This article is the second of our series on The Brotherhood vs. ISIS: MEMO reopens debate on contemporary political Islam. Read the first one here.
Today, amidst the turmoil in Gaza, Syria and Iraq, and the ongoing events in Egypt following the military coup against the democratically elected president and the all out crackdown against his political party and the Muslim Brotherhood, the debate of equating all Islamists under the same umbrella is becoming more and more common. This is particulary so with the Muslim Brotherhood; Palestine’s Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood; and the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as ISIS or ISIL. However, the implications of such conflations are potentially catastrophic and may prove detrimental to hundreds of millions of moderate Muslims worldwide, who would be incriminated by such judgments.
A new advertisement campaign has just been launched in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other major newspapers, by an American Jewish organisation ‘This World,’ where it shows two photographs: an ISIS fighter preparing to behead the American journalist James Foley; and what the advert alleges to be Hamas fighters preparing to murder men accused of collaborating with Israel. The headline of the advert, “This is the face of radical Islam”, tries, like the images, to equate and draw parallels between the two organisations. Furthermore, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently equated IS and Hamas, whilst US President Obama described both groups as “barbaric”.
The Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest and most influential Islamist movement in the Arab world. It was founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan Al-Banna, as a reformist movement focusing on moral revival and resisting cultural, ideological and political imperialism. The movement advocated an Islamic ethos of altruism and civic duty as opposed to political and social injustice and to British imperial rule in Egypt at the time.
The Muslim Brotherhood was established when religion did not play a big part in society and where moral laxity was rife during the British rule. The objective of the Brotherhood was to bring about political, social and economic reforms from a religious, ethical and spiritual perspective. The teachings and ideology of the Brotherhood have thereafter spread across the world, appearing in more than 72 countries on all continents.
The birth of ‘IS’
The precise lineage of the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria / Levant (ISIS or ISIL), (now just Islamic State; IS), is unknown and a point of much discussion. It appeared on the scene in war-torn Syria in the earlier part of 2013 and imposed itself as a key player within the incredibly complex Syrian equation, in a relatively short space of time. ISIS offered an option for those who wanted to join the armed struggle against Syria’s Assad regime but were forbidden from joining the Free Syrian Army whose supporters, particularly the US and Saudi Arabia, had restricted recruitment to Syrian fighters only. Before appearing in Syria, ISIS were found in Iraq but under various names and formats, most notably as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi shortly after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 until he was killed in 2006 by US forces.
It was after the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 that the ‘Islamic State of Iraq‘ (ISI) emerged as the new face of Al-Qaeda, led by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi; its main target was declared to be the Shi’i government of Iraq. Having gathered many fighters at his disposal, Al-Baghdadi turned to Syria and opened a second front – against the Assad regime. Al-Baghdadi renamed the group ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS), reflecting his greater ambitions of infiltrating further from his homeland.
The ambitions of ISIS widened this year when Al-Baghdadi and his fighters set it to rule the entire region from the Mediterranean to the Gulf. He promoted himself to the title of ‘Caliph’ or leader of the Muslims, and the group was renamed ‘Islamic State’ in reference to their aim that they would dismantle state borders to form a new caliphate. The targets were broadened to encompass Christians and Kurds, as well as minority religious communities. In Iraq, Al-Baghdadi gave the word: non-believers must either pay a special tax levied against non-Muslims under a Muslim rule (Jizya), migrate, convert to Islam, or face death.
Contrary to the Muslim Brotherhood, the ideology of IS is one of tyranny, brute force, sheer violence and compulsion. Their ideology and brutal tactics, including beheadings and floggings, are so violent that Al-Qaeda itself disavowed them earlier this year. Moreover, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, President of the International Union of Muslim Scholars and an intellectual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as denouncing the ideology and activities of the organisation, denounced the IS claim for Islamic Caliphate saying that it is an illegal entity and that there was no Islamic basis to the claim.
In Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood originated, and in other countries where it functions, the Brotherhood are known for and gained prominence by effectively providing social services where the state failed to provide neither welfare nor prosperity. They established hospitals, pharmacies and schools, and carried out significant efforts in helping the impoverished.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas were both democratically-elected to govern; both having clearly defined economic and welfare charters. The so-called Islamic State, on the other hand, was born from the remnants of the US-led invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein and was nurtured into its current homicidal form by a mix of jihadist groups that went to Iraq to fight the occupying western powers and those who made Syria their home during the Syrian civil war.
The Brotherhood believes in participatory democracy and aims to spread social and moral reform whilst encouraging integration and pluralism. Its Palestinian counterpart, Hamas, is a national liberation movement that seeks to end the siege in Gaza and establish an independent Palestinian state. Adversely, IS wants to forcefully create a caliphate and calls for the annihilation of all non-Muslims as well as Muslims who do not comply with or submit to their ideology or pledge allegiance to its self-acclaimed emir.
The IS lacks deep roots in any particular society and has no nationalist project. The group’s methods, including their penchant for horrific violence, and its fighters, clad in black, with balaclavas and carrying the black flag, with the Islamic declaration of faith (“There is no God but Allah”) and the seal of the Prophet Muhammed (“Muhammed, messenger of Allah”), do not abide by traditional Islamic rules of engagement, such as refraining from violence against women or children. The IS stands apart from other “extremist” organisations, most notably in that they are not bound by the structures of traditional Islamic warfare. The IS are attempting to sell their battle for a traditional caliphate, but their deeply intolerant definition of a caliphate and desire to violently oppress those who do not share their beliefs is inconsistent with Islamic history and any Islamic teachings.
The Arab Spring and Political Islam
Following the Arab Spring which saw a domino-effect of countries revolting against their dictatorial authoritarian rulers in the Arab world, it became clear that the people’s choice for leadership leaned towards a moderate Islamist rule. Thus we witnessed the soaring popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, and the Justice and Development Party in Morocco. Indeed, prior to the Arab Spring, Palestinians, in 2006, voted overwhelmingly for Hamas in what was heralded as a free and fair democratic election.
Voting for Islamist parties was, however, evidenced even before the Hamas election victory. In Turkey, the AKP, or Justice and Development Party, won a landslide victory in 2002, and have since won all local and general elections; and in Algeria the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won a convincing 181 seats (out of 232) in Round One of the country’s first ever legislative elections before the military forced President Chadli Bendjedid to resign and cancel the elections.
Despite their popularity and democratic mandate by their respective populace, and despite their call for democracy, pluralism and social reform, attributes which the West supposedly adhere to and call for, the newly democratically-elected Islamic governments were not warmly welcomed by the West. Political Islam was rejected outright and generalisations that classified all Islamists as violent extremists became the method used to scare-monger in the Arab world as well as the West.
A missed opportunity for the West
The West had the perfect opportunity to forge alliances with fellow democratic regimes in the Arab world and to establish new relationships based on similar principles and values. Instead, Western countries chose to distance themselves from establishments that upheld the same values but under a different ideology. Though Islam is a faith, and not a secular ideology, it does not mean that its goals are against those of secular democracies, namely economic prosperity, political stability and international security.
Over the years, the appointment of an Islamist government has been programmed to instil the view of a repressive and limited society governed by strict laws and prohibitions. Despite Hamas being in control of the Gaza Strip for eight years, it has not implemented Sharia law nor did it target the enclave’s Christians.
It therefore appears that the West only embraces the value of democracy when it coincides with their interests. By putting their interests ahead of their values, the West has marginalised some potentially strong allies who share the same core universal values.
A recipe for fanaticism
Both the rejection of moderate non-violent political Islam and the travesty of grouping all Islamists under the same umbrella, is a recipe for disaster and the radicalisation of frustrated Muslim youth who feel they are in a lose-lose battle with the world. Despite embracing key democratic precepts, modernising their election platforms and reaching out to Western audiences, Islamists have found themselves victims of electoral manipulation, mounting legal restrictions, and mass arrests. With mainstream Islamists effectively being punished for their moderation, analysts have warned of impending Islamist radicalisation.
Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Centre, Shadi Hamid, has consistently argued that the US must learn to live with political Islam and that supporting the “non-violent” Muslim Brotherhood is the West’s only way of forestalling further radicalisation and future threats from the “violent” Islamists such as Al-Qaeda.
In whose favour?
Upon his appointment as president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi said that he would maintain all of Egypt’s international treaties; and according to some reports, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal had joined Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, in demanding the most diminutive Palestinian state possible, inside the 1967 borders.
Netanyahu brandished IS, Hamas, Al-Qaeda, Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Lebanon’s Hezbollah as “branches of the same poisonous tree“. By equating Hamas with IS, the Israeli prime minister aims to portray all Palestinians as bloodthirsty Islamic extremists. This is not a foreign parallel for Israel: immediately following the September 11th 2001 attacks, Ariel Sharon made a similar equivalence between Al-Qaeda and the PLO, reframing the debate about Palestinian statehood to one about an evil axis of Middle East terror, and using this to justify Israel’s crushing of the uprising of the second Intifada.
At the time of the Twin Tower attacks, Israeli Intelligence and Ariel Sharon had celebrated the calamity claiming it was a “Hanukkah miracle“, later echoed by Netanyahu, for pushing public opinion “in our favour“. Now with the emergence of IS dominating world headlines, and Israel and the West discussing Hamas and IS in the same sphere, this works to serve Israeli interests, where it helps sanction Israeli behaviour by painting a picture of an Israel on the front line of a war against global terror.
Indeed, this is all going according to Israel’s plan, documented from as far back as 1980, when an Israeli Journalist, Oded Yinon suggested that the Arab States should be destroyed from within by exploiting their internal religious and ethnic tensions: “Lebanon’s total dissolution into five provinces serves as a precedent for the entire Arab world including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and the Arabian peninsula and is already following that track. The dissolution of Syria and Iraq later on into ethnically or religiously unique areas such as in Lebanon, is Israel’s primary target … while the dissolution of the military power of those states serves as the primary short term target.” The Yinon Plan aims to balkanise the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region into smaller and weaker entities or states in order to ensure the dominant position of Israel in the region, and indeed, this is what is currently happening.
To categorise the Muslim Brotherhood alongside the Islamic State under a loose definition of Islamists is a grave mistake; indeed to categorise all Islamists under the same umbrella is ludicrous. The Muslim Brotherhood and the IS are radically different. Whilst the former’s principled position is one of democracy, pluralism, reform, and integration, the latter is based on brutality, coercion, annihilation and despotism. It is imperative to make the distinction between political Islam and violent Islam, where the former is deeply embedded within Arab and Muslim societies, regardless of how socially and religiously conservative they are, and the latter is a total anomaly to the culture, belief, ideology and faith of the region.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.