their disagreement with extremist thought and blood shedding. This clearly appears in the writings of Hassan al-Banna, Abdelkader Ouda, Mostafa Sebai, Abdul Karim Zaidan, Al Qaradawi, Al-Ghanoushi, Fathi Yakan and Faisal Mawlawi and others. However, their opponents are determined to blame them for strange views they never adopted.
Although the Muslim Brothers opposed the “Takfeer wal-Hijra” in Egypt in the sixties of the twentieth century and rejected the thought of al Qaida which targeted them in Iraq through assassinations and bombings, their enemies were still adamant about accusing them with extremism and terrorism.
Logically speaking, true Islam is not responsible for the trends and forces which emerged in the name of Islam such as the Kharijites, Mu’tazila and Qarametah. By the same token, true Christianity is not responsible for crusader extremism, religious coercion and the inquisition courts.
Similarly, the French revolution is not necessarily responsible for its leaders, who slaughtered one another in the name of freedom, fraternity and equity. Nor are the thinkers of Western democracies in the U.S, France and England responsible for the obnoxious colonial conduct pursued by their military leaders; same may be applied to Karl Marx who cannot be held responsible for the practices of Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung…
Consequently, the Muslim Brothers are solely accountable for what they do and say. Thus, they cannot be held responsible for the conduct of some members, who diverged from their path and pursued different thought and practices and perhaps fought Muslim Brothers themselves and worked against them.
The problem of extremism is partly the responsibility of the Arab regimes. It should be mentioned that when the Arab corrupted regimes were established on the basis of alliance with the “West” and normalization with the Israeli occupation and on bad terms with their people, while preventing any reform or peaceful rotation of power, … all this may trigger some violent and unbalanced reaction.
Nonetheless, had these regimes established for a healthy atmosphere and an environment of freedom, extremism would not have flourished. In addition, the overwhelming trend amongst Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood continued to represent moderation, even when the Muslim Brothers were facing harsh conditions including imprisonment and killing.
This moderate vision was aptly expressed in the book Du’at la Qodhat (Preachers not Judges) written by Hassan al-Hudhaibi, the general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood who succeeded Hassan al-Banna, while he was in difficult conditions of imprisonment.
Intimidating from the Muslim Brotherhood is also based on their lack of a real programme for state management and not providing solutions for different social problems. It is indeed the right of the people to be assured about the ability of the Muslim Brothers to provide insights and genuine programmes. Yet, this accusation is outdated as it criticizes the performance of the organization before thirty years. In fact, the electoral programmes of the Brothers in different countries are comparatively comprehensive and try to address most concerns, whether one agrees with these programmes or not.
The Muslim Brothers have benefited over the recent years from their strong presence in universities and syndicates and the capacities of their cadres in various fields besides the skills of thousands of students who have studied abroad. The technocrats from the Muslim Brotherhood or its supporters may be the largest sector compared to all other parties and trends in the Arab World. Yet, this sector has not been given fair chance to work in state institutions, because of the exclusion policy pursued against the Brothers in many Arab countries.
On another level, after the lapse of 50 years during which the Muslim Brothers were victims of the Arab regimes allied with the U.S, some accuse them of being America’s new allies. However, the uprisings triggered the change process and they participated in the fall of the regimes allied with the U.S against the will of America and its allies.
It is true that the Muslim Brothers present moderate Islam, believe in graduality and focus on internal reform in the first stages, yet their positions and hostility to the U.S policy have cost them much for more than fifty years.
The U.S will seek to accommodate the new reality and re-arrange developments in a way that best serves its interests. Sooner or later, however, it might have to face, or to deal with, the project provided by the Brothers.
This will certainly depend on the ability of the Muslim Brothers to adhere to their project and stand the seduction of power. It also depends on America’s determination to impose its will and policies in the region.
Intimidating others from the Muslim Brothers can no longer be valid for marketing in the era of Arab uprisings. Thus, the will of the people must be respected and the Muslim Brothers should have the chance to implement their vision. Ultimately, their success would be in the interest of their countries and people; otherwise, their failure will end their grievance.
Finally, the Muslim Brothers are required to clarify their positions, counter any accusations, self-criticize their experience and bear responsibility for their mistakes. They should also emphasize that they are not infallible, and they do not monopolize the right, that they respect difference and diversity and put national interests before personal, partisan and factional interests. They shall also stress that they provide an integrated vision which exceeds slogans to serious programmes.
The original Arabic article appeared on Al Jazeera.net on 5/12/2011
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 21/12/2011