The Muslim Brotherhood’s position within the Islamist universe is the subject of an intense academic debate, especially since the 1970s when the Brotherhood publicly abjured violence and began claiming it supported democracy. Broadly speaking, one side sees these evolutions as meaningful, making the organization a bulwark against violent jihadism by giving Islamists a peaceful channel to pursue their political goals. The other side, as well as doubting the sincerity of these changes, sees the Brotherhood even in this allegedly reformed state as a gateway to violence because it normalizes and spreads extremist ideas and concepts, and in some cases Brotherhood networks have been connected to terrorists.
The complexity of the debate was highlighted in late September with the death of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, perhaps the most influential Sunni Muslim theologian and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. In discussing Al-Qaradawi’s legacy, one is dealing with a man who by the early 2000s had issued fatwas against sex segregation in universities and condemned theocratic states run by the clergy, while supporting suicide bombing against Israeli civilians and the Islamic State movement’s jihad in Iraq. To the end of his life, Al-Qaradawi’s fatwas tended to inflame already tense political situations: in Libya, Al-Qaradawi said Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi should be killed, and in Syria he issued a deeply sectarian ruling in 2013 that encouraged a flow of Sunni foreign fighters, many of whom subsequently joined Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.
In Europe, the Muslim Brotherhood has been at the centre of the debate about how to handle “non-violent” Islamist extremism. Countries like France and Austria have taken the most forward-leaning policies on this matter. Recently, for example, the French government issued an expulsion order for Hassan Iquissen, a Muslim Brotherhood preacher, accusing him of “proselytizing speech interspersed with remarks inciting hatred and discrimination.” This created some reaction from civil libertarians who insisted that Iquissen’s remarks were covered by laws protecting free speech, but the French state does not see it this way and has cracked down on efforts to ideologically undermine the foundations of the Republic.
To discuss the impact of the radical preachments of the Muslim Brotherhood, the risks the group poses to the stability and security of European countries, and many other matters, EER was joined by:
- Sara Brzuszkiewicz, a researcher in the field of terrorism and radicalization; and
- John Rossomando, a researcher on defense policy and intelligence issues.
Dr. Sara Brzuszkiewicz began by talking about the internal power struggle within the Muslim Brotherhood. The London-based Ibrahim Munir, the formal Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood since the arrest of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ezzat, in Egypt in 2020, has been challenged by the Istanbul-based Mahmoud Hussein, whose faction have marshalled procedural and ideological arguments against Munir. In return, Munir has been able to mobilise a power-base through the London-based institutions, especially the youth wing, and has charged Hussein and his allies with corruption. Whatever the outcome of this struggle, this is an unprecedented public rift in the Brotherhood’s history: there has, of course, been internal discord before in the Brotherhood’s leadership—but it always remains private, while the Munir-Hussein dispute has been in full public view. “We can say that this is easily the worst crisis the Brotherhood has experienced, on an international level, since its foundation in 1928”, Brzuszkiewicz says, and there are no signs of a recovery coming any time soon.
Indeed, as Brzuszkiewicz notes, the split in the central leadership of the Brotherhood comes against a backdrop of, and contributes to exacerbating, a series of problems for the group: it has been deposed from power and nearly destroyed in Egypt; it has been driven from power in Tunisia and is regarded with hostility after a decade of governmental mismanagement and corruption; the Brotherhood affiliates have been dealt stinging defeats in two states, Morocco and Jordan, where the monarchy had reached a compact with the group based on its seeming social importance, a view that is now being reassessed; in Sudan and Algeria, political developments are taking place without reference to the Brotherhood; and in Europe, the tide, official and societal, is moving against the Brotherhood. The group, so long regarded—even by its enemies—as capable and cunning, is now seen as weak and incompetent.
Brzuszkiewicz argues that even in terms of its messaging and discourse, the Brotherhood is struggling. It used to be that the Brotherhood could get away with “doublespeak”—saying one thing to public audiences and official interlocuters, saying another thing to its own members. This often involved saying one thing in English (or other European languages) and saying another in Arabic. But this game has become more difficult in an era of social media and other instant communications: people have noticed the disconnect. Likewise, the old “victimhood” and “Islamophobia” narratives of the Brotherhood are less effective than they once were, albeit these narratives retain some potency in an era when what would once have been called political “correctness” is very powerful. What remains most difficult for Western states, says Brzuszkiewicz, is that the Brotherhood takes a “gradualist” approach towards tamkeen or Islamic government: it is willing to wait a long time and subvert institutions, rather than advocating for violent revolution; this means its activities are generally legal, strictly speaking, even of the end goal is the overthrow of the whole legal system.
Brzuszkiewicz argues that the death of Al-Qaradawi, which all Brotherhood organizations mourned, might actually be a blessing for the Brotherhood: it frees the Brothers from the burden of answering for somebody who had said that Muslims were invading Europe and that Hitler had been admirable; it will allow the Brotherhood and Brotherhood-derived groups to “polish their image”, said Brzuszkiewicz. And this might be timely for the Brotherhood, since there has been a strong backlash to political Islam in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and therefore these religious groups need to find a different way to present and legitimize themselves. Still, the overall trendline is very adverse for the Brotherhood, with a popular reaction from Muslims underway and governments in the MENA and in Europe turning against the Brotherhood’s program.
John Rossomando focused on the American perspective of the Muslim Brotherhood, though he began by drawing attention to the 2015 Muslim Brotherhood report in the United Kingdom, which described the Brotherhood’s tactics, namely adapting to local circumstances: getting involved in democratic processes in Western countries, or using violence in circumstances like Syria and Libya.
Rossomando argues that the Brotherhood “has achieved its long-term goal of becoming mainstream” in the United States, particularly within the Left-wing Democratic Party. Brotherhood-affiliated Congressmen have been elected a Democrats, according to Rossomando, and the Brotherhood has shown its “ability to adapt … by becoming part of the ‘woke’ movement”. This could also be a bad sign for the Brotherhood, given the across-the-board backlash, from Muslims and non-Muslims, against wokeism.
Al-Qaradawi’s death brought a certain amount of candour from the Brotherhood groups in the U.S., said Rossomando. Groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), “the key Brotherhood lobby”, issued public statements mourning Al-Qaradawi, a change from their past practice of trying to “distance” themselves from figures like Al-Qaradawi. What CAIR’s actions show, says Rossomando, is how difficult it is to disentangle the violent and non-violent strands because the two departments work so closely together. The analogy Rossomando gives is of Sinn Fein and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), which waged war against constitutional government in Ulster entirely under a unified command structure, but pretended to be different entities. Rossomando agreed with Brzuszkiewicz that the “victimhood narrative” had proven particularly effective in deflecting attention from the Brotherhood’s activities.
In the question and answer period, the speakers dealt with the potential for a Brotherhood comeback in the Middle East, and with the attempts of European governments to neutralize the Brotherhood’s threat to social cohesion.