How the Muslim Brotherhood redefined Middle Eastern politics


At the start of 2018, the governments of the Middle East and North Africa face as much uncertainty as ever, even where they are not fighting civil wars. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is expected to win elections in March but, marked by the suppression of opposition candidates, these elections are unlikely to bolster his international image or domestic standing. Qatar stands isolated from her Gulf neighbours, while Saudi Arabia is currently undergoing radical liberalisation coupled with political repression. In each country, an organisation known as the Muslim Brotherhood has had a greatly underappreciated impact in bringing about the current state of affairs.

To understand how the Muslim Brotherhood has achieved such international relevance it is important to understand the nature of the Brotherhood. It was founded in 1928, in Egypt, by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna. Inspired by the works of older Islamic thinkers, al-Banna developed an ideology combining a belief in Islam as the foundation of just government with the principles of social justice, as well as whole-hearted rejection of the Western imperialism present throughout the Middle East at the time. Although he aspired to political power, he sought it through democratic means, and focused initially on working for the poor of Egypt, such as in running schools and hospitals. This approach, appealing particularly to the lower middle classes, helped the party grow rapidly, exceeding half a million members by 1948. However, al-Banna was assassinated in 1949, apparently by secret police, and in the wake of the 1952 Free Officers’ coup, where the secular military overthrew the monarchy, the Brotherhood was banned and its adherents imprisoned and executed or exiled.

Such a cataclysm would have spelled the end for many movements, but the Brotherhood’s adaptability has allowed it to expand its influence. One way this has been achieved is through inspiring international Islamist groups. Through charities and institutions set up by adherents abroad, the Brotherhood has founded sister parties across the Middle East, most notably Hamas. Its offshoots have also played major political roles in Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Jordan, among others. In addition to these direct offshoots, al-Banna is widely credited as the father of political Islam, among the first to argue for Islamic government as an alternative to oppressive, Western-backed regimes. This ideology inspired countless other influential Islamist groups such as Hezbollah, and even the leaders of the Iranian Revolution. In fact the current supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was the first to translate into Persian two works by the prominent Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood thinker Sayyid Qutb, influenced he he was by Qutb’s preaching of the necessity of a truly Islamic state and of removing Western influence from the Islamic world.

It is crucial to note that since the 1960s, and at times during the preceding decades, the official attitude of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has been one of non-violence, though their exception for ‘defensive jihad’ allowed them to reconcile this with support for Hamas and the Afghan Mujahideen. Many offshoots have accepted this non-violent approach, as in Morocco and Jordan, where they have pushed for democratisation. Elsewhere, however, offshoots and affiliated groups have ignored this precept. This is possible because while the Muslim Brotherhood is a label that covers many groups, there is no unified international control. Attempts to organise internationally have been rejected by most related groups, who prefer an ideology that adapts to local circumstances. Though the Egyptian Brotherhood is the most influential branch, its influence stems only from the prestige accrued through age and size.

In fact, the tendency of the Brotherhood to foster wide ideological divisions among its membership has been a major reason for international opposition, as it has allowed extremists to emerge from the group. One member stands out here, the aforementioned Sayyid Qutb. As the Egyptian Brotherhood’s foremost thinker, he was imprisoned alongside then-leader Hassan al-Hudaybi after the 1954 crackdown on the group. While many members were imprisoned and tortured by the regime, Qutb’s thinking swiftly diverged from al-Hudaybi’s while in prison. Already contemptuous toward Western society after spending time in the United States in the late 1940s, he reasoned that the guards who tortured devout Muslims could not be true Muslims themselves. From this arose the idea of takfir, declaring self-professed Muslims to be apostates (Muslims who have rejected Islam, a serious crime in Islamic law). Whereas al-Hudaybi stuck to the idea of Islamism, a political approach to enshrining religious law in national law, Qutb embraced the idea of jihad through takfir, declaring that the guards and the regime who employed them, and other similar regimes, were apostates and enemies of Muslims. In Qutb’s eyes they were therefore legitimate targets for jihad (religiously justified war).

The influence of Qutb’s thought on all subsequent jihadist groups is hard to overstate. How this influence has been exerted can be illustrated by two key members of al-Qaeda: Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden. Qutb personally influenced al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian who joined the Brotherhood at 14 in 1965. The following year, Qutb was executed by the state on charges of plotting a coup, leaving al-Zawahiri with a determination to fulfil his goal of an Islamic state. He soon joined the group Egyptian Jihad. After work in Pakistan, where he met bin Laden, he merged his group with al Qaeda, and became al Qaeda’s leader after bin Laden’s death. The radicalisation of bin Laden followed a different, more trodden path. After the Brotherhood was first banned in Egypt, thousands of members fled to Saudi Arabia. Here, the state ideology of conservative Wahhabi Islam and the recent establishment of a public education system helped many well educated, pious Muslim Brothers to gain jobs in the educational establishment. This allowed them huge influence over the minds of young Saudis. Among these youths was Osama bin Laden, the son of a construction tycoon, who may have been taught by, among others, Muhammed Qutb, brother of Sayyid. After spending time fighting in and financing the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets, he returned to Saudi Arabia, where frustration with the government led him to pursue global jihad and to propel the idea of jihad into the global consciousness on September 11, 2001.

The future of the Muslim Brotherhood is as unclear as that of many of the regimes still standing in the Middle East. Members have been imprisoned en masse in Egypt and elsewhere, and the Trump administration has considered proscribing it in the US. However,  history shows such efforts have done little to prevent it from attaining a place of leadership in both political Islamist and violent Jihadist circles. The willingness of various Middle Eastern regimes to permit political expression over the coming years will be decisive in determining whether the Brotherhood’s democratically-inclined leaders gain control, or whether it is the Jihadists who win out. Whatever happens, it seems likely that the Brotherhood and its past leaders will continue to play a vital role in Middle Eastern affairs for many years to come.