The British decision to launch an investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood and its alleged links with radical militancy has sparked widespread controversy. Many people are justifiably surprised by the sudden decision and the possibility that it is politically motivated by Saudi pressure. However, more alarming is the comment made by the Brotherhood’s most senior leader in the UK, Ibrahim Mounir, who said (according to the UK’s The Times) that banning the Brotherhood would leave Britain at greater risk of terrorist attacks. The problem with Mounir’s remarks is that they are based on a dichotomous and perilous view that holds “it is either the extremists or us”, which is wrong, dangerous and counter-productive.
The “terrorism or us” theory has been touted since 9/11 and classifies political Islam into two tiers: moderate and radical. It suggests that any conflict with alleged moderate Islamists will automatically force followers to subscribe to more radical forms of Islamism. This theory resurfaced after the forced ousting of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s former president of Egypt, and has now gained new ground in the UK following the decision to investigate the Brotherhood. Although the “target-one-target all” theory is plausible, it is based on fundamentally flawed assumptions.
First, the existence of non-violent Islamic groups per se does not stop radicalism. Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood is a peaceful group, but it has also not suspended or disowned the radical teaching of one of its main thinkers, the late hawkish leader and Islamic theorist Sayyed Qutb, who is considered the father of contemporary Islamist extremists.
In fact, many of the group’s current members are proud Qutb supporters, and often claim they only support his earlier views when he was more “moderate”. The problem is there is no mechanism to stop people from switching from following the non-violent early example of Qutb’s life to following the more radical later stage of his life. Ibrahim Mounir’s contemporary views indirectly reinforce this pitfall. The Brotherhood’s mercurial link with Qutb’s radical theories is the weakest link in its claim of peacefulness. The group needs serious recalibration of its internal teaching methods, not just to dispute Qutb’s radical views, but also to openly fight them. Many people do not know that Sayyid Qutb’s brother, supporter and promoter, Mohamed Qutb, passed away just this April, and was widely mourned in social media by many, including many so called “moderate” Islamists.
Second, oppression is not the only reason for radicalism. Looking at the history of fundamentalism in Egypt provides us with some clues. In the 1970s, radicalism resurfaced in Egypt, not because of Nasser’s oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, or the execution of Sayyid Qutb during the Nasser era, but because of the foreign policies of Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat. Although Sadat opted for a softer approach toward political Islam and released all Muslim Brotherhood cadres from prison, his appeasement policy failed to curb the anger of the radicals, who disapproved of his foreign policy. The peace deal with Israel and the alliance with the US provoked many Islamists, and ultimately led to Sadat’s assassination (by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad).
Third, the twisting of Western motives by radical teaching is the core reason behind attacks on Western targets. Many Islamists have openly and/or discreetly viewed Westerners as hypocrites who want to pursue their own interests. In 1952, during the so-called “moderate” stage of his life, Qutb wrote: “The Islam that America and its allies desire in the Middle East does not resist colonialism and tyranny, but rather resists Communism only.” If Qutb were alive, he would probably respond to the various analyses by warning of a new wave of global Jihadism as an inevitable outcome of the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by rephrasing his famous quote: “The Islam America and its allies desire in the Middle East does not resist tyranny, but rather only resists Al-Qaeda.”
The problem with the “terrorist or us” theory is that it reinforces the idea of Western opportunism suggested by Qutb and it attempts to reduce the concept of non-violent Islamism to an ideology that only serves Western interests. If it is framed in such narrow terms, it will not be authentic or convincing to fiery youth who may reject it as non-authentic.
Fourth, hyping fear. We must consider how recent, more daring Western actions are viewed, such as the French mission in Mali. The French, who directly attacked Jihadi strongholds and killed many radicals, have thankfully ended their mission without encountering any retaliation inside France. Undoubtedly, if the French government had blinked after threats and accepted bullying by a clutch of extremists, they could never have embarked on their mission. On the other hand, in terms of the scale of provocation, the British investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood seems a much less provocative act that should not lead to retaliation.
Bluffing and creating fear by hyping up situations are well-known tactics that Muslims and non-Muslims alike fall for. It is plausible that the Muslim Brotherhood is now playing the fear card because it wants to protect its own interests, but we should not buy that argument, as fear only produces unhealthy relationships based on suspicion and not trust.
Fifth, Muslims are not headless chickens and it is doubtful that advocates of the “terrorists or us” theory understand how offensive it is for ordinary Muslims, or how it can generate new and unnecessary Islamophobia. Portraying Muslims as people who are willing to channel their anger into violence whenever they are oppressed is a demeaning stereotype.
While it is true Muslims are sensitive to any attack on their religion, it is also true that the media has exaggerated most Muslim responses and extrapolated local responses in hot spots, such as Afghanistan, to wider Muslim societies around the globe. To claim that certain groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are the sole owners or sole representatives of Islam is a farce. The tragic events following the ousting of ex-president Morsi have proven one simple fact: not all Muslims are Islamists. In actuality, many pious Muslims do not agree with the ideologies of political Islamists, nor do they have a desire to enforce such an ideology on wider society. Therefore, subscribing to the political Islamist narrative of “terrorism or us” will alienate millions of peaceful Muslims around the globe.
Will terrorists attack the UK in the future? Possibly, but it will not be because of the current investigation, even if radicals claim differently. Instead, it will be because of opportunities taken by some to target innocents, who will grab at any kind of flawed reasoning to justify their sick actions.
Let us not succumb to bullies and their fear tactics. We need instead to stick to the values of transparency, accountability, and fairness. Britain had a history of collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood during the 1940s and 1950s. The current investigation is a chance to clear up the past relationship, and establish a new basis that prevents the propagation of myths and lies. It is also important that the British government dismisses any “dodgy” accusations against the Brotherhood from Egyptian or Saudi intelligence, and pursues only reliable evidence against the Brotherhood.
The world expects a better standard from the UK. The truth about the Muslim Brotherhood’s position should set a new, open and healthy approach that ends both Islamist victimhood and the Egyptian government’s paranoia. This approach will shield rather than expose Britain to terrorism.