Friday, February 18, 2011

More Thoughts on the Muslim Brotherhood

Right Wing News has a post entitled Muslim Brotherhood Plans To Form Political Party In Egypt. I wrote the thoughts below down for a fledgling article last year:

Is an Illegal MB a Cocoon for Hatching Extremists or Terrorists?

So the question must be asked. With MB Islamists, is the lure of activism tending to extralegal activity a feature or a bug? To use a far-fetched analogy, were the Christian Democrats of Germany outlawed as a religious party, would their impassioned advocates revert to Nazi-type extremism or a fifth column for the Vatican? Is the Kulturkampf implicit in MB’s dual status as a religious movement and a political party susceptible to employing democratic means to attain power, only to reject democratic processes once in power?

My thesis is that as long as they are illegal, relatively peaceful movements like the now-international Egyptian Brotherhood [“Islamintern”] will continue to serve as an underground nursery, even against the will of their leadership and vast majority of members, for germinating more radical and terror-minded zealots who may eventually migrate to underground organizations like Al Jihad and Al Qaeda [Al J/Q] or set up little shops of horror on their own. The difference in the beliefs in Jihad between the original MB and its offshoots like Al J/Q and other underground terror organizations are very wide and deep. [Rudolph Peters, pp. 164-5] Their differences also separated the Brotherhood “Islamintern” systems from the Al-J/Q dramatically in the view of the rest of the Arab world. [Kepel, p. 226]

Although to this day, the Egyptian MB, with its new and very low-key moderate “supreme guide” announced in January of 2010, remains one of the Arab world’s most influential movements, it has remained banned from functioning officially as a political party in Egypt since 1954. As a sort of “Islamintern,” the Egypt-based moderate MB has an allure for foreign observers and diplomats. Washington has long had a persistent cadre of Arabists who maintain that strong pressure must be put on the secular Egyptian government to allow at least a minimal legal position for MB in the domestic political firmament. In the past, the banning has been partly remedied by Mubarak’s political operatives’ looking the other way as MB surrogates got elected on opposition tickets. But after the debacle of Algeria in 1992, more suppression rather than relaxation has been the rule. The brief relaxation of 2005 saw a heavily constricted MB still gain success at the polls with 88 delegates. This was followed by a rapid crackdown and a constitutional ban in March 2007 on religious parties.

Some background:

After two hundred years of rationalist ideology where ideas held sway and its independence and constitution derived from high principles of government, America is suddenly discovering that the default mode for much of international and domestic politics is religion and ethnicity. “Tribes with flags” in the words of Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Bashir are the result of the failure of humanitarian ideals from 1789 through 1991 and the fall of the USSR. [Ralph Peters, p. 59-60] Gilles Kepel says much the same thing when he rejects the shallow politicized sociology of Marxism in its relegation of religion to a “banner” or a “mask,” a reductionist critical exercise of accenting the social dimensions of religion which he calls “dropping it through the trapdoor of ideology.” [Kepel, p. 225] God may have died at the end of the nineteenth century by Nietzsche’s lights, but He’s resurrected Himself at the end of the twentieth!

Therefore, the overall problem of American accommodation with Islamists is far more complex than mere adjustments in American policy. A total adjustment of attitude and mindset in formulating that policy is also in order. And a willingness to admit that getting into the political ring with some very bad characters and getting American hands dirty in messy little sideshows might be part of the adjustment process, if only in a transition mode. Such as dealing with Hezbollah who killed the Marines in Beirut, for example. How will that go down in proverbial Peoria? Sadat’s assassination in 1981 was portrayed by its perpetrators as a being caused by Camp David, but probably had its proximate causes from Sadat’s unpopularity by putting on airs of a pharaoh as well as to a harsh crackdown on religious and political dissidents only months prior to his assassination. And in a parallel manner, perhaps, the murder of 241 Marines in Beirut by Hezbollah were manifestations of a Syrian/Hezbollah joint operation with control of Lebanon as its larger aim rather than related to Israel, at least as a primary goal. Nowadays, the internet and more recently, the Palestinian staffers at Al Jazeera’s 24/7 TV coverage of news has projected a drumbeat of pounding the Israeli will-of-the-wisp into Arab consciousness daily, making what Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy call “the opium of the Arabs, an intoxicating way for them to forget their own failings, or at least blame them on someone else.” And Israel has long been the pretext used by Arab leaders for maintaining “states of emergency” at home and postponing reform.[Economist, July 23, 2009]. Just when everyone else is leaving the era of ideology, the Arabs in the short term remain mesmerized by past wrongs. India and China and the globalizing Tigers are bursting out of post-colonial cocoons while the Arabs remain in a permanent pity party of irredentist dreams and lost horizons. [Ajami, Dream Palace of the Arabs, p. 204]

Kicking the Can Down the Road? Or The Law of Unintended Consequences?

Any attempt to get the participants out of their hedgehog modes must remember that the Law of Unintended Consequences works overtime in the Middle East. Giving a legal status to an Egyptian MB might further enrage the Israelis, who know that Hamas in Gaza might get more sympathy politically in Egypt were the MB a full-fledged political party. Remember how the idealist urge of Condoleeza’s Rice’s insistence that Hamas participate in the 2006 Palestine Authority elections might be considered a classic example of idealism leading to an unintended consequence. To be fair, her miscalculation followed the Israeli miscalculation in the early ‘80s when they set up Hamas as a Islamist movement to counterbalance the secular PLO and soon lost control of its operations.

Using Iraq as another example of good intentions gone terribly wrong, after post-victory chaos brought about multiple insurrections based on sectarian and ethnic divisions, Wilsonian Constructivist idealism was conveniently unpacked to engage in what G.W. Bush ‘s inner circle had previously derided as “nation-building.” In Iraq, this invasive and intrusive methodology has led to democratization and the liberation of Shi’ite and Kurdish minorities giving what the Islamist Salafi radicals consider a group of heretics, as the Shi’ites actually comprised a demographic majority of Iraqi citizens, effective control over Iraq’s postwar future. The result, a simulacrum of a Shi’ite state that does not please US allies like Saudi Arabia or Jordan.

What would happen to the Brotherhood if the MB compromises?

Moving forward and somewhat sideways, if Obama’s administration were to nudge Egypt to admit MB into the legal political arena, a parallel with George Bush’s constructivist idealism would immediately be noted and perhaps decried by interested observers. The more fervent or zealous MB members might immediately depart for less compromised Islamist political groups. In the past, membership in a formally banned party like the Brotherhood conferred Islamist credibility, so to speak. But after 9/11 it appeared in Egypt that a sort of tectonic shift occurred. Whereas formerly MB membership was a symbolic protest against secularism, now it was suddenly deemed insufficient for full alignment with one’s religious beliefs.

The MB has long been accused of being a bit lukewarm on the religious side of its organizational umbrella. As Albert Hourani noted in his epilogue: “As a political movement, the [Egyptian] Brothers were more like a nationalist movement than Mahdism or Wahhabism: their object was to generate popular energy in order to seize power rather than to restore the rule of Islamic virtue. [Hourani, p. 360] Richard Mitchell describes the charismatic al-Banna’s calling for "a government inspired by religion, not a religious government" skeptically, as the powerful postwar tides of nationalism and secularism overwhelmed Egypt’s somewhat low-key religiosity. Mitchell tended to see the MB in the mid-century light of reactionary elements of Egyptian society left behind by westernization, but also granted them a sort of stunted corporatist role for the fellahin. After a short period of close collaboration with the Free Officer’s Movement, MB irritated the nascent megalomaniac Nasser and was suddenly banned in 1954. Though marginalized politically and formally banned, the MB continued its good works and though outlawed became ironically Egypt’s “only real political party [Ajami, Dream Palace of the Arabs, p.20]” in the thoroughly degraded “democratic” process. And although Egypt tends to punch above its geopolitical weight in the economic and military spheres, as a religious and cultural symbol of the Arab world’s focal energies, the “Gift of the Nile” still bestows lessons across the Arab Umma.

After 9/11 there began “A growing pattern is for Arabs with strong and even extreme religious ideals to eschew long-established political movements, such as the Brotherhood, and devote themselves to personal lives of extreme piety, a phenomenon that has come to be labelled ‘apolitical’ or sometimes ‘scientific’ Salafism.” Like al-Qaeda, the apolitical Salafists adhere to a Utopian vision of Islam mastering the world. But they do not pursue jihad against the West and refrain from attacking the prerogatives or legitimacy of the Arab regimes. They do not form political organizations, yet they are organized: when last year hundreds of people were buried under a rock slide in Cairo, commentators observed that Salafist groups were quicker than the Brotherhood to help the smitten. Extreme social conservatives, obsessed with ritual, purity and often sex, the Salafists are unfriendly to liberal causes such as female emancipation. Moreover, there is reason to wonder how long their present quietism will last. Issandr el Amrani, an independent analyst, calls them “incipiently takfiri”. Like al-Qaeda, in other words, they tend to regard those Muslims whose practice of the faith falls short of their own exacting standards as takfir—unbelievers or even apostates. Experience suggests that this sort of intolerance can all too easily give rise to political violence.” [Economist, July 23, 2009 pp.] Perhaps this is a more devout version of the religious wing of MB, which still is under a religious/political umbrella unlike any other Muslim. What this new manifestation of organized piety might bring is another mystery element in the potentially noxious brew of the religious “great awakening” happening across the Muslim world.

Next post, I am going to look at the variety of American policies in previous administrations toward Islamists & other religious groups.

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