In a recent webinar on the Muslim Brotherhood, I was asked to speak about the future of this organisation nearly nine decades after its birth. Naturally, I focused on the Muslim Brotherhood’s origins and ideological formation before turning to how it interacted with the Arab Spring upheavals that led to civil warfare and strife, collapsed states and other disasters during the past 10 years.
There are any number of ideological, social and economic perspectives from which to broach this subject. I chose the political because, as important as the other perspectives are in shedding light on the Muslim Brotherhood, when all is said and done the movement is a consummately political phenomenon.
It is a totalitarian movement with the ideological and organisational traits that put it in a class with Nazism, fascism and communism and their diverse organisational manifestations.
What these movements all have in common, despite their divergent philosophical roots, from the epistemological to the eschatological, is their utopianism and their pursuit of glory: to revive the glory of a nation, to secure a ticket to glory in paradise or to create a glorious paradise on earth.
All these movements reduce the value of the individual human being to a quantity of faith in the creed and obedience to dogma. There is no room for the individual or for the forces of creativity and innovation in the service of the betterment of society and the world around us.
These totalitarian movements are also very resilient. They may dwindle and fade, but they do not die. They are forever able to re-emerge and impose themselves in some way or another. In addition to being strictly dogmatic, they are also rigidly hierarchical and they have a working plan for every phase of their development, or the evolution of society as they envision it.
Communism may have met defeat in the Cold War but it survives in the form of the Chinese, Vietnamese and North Korean communist parties. The only difference now is that these countries have delinked totalitarian control from modes of production while retaining indirect control over the free market and the movement of everything that comes in or goes out.
Nazism and fascism were defeated in World War II, but they have reared their heads again in the ideas of the ultra-right in the US and Europe and, on occasion, in concrete political manifestations. The Muslim Brotherhood is no exception. Its philosophy has roots in ancient Kharijite outlooks on the source of authority in the state. The Muslim Brotherhood has a tightly knit hierarchy and a pre-established plan for the envisioned stages of its evolution.
Ideologies can survive through transmission from one generation to the next as long as there are scholars and the means to preserve texts and sources. However, it is the organisation that ultimately disseminates the ideas in systematic ways.
This was the contribution that Hassan Al-Banna made when he founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 and gave an organisational embodiment to fundamentalist and totalitarian ideas that have no compunction about shedding blood on the path to fulfillment.
Central to Muslim Brotherhood ideology and practices is the organisation’s relative position of strength or weakness on its road to “empowerment”, a concept that has a direct bearing on the political and military balances of power in state and society. Translated into practical terms, the Muslim Brotherhood developed early on a modus operandi that enabled it to accommodate to the monarchic, Nasserist and parliamentary systems of government in Egypt.
This pragmatism, in turn, gave rise to numerous inconsistencies. At one point, Muslim Brotherhood ideologues would rail against multiparty democracy because it “divides the ummah”. At the next they would insist that the ballot box was the ultimate arbiter.
Nowadays, the Muslim Brotherhood casts itself, in the West at least, as a moderate group that believes in the brotherhood of mankind and subscribes to liberal and democratic values. Not that long ago, when it felt that “empowerment” was in its grasp, it had no compunction about using violence and terrorism to secure it.
Today, the Muslim Brotherhood manifests itself politically through its control of mosques and Islamic centres and institutions in the West and its confrontations with the governments of Arab states that were spared the upheavals of the Arab Spring or that, like Egypt, withstood the onslaught. It is represented politically by the government of Turkey and a majority of parliamentary representatives in Tunisia, and it has influential presences in Jordan and Morocco while in Sudan it is jockeying to contain its decline since the fall of the Omar Al-Bashir regime.
The international Muslim Brotherhood, which has a presence in more than 80 countries, does not intervene in the affairs of local chapters. However, it remains the incubator for Muslim Brotherhood members and for all shades of radical Islam.
It is also determined to retain the power to martial and mobilise financial resources through a worldwide network of banks and businesses. Large amounts of these financial resources are channelled into the Muslim Brotherhood propaganda machinery which the organisation keeps primed and at the ready to disseminate its calling and its strategies for seizing political power.
Despite the many major defeats and setbacks the Muslim Brotherhood has sustained at the level of the Arab and Islamic worlds, it is clear that it is still very much alive. It has found refuge in the West and it enjoys the active support of Turkey and Qatar which have lent themselves as safe havens for terrorists and their propaganda machinery and operational headquarters.
Three general strategies have been brought to bear in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood phenomenon. One is to try to eliminate it through military and security operations on the grounds that it is an underground organisation that should be regarded as a form of organised crime. The second has been to try to contain it by assimilating it into the political process.
This is the option favoured by Western nations and that is applied in Tunisia and Morocco. The third and most recent approach has been to prompt a “renovation of religious discourse” so as to reinvigorate the Islamic values of tolerance and moderation and dry up the ideological soil for recruitment and indoctrination into the Muslim Brotherhood and its terrorist offshoots.
What we should add here is the need to “renovate secular thought” or to initiate a new phase in the “Arab liberal awakening” thereby advancing the concept of the democratic state of all its citizens over the theocratic state, the pursuit of progress over the pursuit of instant salvation, and the practice of science over quackery and superstition.
The nation state emerges at a point in history when a people and a culture within a specific geographical area with stable boundaries establish themselves as a national polity. Progress is a dynamic state in which societies evolve from agricultural to industrial revolutions to post-industrial and IT revolutions and so on up the ladder of better conditions of life. Science is the elevation of the human intellect, its powers of rational thought, discovery and innovation, and the will to conquer the unknown rather than to surrender to darkness and ignorance.
The drive to renovation and reform is one of the Arabs’ constructive reactions to the wave of conflict and decline that began to afflict the region in 2010. The results of this drive have been remarkable in the many Arab countries that instituted the radical changes needed to stimulate archaeological discoveries and historic self-awareness, educational reform and modernisation, and scientific and technological progress.
Most of these efforts took place through various forms of collaboration within the framework of the nation state and a collective resistance to the disintegrative influences of the Muslim Brotherhood. But this organisation has not yet met its demise.
It retains a high degree of manoeuverability due to its ability to shift its activities between many countries, to recalibrate its strategies on the basis of its degree of “empowerment”, to balance centralised control with the decentralised powers relegated to its branches and, above all, to take advantage of changing regional and international circumstances.
Fighting the Muslim Brotherhood in the coming phase will require greater regional and international cooperation in order to contend with the latest changes in the Muslim Brotherhood and other terrorist groups.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly