Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters Supporters of Muslim Brotherhood during a protest in front of al Tawheed mosque in Cairo, August 23, 2013.

O Brotherhood, What Art Thou?

How to Classify the Islamist Group

Over the last few years, there has been increasing debate in the West over whether the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group with broad influence in the Middle East, should be considered a terrorist group. In the United Kingdom, Brotherhood-affiliated groups were once allied with the government in its fight against terrorism. But in 2014, then British Prime Minister David Cameron changed course, commissioning a critical inquiry into whether various Brotherhood-inspired organizations in the United Kingdom were a threat to national security. The report concluded that “membership of, association with, or influence by the Muslim Brotherhood should be considered as a possible indicator of extremism," but did not recommend outright banning the group.

Cameron's move had apparently been influenced by the decisions of United Kingdom's Middle East allies to deal harshly with the Islamist organization. In 2013, after Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was deposed in a coup led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the group was banned. In 2014, Saudi Arabia designated the group a terrorist organization, as did the United Arab Emirates. Jordan, too, has been cracking down on the Brotherhood.

The United States is now also debating whether to label the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. In 2015, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida attempted to push the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act through Congress, which would have barred Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated organizations within the United States. The act, however, stalled in the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, and was shelved for some time. Then in January, a week before the inauguration of Donald Trump, Cruz reintroduced the bill before a Republican-dominated Congress and with an incoming president who had signaled his intentions to make the fight against “radical Islamic terrorism” a priority. Indeed, the president considered banning the group just last month.

Such a ban, however, is wrong on a number of levels. Cruz’s proposal begins by listing other countries that have outlawed the Brotherhood, such as Bahrain, Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Most of the nations on this list can be characterized as totalitarian, and a few are at best weak democracies with totalitarian tendencies. The Muslim Brotherhood movement, on the other hand, has regularly expressed its support and commitment to democracy. Its Shura Council, which is responsible for formulating the group’s policies, has endorsed democracy. Various Brotherhood offshoots, such as in Morocco and Jordan, have participated in democratic elections, and have been a force in pushing for democratization. Of course, in some cases, Brotherhood-related Islamists have been notably slow in seeking consensus with their opponents within government. In Egypt, for example, the Brotherhood was criticized for not seeking consensus when it came into power after the Arab Spring. At the time, Morsi did indeed issue a decree giving himself broad powers, but at no stage did Morsi or the Brotherhood violate the Egyptian constitution, unlike current president Sisi, who has curtailed large parts of the opposition and imprisoned political opponents.

Like the British report, Cruz’s bill analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood suffers from a number of deficiencies. In attempting to explain the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, it focuses almost exclusively on the works of two former leaders—founder Hasan al-Banna and leading member Sayyid Qutb. But Banna has been ambiguous in his writings, at times endorsing violence, and at others condemning it. To resolve this obscurity—to obtain the Muslim Brotherhood’s current interpretation of Banna’s word—one would need to interview the Brotherhood’s current leaders. Their opinions are noticeably absent in Cruz’s bill. Qutb, an Egyptian theorist and former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, is a controversial figure within the movement. His extreme ideas have split the Brotherhood’s top leadership in Egypt. Hassan al-Hudaybi, who led the Egyptian Brotherhood from 1951 until his death in 1973, distanced himself from Qutb’s teachings early on.

Importantly, since Banna’s assassination in 1949 and Qutb’s death in 1966, the Muslim Brotherhood has changed. In fact, its ideology is still developing. The bill, given its preoccupation with Banna and Qutb, fails to acknowledge this and disregards over four decades of Brotherhood evolution from the 1960s to the present day. In my interviews with Brotherhood leaders in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (for a forthcoming Harvard Belfer Center report funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs), many of them noted their admiration for leaders like Rached Ghannouchi, a co-founder of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party. He promotes democracy and human rights and does not care whether female parliamentarians within his party wear hijabs. Ennahda was once an Islamist party but is no longer, and has sought consensus with its secular political opponents. Brotherhood leaders also expressed support for Salman al-Ouda, the Saudi cleric who in April 2016 condemned the persecution of gay people.

In my interviews with these leaders, I was struck by how dynamic a movement the Muslim Brotherhood is, one where new impulses shape the views of the group’s older leadership. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood still supports some ultraconservative ideas, such as a patriarchal view of women’s roles in society. Still, the Muslim Brotherhood is a nuanced movement, and understanding it requires knowing who the current movers are and where they stand ideologically.

In that vein, the proposed bill fails to distinguish between mainstream leaders of the Brotherhood and those who broke away and now belong to extremist groups. The bill highlights how Hassan al-Turabi, a former Islamist political leader in Sudan, sponsored terrorism, and yet failed to note that Turabi broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s before he began openly supporting terrorism. Similarly, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is also linked to the Muslim Brotherhood without any mention of having left the group. Al Qaeda’s critique of the Brotherhood, as well as those from affiliated groups such as al Shabab, was often explicitly about the Brotherhood’s “cooperation with the West” and endorsement of “Western” democracy. This fact is also left out of the bill.

Cruz’s proposed ban on the Muslim Brotherhood not only overlooks the true nature of the contemporary organization but ignores the group’s role in helping the West fight terrorism. In 2003, the United Kingdom had partnered with various Brotherhood-affiliated organizations to remove radical imam Abu Hamza and root out British al Qaeda sympathizers from the Finsbury Park Mosque in London. Today, the British government has backed away from the harsher position it took in its 2015 report and once again considers the Muslim Brotherhood a firewall against extremism. Brotherhood affiliates, and organizations with origins in the brotherhood, are currently and have been allied with the United States in the past in places like Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, which are struggling against Iran’s influence, as well as terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and al Shabab.

Even Israel, which is not known for being soft on Islamists, allowed the southern-based Islamic Movement, which has clear origins in the Muslim Brotherhood, to participate in parliamentary elections. Although Saudi Arabia has banned the Muslim Brotherhood, it has interacted with Yemen’s al-Islah, an Islamist party that can also be traced back to the Muslim Brotherhood, as both parties have a common enemy in the Houthis, who took over Sanaa in 2014. Saudi Arabia has also formed a close relationship with the Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood, as it sees the group as an important check against Shiite influence.

There are, of course, valid critiques of the Brotherhood. Parts of the group call for the death penalty for apostasy, for example. Another equally important critique was the Egyptian Brotherhood’s failure to seek consensus during the country’s political transition. But the best way forward is to support the group’s more mainstream factions while censuring its more extreme subgroups. A ban would only hurt American interests, particularly when it comes to fighting terrorism and countering Russia and Iran’s influence in the Middle East. What the United States needs is critical engagement with the Brotherhood, through discussions and constructive critique—not an outright ban.

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