Those concerned with Islamic movements and their coexistence in Europe and the United States see the Muslim Brotherhood as a critical riddle. Is the Brotherhood an extremist group bent on disrupting society? Or does it, from a Western perspective, have the potential to be allies that can bring a moderate voice of faith and aid political reconciliation in the Middle East?
The Brotherhood does not represent a new dilemma. However, the answers remain diverted and clouded by many aspects of thoughts and levels of organization given by this highly structured and complex movement spread over 70 countries, including in Europe and North America. It operates at many levels to revive the golden Islamic era and ideals.
However, some questions make an inquiry relevant. Is the Muslim Brotherhood irreconcilable as a group of extremists wanting to topple governments, fueling chaos to usurp street-run, gang-like power? Or, do they seek a more modern interpretation of the old texts? Is it ushering in established traditions into modern enlightenment and secular arrangements?
The answers should be straightforward, but they are not. Sadly, the answer is also often oversimplified to reflect a misunderstood reality. While some optimists may discern a ‘moderate’ spirit in the Brotherhood, resentful people may label ‘extremist’ accusations. Some of those analyzing them understand that it is not as simple as it looks.
In this essay, I shed light on some Brotherhood traits to help understand the movement. I will do so by sharing parts of my 10-year journey in the organization. I explain some of the main characteristics I learned and found in my former association with the movement.
In my opinion, as an adversary, the Brotherhood will present a serious challenge. I am aware that many only see the current messages from the movement as a sign of openness and cooperation. Others see them as a threat, wish to see them behind bars, and suppress their right to form unions, political parties, and run for elections. Their judgment is based on the movement’s history and ideology and lack of trust in their stated objectives.
As becomes evident toward the end of this essay, this confusion is not so surprising. The Brotherhood is not as straightforward an organization as one would imagine. As confusion leads to wrong assumptions, I would seek to clarify them. In every analytical approach, human ideas and actions are seldom purely good or evil. This goes for the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, organizational culture is seldom static, and that too applies well to the Brotherhood.
There is no doubt that the movement is somewhat elusive and is difficult to define fully. As a result, it is a challenge to write and learn about its roots and way of thinking.
Firstly, I must clarify that this is not a personal vendetta against any particular person or people, nor an attempt to spread hatred. It is simply a necessary reflection on my old friends and fellows, whom I worked with, shared meals, and traveled with.
I also owe a lot to my teachers and mentors in the Brotherhood (a dentist, a bank assistant, and a cleric) for inspiring me to study and for some of my good manners and respect for myself and others. I thank them as without some of that positive influence; I would today probably have been an extremist or in a lot more trouble. Or, otherwise, would perhaps have avoided getting caught up in the so-called Islamic cause all along.
I often wonder whether these individuals influenced me because of their education and family background more than the Brotherhood itself. In other words, this is a reflection of the way I perceive the movement. I begin with the process and thoughts related to my affiliation with the organization, hopefully without bewilderment or idolization. I intend to see things in the light of accomplishments and abilities. I have to be objective in dealing with this part of my life.
I am concerned about what the Brotherhood is trying to achieve in Europe and the United States. I apprehend a civil war in Europe and persecution of Muslims due to Islamists’ attitude toward society. I see how Islamists and the far-right wing forces try to exploit the situation politically and persuade people to join their movements, leading to more confrontations.
Thus, my story is meant to prevent more conflict over political Islamism and growing polarization and Islamophobia. I regard political Islam groups as the reason behind trouble for Muslims in the West. More importantly, I am concerned about the lack of challenge to these groups from fellow Muslims.
In essence, the Muslim Brotherhood is a collection of activists longing for an orthodox religious fundamental reorientation of society and life based on Islamic teachings.
They believe that the world should acknowledge Allah as God, Mohammed as the path to God, Islam as the law, the Quran as a fundament text, struggle as the pathway, and humans as the target of the call to Islam. They see politics and religion as two sides of the same life, and they believe that humans must obey God-given guidance to succeed.
They look back at Islamic history, especially its first two centuries, as a guide and see it as a society they would like to revive. They believe in a robust religious state no matter whether it is theocratic or nationalistic or even fascist-like. All Brotherhood ideas are based on the thoughts and work of one man: Hasan Al-Banna (1905-1942), the teacher, the founder, and the leader, about whom I must say a few words.
Al-Banna was a brilliant and gifted man. He had the vision of a global religious, political, and social movement being put into effect simultaneously. It was undoubtedly a totalitarian view and also a fanatical religious mission based on one truth and many false beliefs. He talked about enemies and the need to fight and spill blood to achieve the goal.
His vision was based on some of Islam’s teaching and traits, but he mixed them with the 20th-century ideological communication forms. His approach suggests that while the fundamentals of the organization are old, the means are very modern. Due to his traditional schooling, Al-Banna was anchored in the past even though he was aware of the new ways to lead mass movements as were seen at that time in the Soviet Union, India, and Europe.
Al-Banna was a charismatic man with distinct social skills and a clear mind. According to followers and several observers in the West, he was a lovable and much-appreciated father and a friend. He was a calm and collected teacher and an influencer with great persuasive abilities. However, he was also seen as an adversary in Egypt and other places.
Hasan Al-Banna’s powerful personality is hence the distinctly recognizable trait in the Brotherhood. It was the first glimpse of his life story that grabbed my soul and mind and made me open to influence from the Brotherhood circles. Some of his statements had a profound effect on me. “If people hit us with stones, we hit them with fruits.” Such idealistic mottos and slogans encouraged me to attach myself to the group.
But Al-Banna had also given the Brotherhood slogans such as “death on Allah’s path is our highest dream” and “the call and the sword are entwined on the path of our call.” There was, therefore, an ambiguity in Al-Banna’s message. Some of those Brotherhood adherents who idolized the leader and his thoughts followed them to the extent of turning into fanatics and suicide bombers. But it is necessary to recognize the huge success Hasan Al-Banna had with his ideas and efforts in building such a time-resistant, enduring, and complex movement. The Brotherhood is, therefore, a movement not to be taken lightly.
In a short duration, Al-Banna had over a half million followers in Egypt. Then he spread his ideas to other countries in the region and India’s Muslim community. He attracted other influential followers, such as Abu Ala Maududi (1906-1979), who led the Pakistani Islamic movement into a strong and influential position.
Al-Banna was known for his energetic activism and writing. He emphasized the goal, the way forward and generated the resources. He taught his followers how to protest effectively and build bridges with other people and ideas. However, his ideas reeked of strong and exclusionary fundamentalism that brought the movement into conflict. He also held a strong view that the movement must take hold of society and the state to succeed.
The Brotherhood subsequently expanded beyond its formative years in the 1920s and the 1930s to eventually adopt a more revolutionary approach in the decades following World War II. No objective judgment can be made about the Brotherhood without a proper examination of Hasan Al-Banna’s life. His strong personality forged the followers in an image-driven culture moved by ideology. Many of the teachings and guidelines for the movement worldwide are still shaped by Al-Banna’s vision, plans, organizational skills, and spiritual discourse.
How I got involved
I was born in Lebanon in an upper-middle-class family where religion and tradition were significant but not overshadowed life. The society was based on mutual religious respect based on a secular notion of citizenship and law. But, due to the civil war, I was raised in the far north of Europe, in Denmark, where Islamism or its many manifestations got little attention in the mid-1980.
It was not until my teenage years that a hidden world of ideas and people came to my attention. I searched for a way of life, seeking answers to existential questions, trying to find my identity in a post-modern, value-dissolving world. During this quest, I stumbled upon a mosque and a secret Brotherhood number.
I became attached to their spiritual teachings and then had to find my way through the maze of thoughts and political positions within the Islamic groups. I became attached to the Brotherhood for two reasons. The first reason was the ideas and the influence of a very quiet and trustworthy mentor belonging to the organization who didn’t, at first, tell me who he was. The second was my initial reading about the fascinating life of Hasan Al-Banna, whose courage and faith had a profound impact on me.
Aside from Al-Banna’s personality, my fascination for the Brotherhood stemmed mostly from its spiritual teachings. Monk-like meditations and prayers within the huge worldwide organization caught my attention very quickly. This was perhaps because I was young and eager to discover the functioning of such a complex system.
Then there were the human elements in the network that brought a sense of fulfillment. It felt great to belong to something greater with worldwide connections, through which the Brotherhood seemed to encompass a monumental vision engulfing all humanity.
I also liked the tactical approach and the idea of encouraging people to discover a “truth” through gentle advice and patient striving.
I found the gathering of resourceful men and women very interesting, as the Brotherhood attracted many intellectuals and cultural personalities. The organization included people with abilities, skills, and intelligence. That fascinated me a lot at the time.
The Brotherhood also seemed more holistic in its ideas, having views on a wide range of life’s political, social, and economic aspects. It also had views on spiritual teachings and on preparing for conflict and even fighting. For instance, Al-Banna himself organized about 1,000 men to fight Israel in the 1930s and formed the internal Palestinian forces that later struggled against their Jewish neighbors.
The Brotherhood seemed to have a charismatic and wise leadership that one could entrust and follow. This leadership did not entirely consist of religious clerics but also many other kinds of people with their diverse resources and backgrounds.
Finally, it had the strongest characteristics of a movement. It has a clear vision formulated in an understandable and activist-related way. I was attracted to the group because the organization had a strong urge to challenge and criticize despite external pressure and difficult times.
It also seemed to be tough and flexible at the same time and capable of nurturing new leaders and workers in pursuit of its objectives. The message, the mission, the struggle, and the sacrifice as formulated by the movement’s founder had a huge impact on my feelings and thoughts at a time. As a young man, I wanted to fight for something as I lived in Denmark and in a parallel Muslim society.
Why did I leave?
As a junior religious student and activist, I got into an open circle, gradually joining senior Brotherhood members. I eventually became a member and a “worker” serving the organization’s mission. Then, over many years, I became much familiar with the atmosphere and culture within the movement. I rose to become a prominent Brotherhood figure in the Danish inner circle, then came into contact with other Europe and the Middle East circles.
But then, I developed concerns related to the movement, the Islamic ideology, and my reflections on life. As for the movement, I disagreed with its attitude toward different political and religious issues, as seen how it dealt with taking power in Sudan and later the uprisings during the Arab Spring. I also found it hypocritical that it supported the Afghanistan war against the USSR but did not take a position in other cases like Chechnya.
While the Brotherhood showed clarity in rejecting and condemning terrorism against European civilians and acts of Al-Qaeda against the United States, it continued to support and approve suicide bombers and other attacks on civilians in Israel. It seemed as if one kind of terror was acceptable, while another was not, depending on the Brotherhood’s choice of political line.
I found the movement’s political hypocrisy too much for my mind to cope with. The objectives did not reflect the idealism emphasized during the recruitment process. For example, the Brotherhood strongly advocated the idea of changing society into a just and equal Caliphate in Pakistan, Egypt, and Sudan, but not in Europe and Tunisia.
Such a change of heart is perhaps common among people leaving an ideology or an organization after being committed to it. It also became evident that the leadership is more concerned with political power than spiritual salvation. Due to my doubts and changing views, I went through a long process of reflection between 2007 and 2012.
In sum, I had three main critical issues concerning the movement:
Firstly, accepting a totalitarian truth necessitates excluding others and using power to enforce one “truth” for that particular ideology. If the Muslim Brotherhood were to take power, it would have to deal with other Islamic movements in various countries such as the Salafi, Hizbollah, Hizb-U-Tahrir, and secular Muslim organizations. This dichotomy became evident even among branches within the movement, with the Brotherhood helping its member, Sudan’s Ahmad Bashir, to power and the consequent struggle with Shiraz-ul-Thahab and Turabi.
The same goes for Turkey and Erdoğan’s clashes with his people, fellow Islamic party members, and friends like former foreign minister Ahmad Davut-Oglu or the US-based Abdullah Gulen. The Brotherhood’s totalitarian view left little place for understanding and acceptance when the truth is an excuse to use power against those with different views. Such an approach can only have adverse effects and lead to suppression, as seen on multiple occasions.
Secondly: the ideals that appear so worthy in words are not reflected by the cynical reality. Many examples demonstrate how idealists and naive women and men found a group of power-seeking leaders climbing the ladder – not to God and heaven – but the chairs of parliaments or kingdoms.
Egypt and Tunisia are two examples. The same story was repeated in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and Somalia. Then there is the example of Hamas and Gaza, where “Men of God” took power and stayed in it. Iran is another example of an ideology-driven change that became a domestic one-party system.
These “men of God” should be aware that they should not tread God’s spirit by forcing themselves on the people and in politics because, as a consequence, their path to heaven becomes the path to earthly power in the name of the heavens. This culture of suppressing politically in God’s name needs some serious reflection.
The third reason was my growing awareness of the many contradictions in pronouncements. I had heard along the way that the movement tried to position a politically correct view consistent with its place and time. However, with changing circumstances, the leadership was choosing to dilute the “values.” This became evident in more than one statement, book, and numerous shifts in viewpoints. The leadership was prepared to pursue Machiavellian approaches, involving the manipulation of others based on a fanatical outlook solely focused on seeking power to achieve their goals.
Meanwhile, reflections on my life became a long and tormenting process. Since identity and visions are the constellations of a man’s views, shifting those beyond personal ideology needed a dive into a deeper inner self. I reckon I managed to redefine despite the risks involved to the extent that today I have a new ground to stand on independent of the Brotherhood. Following the tumult, I emerged with a clear mind on my life and values.
I had to make a calculated choice between the pluralist philosophical basis of my society and the totalitarian Islamist worldview. I left the Brotherhood by writing a resignation letter, which I delivered to the main office in North Lebanon. It expressed the hope that the movement would reflect and reform from within. My departure was peaceful and respectful. But I also left with a broken heart and a tired mind having wasted so many years on an ideal that I grew to realize didn’t ring true for me.
A friend or an adversary?
Whether the Muslim Brotherhood represents an extreme or a moderate view, professes acceptable practice of religious rituals, I would say it is difficult to answer given the complexity and inclusiveness concealed within the group.
A closer examination of the Brotherhood shows:
- They are resilient and tough but also dynamic and adaptable. They work from the bottom-up while being driven by a top-down attitude;
- They are secretive and protective of their views and ideas but have a global mission and appeal;
- They are compartmental yet have a global reach;
- They adapt to the trends but still hold on to a fundamentalist vision for change.
Ideology and religious orthodoxies are usually fixed on a clear set of values and ideas. The Brotherhood incorporates an ideology and a religiously orthodox view somewhere between Salafi and the Sufi teachings. What makes the Brotherhood elusive is their politics and attempts to work for regime changes and/or their quest to usurp power.
The organization operates in a grey zone that allows it to maintain opacity or avoid trouble by shifting the movement from one goal to another. In some countries in the Far East, South East Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East, they work to revive the Caliphate, while in others, they are content with being a social movement alone. For a long time, the Brotherhood leadership has followed a strategy of ambiguously respecting democratic processes to gain a foothold in the West. This approach is found in the works of two Brotherhood scholars and celebrated names, Faisal Malawi and Yusuf Qaradawi.
These two scholars had a significant impact on the Brotherhood’s thoughts and activism in the West as they gave religious legitimacy to the strategy. This approach was later taken to a new level of influence by Tariq Ramadan’s attempts to show the gentle side of the Islamic lifestyle by building significantly on the interpretations of Qaradawi and others.
Herein lies the trouble. Being religious is, in my opinion, a way to achieve spiritual salvation. It is not a way to assume power and “save others,” as is claimed. So, when religious organizations turn political, they pursue a manipulative approach based on the division of society into friends and enemies.
Therefore, the Brotherhood is trying to protect gains such as its institutional influence, investors, and educational organizations by being somewhat elusive and strategic in its approach in the West. This contrasts with its harsh and fanatical approaches in some places in the East and most of the Muslim world.
I have tried to show some elements that distinguish the Muslim Brotherhood and make the organization hard to understand and difficult to put in a box. It is certainly not easy to eliminate. With good reason, the Brotherhood is described as the mother of Islamist movements and the biggest challenge for political leaders in the Muslim world and beyond.
I see the Brotherhood as a major challenge in the mid to long term. Yes, for the West, there are strong problematic sides to the Brotherhood. It is undoubtedly a source for the Islamization of ideological thought and cultural understanding. Its tactics and strategies are grounds for radical thinking and lifestyles.
Despite its efforts to show itself as a moderate and non-violent group, and despite efforts to hide in plain sight behind secretive practices and meetings, the Brotherhood is going to clash with Western society at some stage in the coming decade. This is why it is critical to reveal its hidden face that many of us ex-members are talking about to try and raise awareness about the group.