Examining West’s history of ambivalence towards Muslim Brotherhood

Martyn Frampton's “The Muslim Brotherhood and the West” analyses the endless twists and turns of US and British engagement with the group.
Sunday 08/04/2018
Cover of Martyn Frampton’s “The Muslim Brotherhood and the West: A History of Enmity and Engagement.”

Martyn Frampton’s elegant and timely account of Western “enmity and engagement” with the Muslim Brotherhood over the last 80 years offers a thought-provoking explanation of political Islamism within the context of the region’s broader history.

Frampton’s “The Muslim Brotherhood and the West: A History of Enmity and Engagement” (Belknap Press) focuses on Egypt, the birthplace of the Brotherhood in 1928, and Anglo-Saxon engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood. It is essential reading for those seeking to understand the broader history of relations between the Arab world and the West over nearly 100 years.

The picture that emerges is layered yet curiously opaque, a reflection of the Muslim Brotherhood’s built-in ambivalence towards the exercise of power. Its founder, Hassan al-Banna described it as “a Salafi message, a Sunni way, a Sufi truth, a political organisation, an athletic group, a cultural-educational union, an economic company and a social idea.”

The result was a movement that offered the foremost opposition to British rule in Egypt in the 1930s, to Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after he overthrew Islamist President Muhammad Morsi in 2013.

The question of means has never ceased to haunt the Muslim Brotherhood — recourse to violence remained a temptation since Banna was killed in 1949, likely by Egyptian security forces in response to the assumed assassination of an Egyptian minister. More recently Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim Brotherhood preacher in Qatar, has argued in favour of suicide bombings by Palestinian militants.

The taint of virulent anti-Semitism, symbolised by the inclusion of references to the notorious tsarist forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in the charter of Hamas, the Brotherhood affiliate that controls Gaza, remains.

Tunisia’s Ennahda relinquished the reins of government in 2013, under pressure from civil society and the secularist opposition after watching the violent unravelling of events in Cairo. Ennahda co-founder Rached Ghannouchi speaks less of his friendship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and is mindful of appearing too close to Qatar, which is alleged to help bankroll the party.

Conspiracy theories proliferate where the Muslim Brotherhood is concerned. When Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and the first Egyptian president chosen in a relatively open contest, stood in 2012, he was accused by opponents of being an American stooge.

In this narrative, Washington’s aim was to forge a new Middle East in which existing countries, including Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, were broken up to further a “Greater Israeli Zionist” project formulated by the British-American historian Bernard Lewis and secretly adopted by the US Congress. The Brotherhood has been prone to believe and circulate conspiracy theories about Crusader-Zionist plots against the Islamic world.

Frampton analyses in detail the endless twists and turns of US and British engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood, a particular form of Kremlinology.

“At the end of the Cold War,” Frampton writes, “many observers of the Middle East had hoped that the region would benefit from the ‘third wave’ of democratisation. Some talked about the ‘end of history’ and envisaged an end to the ideological struggles that had overshadowed the 20th century. Others proclaimed a ‘new world order’ in which liberal internationalist values would be dominant.”

A less benign outlook posited that humanity might witness a clash of civilisations. The “green peril” would replace Soviet Communism as the new security threat. The readiness to have dialogue revealed a distinctive strand in Anglo-American foreign policymaking.

In “The Pursuit of Greatness: Britain and the World Role 1900-1970,” Robert Holland described the “characteristic search for malleable local partners to reduce the pressures and embarrassment of overseas rule.” This has meant the recourse to a language that is always trying to identify “moderates” and the desire to foster “moderation” against the forces of extremism.

The result was to choose and anoint allies within the Muslim Brotherhood, which was self-defeating because those willing to serve as “moderate” voices were often compromised by the experience.

Furthermore, “in the hands of the Muslim Brothers, the word ‘moderate’ could not be used as a synonym for ‘free-thinker’ or ‘open-minded’ and certainly not for ‘liberal,’” Holland wrote.

“Western diplomats were aware of the ambiguity surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood positions on a range of subjects, including the use of violence. They are not alone in this awareness. Millions of Tunisians find it difficult to take some of Ennahda’s statements of policy at face value. US relations with the Muslim Brotherhood continue to play second fiddle to broader strategic considerations. This is true of US and European relations, not least with Egypt and Tunisia.”

The civil war in Algeria after the 1991 elections were cancelled, to the great surprise of Washington and Paris, helped galvanise a debate within both foreign policymaking and academic circles about how to foster liberalisation and democratisation in an authoritarian regional context.

The response of most Western capitals to the Algerian crisis illustrates a point the author makes very well: that “the Islamist question was indeed tackled on a case-by-case basis and with a view to wider US interests. There was no comprehensive policy for how to deal with Islamism per se.”

In his contribution to “Whatever Happened to the Islamists? Salafism, Heavy Metal Muslims and the Lure of Consumerist Islam,” Frank Volpi set out “four key grand narratives that, in his assessment, shaped the views of Islamism generally: initial fears about the political backwardness of the Middle East in a modernising and secularising world; apprehensions over the revolutionary potential of ‘fundamentalism’ in the 1980s; debates in the 1990s about the democratic compatibility of Islamism; and questions about non-violent forms of Islamism.

The West has learned a few things since its earlier debates on Islamism. Until the 1980s, at an intellectual level, they remained “unpersuaded by the capacity of Islam to survive in the face of advancing modernity. Its role was deemed to be purely negative, perhaps staving off communism in the short-term but only by retarding the inevitable forces of progress.”

In the 1990s, many analyses of the outcome of the Algerian civil war were based on a conviction that time would favour the Islamists, that there was a fatalism about the trajectory of many societies in the Middle East. That led some observers, such as Graham Fuller, to say Algeria would be the next Islamic state.

Each of these views has shaped official Anglo-Saxon views of Islamism and the Brotherhood. The mixture of benign neglect and instrumentalism that have characterised such attitudes towards the Muslim Brotherhood must be set in a broader national, regional and global context, the former of these being the most important.

Western policymakers will continue to grapple with what they feel is the “Islamist dilemma” for years. The Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates have settled into that “liminal space between East and West,” as Frampton puts it. The whole subject has become inextricably “bound up with and affected by numerous other issues: debates about multiculturalism, integration and the place of Islam within Western societies; debates about how best to encourage democratisation in the broader Middle East and whether Islamists could be partners in a project of liberal reform and debates about how best to ‘prevent’ and diminish the violent threat posed by jihadi terrorists.”

This thought-provoking book offers many of the keys to understand the broader geopolitical context of Islamism and the long-standing US and British attempts to engage with such forces.