FRIEND OR FOE?
The Muslim Brotherhood is the world's oldest, largest, and most influential Islamist organization. It is also the most controversial, condemned by both conventional opinion in the West and radical opinion in the Middle East. American commentators have called the Muslim Brothers "radical Islamists" and "a vital component of the enemy's assault force ... deeply hostile to the United States." Al Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri sneers at them for "lur[ing] thousands of young Muslim men into lines for elections ... instead of into the lines of jihad."
Jihadists loathe the Muslim Brotherhood (known in Arabic as al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen) for rejecting global jihad and embracing democracy. These positions seem to make them moderates, the very thing the United States, short on allies in the Muslim world, seeks. But the Ikhwan also assails U.S. foreign policy, especially Washington's support for Israel, and questions linger about its actual commitment to the democratic process.
Over the past year, we have met with dozens of Brotherhood leaders and activists from Egypt, France, Jordan, Spain, Syria, Tunisia, and the United Kingdom. In long and sometimes heated discussions, we explored the Brotherhood's stance on democracy and jihad, Israel and Iraq, the United States, and what sort of society the group seeks to create. The Brotherhood is a collection of national groups with differing outlooks, and the various factions disagree about how best to advance its mission. But all reject global jihad while embracing elections and other features of democracy. There is also a current within the Brotherhood willing to engage with the United States. In the past several decades, this current -- along with the realities of practical politics -- has pushed much of the Brotherhood toward moderation.
U.S. policymaking has been handicapped by Washington's tendency to see the Muslim Brotherhood -- and the Islamist movement as a whole -- as a monolith. Policymakers should instead analyze each national and local group independently and seek out those that are open to engagement. In the anxious and often fruitless search for Muslim moderates, policymakers should recognize that the Muslim Brotherhood presents a notable opportunity.
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