In This Review

The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement
The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement
By Carrie Rosefsky Wickham
Princeton University Press, 2013, 384 pp
Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria
Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria
By Raphael Lefèvre
Oxford University Press, 2013, 288 pp

The Muslim Brotherhood arose in Egypt in the late 1920s and still acts as a mother ship of sorts for most of the world’s Islamist movements. Wickham has studied the group for 20 years and has interviewed virtually all its leaders. She focuses on the current period, dating back to the 1980s, when Brotherhood members began participating in Egyptian parliamentary elections and organizing student and professional associations. She explores how engagement with the broader body politic has affected the values of individual Brothers and the organization as a whole, a topic that gained salience this summer, when the Egyptian military ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a former Brotherhood leader, and launched a violent crackdown on the group. Wickham’s account predates those developments but nonetheless presages such events. Although she suggests that participation in politics leads to moderation among Islamists, one could just as easily find evidence in the Egyptian experience that state repression has the same effect. In fact, the history of Islamist groups in places such as Morocco, Syria, and Turkey also indicates that repression leads to moderation, as Islamists adopt a self-denying principle of avoiding political victories that might panic their adversaries.

Like Wickham, Lefèvre relies heavily on interviews, in his case to trace the history of the Syrian branch of the Brotherhood. He demonstrates that although the Syrian branch took its inspiration and basic doctrines from Hasan al-Banna, the Egyptian founder of the Brotherhood, the movement in Syria has been autonomous and reflective of its home country’s peculiarities. Indeed, both Wickham and Lefèvre demonstrate that the Brotherhood has no international command-and-control system: it is no Comintern and is in fact more decentralized than even al Qaeda. In Egypt and Syria, the Brotherhood represents a broad spectrum of Islamist positions, from puritanical (including an endorsement of violence in some circumstances) to liberal (including respect for religious minorities and women’s political rights). In both places, the organization has struggled with internal cleavages between old-guard leaders -- veterans of prison whose priorities lie in social issues and proselytizing -- and a younger generation focused on political participation and elections. In Syria, the picture is complicated by differences between the Brotherhood’s incarnations in Damascus and Aleppo (more liberal) and Hama (more enamored of violent self-defense).

In both Egypt and Syria, the Brotherhood has been illegal for most of its existence. Despite that, the sibling organizations have practiced meaningful internal democracy within tight hierarchies. Each has an elected consultative council that votes on major policy decisions and leadership changes. These are dynamic organizations, capable of evolution.