America and the Muslim Brotherhood: A Romance

By Alex Joffe
Thursday, December 20, 2012

One of the most consistent and depressing aspects of U.S.-Middle Eastern relations is the determination of our intellectuals and officials to defend Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.  When Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi made his recent power grab, for example, immunizing his decrees from judicial review, Yale law professor Noah Feldman, said that Morsi merely “overreached”—and did so “in the service of preserving electoral democracy.”  State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland lamely characterized Morsi’s actions as a “far cry from an autocrat just saying my way or the highway.”

This indulgence, though, is merely the culmination of a more-than-60-year relationship, mostly hidden from view.  There has long been an on-again-off-again American romance with the Brotherhood.    

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna as a puritanical, reactionary pan-Islamic movement.  It developed as a state within a state, including a network of social welfare organs like hospitals, and an underground party apparatus that quickly spread to other countries.  Al-Banna had already met with the Mufti of Jerusalem in 1927; in 1945, he sent his son-in-law, Sa’id Ramadan, to set up a branch of the Brotherhood in Palestine.  Hamas, established in 1987, is the Brotherhood’s most recent Palestinian branch.

The Brotherhood collaborated with the Nazis before and during World War II.  In 1948 it murdered an Egyptian Prime Minister and in 1954 tried but failed to assassinate Gamal Abdel Nasser.  There followed a violent Egyptian crackdown on the organization.  The Brotherhood went underground, spawning more radical groups.  In the 1970s, while those groups picked up guns, the Brotherhood disavowed violence and, despite periodic bouts of suppression, re-entered Egyptian politics and, more important, Egyptian society.  When Mubarak was overthrown, it was well-positioned as the only organized and funded opposition group.  Little of this was foreseen or correctly understood in the West.

This lack of understanding has a history.  In the wake of World War II, the U.S. government’s perceptions of the Middle East were filtered through a single lens: the threat of Communism.  The threat was hardly just theoretical.  Moving into the vacuum created by Britain’s retreat from its colonies, the Soviet Union abrogated a treaty with Turkey in 1945 and demanded large chunks of Turkish territory.  It continued its wartime occupation of northern Iran until 1946 and attempted to set up puppet regimes in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan.  The entire “Northern Tier” seemed poised to fall to Communism, taking oil supplies with it.

The United States countered with proposals for NATO-like security alliances and ever-larger development schemes, like the Aswan Dam, designed to revolutionize standards of living across vast swaths of the Middle East and lessen the appeal of Communism.  The U.S. government also tried to make Islam itself into an American partner.  During the 1940s American officials met regularly with the Brotherhood, seeing it as a perfectly useful anti-communist tool.  What they knew about the Brotherhood’s violently anti-modern, anti-Semitic ideology is uncertain.

In 1953, the American Embassy in Cairo asked the State Department to invite Sa’id Ramadan, son-in-law of the Brotherhood’s founder, at U.S. government expense, to a “Colloquium on Islamic Culture” organized by Princeton University and the Library of Congress.  The colloquium was a cover for American efforts to enlist the aid of Muslim scholars and notables.  During the colloquium, Ramadan even met President Eisenhower.  When Egypt cracked down on the Brotherhood in 1954, Ramadan escaped, fleeing to Switzerland.  In Geneva he founded an Islamic Center and Al Taqwa Bank, both of which, with ample Saudi funding, have spread the Brotherhood throughout Europe and beyond.  Ramadan traveled widely, in part at American expense and perhaps on a CIA-supplied official Jordanian passport.  He spoke out against Communism—and promoted the Brotherhood.

Today, one of Ramadan’s sons, Hani, runs the Geneva center.  Another, Tariq, is a public intellectual who, as Paul Berman and others have noted, has mastered the art of appearing to be a liberal Islamic modernizer when in fact he is steadfast Islamist.  He is, of course, widely lauded in academia.

But U.S. involvement in the Brotherhood during the 1950s was more than anti-Communism.  As Ian Johnson shows in A Mosque in Munich, it also appealed, with its overtones of an “authentically” Arab and Muslim Middle East, to State Department Arabists and their academic counterparts who regarded Israel as an impediment to American friendship with the Arabs and an aberration that ruined an otherwise romantically pristine region.

The Cold War was a bonanza for Middle Eastern studies—which, as Martin Kramer has shown, rapidly moved away from analysis of history, religion, and texts toward models of “modernization” and “development” aimed at providing practical, relevant knowledge.  Study of religion and ideology played a reduced role.  Thus prepared, the field’s academics and the policy-makers they trained failed to predict the rise and fall of Arab nationalism, the emergence of Islamic fundamentalisms, and various revolutions from Iran to Egypt.  One might do better to examine what these experts confidently predict, then expect the opposite.

America’s fundamental inability to take religion and ideology seriously persists.  Senator John Kerry, likely the next Secretary of State, stated confidently after meeting Morsi in Cairo in June, 2012 that the Egyptian president was “committed to protecting fundamental freedoms” and “said he understood the importance of Egypt’s post-revolutionary relationships with America and Israel.”

The delusional quality of such thinking was exposed by Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in a recent piece tartly titled “Shame on Anyone Who Ever Though Mohammad Morsi was a Moderate.”  Trager, who has had first-hand experience with the Brotherhood, details its rigid ideological worldview and cell-like structure and laments the fact that such religious totalitarians could ever be mistaken for democrats.  But Trager’s remains a minority view inside and outside government. Believing what people say about the religious foundations of their politics cuts against the grain for overwhelmingly secular and politically liberal academics, who believe that materialism must be the true prime mover.  In this view, radical-sounding leaders, once in power, become “responsible” and “pragmatic;” “moderates” can be separated from “extremists” and “military wings” from “political wings.”  Suggestions to the contrary are crude prejudice.

For its part, the U.S. government has long displayed what historian Fawaz Gerges approvingly called an “accomodationist” approach, predicated on the belief that Islamic groups like the Brotherhood have sworn off violence.  But the Obama administration has shown even more willingness than its predecessors to look the other way in the face of Brotherhood abuses of power—and of women and religious minorities—in pursuit of an “authentic” Egyptian democracy.  It has not taken the Brotherhood’s credo to heart: “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law; the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.”

For Israel the situation has become especially grave.  Morsi, who can barely bring himself to utter its name, was lauded by the U.S. government, shortly before his coup, for his handling of the Israel-Gaza conflict.  He may face hundreds of thousands of internal protestors, but there is little to restrain him while there is no American financial pressure or Egyptian army opposition.  The Brotherhood’s Islamization of Egypt continues, transforming schools, courts, and mosques down to the local level.  When Mohammad Badie, “Supreme Guide” of the Brotherhood, states that “jihad is obligatory” for Muslims and calls peace agreements with Israel a “game of grand deception,” it behooves all parties to listen.

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