The Muslim Brotherhood: Understanding its Roots and Impact
With the popular uprising in Egypt, much public attention has been given to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Egypt’s oldest and best organized opposition party. Founded in 1928 by a schoolteacher named Hassan al Banna, the MB is dedicated to imposing Sharia law and reestablishing an Islamic caliphate throughout the Muslim world. Since its inception nearly a century ago, the MB’s creed has been encapsulated in six succinct phrases:
- Allah is our goal. The Prophet is our leader. The Quran is our constitution. Jihad is our way. Death in the service of Allah is the loftiest of our wishes. Allah is great, Allah is great.
- This remains the MB’s creed to this day. Despite the organization’s overt Islamist beliefs and endorsement of violence (jihad), however, some misconceptions about the MB have grown in the West. Namely, some believe that the MB (1) has renounced violence, (2) is opposed to al Qaeda, and (3) is pro-democracy. All three propositions are demonstrably false.
- The purpose of this memo is to summarize just some of the evidence that demonstrates the fallacy of these three arguments.
- Like most human endeavors, the MB is not a monolith. There is dissent and disagreement within the organization. Still, the overarching direction of the MB is clear. The evidence cited in this memo draws largely from the words of the Egyptian MB’s leadership, beginning with al Banna and continuing with the group’s current leaders. In particular, this memo cites the opinions of three of the MB’s recent supreme guides (the group’s top leadership position): Mustafa Mashhur (1996 – 2002), Muhammad Mahdi ‘Akef (2004 – 2010), and Muhammad Badi' (2010 – present). This analysis also draws from a wealth of other evidence, including the words of renowned MB cleric Sheikh Yousef al Qaradawi, who has an international following and is one of the most influential Muslim clerics in the world.
- The conclusions reached in this memo are as follows:
- The MB has not renounced violence. Hassan al Banna made violent jihad a cornerstone of his Brotherhood, embracing what he called “the art of death.” In Section II below, we will briefly review al Banna’s jihadist philosophy, which helped spawn the martyrdom cult that engulfed the world in violence beginning in the latter half of the 20th century. The MB’s most recent leaders have all openly embraced al Banna’s violent vision. Given the enduring relevance of al Banna’s works, it is not surprising to find that the MB endorses violence in the Palestinian-controlled territories and in Israel, as well as against American-led forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hamas, a self-described branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, is one of the premier terrorist organizations on the planet and an innovator in the use of suicide bombings. Egyptian MB leaders routinely praise Hamas and lend the group, at a minimum, rhetorical support during times of crisis. The MB uses non-violent means inside Egypt only because decades of suppression have necessitated it and not because the group believes violence is objectionable.
- The MB is not al Qaeda’s enemy. At most, the MB and al Qaeda are rivals vying for control of an imagined future dominated by the same core ideology. The MB and al Qaeda have much in common, including their approval of “martyrdom” (suicide) operations.
- As discussed in Section III, MB leaders have, on occasion, publicly disapproved of al Qaeda’s tactics, including the killing of civilians. But MB leaders have also stressed that only some of al Qaeda’s tactics are objectionable – not the terrorist group or its goals as a whole. In 2008, for example, Muhammad Mahdi ‘Akef rejected the notion that Osama bin Laden is a “terrorist,” preferring to call him a “jihad fighter.” ‘Akef even admitted that he supported al Qaeda’s activities as long as they were focused on resisting “occupation,” that is, American-led forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Moreover, the MB has acted as a gateway organization for al Qaeda and like-minded organizations. Numerous al Qaeda terrorists, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, were influenced by the MB early in their terrorist careers. Other senior members of the global MB have continued to assist al Qaeda.
- The MB is not a truly democratic organization. Although MB leaders have expressed their desire to compete in Egyptian elections, their words should not be construed as a true endorsement of democracy. The MB is a vehemently anti-American, anti-Western organization. Combining the MB’s deeply rooted Anti-Semitism with its animosity for the West, ‘Akef even argued that “Western democracy has attacked everyone who does not share the vision of the sons of Zion as far as the myth of the Holocaust is concerned.”
- As discussed in Section IV, the MB’s stated goal of implementing Sharia law inside Egypt and throughout the Muslim world is also wholly inconsistent with democratic aspirations. In reality, the MB sees elections as a potential stepping stone to absolute power. Once in power, the MB would likely shed any pretense of seeking democracy. This is not to suggest that the MB would necessarily succeed in using open elections to undermine true democracy in Egypt. It may very well be the case that democratic elections would be the death knell for the MB’s designs, as the Egyptian people could choose a very different path.
II. “The Art of Death”
- Since its inception in 1928, the MB has openly advocated jihad. By jihad, the MB does not mean a spiritual quest to better oneself. Instead, for the founder of the MB, Hassan al Banna, jihad meant a struggle, often armed, to resist and conquer Islam’s perceived enemies.
In his seminal study of the MB, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, Richard P. Mitchell concluded that the “most specific illustration of the militant quality of the [MB] movement is be found in the use of the concept of jihad.” Mitchell explained Hassan al Banna’s philosophy thusly (footnotes omitted, emphasis in original):
- The certainty that jihad had this physical connotation is evidenced by the relationship always implied between it and the possibility, even the necessity, of death and martyrdom. Death, as an important end of jihad, was extolled by Banna in a phrase which came to be a famous part of his legacy: ‘the art of death’ (fann al-mawt). ‘Death is art’ (al-mawt fann). The Qu’ran has commanded people to love death more than life. Unless ‘the philosophy of the Qu’ran on death’ replaces ‘the love of life’ which has consumed Muslims, then they will reach naught. Victory can only come with the mastery of the ‘art of death’. In another place, Banna reminds his followers of a Prophetic observation: ‘He who dies and has not fought [ghaza; literally: raided] and was not resolved to fight, has died a jahiliyya [ed. note: pagan, or non-Muslim] death.’ The movement cannot succeed, Banna insists, without this dedicated and unqualified kind of jihad.
- For Mitchell it was “an understatement to note that such themes [ed. note: jihad, martyrdom, the ‘art of death’] were an important aspect of the formal as well as informal training of the members.” In fact, al Banna openly advocated the “strengthening of the army and the kindling of its zeal on the foundation of Islamic jihad” in order to fight Islam’s enemies.
- After World War II, during which al Banna’s Brotherhood openly rooted for a Nazi victory, the MB used terrorism in its attempt to reshape Egypt. Al Banna “unleashed a campaign of terror that soon became a model for other militant fundamentalist movements that were rapidly developing in the Muslim world,” Fereydoun Hoveyda writes in his book, The Broken Crescent: The “Threat” of Militant Islamic Fundamentalism. Virtually no target was considered off-limits. “Cinemas were bombed, hotels set on fire, unveiled women attacked, and homes raided. Prime ministers and other pro-Western high-ranking officials were assassinated,” Hoveyda explains.
The MB became the fount of modern terror. Hoveyda writes:
- Young aspiring terrorists from all over the world poured into Egypt in order to learn from al-Banna’s men the art of eliminating the enemies of Islam. While training terrorists and directing murders, Sheikh Hassan denied involvement in the assassinations and attacks, using what Shiite clerics called ketman (holy dissimulation). Indeed, deceiving infidels was admitted by all Muslims, and Shiites even extended the dissimulation to other Muslims when the security of their ‘cause’ was at stake.
- Hoveyda’s point about “holy dissimulation” is an important one. MB members were taught to use doublespeak when discussing their nefarious activities. It is a practice that the MB continues to this day, as can be seen in the MB’s various musings on violence, including when it is and is not justified.
- However, the MB has never truly disavowed al Banna’s writings, or his emphasis on jihad. The MB’s Arabic web site still contains abundant references to al Banna’s works. Writing for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi quotes from the MB’s web site extensively in his piece, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood: In Their Own Words. ,
- “The problems of conquering the world will only end when the flag of Islam waves and jihad has been proclaimed,” a cached page from the MB’s site reads. “And if prayer is a pillar of the faith, then jihad is its summit...and death in the path of Allah is the summit of aspiration.”
- Mustafa Mashhur, the supreme guide of the MB from 1996 until 2002, emphasized the necessity of violent jihad in his book, Jihad is the way. A copy of the book has been translated by Palestinian Media Watch and can be found online.
- “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,”
- Mashhur wrote.Mashhur’s words illuminate a key aspect of the MB’s ideology. Jihad is not just a defensive endeavor (that is, for defending Muslim lands), but is also necessary for “strengthening” Islam and “spreading it around the world.” This gives jihad a clear offensive purpose as well. This is an important point to recognize as apologists for the MB and like-minded organizations pretend that the MB justifies jihad only in response to Western aggression.
- Moreover, according to Mashhur: “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.”
Jihad is obligatory for all Muslims, Mashhur argues. Echoing the MB’s original motto, Mashhur writes:
- ‘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, ...
Similarly, in a September 2010 sermon, Muhammad Badi' (the current supreme guide of the MB) said the following (emphasis added):
- “Today the Muslims desperately need a mentality of honor and means of power [that will enable them] to confront global Zionism. [This movement] knows nothing but the language of force, so [the Muslims] must meet iron with iron, and winds with [even more powerful] storms. They crucially need to understand that the improvement and change that the [Muslim] nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death just as the enemies pursue life.”
That is, al Banna’s “art of death” continues to define the MB’s vision of the world. Al Banna’s intellectual heirs have also argued, just as al Banna believed, that the movement cannot succeed unless the Brothers pursued jihad. Here is Badi’ in an April 2010 sermon (emphasis added):
- “Muslim leaders, Islam, to which you belong, advocates jihad as the only means for setting the Ummah's situation aright, as Allah says: 'O you believers! When you are told to go forth in Allah's way, why should you incline heavily to earth? Are you contented with this world's life instead of the hereafter?' [Koran 9:38] Our revival, majesty, and glory depend on the return to righteousness, which will only be achieved through resistance and the support of [resistance] in every way – with money, arms, information, and self[-sacrifice]...”
Therefore, the MB’s most senior leaders, who are also the nominal head of the MB movement globally, have not “renounced violence” as has been commonly argued.
- Support of violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and the Palestinian-controlled territories
- The MB’s leaders do not just advocate violent jihad in the abstract. Senior MB leaders have repeatedly advocated violence against American-led forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Israeli forces.
- On August 23, 2004, the London-based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi published a call for Muslims to support the insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq. The appeal was signed by the supreme guide of the MB in Egypt at the time, Muhammad Mahdi ‘Akef. Other prominent MB leaders who signed it included Muhammad Habib (‘Akef’s deputy in Egypt), Dr. Hassan Huweidi (‘Akef’s deputy in Syria), Isam al-Attar (the former head of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood), and Sheikh Yousef al Qaradawi (a top MB cleric living in Qatar). Senior Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (both of which were spawned by the MB) leaders signed the call as well.
The appeal decried what its signatories called America’s “escalation in the aggression” against the Iraqi people in Najaf. “This was part of the comprehensive barbaric colonialist attack that the USA is conducting against Islam in general and against Iraq in particular,” the signatories stressed. According to MEMRI, the statement read (emphasis added):
- “In light of the barbaric crimes being perpetrated in Iraq and in Palestine by the American-Zionist alliance against the Arabs and the Muslims, and even against all of humanity as [barbaric crimes] are occurring in Darfur in Sudan, the clerics, the leaders of the Islamic movement, the intellectual figures and those who labor to spread the message of Islam who have signed this call … emphasize their complete solidarity with the Iraqi and Palestinian peoples, and with the noble and brave national Islamic resistance, and call on them to join ranks in the struggle against the occupation… [In addition] they call on our people, the Arabs and the Muslims, on all of the religious authorities and the liberation forces everywhere, to oppose the occupation and its barbaric crimes in Iraq and in Palestine through offering every type of, material, and moral support, to the honorable resistance and its prisoners … and their families.”
- In other statements around this time, senior MB leaders advocated violence against American forces, including civilians. “There is no alternative other than that the [Muslim] peoples continue their political and national support of the resistance, materially and morally, in Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan,” Akef wrote in an open letter on August 17, 2004.
- “Islam considers the resistance to be Jihad for the sake of Allah and this is a commandment, a personal obligation [fardhayn] incumbent on all of the residents of the occupied countries. [This commandment] takes precedence over all other [religious] duties. Even a woman is obligated to go to war, [even] without her husband's permission, and youth are permitted to go out and fight.”
- Akef’s letter was, of course, an unequivocal call for violence. He even implored Muslim women and children to fight.
Similarly, on September 2, 2004, top MB cleric Yousef Qaradawi reportedly issued a fatwa saying Muslims are obligated to fight American forces and civilians in Iraq. Qaradawi explained:
- “..all of the Americans in Iraq are combatants, there is no difference between civilians and soldiers, and one should fight them, since the American civilians came to Iraq in order to serve the occupation. The abduction and killing of Americans in Iraq is a [religious] obligation so as to cause them to leave Iraq immediately. The mutilation of corpses [however] is forbidden in Islam.”
- Qaradawi would later deny that he issued such a fatwa. But his denial is a typical example of the Brotherhood’s doublespeak.
In his non-denial, Qaradawi claimed (emphasis added):
- “At the Egyptian Journalists' Union a few days ago I was asked about the permissibility of fighting against the occupation in Iraq, and I answered that it is permitted. Afterwards I was asked concerning the American civilians in Iraq and I merely responded with the question – are there American civilians in Iraq? It is a matter of common knowledge that in Fatwas such as these I do not use the word ‘killing’ but rather I say ‘struggle,’ which is a more comprehensive word than the word ‘killing’ and whose meaning is not necessarily to kill.”
- In other words, Qaradawi’s call for a “struggle” against American-led forces was not limited solely to “killing,” but certainly included it. In addition, the head of Qaradawi’s office confirmed to the press that the sheikh did in fact issue a fatwa saying it is obligatory for Muslims to fight American civilians in Iraq.
- The MB’s public endorsement of violence in Iraq and elsewhere in 2004 was by no means a new phenomenon. For instance, Sheikh Qaradawi has long justified suicide bombings. “The martyrdom operations carried out by the Palestinian factions to resist the Zionist occupation are not in any way included in the framework of prohibited terrorism, even if the victims include some civilians,” Qaradawi said in 2003. “Those who oppose martyrdom operations and claim that they are suicide are making a great mistake,” Qaradawi added.
- Qaradawi has been asked to head the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt on multiple occasions, but has turned down these offers to continue living in Qatar, where he has prospered. Still, Qaradawi, who hosts a popular television show on Al Jazeera, is a highly influential MB cleric with an audience throughout the Muslim world. It says much that Egyptian MB members consider him their de facto spiritual leader.
- The Egyptian MB has continued to endorse violence abroad. In 2008, for example, ‘Akef told an interviewer that the MB had “dispatched fighters in the past, but the [Egyptian] army and the government fought on our side.” ‘Akef continued: “Now, if we are permitted, we will send fighters to oppose occupation – whether of Iraq or Palestine.” In other words, if the Egyptian government allowed the MB to do so, the MB’s Supreme Guide was willing to send fighters to fight Americans in Iraq and, separately, Israeli forces.
The MB’s relationship with Hamas
Perhaps the best example of the MB’s ongoing support of violence can be found in its relationship with Hamas. The Palestinian terrorist organization is, according to its own charter, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. And unlike other organizations that broke away from the MB to form their own jihadist organizations, Hamas never forswore the MB. As Matthew Levitt writes in his book, Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad (emphasis in original):
- Hamas never fully broke from the Brotherhood. Hamas is not a splinter group; rather, it is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, but with an explicitly violent agenda. When Hamas was established, former Muslim Brotherhood activists were simply redirected from merely promoting Islamic observance to engaging in violent anti-Israel activities.
- An analysis of the current functional ties between the Egyptian MB leadership and Hamas is beyond the scope of this memo. It is clear that Hamas has some degree of autonomy. However, Hamas and the Egyptian MB continue to work together closely. Levitt writes that Hamas “has always existed as a dependent of the Brotherhood hierarchy.”
- ‘Akef, for example, was known to be close to his Hamas comrades during his tenure as supreme guide of the MB from 2004 until 2010. And the relationship between the leaders of Hamas and the Egyptian MB predates Hamas’ founding, beginning in the early 1980s when the Egyptian MB and other international Brotherhood branches provided logistical support to assist their brethren in the Palestinian-controlled territories.
- The Egyptian MB continues to work closely with Hamas. After Israeli forces moved into Gaza, for instance, Egyptian MB leaders openly declared their involvement with Hamas. According to the MB’s leadership, this prompted the Egyptian government to throw many Brothers in jail. “We have been effectively supporting our Palestinian brothers, especially since the Israeli attacks on Gaza,” ‘Akef told the press in 2009. ‘Akef continued: “That has angered many powers in and outside Egypt, and since then the government started detaining large numbers of our members and middle management figures. The regime was pressured by many powers in the West to do so.”
- The Egyptian MB has also routinely organized mass street protests in support of Hamas. “Our brothers and sons in Gaza are being killed, so imprisoning us is nothing to be compared to what is happening to them,”
- ‘Akef said in 2008. “It's our religious duty to support the Palestinians.” In 2006, ‘Akef even promised to send 10,000 “holy warriors” to Lebanon to fight alongside Hezbollah if the Egyptian government would allow the MB to do so.
- At a minimum, the Egyptian MB’s enduring support of Hamas demonstrates, yet again, that the organization has not “renounced violence.” Hamas is one of the premier terrorist organizations in existence, having unleashed a suicide bombing campaign in the early 1990s that shocked the world. The MB has never objected to Hamas’ terrorism. On the contrary, the MB regularly endorses it.
The MB and violence inside Egypt
- The MB has eschewed violence inside Egypt itself, but this is not because the group has renounced violent jihad or because it abhors violence in general. As shown above, MB leaders routinely endorse violence elsewhere around the globe. In reality, the MB was forced to give up on violence inside Egypt because it didn’t work. That is, it was a purely tactical decision. The MB repeatedly failed to overthrow the Egyptian regime, or affect change in a way that benefitted the MB’s long-term goals.
- The MB has been officially outlawed inside Egypt since 1954. During the more than fifty years that followed, the MB has succeeded in immersing itself in Egyptian culture by penetrating unions and building up its membership by recruiting young professionals. This was a survival tactic. And as my colleague at FDD Jonathan Schanzer recently pointed out, the MB has at times allied itself with other powers inside Egypt. But in each instance the MB’s relationships have ended badly. Thousands of Brothers have been routinely imprisoned and others executed.
- Given the Egyptian government’s open hostility to the MB, it is understandable that the group would avoid ineffectual violence to pursue other means of survival. This does not mean the group is non-violent. It just means that the MB, unlike other organizations, is willing to use alternative means to survive and potentially acquire power.
III. The MB and al Qaeda
Different tactics, not ideology or goals
- Some commentators argue that the MB is moderate because it is supposedly against al Qaeda. There has been rhetorical tension between the two organizations, but this has been caused by differing tactics, not ideology or long-term goals. One can find instances in which MB leaders publicly disagree or criticize al Qaeda’s methods. On its English web site, ikhwanweb.com, the MB even has a section entitled, “MB VS. Qaeda,” which includes articles supposedly showing that the two organizations are opposed to one another.
- Al Qaeda’s leaders, especially Ayman al Zawahiri (who joined the MB at the age of 14 before forming his own group, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad), have publicly criticized the MB for taking part in Egypt’s parliamentary elections and for not waging violent jihad inside Egypt. By the same token, however, Zawahiri continues to revere MB leaders such Hassan al Banna and Sayyid Qutb, an ideologue who had a profound influence on al Qaeda’s thinking.
- There is little to no daylight between what the MB and al Qaeda want in the long-term: to resurrect an Islamic caliphate ruled by Sharia law. MB leaders have repeatedly stressed that they disagree with how al Qaeda carries out jihad, not with al Qaeda’s goals. Moreover, MB leaders have also declined to reject al Qaeda outright.
On May 22, 2008, an Arab web site (www.elaph.com) published an interview with Muhammad Mahdi ‘Akef, who was then the supreme guide of the MB. ‘Akef was asked directly about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. The following transcript is provided by MEMRI:
- Interviewer: “On the subject of resistance and jihad – do you consider Bin Laden to be a terrorist or a jihad fighter?”
- 'Akef: “Without a shadow of a doubt – a jihad fighter. I do not doubt the fact that he opposes occupation, nor that he does this in order to get closer to Allah, may He be praised and extolled.”
- Interviewer: “Doesn't what you have just said contradict your portrayal of Al-Qaeda as a product of the U.S.?”
- 'Akef: “The [organization's] name is indeed a product of the U.S., but Al-Qaeda as a concept and as an organization has emerged out of [the need to find a way out of] oppression and corruption.”
- Interviewer: “Does this mean that you support Al-Qaeda's activities, and if so, to what extent?”
- 'Akef: “Yes, I support its activities against occupation, but not against civilians.”
- As can be seen in the transcript of Akef’s comments, the MB leader considers Osama bin Laden a legitimate “jihad fighter,” not a terrorist. Akef only disagreed with bin Laden’s targeting of civilians -- a point that MB leaders have a nuanced position on, often blurring the lines between civilian and military targets.
For obvious reasons, ‘Akef’s comments drew criticism. A few days after ‘Akef’s interview was posted online, the MB’s supreme guide thought it necessary to defend his position. In an interview with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, ‘Akef explained:
- We (the Brotherhood) have nothing to do with Al-Qa'idah or Usamah Bin-Ladin... we are against violence except when fighting the occupier...When he (Bin Ladin) fights the occupier then he is a mujahid, and when he attacks civilians, then this is rejected.
- This is hardly a wholesale rejection of al Qaeda. The natural implication of ‘Akef’s words is that al Qaeda’s activities inside Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, are legitimate as long as the group is not attacking civilians. Furthermore, this implies that ‘Akef supports al Qaeda’s attacks on Western soldiers and military bases.
- ‘Akef’s explanation became more convoluted when he went on to argue that “the word Al-Qa'idah (Organization) is an American illusion...Bin Ladin has a thought ...his thought is based on violence, and we do not approve of violence under any circumstances except one and that is fighting an occupier.” Again, this means that ‘Akef saw no problem with al Qaeda’s operations as long as they are carried out against coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘Akef’s claim that the word al Qaeda is an “American illusion” is also a strange form of denial that the MB and like-minded organizations practice. It plays off of the widely-held belief in the Muslim world that al Qaeda is an invention of Israel and the U.S. It is also an attempt to blame America for al Qaeda’s violence.
In 2006, Ragab Hilal Hamida, a member of the MB serving in Egypt’s parliament made similar comments. Hamida reportedly said:
- From my point of view, bin Laden, Al-Zawahiri and Al-Zarqawi are not terrorists in the sense accepted by some. I support all their activities, since they are a thorn in the side of the Americans and the Zionists... [On the other hand,] he who kills Muslim citizens is neither a jihad fighter nor a terrorist, but a criminal and a murderer. We must call things by their proper names!
- As can be seen in these quotes, the MB distinguishes between what it considers terrorism and legitimate jihad. Here, we should pause to reflect on an important point. Given the international opposition to al Qaeda organized by the U.S. following the September 11 attacks, and the Egyptian government’s decades-long oppression of the MB, the Brotherhood has every incentive to publicly distance itself from al Qaeda. Openly advocating al Qaeda-style terrorism (which, by the way, isn’t all that different from Hamas’ operations) would serve as a strong justification for the Egyptian government to imprison or even execute the MB’s leaders. Given this intense pressure, then, it is truly remarkable that the MB’s have not wholly (and consistently) disowned al Qaeda when given the opportunity.
- It is in this context that we consider Sheikh Qaradawi’s condemnation of the September 11 attacks in late 2001. It is commonly argued that Qaradawi’s denunciation of al Qaeda’s 9/11 operation shows a real point of difference between the MB and al Qaeda. However, Qaradawi’s statement came just days after 9/11, when international outrage at the events of that day was still fresh. One could argue that it was a wise tactical move for Qaradawi to distance himself the mass casualty attack since it would have brought him under more intense scrutiny.
- Furthermore, Qaradawi has steadily walked back from his opposition to the killing of civilians, which was the basis for his supposed objection to 9/11. As cited above, Qaradawi deliberately blurred the lines between civilians and servicemen in justifying violence in Iraq, saying “there is no difference between [American] civilians and soldiers [in Iraq], and one should fight them.”
- Qaradawi has also been one of the most important advocates of suicide bombings in Israel and the Palestinian-controlled territories. Qaradawi has explained: “I have been affiliated with a group considered by Zionists as their first enemy; it is the Muslim Brotherhood that has provided and still provides martyrs for the cause of Palestine.” In addition, Qaradawi has praised Imad Mugniyah, Hezbollah’s chief terrorist for decades, as a “martyred hero.” Beginning in the early 1980s, Mugniyah carried out many of the same types of attacks that al Qaeda would later emulate. Indeed, when Osama bin Laden wanted to know how to use suicide bombers in his operations against American targets, he turned to Mugniyah for advice.
- At most, then, the point of difference between Qaradawi and al Qaeda concerns when the use of suicide terrorists is appropriate. This is hardly a major schism. Qaradawi holds a variety of other radical beliefs, which are not very different from al Qaeda’s, as well.
The Gateway from MB to al Qaeda
- Paul Berman has rightly called Sayyid Qutb, a prominent MB ideologue who was executed in 1966, “the intellectual hero of every one of the groups that eventually went into Al Qaeda, their Karl Marx (to put it that way), their guide.” This is indisputably true, as Qutb’s writings are still cited by al Qaeda to this day. Two of the groups that became core members of al Qaeda’s joint venture, Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, both have their roots in the MB. Both of these two organizations had a profound impact on the development of Osama bin Laden’s global terrorist empire.
- In fact, it is a short step from the MB to al Qaeda. This can be best illustrated by the following list, which includes al Qaeda members who were formerly members of the MB, as well as Brothers who have directly supported al Qaeda.
Partial List of al Qaeda and MB members
- Osama bin Laden – There is evidence that bin Laden was recruited by the MB while studying as a young man in Saudi Arabia. As early as his high school years Osama may have been recruited by the MB. At King Abdel-Aziz University, Osama attended Mohammed Qutb’s lectures. Mohammed taught the same jihadist doctrine as his more infamous brother, Sayyid Qutb.
- Ayman al Zawahiri – Zawahiri joined the MB at the age of 14 and quickly became revered figure among his fellow Brothers despite his young age. Zawahiri founded the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), an organization that holds many of the same beliefs as the MB but simply refuses to renounce violence inside Egypt. Beginning in the 1980s, Zawahiri and the EIJ worked closely with Osama bin Laden. In the 1990s, the EIJ formally merged with bin Laden’s organization.
- Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – KSM is the mastermind of the September 11 attacks. Before becoming one of the most infamous al Qaeda terrorists alive, he was a member of the MB in Kuwait.
- Mohammed Atta – Atta, an Egyptian, was the lead hijacker for the 9/11 operation. Before that, he was a member of the MB.
- 9/11 al Qaeda cells in Hamburg and Spain – The al Qaeda cells in Hamburg and Spain at the time of 9/11 were run by men who were formerly members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB). Mamoun Darkazanli and Mohammed Zammar, who ran the Hamburg cell for 9/11, were both members of the SMB. Imad Yarkas, who led al Qaeda’s cell in Spain and was bin Laden’s key point man in Europe, was also a former member of the SMB. Some of Yarkas’ underlings were once members of the SMB as well.
- Abdullah Azzam – Azzam was a key jihadist thinker, whose teachings helped launch the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Before he was assassinated in 1989, Azzam was a co-founder of both al Qaeda and Hamas. Azzam, who was one of Osama bin Laden’s spiritual mentors, was a member of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood.
- Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman – Rahman, who is known as the “Blind Sheikh,” was the spiritual leader of Gamaat Islamiyya. The organization’s roots are in the MB and, like Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad, became its own jihadist group after the MB’s leadership decided to avoid using violence inside Egypt. The Gammat became a core part of the al Qaeda joint venture in the 1990s, and al Qaeda even plotted to spring Rahman from prison after he was convicted of his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a follow-on plot against NYC landmarks.
- Sheikh Abdul Majeed al Zindani – Zindani founded the Yemeni branch of the MB. He has been designated by the U.S. Treasury Department for his decades-long relationship with Osama bin Laden, finding that he served “as one of [bin Laden’s] spiritual leaders” and recruited terrorists for al Qaeda’s training camps.
- Hassan al Turabi – Turabi was one of the most prominent MB members throughout the 1990s. He founded the MB’s chapter in Sudan. From 1992 until 1996, Turabi hosted Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in Sudan. He has been dubbed the “Pope of Terrorism” in the European press because of his many ties to international terrorism.
- As can be seen from this partial list, there is a continuum between the MB and al Qaeda – not a sharp break. MB members move seamlessly into al Qaeda and al Qaeda-affiliated organizations. The reasons for this easy transition should be obvious. The MB, like al Qaeda, believes that Muslims should value death more than life (al Banna’s “art of death”). They both justify suicide bombings. They both hate the U.S. and Israel, depicting the world as enthralled in an imaginary conflict between “Zionist-Crusaders” and Muslims. And they both believe that the Muslim world should be united under a revitalized caliphate governed by Sharia law.
IV. The MB is not truly democratic
- Finally, some have suggested that the MB has embraced democracy because the organization is willing to participate in elections inside Egypt and, on occasion, its leaders sound like they’ve embraced democracy. As with its decision to abstain from violence inside Egypt, however, the MB’s participation in elections is a tactical decision. The MB’s senior leadership has repeatedly denounced true democracy. More importantly, the MB’s leaders have repeatedly said that they wish to implement Sharia law, with Brotherhood clerics deciding what is legal inside Egypt.
- “The Muslim Brotherhood carries Islam to the people,” MB supreme guide ‘Akef explained in 2006. “We teach people that it is an all-encompassing religion which sheds light and facilitates all aspects of life.” According to ‘Akef, the West has all sorts of freedoms under democracy that Islam prohibits. ‘Akef explained: “On the other hand, democracy gives people infinite freedom. People in the West have the right to drink alcohol, commit adultery, and more. No, we are not like this.”
The MB’s leadership believes that the Koran is the sole basis of law, and that all of the rules and regulations necessary for society are contained therein. As the MB’s general guide, Muhammad Badi’, explained in 2010:
- “The noble Koran is the constitution that sets out the laws of Islam. It is the fountainhead of all virtue and wisdom in the hearts of the believers, and it is the best [way] for the believers to become closer to Allah... The Holy Koran includes all the tenets of faith, laws of worship, principles of public good [and] legal concepts [pertaining to] this world, including duties and prohibitions, and they are for the benefit of all humanity, without distinctions of religion, [skin] color, gender, [social] status or language...”
Of course, this means that clerics must interpret for the masses what is and is not permissible under Islamic law, since many of the details of modern life are not spelled out in Islam’s holiest text. The MB’s draft political platform explicitly envisions a panel of clerics setting forth the law, after being elected by their fellow clerics, not the Egyptian people. And ‘Akef has made it clear that such an arrangement, in which a clerical Shura council dictates what is legal, is not the same thing as Western-style democracy:
- “The Shura Council can be the paragon of democracy, but [only] democracy of a right kind, [i.e.,] one that honors shari'a. I distinguish between this kind of democracy and the Western democracy, which allows [a man] to act as he pleases, [even] in contradiction to Allah's commandments. Our movement leader [i.e., head of the Muslim Brotherhood] does nothing [without consulting] the shura council [of the movement]. The decision is made by the Supreme Guide's office and not by me.”