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On the UK report into the Muslim Brotherhood 28, April 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Egypt, UK.
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There is no certain truth as to what the Muslim Brotherhood (the Ikhwan) is, what it represents, or what its ultimate goals are. Instead, its history is one of bifurcation after bifurcation, with differing ideologues promoting differing modus operandi for differing goals. One’s views on the Ikhwan are instead predominately determined by one’s perceptions, which inevitably stem from circumstance and context: what you say depends on where you sit. For the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) the Ikhwan is a diverse actor that is difficult to pin down, while according to a former head of the UK’s foreign security intelligence service MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, it is ‘at heart terrorist organisation”. Under pressure from middle eastern allies deeply concerned at the rise of the Ikhwan, the UK government has come under pressure to either brand the organization illegal or at least clamp down on its activities. David Cameron’s recently announced investigation into the organization’s activities in the UK thus faces a difficult job summing up this nebulous organization.

The Ikhwan’s roots

Historically, the emergence of the Ikhwan is relatively straight-forward to track, at least compared to the theological and conceptual divisions that emerged as the twentieth century progressed. Hassan Al Banna founded the Ikhwan in 1928. Initially, he was more of a scholar, an author and a poet. The organization he ran worked closely with the Egyptian Monarchy to avoid being repressed. It used educational outreach both formally (schools and mosques) and informally (establishing clubs and social organizations) to spread its word, while its social aspects ranging from establishing health clinics to running sports clubs, were to be a feature of its success. By the late 1940s, this tactic had accrued approximately half a million followers in Egypt and its influence had spread throughout the region.

Indelible to the Ikhwan’s ideology was an anti-Colonial streak. This motivating factor, spurred on by increasing repression, prompted the creation of a specialized military wing, the Special Apparatus; essentially a paramilitary organization. The activities of this wing, which included assassinations, poisoned an already worsening relationship with the government and exacerbated the cycle of repression, relaxation, and repression; a feature of the Ikhwan and its governmental relations to this day.

Al Banna was killed in 1949 and though Hassan Al Hudaybi took over as the second ‘general guide’ it was Sayyid Qutb whose works were to become synonymous with the Ikhwan. Qutb was virulently anti-Colonial and anti-Westernisation, bitterly resenting the perceived Western influences on the Arab World. Spurred on by sporadic incarceration by the Egyptian authorities, his writings became increasingly radical to the point where he summarily rejected any corporeal power coming in between God’s divine rule and ordinary people. Because Governments interfered in this direct link, he reasoned, opposing them in any way possible was ipso facto justified. Qutb’s thought and reason along these lines remains one of the foundational plinths of radical Islam to this day and is an influence for the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda.

Aware that such a trend would lead to the Ikhwan’s permanent marginalization from Egyptian rule, Al Hudaybi eventually issued a riposte. ‘Preachers not Judges’ was released under his name but is thought of as collective work by a range of scholars. It sought to undercut Qutb’s logic by arguing that governments were a legitimate form of rule and it insisted that declaring someone apostate – i.e. non-Muslim and therefore with Qutb’s logic without rights of protection – was infinitely more complex than Qutb’s simplistic logic. Though Qutb’s ideas have been expressly rejected by the Ikhwan leadership, his works remain in the Ikhwan canon of literature; a paradox that concerns many to this day. Indeed, though jurisprudential and theological arguments have evolved, this Qutb-Hudaybi dividing line remains at the base of issues concerning the Ikhwan.

Some point to former Egyptian Ikhwan President Mohammed Morsi’s clear policy to avoid undercutting or otherwise changing Egypt’s decades-old policy of normalizing relations with Israel as evident proof that the Ikhwan are prudent rulers; that they are not necessarily hijacked by religious fervor or at the whim of theological demands. Others point to Morsi’s appointment of Adel Assad mayor of Luxor even though Assad was a member of Gamaa Al Islamiyya, a terrorist group that killed 62 people in Luxor in 1997, as proof of the Ikhwan’s real sympathies.

 What you say depends on where you sit

In short, there is no ‘truth’ as to the Ikhwan. It is a group that retains the loyalty of hundreds of thousands of Muslims. Though there may be an official overarching dogma denouncing violence, given the breadth of its support a smorgasbord of beliefs and actions can be found and carried out under its aegis. The Ikhwan’s leadership retain this ambiguity on purpose, to a degree. This allows them to be all things to all men (or women).

One of the central questions surrounding the Ikhwan is whether it is some kind of a conveyor belt to further extremism or a firewall against greater radicalization. The obvious answer is that given its breadth and weight of numbers, both aphorisms are true, yet what is equally certain is that the vast majority of its membership err more towards the Hudaybi school. This fact is underpinned by simple appreciation of the isolated nature of attacks in Egypt and elsewhere in the aftermath of the military coup against Morsi.

This debate and decisions surrounding how to interact with the Ikhwan need nuance. The British government must not allow itself to be pushed into making a stance by allies with a particular calculus and a lack of nuance of their own. The conclusions of this government study into the Ikhwan are important as they may unearth links and other associations that are detrimental to the UK’s security. Yet given the broad nature of the Ikhwan it is difficult to see how it could reasonably act as a foundation for an outright ban. Any such decision would result from a deep shift in HMGs attitude towards the Ikhwan. While such a tough policy would curry favor in key regional capitals, the whiff of HMG dancing to the tune of Middle Eastern autocracies would be nigh-on undeniable.

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