On Tuesday, the White House press secretary confirmed that the Trump administration intends to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. The move is popular among the hawks of U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy team, but they weren’t the source of the administration’s decision. That honor belongs to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, an authoritarian ruler who came to power by deposing a democratically elected leader – from none other than the Muslim Brotherhood – in a military coup in 2013. The United States has been at war in the Muslim world for almost two decades, and if the White House statement indicates anything, it’s that Washington is no closer to understanding the region today than it was on Sept. 12, 2001. If it were, it would know that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a terrorist group – and that designating it as such only encourages it to become one.
In fairness, the Muslim Brotherhood is difficult to pin down. Originally an anti-colonial movement founded in Egypt in 1928, the group was one of the first formal attempts by an organized and explicitly Muslim organization to define a new relationship between traditional Islamic values and Western political thought. It’s hardly a coincidence that it formed just six years after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which the group rejected in favor of European-style nationalism.
And though the Muslim Brotherhood began as a distinctly Egyptian phenomenon, eschewing past notions of a universal Islamic caliphate for the formation of an Egyptian nation-state that would embrace Islamic religious values without being solely defined by them, it has since spread to several other countries – not as a transnational organization with a unified goal but as an umbrella organization with distinct national chapters, each with its own challenges and goals. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed by Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1954. He had accused the Brotherhood of attempting to topple his government – in truth, Nasser, who had used the popular support of the Brotherhood to grab power in the first place, was not afraid of Brotherhood plots so much as he was of the group’s potential widespread appeal to Egyptian society. (Just like el-Sissi is today.)
Nasser’s subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood radicalized many of its members. Some of the earliest Islamic fundamentalist leaders of the 1960s – including one of Osama bin Laden’s personal favorites, Sayyid Qutb – now disenchanted with their former group and disaffected of the political realities of the time began to articulate a new and more violent ideology. In their eyes, the Muslim Brotherhood was full of sellouts, seduced as they were by Western political ideals.
That’s not to say groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State emerged solely because of the split in the Muslim Brotherhood. But it was the fertile ground in which radical Islamist groups began to grow. Arab nationalism proved to be little more than a veneer for Soviet-leaning dictatorship. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which were biding their time for when democratic government could bring them and their high-minded ideals to power, were seen by the young jihadists as idealistic, elitist intellectuals, content to suffer too much and for too long to transform Islamic political life. This speaks to why the U.S. has struggled to find moderates in the Muslim world to partner with. It’s not because they don’t exist; it’s because the U.S. doesn’t understand that Muslim Brotherhood groups of the Middle East are, by and large, the moderates.
That’s not always the case, of course. Hamas, a direct offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the Palestinian territories, has repeatedly committed acts of terrorism to achieve its political goals – namely, destroying Israel and constructing an Islamic Palestinian state. But even here the story is more complicated. Hamas, after all, emerged with the covert support of Israel, which saw the group as a tool it could use to balance against the Palestine Liberation Organization. Hamas has also, notably, demonstrated a desire to evolve into something more than a militant group. It participated in Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, and it revised its charter in 2017 to try to open a more pragmatic basis for dealing with Israel. Other Muslim Brotherhood chapters, like those in Syria and Jordan, are fairly benign.
It’s no surprise, then, that U.S. policy toward the Muslim Brotherhood is so confused. When a majority of Palestinians voted for a Hamas politician to be their prime minister in free and open elections in 2006, the U.S. responded by declaring the elections illegitimate. When the Egyptian military removed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi from the presidency in 2013, the Obama administration refused to call it a coup because U.S. law at the time dictated that any country whose head of state was deposed by coup could not receive U.S. aid – an obvious wrinkle for a country that provides Egypt with about $1.3 billion every year, thanks to the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Muslims submit policies such as these as evidence of U.S. hypocrisy, feedstock for the very radicalization that impelled jihadists to break away from the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s.
What the United States – and indeed much of the West – fails to acknowledge is that the Islamic world only recently underwent the painful initiation rites of democratic transition. Europe erupted in religious violence during the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, pitting Catholics and Protestants against each other in a conflict whose destruction and brutality is hard to overstate. That was over 400 years ago. As war raged in Europe, the Muslim world, especially the parts governed by the Ottoman Empire, were only just beginning a slow decline that within two centuries would make it into a political and cultural backwater with little experience of modern political ideas or institutions until Europeans brought and imposed those institutions on them. Today, any number of Malaysians, Egyptians or Iranians value their nationalities as much as they value their faith. The problem is that, compared to most Western states, they have much less experience at finding a balance between the two.
Turkey is a case in point. There, the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is a proudly Islamic political party, having been heavily influenced by the original Muslim Brotherhood. And yet, despite the fact that the AKP has been in power since 2002 – and despite the fact that it enjoys more popular support from religious Muslims than other Turkish political parties – Turks mostly don’t want to see Islam define their political lives. A 2015 Pew survey found that just 12 percent of Muslim Turks would favor making Sharia – Islamic religious law – the official legal code of their country. (Compare that to 91 percent of Iraqis or 86 percent of Malaysians.) A 2016 Pew study found that only 13 percent of Muslim Turks thought Turkish laws should strictly follow the Quran – compared to 97 percent of Pakistani Muslims.
So why, then, did a spokesman for the ruling party criticize the United States shortly after news broke that it was considering labeling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization? It’s not because it’s a radical Islamic organization standing in solidarity with its peers. It’s not because it supports the brands of jihad that cut off the heads of infidels. (Imagine if Washington designated the Turkish government as a terrorist organization!) It’s not because groups such as the AKP and the Muslim Brotherhood want to put burqas on every woman and govern as fascist religious dictators. It’s because they want to find a balance between secular governance and private freedom to worship – to restore a modicum of pride to a religion that fell embarrassingly behind other world civilizations and as a result was conquered and humiliated by centuries of foreign invaders.
This is something the United States should be well-equipped to understand. The U.S. is a secular country – but one where religious holidays like Easter and Christmas define the rhythm of the year, and where religious institutions are richly woven into the fabric of society. It took Western-style democracies hundreds of years of bloodshed and trial-and-error to arrive at this balance, and yet the Muslim attempt to find this balance in their own societies is often called “terrorism.”
Sunnis Are Not Shiite
A final word has to be said about the elephant in the room: Iran, whose elite military branch, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was recently designated a terrorist organization by the Trump administration. Say what you will about the wisdom and efficacy of isolating Iran – I’m on record as saying it isn’t especially wise or effective – the IRGC has done far more to earn this designation than the Muslim Brotherhood. It is present in foreign countries, has armed foreign militants, and bankrolled international terrorist proxies for generations. The Brotherhood has done none of this, and yet, there is a narrative emerging that the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran are actually in league with one another, and that if the IRGC is a terrorist group, so too is the Muslim Brotherhood.
This reflects an even more profound misunderstanding of the Muslim world. Iran is Persian and Shiite. The Muslim Brotherhood is, by and large, Arab and Sunni. The struggle between these two sects has raged off-and-on for almost 1,400 years, dating back to a disagreement on the line of succession after Muhammad’s death. The lion has not laid down with the lamb; the sword has not been beaten to a plowshare; pigs do not have wings; and Sunnis and Shiites are not suddenly on the same team. The Muslim Brotherhood has long eschewed Iran’s example precisely because its adherents do not want to come to power via revolution, as the ayatollahs in Iran did, but through what they see as legitimate political means – namely, democratic elections. Even Hamas, arguably the most radical of the Muslim Brotherhood offshoots, and one which has accepted money and weapons from Iran when it suits its purposes, does not subscribe to the IRGC’s existential purpose – to guard the Islamic Revolution.
The United States, however, seems to think that the Muslim Brotherhood in general – and the Egyptian incarnation of it specifically – is a terrorist organization. The last time the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed and driven underground by a Soviet-backed Egyptian strongman, a faction broke off and produced the raw material that eventually became al-Qaida. Now, a U.S.-backed Egyptian strongman seems ready to complete his own crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, and the U.S. is supporting him because it does not understand what the Muslim Brotherhood is, and is unwilling to confront what it chooses to ignore – that its strongest allies in the Arab world are dictators propped up, by any Western standard, by illegitimate means. The world reaps what is sown and the chickens always come home to roost. It will be no different this time. Designating the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group is not only ineffective and misguided policy – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.