This article is the first of our series on The Brotherhood vs. ISIS: MEMO reopens debate on contemporary political Islam
David Cameron launched his investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood by saying, ” It is an important piece of work… we will only get our policy right if we fully understand the true nature of the organisation.”[i] Four months later, ISIS is posing a major threat to regional and global stability and the right policy would be to make a clear distinction between political Islam and violent jihadism. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood should be treated as allies and not frozen out as terrorists, which is what David Cameron’s inquiry into the movement may end up doing.
The investigation, commissioned in April and headed by Britain’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir John Jenkins, has been looking into the Brotherhood’s alleged links to extremism. There is a possibility that the movement may be proscribed as a terrorist organisation, a decision that has the potential to cast suspicion over countless Muslims around the world. Is this really wise when the so-called “war on terror” is being lost?
Western suspicion and at times fear of political Islam is born out of a number of overlapping issues: the Iranian Islamic revolution; terrorist acts, of which one would be seen as the defining moment of the 21st century; and questions about Islam’s compatibility with the mores of secular western democracy. The last of course has little bearing on government policy given western governments’ enduring ties with repressive regimes in the Middle East.
The success of Islamist parties in Turkey and across the region in the “Arab Spring” has done little to allay these concerns. Even after winning three of the most democratic of elections in the Middle East, the jury is still out on political Islam. In 2006, Hamas won the very first internationally-observed election held in Palestine; in Tunisia, Ennahda (Renaissance) Party secured 41 per cent of the parliamentary seats; and in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won close to an absolute majority. The double standards employed by the West towards Islamist parties, particularly the Brotherhood in Egypt, were evident in the response to the revolution which unseated a military regime, replaced it with a democratically-elected president, and was itself undone by a military coup. This is damaging and counterproductive in the real battle against violent jihadists like ISIS.
The sudden impetus for Cameron’s investigation into the Brotherhood, which is also charged with identifying the values and philosophy of the movement to better understand “what we are dealing with”, may backfire, claimed Professor Rosemary Hollis.[ii] The decision to push ahead with it is reported to have originated with British intelligence, not from the Foreign Office, where there is greater awareness of the dangers of alienating the rank and file of an Islamist movement hitherto identified as relatively moderate and nonviolent.
There are obvious questions about the investigation: who will provide evidence, for example? More crucially, does it serve British interests or a foreign agenda? There are plenty of British citizens and millions of Muslims around the world who will have an affinity between their beliefs and those of the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam. Shoehorning this enquiry during a moment of tremendous instability displays at best ignorance of political Islam and an act of questionable opportunism given that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE have already designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist group alongside Al-Nusra Front and ISIS.
Looking at the list of organisations now so-classified, it is suspicious that the Muslim Brotherhood has been included. For Cameron’s coalition to be considering following suit, given that the movement was only recently a democratically-elected government in Egypt and yet is now being bracketed alongside ISIS, is shocking.
How to distinguish between ISIS and political Islamists
With the emergence of ISIS, the West’s poor understanding of political Islam has to be tackled. We can no longer afford to think of political Islam as part of a single continuum, where a Muslim goes from political activism to violent Jihadism. The Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS are not simply different shades along the spectrum of political Islam; the insistence on treating them as one and the same reinforces the doubts and suspicions cast over all Muslims. Their origins and habitats are very different; their tactics are not comparable; and their future trajectories are unlikely to ever meet. As Alastair Crooke, a former British diplomat, author and founder of the Conflicts Forum, argues, you can’t understand ISIS if you don’t know the history of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.[iii]
Crooke describes Saudi duality and its internal discord, which has plagued the country from its very creation. One strand is the religious doctrine pertaining directly to Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab and the other relates precisely to King Abd-al Aziz Ibn Saud’s subsequent shift towards statehood in the 1920s, with his curbing of violence in order to have diplomatic standing on the world stage. Crooke stresses that the real aim of ISIS is to replace the Saudi family as the new Emirs of Arabia.[iv] His conclusion is that ISIS is the Wahhabi strand without the political reins of Abdul Aziz; it is a physical manifestation of a modern political group steeped in Wahhabism.
Whatever one thinks about Crooke’s conclusions, and although Saudi Arabia has given $100m (£60m) to the UN anti-terror programme, with the country’s grand mufti denouncing ISIS as “enemy number one”, ISIS is far closer to Wahhabism, the main religious strand in Saudi Arabia, than the Muslim Brotherhood is. The latter’s shortcomings do not disguise the fact that it was engaging with the democratic process for a new Egypt and did not threaten to use violence, mass incarceration and politically-motivated death sentences against their political opposition. It was the movement’s opponents and historical political adversary, the newly reinvigorated military regime, which has committed such crimes against the Brotherhood, and is attempting to silence it by labelling it as a terrorist organisation.
Foreign governments should be cautious about becoming complicit in this charade and giving full legitimacy to Egypt’s military coup. They need to recognise that the terrorist designation is a move to diffuse the troubling consequences of the legitimacy-deficit facing every non-democratic regime in the Middle East.
In rallying support for the battle against violent extremism, it is unwise to keep our ongoing support for authoritarian regimes while simultaneously criminalising mass grassroots organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which is much older than some of these dictatorships and has greater civil and democratic legitimacy, with the potential to win free and fair elections if given the opportunity to participate. Such a strategy makes little sense and a sovereign country like Britain should not face an “either/or” question regarding the Brotherhood. If western governments are untroubled about their cooperation with repressive regimes that terrorise their own people routinely they should worry even less about groups that are labelled as “terrorists” by such regimes. This inconsistency emanates from a lack of understanding of the threat posed by ISIS and the thoughtless use of the term “Islamism”.
Misuse of Islamism
Our sweeping use of terms like “Islamism” and “political Islam” as a shorthand for describing any political party inspired by the Islamic faith is lazy and unjust. It is lazy because it makes a number of categorical errors. The word Islamic, at least in the minds of Islam’s 1.6 billion followers, refers to the ideals of the religion; logically, therefore, just as one could and should not refer to Judaic terrorism and Christian terrorism one can and should not say Islamic terrorism, Islamic burglary, Islamic violence, and so on. There can of course be Muslim criminals and Muslim terrorists. Members of fringe groups may call themselves “Islamic” but that does not make the designation either accurate or fair. It is also a mistake and unjust because the vast majority of Islamists are not violent terrorists and never will be.
This kind of lazy thinking is the consequence of misunderstanding and a general lack of awareness about the nature and role of religion, particularly Islam, in the Middle East. Religion within cultures and societies in the region plays a different role to what it does in the West. References to religion and appeals to religious symbolism are a daily occurrence as faith is ingrained in society. From secular Baathists like Saddam Hussain, Arab nationalists like Nasser and Sadat, hereditary monarchies in the Gulf and organisations like the Brotherhood and ISIS, religion functions as a legitimising factor. Religion is the sun around which everything else orbits. So in a sense, given its anthropological location in the Middle East, it is extremely shallow and superficial to look for answers to the problem of ISIS in religion; such an explanation tells us much about the status of Islam in these countries and at the same time nothing about Islam itself.
One needs to make clear distinctions between Muslim activism and violent Muslim radicals. Muslim activists are inspired by their faith, just as many Jews, Christians and people of other faiths (and none) are inspired by theirs and mobilise naturally around it. The key question is whether they operate within the rules of the political game, within the constitutional framework of their country and within the rule of law to improve their country and community.
It seems to me that any moves against the Muslim Brotherhood are, therefore, likely to be extremely counterproductive when the war against ISIS is redrawing the political map of the Middle East. Political fractures of the past are being taped up while new battle lines are drawn. ISIS has succeeded in doing what no other terrorist organisation has ever managed to do; it is making allies of the West, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Even Al-Qaida has disavowed the organisation.[v] The PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party, is deemed a terrorist group by Britain and Europe but is now being recruited in the fight against ISIS. With this kind of political realignment, unthinkable only a few short months ago, putting the Muslim Brotherhood onto terrorist lists does not make sense.
Let’s not make the mistakes of the war on terror
We need to think of ISIS and our government’s decision within the broader context of the so-called war on terror, a war perceived by many as a war on Islam and Muslims that was pursued by extreme neo-conservatives who were driven ideologically to reshape the entire Middle East armed with complete faith in America’s ability to change the world by hard power alone. The folly of this “crusade” is now self-evident, although the main protagonists of this misadventure, including Tony Blair, used the turmoil in Syria and the Arab Spring to intimate that deposing Saddam in Iraq was an enabler of the Arab revolutions and prevented another sectarian war like the one in Syria.[vi] Logic suggests that if neo-cons want to take credit for any good things that came out of the Iraq invasion and occupation, then they should also take responsibility for all the bad things.
The fact of the matter is that the invasion of Iraq led to terrorism and a myriad of new Muslim insurgents.[vii] Tony Blair was warned by the intelligence agencies that the invasion would heighten the terrorist threat to Britain from Al-Qaida.[viii] In what is now a famous interview, viewed by 1.2 million people on YouTube, Dick Cheney, one of the main architects of the war on terror, was questioned back in 1996 about why America did not pursue Saddam Hussein into Baghdad and dismantle the regime after the liberation of Kuwait. “If we went into Baghdad,” he claimed, “we would have been all alone, and nobody else with us. It would have been a US occupation of Iraq, not under the Arab forces, once you got to Iraq and took it over, and took down Saddam Hussain’s government what are you going to put in its place, that’s a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government in Iraq, you could easily see pieces of Iraq flying off, it’s a quagmire”.[ix]
And what a quagmire it was. It wasn’t the lack of knowledge, or the lack of foresight, as we can see, that landed the US into this mess. Instead, it was the blind certainty of the purity of its goals and an unmatched confidence in its ability to pursue them. The death and destruction which were known would follow the invasion was viewed as “the birth pangs of the new Middle East”. This “new Middle East” would, it was claimed, realign the whole region by unleashing the forces of “constructive chaos” and create conditions of violence and warfare throughout the region which would in turn be used so that the United States and its allies could redraw the map of the Middle East in accordance with their geo-strategic needs and objectives.[x]
The dangers of hubris
The problem with violence is that it is uncontrollable and there is a great danger of its unintended consequence shaping a reality that was not anticipated. George W Bush’s Freedom Agenda may have created space and momentum across the Middle East for democratisation, which conservative commentators were very keen to stress back in 2012,[xi] but it also created the conditions for the rise of ISIS.
A fair assessment of the Middle by William R Polk, a former advisor in President John F Kennedy’s crises management committee, concluded the following: In Libya, having destroyed the Qaddafi regime, forces are unleashed that have virtually torn Libya apart and have spilled over into Central Africa, opening a new area of instability. In Egypt, the “non-coup-coup” of General Al-Sisi has produced no ideas on what to do to help the Egyptian people except to execute large numbers of their religious leaders. In occupied Palestine, the Israeli state is reducing the population to misery and driving it to rage. In Syria, western governments were engaged in arming, training and funding essentially the same people known as ISIS that are now being bombed in Iraq. In Iraq, the West is about to become engaged in supporting the regime we installed and which is the close ally of the Syrian and Iranian regimes that we have been trying for years to destroy; yet in Iran, we appear to be on the point of reversing our policy of destroying its government and seeking its help to defeat the insurgents in Iraq.[xii]
Democracy or stability is a false choice
With hydra-like enemies appearing continually, the desire for stability may again take precedence over spreading democracy. This would be a terrible mistake.
It should be stressed, though, that the choice between stability and freedom is a false one presented by none other than the very right-wing commentators who were the main cheerleaders of the war on terror. Notwithstanding the failed Islamist government in Egypt, the choice between democracy and stability has taken a severe blow following the success of Turkey and the Ennahda Party in Tunisia. It may not be a knockout blow considering the failure of the Egyptian Brotherhood to steer through a peaceful transition, but it sure does seem like a dodgy theory to claim that Islamists use democracy to gain power only to then close the door behind them. Surely such a theory, which informs much of government policy, is based on real examples. If such a theory were true, one would expect the Muslim Brotherhood to stay in power through any means necessary. Egypt was always going to be ungovernable after the fall of Mubarak no matter who was at the helm but as other Islamists parties have shown they are as able as any party in the region to govern their country. Judging Islamist parties by different standard, legitimate though it may be given their claim to be “more Islamic”, is the source of much hypocrisy in the Middle East.
War on terror 2
The war on terror under George W Bush created more terrorism; that’s a fact. Ideologically driven by neo-conservatives to change the face of the Middle East through his Freedom Agenda, it is now in the dustbin of history, but its repercussions remain. The war placed Muslim organisations under suspicion. Muslim political and social activism were viewed as a first step in a continuum leading to violent terrorism. This narrative, driven untiringly, alienated Muslims around the world. Disengaged, Muslim organisations were then marginalised in favour of so-called experts and think tanks, which supposedly understand the anatomy of “Islamic terror”.
Barack Obama has now launched “war on terror 2”. In doing so, he has been keen to distance himself from the first version. He tried to placate any fears that this current deployment of American hard power is anything like the first war on terror and the subsequent invasion of Iraq. “Any time we take military action, there are risks involved,” he said, “but I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will include a ‘broad coalition’ of allies who would join America to combat ISIS.”[xiii]
War on terror version two no doubt seems a massive improvement over version one; a war on terror that necessitated the invasion of countries and turned citizens into suspects was always going to fail. It appears, at least for now, that the bugs which plagued the first, which was high on ideology and low on clarity and focus, was lacking in international legitimacy and, most significantly, alienated Muslims in the UK and around the world, may be fixed. But all this clarity and all the clearheaded thinking that has been forced by the threat posed by ISIS will be for nothing if the British government fails to acknowledge the distinction that British Muslims are desperate for them to make between ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood. They are not the same, and no amount of political skulduggery will make them so.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.