Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Muslim Brotherhood: A History, A Counterpoint.

Claire Berlinski has started a "history of the Muslim Brotherhood" that I did not sit well with.Teleological to the maxx, it looks at the Muslim Brotherhood through history in order to explain how it got to where it was today. I was a bit discomfited by the original post, but Ms. Berlinski was gracious enough to let me get into a formal debate. She gave me membership privileges on her site, but as you will see soon enough, I had a lot more than the 200 word limit to say. And besides, I feel that the master-pupil relationship that comments sections make for are usually inappropriate and turn what should be a give-and-take into a classroom environment. So I have posted my full response here, and I hope that, if you come here from Ricochet, you will be kind enough to read it.

Thank you for inviting me into a debate, and I'm sorry that it took so long. I got held up at work doing work-like things and the lot. But I think it's a debate worth having because, as you intimated, there are a lot of Muslims out there, and it is worth understanding branches of political Islam so the wrong one isn't barked up.

To understand the Muslim Brotherhood, one has to look at the context in which they began. We will move on to the post-war Brotherhood tomorrow, as you say. The context involves the Islamic context, the geographical context, and the chronological. First, we need to establish some ground rules when we talk about Islam.

Islam is an evangelical religion. Some branches more than others. It seeks to convert non-believers and asks its adherents to act as ambassadors for the religion and to live their lives religiously. It is no different from Evangelical Christianity in this regard. Both groups seek to turn the world to the "true" religion and have a similar millennial scenario that involves everyone on Earth being in the true religion or very, very, sorry they're not. But there is no reason to be more skeptical of one form of evangelism than the other. Religions are allowed to seek converts. It's always amused me how it's the most religious people who are frightened of the evangelism of others. If you're right, what's the harm of the other guy? (For the record, I am religious, and am neither Evangelical Muslim nor Christian).

Also, the different schools of Sunni Islam, and the different qadis and scientists and what have you, all have different judgments of "great" and "small" jihad. This concept is totally different then the concept of "Jihad of the sword" (Jihad bil Sayf) that may only be pursued via fatwa. It used to be only the Caliph could command Jihad bil Sayf, but then the Caliphate fragmented (and was never really whole to begin with) and now any grouch with good handwriting can issue the perquisite fatwa. Note that al-Banna goes out of his way to not use the term "Jihad bil Sayf" - he makes no claim to Caliph. He also rejected violence. MB has rejected violent means from its inception in 1928 (4th graph from bottom) until current day (election of Badie as leader).

The Muslim Brotherhood is very much a conclusion of its geography and the time of its birth. It was born as a transnational, anti-Western, religious movement when all three of these things had very different definitions then they do now. Al-Banna has a theological connection to Muhammad 'Abduh, the 19th Century reformer who was a fascinating mystic, journalist, and lawyer who "wanted to make Islam compatible with 19th-C secularism." Both al-Banna and 'Abduh studied Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani, who was one of the first people to successfully unite Muslims -at least theoretically - from Indonesia to Morocco under a modernizing ethos.

Al-Banna's anti-Westernism is quite similar, in fact, to Woodrow Wilson's anti-Imperialism. He promoted democracy and parliamentary rule as an alternative to the heavy-handed policies of British Egypt and the corruption of the Ottoman Empire. He took notes from the failure of the Khalifat Movement of India and the Jadidism of Russia to create, as Berlinski said, a slower, more gradual shift to power. One could make a comfortable analogy from al-Banna to Gandhi, Nehru, and the other heroes of the Indian Independence movement. He just wasn't as good a politician as them.

That said, he was an interesting man. He started the Muslim Brotherhood at age 24 with a few friends. He preached in coffeehouses and flophouses, to the poor that the al-Azhar clerics wouldn't make eye contact with. His group went from 800 in 1936 to 200,000 in 1938. He was on to something.

The Muslim Brotherhood emphasized (and emphasizes) social justice and aid for the impoverished and punishment for the corrupt. This has led the group to make many political decisions that people on a center-right blog would disagree with, in terms of aid programs, escalated taxing, and the like. These programs, however, are hardly outside the barn of political debate. Welfare is something to be argued about, not shot over. In addition, many of the Muslim Brotherhood's aid policies are just as similar to YMCA or the Salvation Army as they are to Hezboallah. Soup kitchens, education (through a religious lens, of course), and work programs. This is not the reinvention of the wheel.

The demise of the Muslim Brotherhood under al-Banna, pre-war, is linked to that anti-corruption stance and the enormous growth I mentioned earlier. A break-off group was formed that rejected al-Banna's peaceful stance, which forced him to make a compromise in order to regain control, promising the formation and training of "battalions." But 1940 happened first. The Desert Fox Rommel was embarrassing British forces and Africa seemed lost. Tom Bradby's God of Chaos gives an idea, though its set in 1942. The British set up martial law based in Cairo, and the Muslim Brotherhood was in contact with the dozens of Nazi spies in the region. This is 1940: the U.S. was still in touch with Nazi Germany, for the record. And the Brotherhood played both sides, shutting down the battalions and setting up "families" instead, and giving out aid to families injured in German bombing raids. For the rest of the war, the Brotherhood kept an uneasy truce with the British-backed Egyptian government. As promised, we'll get into post-war later.

So if we're talking about the Muslim Brotherhood as a group, we're discussing an explicitly anti-violence organization that fell along the vaqf tradition of Egypt, but trying to bring it in line with 20th century determinationist and nationalist movements. It was a natural course of Islam and Egyptian history at that point, and it was sparked by the, well, whatever you want to call him, certainly energetic al-Banna. The translation and propagation of Mein Kampf and The Protocols is nasty and certainly regrettable. But I'm not ready to string Lindbergh up, either. It stands to mention that anti-Jewish violence in Egypt wouldn't take off until the Israel-Palestine wars. In fact, despite the fact that Brotherhood members were arrested for violence, well, again. Context. It was a violent time. Cairo was under martial law, and the Muslim Brotherhood was made up of some of the most desperate Cairenes. Al-Banna tried to have cooler heads prevail, and was largely successful. Things got a lot worse after his assassination and after the Israel-Palestine...unpleasantness.

Keith Ellison would not be born until 1963.


  1. Thanks for responding to Claire Berlinski's post over at Ricochet, seeing different sides of the issue is very helpful.

  2. Hey Halifax, thanks for stopping by. It's always nice to avoid yelling.

    And I have to say, I went to Nova Scotia a couple of summers ago, absolutely fell in love with the place.

  3. I have once tried to span from the MB to Pakistan-today in a University paper. It's far fetched, sure but I think worth a try to see how the ongoings then there reverberate through time and geographically. The legacy of the MB in Pakistan is pretty strong

  4. Yes, it really is a lovely quiet place here, drop in if you are passing through (we do, at least, have great beer). Meanwhile, I'm quite enjoying browsing through your past blogging.