The July 2018 report by the US Congressional Subcommittee on National Security is the most important and comprehensive official Western document on the global threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood. It sheds unprecedented light on the secret ramifications of the Brotherhood, which is considered to be the mother house of contemporary Islamism, its tentacles in more than 70 countries around the world, and its supremacist dogma, which aims to establish Islamist world domination through a global “Islamic state”.By Atmane Tazaghart
The report is unequivocal about the totalitarian nature of the Brotherhood and its global ramifications and aims. In his opening statement at the beginning of the hearings, the chairman of the subcommittee, Ron DeSantis, asserted that “There’s no question that the Muslim Brotherhood affiliates are involved in terrorism […] Muslim Brotherhood networks raise money here in the U.S. to support terrorist activities”.
Agreeing with the subcommittee chairman, who welcomed the fact that “Thankfully, the Trump administration has discarded the Obama era policy of treating the Brotherhood as a potential ally”, Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, recalls that in 2011, James Clapper, President Barack Obama’s appointed director of national intelligence, caused an uproar after he said the Muslim Brotherhood was “a heterogeneous, largely secular group that has renounced its existence as an ally”. James Clapper, President Barack Obama’s appointee as Director of National Intelligence, caused an uproar after declaring the Muslim Brotherhood to be “heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried al-Qaida as a perversion of Islam,” arguing that “Clapper was way off the mark. For one, the Muslim Brotherhood is a gateway to jihadism […] It’s also a hate group. Its ideology is xenophobic, bigoted, and totalitarian.”
A misdirection that Hillel Fradkin, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, explains as follows: “First, we had an experiment of how the Brotherhood would behave in power. And it had been proposed before that that when they come to power they would be, through the exercise of power, they would learn to be moderate. That we saw was false, and there are reasons why it was false, because when they saw the opportunity to exercise total power they were keen to.”
For his part, the president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, Zuhdi Jasser, criticised the fact that “Unfortunately, much of the conversation about the Brotherhood has been obstructed, muted, marginalized, deferred, minimized by the Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers or their allies here in the West.” “The root cause of lslamist terrorism is the ideology of political Islam and a belief in the preference for and supremacy of an Islamic state and its attendant global union in a caliphate. Terrorism is but a means to that end.”
While asserting that “All of the Muslim leaders in our Muslim Reform Movement would agree that looking just at “Violent Extremism” (VE) is too nebulous, nonspecific and will result over and over in [intelligence] agency blinders to the attacks”, Zuhdi Jasser laments that “Since 9/11 the discussion of the global security threat of the Muslim Brotherhood has sadly and noticeably demonstrated our national disfunction in addressing the depth of the real threat of radical Islam and more specifically the threat of lslamism (aka, political Islam). Our negligence, ignorance, and distraction has enabled groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to take advantage of our unprecedented freedoms and excessively thrive in a manner frankly often not possible anywhere else in the world.”
This view is shared by Hillel Fradkin, who considers that “The controversy is —put it this way— there was the suggestion, especially beginning after 9/11, that by comparison with al-Qaida and other similar organizations the Brotherhood was moderate and could be a force for moderation. It was argued that it no longer seriously embraced the radical vision Banna had enunciated. Rather it was ready to participate in ordinary politics and through that participation would further moderate. The alleged model of its new destination was something like the Christian Democratic parties of Europe”, and he concludes, not without bitterness, that “We [the Americans] have now had one important test of these benign hopes and they have proven to be false”, because “it does skew the discussion insofar as it suggests that those who are not immediately active in violence […] are the parties to be worked with, the parties that are useful for interaction. And this is a continuous tendency. Once you’ve sort of made the distinction between the Brotherhood and al-Qaida, you say, okay, these are the guys we can work with”.
For his part, Congressman Paul A. Gosar considers that this dysfunction of the American strategy towards the Muslim Brotherhood is the result of a different problem. Gosar sees this dysfunctional US strategy towards the Muslim Brotherhood as a result of a different issue: “One of the biggest problems in making policy decisions with regard to the Muslim Brotherhood is the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood frequently creates front groups that while ostensibly are separate, but in reality have close ties to the mother ship […] This can include respectable institutions such as civil rights organizations, community groups, and charities. A recent report by the Middle East Forum concerning Islamic Relief, an international aid charity, documented extensive ties between Islamic Relief and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.”
Is there a global threat from the Muslim Brotherhood?
The exchanges between the panel members heard by the sub-committee take on a much less consensual tone when it comes to understanding the global threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Hillel Fradkin notes that the Brotherhood “rejected as such the nation state as a legitimate form of Muslim governance; he rejected it as a form of governance of alien origin and at variance with the traditional forms and ideals of Muslim governance that were imperial and ultimately global in character”.
Based on this same observation, Zuhdi Jasser considers that “there is no better representative of an organization with global reach that endlessly produces Islamist terror progeny than the Brotherhood.” But former ambassador Daniel Benjamin objects that “scholars, intelligence analysts, and policymakers over many years have come to agree, there is today no singular monolithic Muslim Brotherhood. Decades after the genesis of the Egyptian Ikhwan, there is no central administration linking these many different groups which are often said to have Brotherhood links, or of ideology or origins […] no serious researcher has demonstrated durable links between these groups that could be described as ones of command and control”.
To which Jonathan Schanzer replies: “It is not exactly heterogeneous, either. Many Muslim Brotherhood branches subject their members to rigid indoctrination processes and vet their members for their commitment to the organization’s ultimate goal, which is to empower the Brotherhood’s politicized and deeply intolerant interpretation of Islam.” And Zuhdi Jasser goes even further: “Muslims are not monolithic. But the Brotherhood, whether it’s 1.0 or 9.0, in the last 90 years is monolithic, and trying to say it’s not monolithic is dancing on the head of an pin.” He added that “it is as equally foolhardy in counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization work to refuse to acknowledge the role of political Islam in the threat as it is to villainize the whole of Islam and all Muslims”, arguing that “A denial of the truth about the Muslim Brotherhood has actually emboldened extremists on both sides of this debate: both radical lslamists and anti-Muslim fascists” while “truthfully identifying the Muslim Brotherhood as a radical terror organization does not demonize all or even most Muslims. In fact, identifying the primary cancer cell(s) of global radical Islamism will go a long way towards beginning to assuage the fears of concerned Americans”.
The ambivalence of the Muslim Brotherhood on the issue of jihadist violence
Another point of contention among the panelists was the involvement (or not) of the Muslim Brotherhood in jihadist violence. Hillel Fradkin argues that “What has been true is the issue of violence as far as the Brotherhood is concerned, going back to the beginning, was a tactical question. Was it useful at any particular stage to use violence to advance their goals? And al-Qaida has no doubt that violence is good, but the Brotherhood sees it otherwise, but as such, there is no repudiation of violence.”
Congressman Stephen F. Lynch, who sat on the sub-committee as chairman of the minority group (Democrats), points to the ambivalence of the Brotherhood: “While at one point the central Brotherhood body in Egypt officially renounced terrorism and violence under the Sadat regime in the 1970s, there is no doubt that certain affiliated organizations and spawn groups continue to espouse and engage in violent terrorist activity”.
Jonathan Schanzer explains this ambivalence by the fact that “if they [the Muslim Brotherhood] operate under a repressive regime, they are often left with no recourse but to recognize the regime and to renounce violence. They are more than willing to engage in the democratic process, but there’s really nothing in their creed, all right, which is ultimately the dogma that they all adhere to at their core, that suggests that they have given up violence as an approach or that they’ve embraced democracy”.
Faced with this dilemma, Zuhdi Jasser advocates moving away from the violence/non-violence binary: “The Brotherhood has offshoots of terror groups, and the non-violent group, I believe, gives cover to the Muslim Brotherhood terror groups […] We have for too long been playing a ‘whack-a-mole’ program against byproducts of Muslim Brotherhood ideologues rather than directly countering the primary cancer cells of the Muslim Brotherhood operations […] At some point every honest analyst will need to recognize that the fruit of the poisoned tree will never be acceptable, and it is the Brotherhood’s tree which is the primary problem in the Arab Sunni world and not just its ‘whack a mole’ byproducts”, for “So·called Violent Extremism (VE) is simply an endpoint of a common supremacist ideology that is innately theo·political and is a radicalization process that occurs over months to years and is far easier to publicly monitor than waiting for guess work on ‘Violent Extremism’”.
Subcommittee Chair Ron DeSantis concludes that while there are differing views on the Muslim Brotherhood’s ambivalent stance towards the use of jihadist violence, the veracity of the threat posed by the Brotherhood is not in doubt: “Between the radicalism of it hateful ideology, the danger of its theocratic rule, as seen in Egypt, its networks, including Hamas and HASM, and its powerful state sponsors, it is clear that the Brotherhood constitutes a real threat for the national security interests of the United States. We can debate the best way to counter this threat, but simply ignoring the threat is not an acceptable answer.”
Should the Muslim Brotherhood be listed as a terrorist organisation?
It is precisely on the issue of how to counter the global threat of the Muslim Brotherhood that the differences between the panel members are most pronounced. Worse still, almost all of the speakers adopt political positions, which run counter to their own expertise expressed during the hearing.
For example, Jonathan Schanzer, while acknowledging that “the Brotherhood appears homogenous in its adherence to a hateful, bigoted, and radical ideology”, recommends: “do not waste valuable Federal resources trying to designate the entire Brotherhood [as a terrorist organisation]. Focus on groups that have a history of violent acts and terrorist financing”.
Congressman Stephen F. Lynch, while acknowledging that Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations and groups “continue to espouse and engage in violent terrorist activity,” argues that “the effectiveness of our counterterrorism and force protection operations in the Middle East and North Africa demand that we approach this issue with caution. A wholesale designation would severely complicate our relationship with the regional security partners, including Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey, and Kuwait, where the Muslim Brotherhood functions within mainstream government and society […]. It could also further escalate the tension in the Middle East, which is already operating in a heightened state of conflict, where we still have 2,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, an estimated 6,000 troops deployed in Iraq”. He added, as if to ease his conscience, that “The other challenge with terrorism is their ability to adapt. And I think that just putting out a blanket designation on the Muslim Brotherhood, they will sidestep that in a heartbeat, and those organizations will reconfigure and reassemble in a way that will do nothing to reduce their lethality”.
In the end, only Zuhdi Jasser openly supported the Trump Administration’s move at the time to list the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. For the president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, “for too long we’ve been on the defense worried about what the reactions will be […] I see that concern, that defensiveness on the American posture about naming the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, as at best a form of bigotry of low expectations when it comes to Muslims [when] the importance of identifying the Muslim brotherhood as a terrorist organization could not be more clear to our national security and counterterrorism strategy. This will begin not only a necessary process of treating the cancer at its core before it metastasizes rather than its byproducts after it has already spread.”
Considering that “making the Muslim Brotherhood radioactive would allow the light to shine upon the most potent antagonists in Muslim communities: those who reject political Islamist groups and believe in liberty and the separation of mosque and state”, Zuhdi Jasser advocates “Use the MB designation as a template to transition immediately from the currently useless ideological center of CVE, countering violent extremism, to the more practical one of countering Islamism.”
Although visibly convinced by Zuhdi Jasser’s arguments, former ambassador Ryan Crocker, who served for a long time in the Middle East, gives him a diplomatic rebuff: “With a few exceptions, the Muslim Brotherhood is not our friend. They don’t like us and we don’t like them. But there is a huge difference between groups that don’t like us and groups that actively seek to harm us. We put ourselves in great danger by confusing the two”!
Another former ambassador interviewed, Daniel Benjamin, agrees, but without the burden of diplomatic politeness: “Policymakers and legislators, like physicians, must keep in mind the injunction to do no harm. A hardline approach to the Muslim” […].Taking a hard line against Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups and their members could prove disastrous […]. The U.S. faces a real and continuing threat from jihadist terrorist violence. Unwise actions to target the Muslim Brotherhood groups will only deepen the animus against America, and we should not do anything that helps our enemies attract more recruits. That, too, would be a blunder.”