Anzalone: The Muslim Brotherhood Myth

Christopher Anzalone writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood & the Demonstrations: Fact vs. Fiction

Since the start of mass popular protests by Egyptians against their country’s autocratic government, headed by the aging president Hosni Mubarak and his new vice president, Omar Suleiman, a great deal of attention has been paid to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun). Attention on the opposition movement has been particularly heavy and skewed in the United States where pundits from both the left and the right breathlessly claim that the Brotherhood is poised to take over Egypt in a repeat of what happened in 1979-1980 in Iran and erroneously tie the Egyptian movement to Usama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda Central. Much of this analysis is based on fallacies and conjecture rather than fact.

The claim that al-Qaeda emerged seamlessly from the Brotherhood is the most egregious claim that has been made. Pundits who make this claim point to former members of the movement such as al-Qaeda’s deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj who founded militant jihadi-takfiri groups that declared Muslims with whom they disagreed to be apostates. A fact that it usually left out is that these individuals left the Brotherhood after it swore off the use of violence to achieve its ends. Al-Zawahiri, who had been an Brotherhood activist at age 14, was particularly bitter about the movement’s “betrayal” of “Islamic principles” and in the 1990s he wrote a lengthy monograph harshly criticizing it entitled The Bitter Harvest: The Muslim Brotherhood in 60 Years. For its part, the Brotherhood frequently condemns al-Qaeda in its public statements and positions.

The ghost of Sayyid Qutb, perhaps the Brotherhood’s most well-known member, is another recurring connection used to paint the movement as inherently militant and radical. The Egyptian litterateur-turned-Islamist revolutionary ideologue was imprisoned for a decade by Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir’s government and eventually executed by it in 1966. Journalists and pundits looking for an easy answer to the “root causes” of jihadi-takfiri groups such as al-Qaeda frequently point to Qutb and the medieval Hanbali Sunni jurist Ibn Taymiyya. Although Qutb was clearly a revolutionary and radical thinker and the Brotherhood’s position toward him has been ambiguous in many ways, past analysis of Qutb and his thought have been based on, at best, a shallow reading of a fraction of his many writings.

John Calvert, a professor of Middle East history, has written what will become the standard scholarly study of Qutb, Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism. Rather than study only one segment of Qutb’s life and thought, Calvert examines his entire life and tracks the evolution of his thought. Calvert points to the ambiguity of much of Qutb’s writings as one of the causes for their use by extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and Egypt’s al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group), the latter of which has since renounced violence. Far from being an apologia for Qutb, Calvert’s book takes a holistic approach to examining Qutb’s life and thought. He and other scholars also point out that Hasan al-Hudaybi, the “general guide” of the Brotherhood during Qutb’s lifetime, wrote an influential book entitled Preachers, Not Judges in which he was critical of many of Qutb’s ideas. Ultimately, though Qutb was certainly a radical, revolutionary Islamist thinker his ideas alone did not create al-Qaeda and like-minded groups. As Calvert shows, many of these groups actually take positions that are contradictory to what Qutb was arguing. Al-Qaeda is instead best seen as a group that has taken selectively from a myriad of different sources, including Qutb and Ibn Taymiyya, and combined them with positions espoused by ideologues such as al-Zawahiri to create a new, hybrid ideology.

Longtime scholars of the Brotherhood have cast doubts on exaggerated claims that the movement will be swept into power in a post-Mubarak/post-authoritarian Egypt. In fact, many doubt that the movement has the power to take over the entire country even if it wanted to. The Brotherhood, though the oldest and arguably best organized opposition group in the country, currently suffers from a number of ills. First, it is beset with a generation gap between the older generation of leaders, such as the current general guide Muhammad Badi‘a, and a younger generation that has sought to change the movement’s policies on a host of issues including the role of women in leadership positions and Coptic Christians. The Brotherhood is in fact no longer the dominant force that it was in the past. As a movement it has lost a lot of credibility in recent years after allowing itself to be co-opted by the Mubarak government says Khalid Medani, a professor of political science and Islamic studies at McGill University who has conducted extensive field work in Egypt including interviews with the movement’s members representing various veins of thought within it. Despite remaining the country’s largest formally organized opposition group the Brotherhood is failing to attract many new members, he says.

Although it eventually decided to participate in the January 25 demonstrations in Egypt the Brotherhood only announced its decision two days before. Its endorsement was also far from enthusiastic. Following the unprecedented size and staying power of the mass popular demonstrations against the Mubarak’s authoritarian government, the Brotherhood took a much more proactive approach in supporting the demonstrators. To date it has released eight official statements, including three signed by Badi‘a. In them the movement has been careful to not claim leadership of the demonstrations and instead says that it is simply one party among many that make up the opposition. Observers on the ground have noted that the Brotherhood is not the most visible or powerful voice represented among the hundreds of thousands to millions of demonstrators who have defied government curfews and violence to continue calling for their civil and human rights.

The Brotherhood has joined other opposition groups and demonstrators in calling for the resignation of Mubarak, the abolition of the “emergency law” that has been in place since 1981 when Mubarak came to power, the holding of new elections that are actually free and fair, the release of all political prisoners, substantial amendment of the constitution, and the prosecution of government officials who have ordered the use of violence against the demonstrators. The movement has also been careful to explain its decision to enter into cautious talks with the government, which is increasingly under the public direction of Vice President Suleiman. Thus far, the Brotherhood remains unconvinced by the government’s claims that it is trying to address the popular will of the Egyptian people.

Although it is far from being a force for social or political liberalism, certainly of the kind that is desired by progressives in the U.S. and Europe, the Brotherhood is also not the all-powerful Islamist bogeyman and twin sister of al-Qaeda that it is often portrayed as. Facing its own internal divisions and problems of legitimacy among the Egyptian public, the Brotherhood is unlikely to be able to “seize control” of the country even if it wanted to. Its internal problems are recognized by no one more clearly than by the Brotherhood itself, which has been careful not to further alienate the Egyptian people who have collectively led the popular uprising against authoritarianism that continues to defy an aging autocrat’s decrees even in the face of extreme state violence.

Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University.

Posted in Egypt | 30 Responses | Print |

30 Responses

  1. I was wondering if you could make a post on Ghaddafi’s Libya? No news network or paper seems to mention the slightest thing about Libya even though it has Tunis on one side and Egypt on the other. Presumably the unrest in Tunis and Egypt has had some kind of effect in Libya? Are you able to shed any light on this?

    • The Libyans are well asleep and it seems nothing will affect them. Probably all the nations in earth will colonize the universe and depart to new galaxies, while the Libyans remain unaffected. Their leader passed a new law stating whoever burns themselves to death as result of protesting will be sentensed to 5 years in prison!

      • “The Libyans are well asleep and it seems nothing will affect them.”?

        Check your news feed. LOL

  2. David Duke was/is Klan and a Republican so that makes all Republicans Republiklans? Of course not. Well maybe this isn’t a good example of guilt by association.

  3. One of the biggest questions I get thrown at is the Muslim Brotherhood is anti-West and anti-Israel. What is the truth behind that? Every article I read talking about the myths of the Muslim Brotherhood neglects to mention this. What is the best response to observations like that? How come no one is addressing it? Thanks!

  4. If the Brotherhood is de-demonized, can Hamas be far behind? One of the primary charges in the demonization of Hamas is the claim that it’s a “branch of the (evil terrorist) Muslim Brotherhood.

    Or is it more likely that the connection will be used to continue the demonization of the Brotherhood as linked to the (evil terrorist) Hamas.

    Or is it more likely that the Brotherhood will throw Hamas and the Palestinians under the bus to promote their own interests in Egyptian liberty?

  5. if they played right they could be potential EU members–if that’s what they might want. really up to egypt.

  6. Today on MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell’s program she had Aayan Hirsi on to pound on the Muslim Brotherhood.

    Also taking note that Andrea Mitchell, Richard Engel, former Clinton State Dept Spokesperson Jamie Rubin doing everything they can to undermine El Baadei.

    Heard David Gregory go after El Baradei on Meet the Press this past Sunday.

    They are terrified of this man’s honorable stance on the false intelligence in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, his willingness to call Israel’s unwillingness to sign the NPT and the ongoing expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank and E Jerusalem.

    Umm when was the last time (cough) you have ever heard Richard Engel broadcasting from the middle of a Palestinian protest, from an illegal settlement or a Palestinian refugee camp. Rachel Maddow silent on all of this as well as the Goldstone Report…

  7. Would Suleiman, his Cabinet of army officers and the army brass take kindly to a reform government that includes the MB?
    No way.
    If the protesters can’t be split into ineffective groups in the near future the coup/crackdown will be vicious.

  8. Paranoia and ignorance of the inside politics of other countries is the chief cause of today’s chaos in the Middle East and the rest of the world.

    • Here I sit in Ohio. And I agree for the most part. If the U.S. would’ve just kept their asses out of everyones bussiness, and had they been taking care or domestic affairs the world would be a happier place to live. Just “try” not to hold it against all of us.

  9. Can anyone please answer this question: One of the biggest questions I get thrown at is the Muslim Brotherhood is anti-West and anti-Israel. What is the truth behind that? Every article I read talking about the myths of the Muslim Brotherhood neglects to mention this. What is the best response to observations like that? How come no one is addressing it? Thanks!

    Some helpful suggestions would be great. No false equivalencies would be great … and I mean this with all sincerity.

    • @CTRENTA

      Muslims usually resent Israel and the West because of the way they are opressing them and forcing their ideologies and policies in the Middle East.

      As a Muslim, I deeply resent Israel but because it is killing my brothers and sisters. They have no care for human life. The fact that the west supports Israel is what further angers people.

      The word “Jihad” or “Jihadi” which the west uses to justify its war against Muslims isnt even a military movement. It’s an inner struggle. Jihad is the ability to conquer the self. And in the physical sense, the jihad which uses arms is only meant to be utilized in a Self Defence context. That is, I am only allowed to hit you if you hit me and if I hit you first then I am in the wrong. The west and Israel have got it all wrong and their population doesnt even care because the Media paints Islam as being “Radical”, “Fundamental” etc.

      The Muslim Brotherhood I believe would have a problem with the opression or killing of Muslims in other countries by Non-Muslims for no reason.

      As a rule, Muslims are forbidden from not dealing in a peaceful manner with their Human counterparts. Muslims have a responsibility to treat people well.

      I know I haven’t answered your question but I hope it has given you an insight into the Muslims way of thinking.

    • Ctrenta – perhaps this article will help: link to

      Although this doesn’t go into a huge amount of detail about the brotherhood’s views on the west/israel.

      i think really though, it’s fairly obvious that they take a critical view of western capitalist societies which they see as permissive and immoral.

      this article mentions changing attitudes on women etc though.

      israel – they obviously dislike israel (i suppose many secular egyptians do as well – since the various wars and israel being an extension of us/eu power in the region).

      the idea though that this would all equal a new islamic republic is probably wide of the mark. Look at the protesters – they do not look to Iran – they are demonstrating for freedom. The MB will be a significant but not omnipotent player in post-Mubarak politics.

    • @ mina @ just passing through and @rev9

      Thank you SO MUCH for responding to my concern. As an American, this is what I have to put up with when dealing with Arab culture and politics and any political organization dealing with Islam. You can’t explain the accurate realities of the MB without getting the Israel card thrown at you persistently.

      This is what comments are about: helping each other with valuable information. Thanks for your help. Peace!

  10. Ctrenta:

    Your question is not very well formed. What’s being anti-West, or anti-Israel? Is it a bad thing.

    It is both perfectly legitimate and to be expected that political groups connected to grassroots in regions structurally exploited by western imperialism (including Israel) reject those forces and their relationships with them. For over a century at least the people of the Middle East have suffered as a direct result of British, French, US and Israeli colonial and neo-colonial interests. Indeed were it not for these the corrupt autocrats such as Mubarek could not survive.

    So yes, the Muslim Brotherhood gather much of their support on the back of their broadly-defined anti-imperialism and anti-zionism. Again, this is both proper and to be expected. However, the MB are not so radical and independent that if they were put into power they could sustain their imputed anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism. They likely would be pulled towards tacit support for imperial power (witness the Islamist party that is in government in Turkey – despite all the semi-racist assumptions about Muslims, their formal ideological tradition was no bar to them introducing neo-liberal policies, support the war in Iraq and forging a close relationship with Israel, despite the massacre at high seas last summer).

    The undertone to your question, I assume, is that anti-imperialism and anti-zionism are irrational positions driven by cultural hatred of other peoples (in the west), and perhaps even anti-semitism. This is such a distorted starting position that it’s hard to engage with. It should be obvious that opposition born in opposition to structural systems of oppression, dispossession and exploitation are radically different to reactionary rejections of human difference in the pursuit of power and privilege. The Muslim Brotherhood imperfectly are informed by the former dynamic, but are of course held back by various social forces that support them and ambiguous ideology. That’s why only a truly democratic and popular movement, driven by the working class, civil society and the rural poor, can overturn the regime and oppose imperialism – but this must of course work with those whose various politics are informed by faith.

    • The Brotherhood’s literature going back to the 1930s is full of anti-Semitic themes of the ugliest sort. And, their anti-Westernism is not just anti-imperialism but contains many irrational, reactionary elements.

      • Well that was the 1930’s, it’s 2011 now and things have moved on. To put into context read some american literature from the same period, or german, or french, or english which you will no doubt find riddled with racism, sexism etc.

  11. Do not be deceived by the Muslim Brotherhood’s propaganda campaign to come off as a nonthreatening and democratic movement.

    Let’s consider those claims in light of the words of Mustafa Mashhur, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt from 1996-2002, which you can find here.

    – “It should be known that Jihad and preparation towards Jihad are not only for the purpose of fending-off assaults and attacks of Allah’s enemies from Muslims, but are also for the purpose of realizing the great task of establishing an Islamic state and strengthening the religion and spreading it around the world…”
    – “…Jihad for Allah is not limited to the specific region of the Islamic countries, since the Muslim homeland is one and is not divided, and the banner of Jihad has already been raised in some of its parts, and it shall continue to be raised, with the help of Allah, until every inch of the land of Islam will be liberated, the State of Islam will be established,…”

    -“Then comes the power of arms and weapons,… and this is the role of Jihad.”

    – “Prepare yourself and train in the art of warfare, and embrace the causes of power. You must learn the ways and manners and laws of war. You must learn them and embrace them and adhere to them, so that your Jihad will be the one accepted by Allah.”

    – “Allah is our goal, the Prophet is our leader, the Quran is our constitution, the Jihad is our way, and the Death for Allah is our most exalted wish.”

    – “The Jihad is our way and death for Allah is our most lofty wish”, this is the call which we have always called,… Many of our beloved ones have already achieved this wish,… We ask Allah to accept all of them,… and may He join us with them, …”

    One current MB leader has already called on the Egyptians to train for the coming war against Israel. Another said imposition of Sharia law is not their ‘immediate goal’…which of course means it is their ultimate goal. A legal code in which women and nonMuslims are treated as 2nd class citizens.

    Personally, I could care less what happens to Israel. But I do care abotu what will happen to those in Egypt of the religious minority and those believing in secular liberal values of democracy, free speech, and free assembly if (when?) the MB gains control of the rains of Egypt. Their goal is an Islamic Republic governed strongly by repressive and in some cases barbaric Sharia law.

    To Mina
    “The Muslim Brotherhood I believe would have a problem with the opression or killing of Muslims in other countries by Non-Muslims for no reason.”

    Their reason, as evidence by the words of Mustafa Mushhur, is to impose an Islamic state on others.

    “As a rule, Muslims are forbidden from not dealing in a peaceful manner with their Human counterparts. Muslims have a responsibility to treat people well.”

    Do these Muslims include those who blow up and terrorize Coptic Churches? Those who beat Ahmadis and Christians to death this past week in Indonesia? Those who killed dozens in Pakistan in suicide attacks the past several days? Those who cheered the assassination of Salmeen Taseer for daring to call for an end to barbaric blasphemy laws?

    Unfortunately, if your analysis of Islam is correct there are great many of misunderstanders of Islam out there.

    • You claim that Shariah law is barbaric and treats women and non-muslims as second class citizens – where is your incontrovertible proof to back up these claims. Unfortunately, it seems that you have fallen victim to the propaganda of America and the West that resort to lies and subterfuge to defile Islam and Muslims in order to justify their imperialistic endeavours in Muslim lands.

      This may come as a shock to you but there are currently no Islamic countries. The Islamic state was abolished in 1924 by mustapha kamal and replaced by nationalist, secular, Muslim majority governments which have adopted parts of Islamic Shariah in their constitution. This transition from Islam to nation states and monarchies was done under the observation of both the British/French occupiers who decided they would relinquish control over their colonies and grant them freedom.

      Have you taken the time to study the history of Islam and the Islamic governmental state that prevailed from the 7th century to the 1920s. To your surprise you will find that during this period, there were epochs where the Islamic civilization was the most progressive in the world and at the forefront of scientific and technological advancement.

      It was Islam that liberated and raised the status of women as equals to men. It was Islam that that restored the dignity of women and recognized her inalienable right to own assets in her name. It was only in the late 19th century that the West moved away from the nefarious practices of denigrating women as sub-human and preventing her from ownership of assets.

      During the middle ages when the Jews were being persecuted by the Church it was Muslims who provided them refuge from the tyranny that were subjected to. When the Muslims ruled over the Holy Land through the caliphate system, people of all religious denominations were treated with respect and dignity in line with the command of the following Qur’anic verse:

      “God does not forbid you, with regard to those who fight you not for
      (your) faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and
      justly with them: for God loves those who are just”

      It is the economic principles laid down by Shariah law, principles oriented around true economic justice, that is the ultimate solution to the economic woes that disease the world currently. It is these elements of justice as well as the justice espoused by Shariah with respect to the other spheres of human endeavour including the social, political, personal and spiritual spheres that the Western powers truly fear hence their perennial demonization of Islam.

      I hope the entire world awaken from their slumber and avoid succumbing to the false reality that is being perpetuated by the West and their stooges. Islam is the ultimate solution to a meaningful existence during our temporal existence in the earthly domain.

  12. Excellent piece but is falling on deaf ears. The american media is falling over its self to promote the Muslim Brotherhood myth for corporate ownership reasons and fear mongering for aipac and the right. If the American corporations had to disclose their involvement with with Egypt dictator –People would be as angry as they are with Wall Street!

  13. Interesting Reading with assumptions being made regarding MB understanding of Islam and its jurisprudence. Understanding Islam should be required reading to appreciate Islam’s teachings. The fact that some Muslims got it wrong shouldn’t demonise Islam. Do we judge Christianity by the extreme acts of some Christians or for that matter Jews? In any event, demonising Islam serves to detract from the evil of the demonisers. Do we judge Islam by Mubarak’s oppression of Egyptians – his first name is Mohammed so he must be muslim, right? America’s call for free and fair elections should be hailed but how does one take them seriously when they quite happily supported a dictator – whose first name is Mohammed? Understanding this
    hypocrisy will enable one to understand the onslaught and remember, history is written by the victors. In any event, Egyptians rebelled against tyranny, poverty and lack of public health, factors that are prevalent in democracies as well. So, it would appear that democracy is an interpretation. Far to often, we as órdinary’ people judge according to our morality, whereas morality is not the primary focus of politicians.

  14. Estimado Juan:

    I would love to be able to help share this type of critical thinking information about the Egyptian political landscape, but for my particular purposes right now in trying to support the struggle taking place in Egypt, I could use something with a little more on what the Brotherhood’s present political and economic ideology is. Does it have a position on neoliberalism, for instance…What are some of the other significant economically progressive, if not outright revolutionary forces there? Know of any such pieces?



  15. Thanks for the insightful article on the Muslim Brotherhood.
    Like most Americans, I initially accepted the American media’s tacit portrayal of the MB as a radical, dangerous force in middle east politics.
    After discussing it with my son, it became apperant to us that the behavior of the MB that we could see in Egypt was far to inclusive of other factions in the uprising to be the radical organization feared by citizens in the west.
    Your article clarified it’s actual place in the events we have witnessed.
    I consider myself a rational student of world events. It is somewhat disconcerting to me that I fall into acceptance of the often stereotypical media presentations of world events available in News services available to me.
    I discovered Al Jezeera when I sought them out to see what I expected to be a mirror image (opposite and equally biased) of Fox News. I was plesantly surprised to find news about world events, rather than the biased commentary that increasingly defines American News media.
    Thanks again.

  16. In my eyes, the Brotherhood is taking up something like the stance of the Haredim in Israel now.
    Most of you argue that they don´t represent the will of the majority of the Egyptian people, therefore, they don´t intend to do so e.g. by trying to be part of the future government. (All they said about this subject so far was indeed very reserved.)
    If one thing is true, the other certainly is wise, especially when you consider that in their eyes, their legitimacy comes from God alone (so they´re not entitled to go for compromises!). I could imagine they haven´t shaken off Hama and 30 years of oppression in Egypt yet.
    Still, if we come to the conclusion that the brotherhood acts careful and considerate at the moment and certainly wouldn´t impose Sharia law tomorrow even if they had the power to:

    we should carefully evaluate the implications of accepting ANY political element into ANY society that claims to receive its orders directly from high above. In my opinion, the real challenge is allowing them to lead their discussions about certain kinds of racism and injustice being justifiable, yet strictly banning it away from courts and public opinion. The Haredim in Israel are not exactly grateful, undemanding and quiet about all their extra rights. Who would welcome a Jehova´s witness political party into any Western country?

  17. This article is VERY vague about the distinction between the Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations. The only clear point it makes is that the Brotherhood is too small to seize power. To show exactly HOW the Brotherhood is different from other Islamist organizations it should give specific examples.

  18. It’s actually not very vague. Zawahiri and other militant Islamists had to leave the Brotherhood in order to carry out their campaigns of violence, as the piece points out.

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