THE British government has learned “much that we did not know” about the Muslim Brotherhood in the course of a two-year investigation which was published in summary this week, according to a statement to Parliament by David Cameron. Among the conclusions the prime minister drew from these brand-new insights: the global fraternity is a “deliberately opaque, habitually secretive” organisation, and “both as an ideology and a network it has been a rite of passage for some individuals and groups who have gone on to engage in violence.” As a result, the government would treat membership of, or influence by, the Muslim Brotherhood as a “possible indicator of extremism”.
Significantly, though, the report did not propose banning the Brotherhood or simply designating it as a terrorist organisation. That may disappoint the governments of Saudi Arabia and, above all, the United Arab Emirates, which had put strong pressure on Britain to investigate and proscribe the Brothers.
The 11-page summary published by the government certainly makes some arresting points, although most of its contents are fairly unsurprising to anyone who is familiar with the history of Islamic politics, and in particular Muslim diaspora politics, over the past century. So if there really were any explosive new insights, they must be reserved for the sections that have not been published.
Still, those familiar facts as laid out in the summary are startling enough, and they help to explain why the Brotherhood poses such a conundrum for Western governments. As the “main findings” recall, the Brotherhood was founded in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna, and right from the beginning it posed a paradox. Its long-term dream was the re-establishment of an Islamic caliphate, living under sharia law. But it was committed to working from the bottom up, by convincing individual Muslims to reform their lives, and fostering social movements which would ultimately serve as building blocks for an Islamic state and society. It was both populist and democratic in its methods and authoritarian in its vision; that unusual combination is often a tell-tale sign of Brotherhood front organisations.
One of the Brotherhood’s greatest ideologues was the Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb, who was executed in 1966. His thinking—and his habit of denouncing Muslims less zealous than himself as takfir or infidels—went on to influence the masters of global terror, such as al-Qaeda. Brotherhood ideologues have strongly condemned al-Qaeda (and at times won Western approval for doing so) but they remain broadly loyal to Qutb, as the report notes.
In a relatively tough judgment, one of the report’s co-authors, Sir John Jenkins, concluded:
For the most part, the Muslim Brotherhood have preferred non-violent incremental change on the grounds of expediency, often on the basis that political opposition will disappear when the process of Islamisation is complete. But they are prepared to countenance violence—including, from time to time, terrorism—where gradualism is ineffective.
But the report’s other co-author, Charles Farr, offered a more lenient view of Brotherhood-inspired groups working in Britain. He found that “such groups had in the past held out the prospect and ambition of an Islamic state in this country as elsewhere” but went on to insist that “there was no indication that the Muslim Brotherhood still held this view or at least openly promoted an Islamic state here.”
That leaves the government (and indeed many Western governments) with a dilemma. It is perpetually keen to find well-organised and well-connected Muslim interlocutors which can serve as a kind of conveyor belt between officialdom and ordinary Muslims. But some of the groups that are best-prepared to respond to the government’s invitation are Brotherhood front organisations, with their pragmatic and “entryist” belief in using all channels available, including community politics and electoral contests. Such organisations invariably say that they respect the rule of law and the democratic political system; these claims are impossible to prove or disprove, given that one can never be sure what a person’s long-term goals are.
Amid the smoke and mirrors of Muslim diaspora politics, it does not make sense to treat all Brotherhood-tinged organisations as though they were little different from al-Qaeda. But it does make sense to treat such organisations warily, given the very high likelihood that they (like many other players in the social arena) are being less than honest about their real aims. Perhaps the publication of this report is a step towards finding that balance.