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The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist Jihad (ISIS): different ideologies, different methodologies

This article is the third of our series on The Brotherhood vs. ISIS: MEMO reopens debate on contemporary political Islam. Read the first one here and the second one here.

It is almost certain that any unbiased individual looking into the modern history of Islamic movements will not be able to overlook the reality under which these groups were formed. This reality included a decline in Islam's political role, especially after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century and the Western colonisation of Arab and Islamic lands. All the indigenous people could then do was resist this colonialism and drive it out of their countries, in the belief that by doing so they would gain their freedom. They discovered, though, that their home-grown leaders were the ugliest of oppressors supported by the West as long as they benefitted Western interests, even when such leaders contravened democratic norms and human rights by their actions.

When popular political movements and moderate Islamic groups tried to resist the oppression of the ruling families and military regimes, they were imprisoned and subjected to the worst forms of physical and psychological torture; during the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, the prisons were equally full of those following communist and Islamic ideologies. Islamist groups with extremist ideas, which abandoned societies they believed to be blasphemous, were born behind bars; this led to governments labelling all Islamist groups as extremist and radical. The authorities in the West then used this label within the concept of the "war on terror" and the media began describing Islam as the religion of terrorism. This in turn allowed Western re-occupation of the Middle East, represented by America and its allies, through the wars waged on Afghanistan and Iraq, with the aim of democracy tailored to the standards of the occupiers.

When the Arab nations took action to change this painful reality and revolted against oppression and injustice, applied democracy and elected their leaders, the moderate Islamists were the biggest winners. It was at this point that the world began plotting and supported, albeit indirectly and often covertly, the counter-revolutions. Western fears that democracy would liberate countries across the region from their dependency on the US and its protégé Israel drove them to abandon the very same democratic principles that the West claimed to have stood and fought for.

However, America and its allies overlooked the fact that this would, almost inevitably, push ordinary people towards extremism; the West would learn to regret this oversight on its leaders' part. It is thus reasonable, I believe, to say that ISIS and the US-led coalition lining up against it came about as a direct result of the Western-approved oppression of moderate Islamic movements in the Arab world. It seems that the administrations in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin, as well as Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo, have not learnt from previous experiences. Their unlimited support for despots led to the emergence of Al-Qaeda and now their coup against the people's revolution has brought them ISIS; when will the West learn?

The Western and Arab media have engaged in the struggle with all the means at their disposal, portraying all Islamic movements as extremists. The message is clear: there are no moderate Islamist groups and the Salafist jihadist groups, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS, all emerged from moderate Islam, which is represented by the Muslim Brotherhood; ergo they are one and the same. We need to clarify this misconception with a look at the ideologies of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist jihadist groups, the most recent of which is ISIS, which also requires a look at Wahhabi Salafism, known simply as Wahhabism.


In short, Wahhabism is a Salafist Islamic movement that emerged in the Najd region of Arabia (around Riyadh in modern Saudi Arabia) in the 18th century, led by Shaikh Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab. It was established as a religious mission with the primary objective of restoring pure monotheistic worship in the local society after the spread of polytheism. In the beginning, Shaikh Abd Al-Wahhab tried to achieve this through preaching and he was strict regarding doctrine and worship. He criticised the local religious and social milieu and faced many difficulties before rethinking his strategy; he decided to restore pure monotheism from the top down through political authority. After a false start with the prince of Al-'Uyayna, Abd Al-Wahhab approached the prince of Diriyah, Muhammad bin Saud, with whom he formed a pact, based on which authority was split, with the political side led by Muhammad bin Saud (and his heirs) and the religious led by Shaikh Abd Al-Wahhab (and his heirs).

Saud embraced Wahhabism as a mission that relies on religion. He and Abd Al-Wahhab benefitted from it by legitimising their authorities, securing their rule and justifying their policies, with all of the attendant communal tensions this produced. Wahhabism became the driving force behind political ambitions and projects, and helped the nascent Saudi state against its enemies.

The Wahhabi movement's vision for government helped to establish Saudi rule; it does not engage in debates about democracy or any other issues, and does not completely recognise it as legitimate. In fact, it regards democracy as blasphemous, as it only believes in submission and obedience to the ruler and one vested with authority ("wali al-amr"); not upholding this duty is deviation from the religion and is, therefore, blasphemy.

It is evident from this that there are two contradicting models within the structure of Wahhabism. The "preaching" Wahhabi model which focuses on the doctrinal aspects through general and absolute religious terms and concepts that have not been tested in any political experience; and the "ideological" model that has been produced and interpreted in the context of the interactions of the Saudi Arabian state's historical experience over several decades of exchanges, and political, economic, social and intellectual transformations. The irony is that while Wahhabism represents the historical ideological base for the legitimacy of Saudi authority, it also, equally, embodies the main intellectual reference for Salafist jihadist rhetoric, which the current Saudi Arabian state considers to be the number one enemy in the region.

Salafist jihadism is nothing more than a modern expression of the perceptions, standards and methods proposed by the original Wahhabism as shown in its founding texts and the formulations of Abd Al-Wahhab, as well as the explanations of his children, grandchildren and Najdi scholars and preachers. The Salafist jihadis seem to be committed to the fundamentals of the Wahhabi mission on all levels. These represent the most radical wing of Sunni Salafism both in terms of doctrine and practical worship. Their radical beliefs and actions seek to restore the preaching model to its origins and to translate their Salafist vision on the ground; they believe that they alone embody "true" and "pure" Islam. In essence, therefore, Salafist jihadism does not deny or violate Wahhabism; it is a practical attempt to impose, by force if necessary, concepts and connotations in a literal manner on the modern political, social and cultural reality wherever, whenever and however it can. The first appearance of what can be termed modern Salafist jihadism was in Egypt in the late 1960s, particularly after the June 1967 defeat by Israel, in light of the interactions in the conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Nasserist regime, which actually began in 1954.

There have been many interpretations of the direct link between Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb's school of thought and the intellectual proposals behind terrorist movements, especially with regard to the concepts of the governance of God and Jahiliyyah (wilful ignorance of Divine guidance). This leads to the consideration of a state and society as "infidels". However, according to historical facts, we find that the violent jihadi movements in Egypt did not establish their proposals and thoughts directly on Qutb's ideas. The most that his school of thought contributed was that it allowed the violent jihadi movements to describe the nature of the state (the Jahiliyyah state) and promote the state they envisioned for the future (an Islamic system) and determine the means and specifications for developing a unique model generation. Apart from these central concepts that the violent jihadi movements have adopted, we find barely any talk of a revolutionary plan based on violence. Sayyid Qutb focused on the concept of building doctrinal, belief, conceptual and ethical foundations to act as the basis for a Muslim community. However, upon studying his written works, we do not see any reference to utilising violence as a tool for change, or using jihad in the form that has been adopted by violent jihadi groups as a means to establish an Islamic state.

The individual who views jihad in the manner adopted by such groups is Abdul Salam Faraj (the real head of the Islamist group Al-Jihad). In his book The Neglected Obligation, he adopted Qutb's concepts of Jahiliyyah and the governance of God and formed them into a new model. To this he added the most effective concept, in his eyes, which he called the neglected obligation, jihad, to be used as a tool to establish the nucleus of the Islamic Caliphate.

In the 1970s, Salafist jihadism emerged with the armed Islamic groups with a Salafist tendency that surfaced during Anwar Sadat's presidency. These groups aimed to overthrow the president and assassinated him during a victory parade held in Cairo to commemorate the eighth anniversary of Egypt's crossing of the Suez Canal in October 1981. During the 1970s and 1980s the Salafist jihadi discourse became more detailed by means of a collection of writings that still remain important today and are used as reliable references.

The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan gave Salafist jihadism another push on a large Arab-Islamic scale through the "Afghan-Arab" fighter phenomenon. This was followed by the Second Gulf War (1990-1991) which was a critical turning point for the Salafist jihadi path given the events that resulted therefrom. These included deep transformations in the general Islamist structure, especially in Salafist jihadism. The Riyadh government's decision in 1990 to allow foreign forces to use Saudi soil from which to liberate Kuwait and face down potential Iraqi aggression against the other Gulf states, created a real political crisis in the kingdom.

Such a measure, although it is perhaps understandable and justifiable in strategic political terms, caused a double religious problem for the Saudi system of governance, the legitimacy of which was based completely on Wahhabi theology. The first was that questions were asked regarding the legitimacy of an Islamic country asking for help from a non-Islamic country to fight another (even nominally) Islamic country. The second was that questions arose about the presence of foreign military forces, for the first time, in the Arabian Peninsula, which has a special religious status for Muslims.

In an attempt to gain legitimate cover for the government's decision, the Saudi religious authorities issued a fatwa permitting the asking of help from infidels. It was issued by the Council of Senior Scholars, but the internal religious distinctions within the Kingdom prevented the adoption of a unified religious position towards this opinion that was specially tailored to meet the government's political needs. A conflict broke out between the official religious establishment and what seemed to be, at the time, a new Salafist generation that was opposed to any foreign military intervention in the region, regardless of the justifications. This firm position exceeded the expectations of the government, especially since it reached the point whereby the authorities in Riyadh were themselves regarded as "infidels" and calls were made for civil disobedience.

The Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood is considered to be one of the most open Islamic movements in terms of approach and thought, and the most moderate and easy-going. The movement has a strong history of making an effort to raise Islamic awareness by means of religious renewal and modern community development by combining tradition and modernity. It also promoted the need to remain religiously committed in the context of national renaissance projects and the construction of state institutions. It has a history of serious national work and unprecedented sacrifice for the sake of building a free and dignified nation for all people.

A review of the Brotherhood's political history, including its strategies, policies and the positions of its leaders on a national and factional level, confirms that the movement has always supported the idea of a unified nation, the major national issues, democracy against tyranny, and nationalism against isolation. The Brotherhood is affiliated with moderate Islam and rejects violence and operational methods requiring force.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan Al-Banna; between the early 1940s and the 1980s, the Brotherhood's ideology and school of thought spread across most Arab and Muslim countries. Imam Al-Banna built the movement in such a way that allows it to flow in the general prevailing atmosphere without the need for forced submission or extremism.

Being founded while Egypt was under British occupation made Al-Banna consider liberation from colonialism to be a major goal of the Brotherhood. It resisted and opposed the occupation from the beginning; this worried London and increased British interest in the movement, which was monitored increasingly by the occupation authorities. The British sensed that the group posed a threat and cracked-down on its activities, imposed a state of emergency on Egypt, and encouraged a number of assassination attempts against Imam Al-Banna. In 1943, the government in London considered sending the Imam into exile and even announced its intention before withdrawing it, fearing the public backlash in the context of the World War. Imam Al-Banna tried to become a member of parliament and stood as a candidate in two elections, but the British foiled both of his attempts.

The movement's resistance against the British occupation had various manifestations, including the development of the Brotherhood's armed brigades fighting inside Palestine and confronting Jewish terrorist gangs, which disturbed the Zionists greatly. They put pressure on the authorities to keep Brotherhood fighters away from Palestine.

The failure of the British to deal effectively with the Brotherhood led to a meeting of senior American, British and French ministers at the Fayed Air Base at which it was agreed to dissolve the group and assassinate its leader. The occupation government thus took immediate measures to dissolve the movement in December 1948 and arrest its members and leaders; Al-Banna was assassinated on 12 February, 1949.

However, the movement coped with the loss, regrouped and chose Hassan Al-Hudhaibi as its new leader in 1950. There was pressure from the Brotherhood to reopen its branches and headquarters; this was done after a court ruling dated 15 August 15, 1951.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the 23 July 1952 Revolution

Almost a year later, on 23 July, 1952, a revolution broke out which was welcomed by the Brotherhood; over half of the Revolutionary Command Council were either current or past members of the movement or its supporters. They included Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kamal Al-Din Hussein, Khalid Mohiuddin, Abdel Moneim Abdul Rauf, Rashad Mehanna and others from the second ranks of the Free Officers' Movement. They were the only people who knew the date of the revolution in advance and made efforts to protect some of the state institutions and buildings.

As the revolution continued, there were efforts made to please the Muslim Brotherhood. An investigation into the killing of Hassan Al-Banna was reopened, the Egyptian Army got its hands on those who masterminded the crime, and the Revolutionary Command Council offered the Brotherhood two ministers in Mohamed Naguib's government, formed just weeks after the revolution started. However, a dispute over who the two ministers would be prevented the Brotherhood from taking up the offer.

During the first 18 months of the 1952 Revolution, the Revolution Command Council decided to rely on the Muslim Brotherhood, given that it was an organised political group that could be used as a reference point, but this did not last long. Nasser severed his partnership with the movement, which he viewed as a threat to the Council, and issued a decision to dissolve the Brotherhood on 14 January, 1954. Members were imprisoned and subject to the worst forms of torture, starvation and oppression.

Despite this, the Brotherhood did not turn to violence, and continued to oppose Nasser and his successors, Sadat and Mubarak, in a peaceful manner. It also busied itself with focusing on Egyptians' living conditions. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood participated in parliament and the unions (although not under the Brotherhood name) and demonstrated great skill in dealing with public issues.

The Brotherhood's parliamentary and union experiences allowed it to engage in dialogue regarding freedom, human rights and tyranny; it looked as if it would use Islam and Islamic Law to achieve democracy rather than the armed route.

25 January Revolution 2011

The Muslim Brotherhood did not tag along incidentally during the 25 January Revolution; its members were a main component of the revolutionaries. Brotherhood members and leaders were summoned by the Mubarak government and threatened with serious consequences against the movement if they participated in the revolution. Their response was clear: "We are the Brotherhood and we are an integral part of the nation. We will participate with our people in the protests." Dr Essam El-Erian, the official spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, announced on 23 January that the movement would indeed be participating in the demonstrations planned to take place two days later.

On the day of the start of the revolutionary protests, the Brotherhood's youth wing participated in the demonstrations across all of Egypt's governorates and in the capital, Cairo. The presence of the Brotherhood in Tahrir Square was prominent and it was the movement which protected and maintained the revolution from the Battle of the Camel onwards.

Due to the Brotherhood's role as the main organising party of the revolution it developed a great deal of popular support on the ground. As such, it won the subsequent parliamentary and presidential elections, making Mohamed Morsi the first civilian president elected in a free and fair poll. This did not please the dictators across the Arab world and governments in the West, who supported the July 2013 military coup and counter-revolution directly and indirectly.


Contrary to what is being promoted by the opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, the emergence of radical Islamic movements came about because of the failure or absence of moderate Islamist movements. The likes of Islamic Jihad, Islamic Group and Salafist movements emerged due to the absence of the Muslim Brotherhood; they did not originate from the Brotherhood as the Egyptian security forces and their pliant analysts like to claim. It follows, therefore, that even if these forces succeed in eliminating the Brotherhood from the political scene in Egypt, they won't be doing anything that will dismantle the radical groups. Instead, it is likely that other, perhaps even more radical, Islamist movements will emerge that will please neither the current counter-revolutionary regimes nor their foreign backers.

Western media, such as the New York Times and the Economist, warned that fighting against the Arab Spring and staging coups against it gave Al-Qaeda and its jihadist allies, which do not believe in the idea of Western democracy, a unique opportunity to prove their point that Islam can only triumph through force and by getting rid of those calling for democracy. Their argument is helped by the fact that Islamist groups which have gone down the democratic path and actually won national elections have been overthrown with the support of Western democracies. The entire region is now at risk of chaos after the West and its followers in the Middle East have revolted against the peaceful democratic path and imprisoned moderate political Islamists who won free elections and believe in peaceful change, not violence.

The coup in Egypt and other counter-revolutions in the Arab world were carried out by the military, corrupt judiciary and secularists against moderate Islamic groups which had accepted the results at the ballot box. The result is the sum of all Western fears; the decline of moderate political Islam; and the emergence of violent Jihadists, such as ISIS. This is likely to be reflected in future weeks, months and possibly years by the spread of violence in the Arab world and across the West. It will not, however, be a result of Muslim Brotherhood ideology, but a direct result of the movement's suppression and the rise of Salafist, Wahhabi, jihadism.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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