Mohammed Abu Zaid/AP Images

Muslim Brotherhood leaders Saad el-Katatni (center left) and Essam el-Eriam (center right) taking part in a protest in Cairo, January 30, 2011

As US-backed strongmen around North Africa and the Middle East are being toppled or shaken by popular protests, Washington is grappling with a crucial foreign policy issue: how to deal with the powerful but opaque Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt, the Brotherhood has taken an increasingly forceful part in the protests, issuing a statement on February 3 calling for Mubarak’s immediate resignation. And though it is far from clear what role the Brotherhood would have if Mubarak were to step down, the movement is likely to be a major player in any transitional government.

Journalists and pundits are already giving advice on the strengths and dangers of this eighty-three-year-old Islamist movement, whose various national branches are the most potent opposition force in virtually all of these countries. Some wonder how the Brotherhood will treat Israel, or if it really has renounced violence. Most—including the Obama administration—seem to think that it is a movement the West can do business with, even if the White House denies formal contacts.

If this discussion evokes a sense of déjà vu, that is because over the past sixty years we have had it many times before, with almost identical outcomes. Since the 1950s, the United States has secretly struck up alliances with the Brotherhood or its offshoots on issues as diverse as fighting communism and calming tensions among European Muslims. And if we look to history, we can see a familiar pattern: each time, US leaders have decided that the Brotherhood could be useful and tried to bend it to America’s goals, and each time, maybe not surprisingly, the only party that clearly has benefited has been the Brotherhood.

How can Americans be unaware of this history? Credit a mixture of wishful thinking and a national obsession with secrecy, which has shrouded the US government’s extensive dealings with the Brotherhood.

Consider President Eisenhower. In 1953, the year before the Brotherhood was outlawed by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, a covert US propaganda program headed by the US Information Agency brought over three dozen Islamic scholars and civic leaders mostly from Muslim countries for what officially was an academic conference at Princeton University. The real reason behind the meeting was an effort to impress the visitors with America’s spiritual and moral strength, since it was thought that they could influence Muslims’ popular opinion better than their ossified rulers. The ultimate goal was to promote an anti-Communist agenda in these newly independent countries, many of which had Muslim majorities.

One of the leaders, according to Eisenhower’s appointment book, was “The Honorable Saeed Ramahdan, Delegate of the Muslim Brothers.”* The person in question (in more standard romanization, Said Ramadan) was the son-in-law of the Brotherhood’s founder and at the time widely described as the group’s “foreign minister.” (He was also the father of the controversial Swiss scholar of Islam Tariq Ramadan.)

Eisenhower officials knew what they were doing. In the battle against communism, they figured that religion was a force that the US could make use of—the Soviet Union was atheist, while the United States supported religious freedom. Newly declassified Central Intelligence Agency analyses of Said Ramadan were quite blunt, calling him a “Phalangist” and a “fascist interested in the grouping of individuals for power.” But the White House went ahead and invited him anyway.

By the end of the decade, the CIA was overtly backing Ramadan. While it’s too simple to call him a US agent, in the 1950s and 1960s the United States supported him as he took over a mosque in Munich, kicking out local Muslims to build what would become one of the Brotherhood’s most important centers—a refuge for the beleaguered group during its decades in the wilderness. In the end, the US didn’t reap much for its efforts, as Ramadan was more interested in spreading his Islamist agenda than fighting communism. In later years, he supported the Iranian revolution and likely aided the flight of a pro-Tehran activist who murdered one of the Shah’s diplomats in Washington.

Cooperation ebbed and flowed. During the Vietnam War, US attention was focused elsewhere, but with the start of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, interest in cultivating Islamists picked up again. That period of backing the mujahideen—some of whom morphed into al-Qaeda—is well known, but even in recent years Washington has continued to flirt with Islamists, and especially the Brotherhood.

In the years after the September 11 attacks, the United States initially went after the Brotherhood, declaring many of its key members to be backers of terrorism. But by George W. Bush’s second term, the US was losing two wars in the Muslim world and facing hostile Muslim minorities in Germany, France, and other European countries, where the Brotherhood had established an influential presence. The US quietly changed its position.


The Bush administration devised a strategy to establish close relations with Muslim groups in Europe that were ideologically close to the Brotherhood, calculating that it could be an interlocutor in dealing with more radical groups, such as the home-grown extremists in Paris, London, and Hamburg. And, as in the 1950s, government officials wanted to project an image to the Muslim world that Washington was close to Western-based Islamists. So starting in 2005, the State Department, taking account of the Brotherhood’s rising power in Egypt and elsewhere, launched an effort to woo the Brotherhood. In 2006, for example, it organized a conference in Brussels between European Muslim Brothers and American Muslims, such as the Islamic Society of North America, who are considered close to the Brotherhood. All of this was backed by CIA analyses, with one from 2006 saying that the Brotherhood featured “impressive internal dynamism, organization, and media savvy.” Despite the concerns of Western allies that supporting the Brotherhood in Europe was too risky, the CIA pushed for cooperation. As for the Obama administration, it carried over some of the people on the Bush team who had helped devise this strategy.

Why the enduring interest in the Brotherhood? Since its founding in 1928 by the Egyptian schoolteacher and imam Hassan al-Banna, the Brotherhood has managed to voice the aspirations of the Muslim world’s downtrodden and of its often confused middle class. It explained their backwardness using an interesting mixture of fundamentalism and fascism (or reactionary politics and xenophobia): today’s Muslims aren’t good enough Muslims and must return to the true spirit of the Koran. Foreigners, especially Jews, are part of a vast conspiracy to oppress Muslims.

This message was—and still is—delivered through a modern, political party–like structure that includes women’s groups, youth clubs, publications and electronic media, and, at times, paramilitary wings. It has also given birth to many of the more violent strains of radical Islamism, from Hamas to al-Qaeda, although many such groups now find the Brotherhood too conventional. Little wonder that the Brotherhood, for all its troubling aspects, is interesting to Western policymakers eager to gain influence in this strategic part of the world.

But the Brotherhood has been a tricky partner. In countries where it aspires to join the political mainstream, it renounces the use of violence locally. Hence the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt says it no longer seeks to overthrow the regime violently—although its members there think nothing of calling for Israel’s destruction.

In Egypt, the Brotherhood’s political platform officially says that women and Christians should not be allowed to become president. The platform also calls for religious oversight of secular courts and of all laws passed by civilian institutions. Whether this would be the thin edge of Islamic law, or sharia, is hard to know—even defining sharia is difficult because so many interpretations of the Koran are possible and have been championed by various schools of Islamic jurisprudence. But even if more moderate voices win out, it’s hard to see how the Brotherhood’s involvement in post-Mubarak Egypt will not increase pressures on ordinary people to conform to a more orthodox, or even fundamentalist, lifestyle that could be quite different from today.

Comparisons are imperfect but just across the border the case of Gaza may be instructive. The takeover by the Brotherhood’s Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, did not result in an Iranian-style theocracy, but did change the benchmarks for behavior in daily life. Palestinians have been urged to adhere to a more orthodox interpretation of their religion, such as attending prayers or women wearing the veil. In addition, Islamic content in education has increased.

Some may say that Gaza’s history of occupations as well as its weak civil society and lack of alternatives to Hamas make it unique. Take then Europe, where the Brotherhood has tried to fit into established, secular states. There, the Brotherhood’s vision of Islam is enunciated by the European Council on Fatwa and Research, which is run by a who’s who of Brotherhood leaders from around the world, including the Qatari-based cleric Youssef Qaradawi and Rachid Ghannouchi, who recently returned to Tunis after twenty years in exile.

A few years ago, I observed a fatwa council meeting and heard a Syrian-born German speaker explain the perceived moral lapses of young European Muslims by quoting from the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, believing that this anti-Semitic tract was a reputable source. No one hooted him down; instead his speech was published as one of the council’s working papers. Decisions of the council often disregard local, secular law; one case the council decided involved a French Muslim who tried to divorce his wife by speaking the sentence “I divorce you” three times—the traditional way of breaking a marriage. The council eventually said the divorce was invalid, not because such utterances are irrelevant to French law, but because the husband was drunk and thus not in full possession of his faculties.


It is important to note that the Brotherhood has moderated many of its views over the years. The European council, for example, ruled several years ago that European Muslims may take out mortgages to buy homes—mortgages are based on interest and usually are taboo. It has also encouraged Muslims to vote in local elections. While these fatwas are only binding in Europe, they show that the Brotherhood is not immovable and monolithic. The council’s chairman, Qaradawi, epitomizes this bifurcated worldview. He says that women may work and has said that he appreciates music, which ultra-orthodox Muslims shun. But he also advocates the stoning of homosexuals and the murder of Israeli children—because they will grow up and could serve as soldiers.

Qaradawi is hardly an outlier. In recent years, he has often been mentioned as a candidate to be the Egyptian branch’s top leader. Through a sophisticated network of television stations and Internet sites, he is very likely the most influential cleric in the Muslim world. On February 4, thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square listened to a broadcast of his sermon. He has also declared martyrs those demonstrators who died defying the government.

Qaradawi’s involvement is symbolic of the Brotherhood’s growing influence in the wave of protests around the region. In Egypt, the Brotherhood, after a slow start, has become a major player in the antigovernment coalition; on February 6, members of the Brotherhood headed a group of opposition figures that met with Vice President Omar Suleiman. In Jordan, where the group is legal, the king met with the Brotherhood for the first time in a decade. And in Tunis, Ghannouchi recently returned home from his London exile as a leader of the Tunisian Renaissance Party, the country’s main Islamist opposition. None of this means that these countries are about to be ruled by the Brotherhood—in Egypt, the coalition against Mubarak includes many other groups—but it is hard to imagine how the Brotherhood and the general Islamist ideology that it has championed for so long can fail to gain influence.

All of this points to the biggest difference between then and now. Half a century ago, the West chose to make use of the Brotherhood for short-term tactical gain, later backing many of the authoritarian governments that were trying to wipe it out. Now, with those governments tottering, the West has no choice; after decades of oppression one of the few actors left standing is the Brotherhood, with its potent mixture of fundamentalism and modern political methods.

—February 7, 2011