Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood is the most influential Islamist movement in the world. It aims to establish a pan-Islamic state (Caliphate) uniting Muslim countries under one Islamist leadership.
The organization strongly believes it should deploy the necessary efforts not only to rule according to Sharia law but also to Islamize society, laws, governance, and all aspects of life.
The Brotherhood is the ideological fountainhead and inspirational source for all other violent Islamist militant groups. The extremist ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood is behind the violence perpetuated in the name of religion across the Muslim world and beyond. Its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam has directly influenced hundreds of jihadist leaders in the past 60 years. The jihadism of terrorist leaders such as Osama Bin Laden, Ayman Al Zawahiri and Abdullah Azzam was rooted in theological framework provided by the Muslim Brotherhood.
During the Arab uprisings, the decades-long use of religion for political purposes by the organization finally paid off. The Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates in Tunisia and Morocco won elections and were able to form governments for the first time in their history. Nevertheless, the post-uprisings experience in power, particularly in Egypt, was disastrous. Due to its intellectual shallowness, lack of competence, and polarizing policies towards other political parties and religious minorities, the Brotherhood was ousted from power in Egypt in just one year after its victory in parliamentary and presidential elections. Most importantly, its use of religion for political aims backfired.
The organization’s core belief that the ‘religiosity’ of its members would make them highly capable of swiftly addressing the complex socio-economic issueswas proved wrong.
Hassan Al Banna, a school teacher, founded the Muslim Brotherhood in March 1928 in Ismaliyya, a city situated along the western bank of the Suez Canal. In its first few years, the organization remained relatively small as its activities focused mainly on attracting more members in areas within Ismaliyya. Four years later, Al Banna decided to move the organization to Cairo with the aim of expanding it. Subsequently, the organization’s membership grew significantly, and by 1938, it had 300 offices and thousands of members.
The Muslim Brotherhood has since become the most influential transnational Islamist organization in the world. It aims to establish a pan-Islamic state (Caliphate) uniting Muslim countries under one Islamist leadership. The organization strongly believes it should strive to not only establish rule according to Sharia law but also to Islamize society, governance and all other aspects of life.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as a charity organization and a da’wa (preaching) forum promoting a return to “true” Islamic values and practices, it gradually became vocal about Egypt’s political issues. Capitalizing on the surge in popularity due its support for the Arab revolt in Palestine from 1936-1939 against the British Mandate, the Brotherhood’s newsletters started to heavily criticize the monarchy in Egypt. However, the organization’s full engagement in politics happened when it announced its own candidates for the 1941 parliamentary elections. In the wake of its growing political weight and complex relationship with the monarchy, the British authorities, and other political parties, the Brotherhood created, somewhere between 1938 and 1940, what came to be known internally as the Nizam Al Khass (the Special Organization) and externally as the Jihaz Al Sirri (the Secret Apparatus).
This paramilitary group’s mission was to protect the leaders of the organization and realize its political goals through violence, if necessary. Although Al Banna advocated gradualism in the fulfillment of the Islamist project in Egypt, his green light to the establishment of the secret apparatus reflected the growing conviction within the Brotherhood about the need for the use of violence to achieve political aims.
After its adoption of violence as a strategy, authorities began to take a dim view of the Brotherhood. When a large number of arms belonging to the Brotherhood were discovered in the capital in 1947, and after a car filled with explosives was found in 1948, the government dissolved the movement in 1948. The Muslim Brotherhood retaliated by assassinating the Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmud Fahmi Al Nuqrashi. Six months later, in February 1949, Al Banna, the founder and General Guide of the organization, was murdered near his office, likely in retaliation for the Brotherhood’s involvement in Al Nuqrashi’s murder.
Despite the debilitating blows the organization suffered between 1947 and 1949, its priority remained Islamizing society through a gradual approach. In hopes of achieving this goal, the Brotherhood supported Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 ouster of King Farouk. The group was convinced the “reconciliation” with the Revolutionary Command Council would grant it the opportunity to become an active political actor. However, its calculations proved to be wrong. The new revolutionary leadership in Egypt ordered the organization dissolved in January 1954, leading to the imprisonment of several Brotherhood leaders. Furthermore, the assassination’s attempt by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood against President Nasser in October 1954 had a severe impact on the organization’s ability to survive and operate. Thousands of its members were jailed and many were forced into exile.
Nasser’s victory in the Suez crisis against Israel, the UK and France in 1956 and his growing popularity led to the government easing its iron-fisted policy against the Brotherhood by the end of 1958. The Egyptian authorities pardoned the General Guide of the Brotherhood, Hasan Hudaybi, and also released some low-ranking members from prison. To some extent, this allowed the freed members to meet, exchange ideas and implement some organizational changes. This resulted in the establishment of a sub-group within the Brotherhood called ‘Organization 1965’. During this time, Sayyid Qutb, a prominent member of the Brotherhood who had been released in 1964, became the leader of the new body.
In fact, Qutb’s ideological influence among members of the Brotherhood was growing even before his release from prison. Qutb had written most of his Islamist books while in prison, including his most important one – Milestones (Ma’alim fi Al Tariq) – in which he laid out his ideological framework on Islamism.
Crucially, Qutb’s radical religious and political views filled the ideological vacuum within the organization left by the death of Al Banna, and successfully revived the Islamist project among the group’s members. In his writings, Qutb challenged Nasser’s Arab nationalism and socialism, which he believed was against God’s laws (Sharia). Under his leadership, Organization 1965 started to discuss the legitimacy of using violence to bring the change the Brotherhood aimed to achieve.
Furthermore, the organization allegedly discussed political assassinations and ways to arm itself. In July 1965, there was a massive wave of arrests of Muslim Brothers. Most of the detained leaders, including Qutb, were charged with high treason and organizing a plot to assassinate Nasser. Qutb was sentenced to death and executed in 1966 while the General Guide Hudaybi was given a life sentence.
Amid heated debate on whether to support Nasser in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the most radical followers of Qutb broke away from the Brotherhood. For them, Nasser was not even a Muslim and, therefore, undeserving of their support. The new group, founded in 1971 and called Jama’at Al Muslimeen (Society of Muslims), wholeheartedly embraced Qutb’s Takfirism and called for an end to Jahilia (Age of Ignorance, a reference to society in pre-Islamic Arabia) in Egypt. The Egyptian authorities branded the group Al Takfir wa Al Hijra (excommunication and withdrawal) for their belief that Muslims who were not fighting the Egyptian government were apostates.
The extremist group called for a complete withdrawal from what it saw as the Jahilia society. Therefore, its members exiled themselves in the desert while they justified kidnappings, forced marriages and assassinations of anyone who was not part of the group. By the end of 1970s, despite a major security crackdown against the militants, the group kidnapped and murdered Islamic scholar and former Minister of Islamic Affairs Muhammad Al Dhahabi, who was a vocal critic of the jihadist movement that had splintered from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Following Nasser’s death on September 29, 1970, the Brotherhood initiated a rapprochement policy with Anwar Sadat, the new Egyptian President. For his part, Sadat saw the Brotherhood as a useful counterweight to the Left and the Nasserites. In fact, Sadat’s first years in power witnessed a significant shift in the government’s attitude towards Islamism. But, the peaceful co-existence between the organization and the authorities was relatively short-lived. Sadat’s decision to sign a peace deal with Israel triggered harsh criticism from the Brotherhood, other Islamist movements, and even the wider political class. In retaliation, the government arrested several opposition leaders, including prominent members of the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Omar Al Tilimsani, the General Guide of the organization. On October 6, 1981, Sadat was assassinated as he watched a military victory parade to mark Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel by Lieutenant Khalid Al Islambouli, a member of the Egyptian Islamic Group (EIJ), often known as Al Jihad. The Salafi jihadist group was founded in 1979 by Mohammed Abdul Salam Farraj, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Influenced by Qutb’s writings, Farraj and Islambouli believed that waging jihad was a necessary tool to end the Jahilia state while the assassination of Sadat was meant to remove a corrupt apostate leader (taghut). Both Farraj and Islambouli were arrested and later executed. Other members of the militant group, including Ayman Al Zawahiri, who would later become the Emir of Al Qaeda, were jailed until 1984.
Under Mubarak’s rule (1981-2011), the Brotherhood was still regarded as illegal but benefitted from a relative openness from the government. The group managed to infiltrate and spread its influence among student unions, professional syndicates, and other civil society organizations. However, by the beginning of the 1990s, the government became highly suspicious about the Brotherhood’s political aims and launched a massive arrest campaign against it and other Islamist movements. In the next decade, the Brotherhood remained resilient despite continued pressure from the security institutions. In 2005 parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood won 88 seats and became the largest organized opposition groups in the country.
During the Arab uprisings, the decades-long use of religion for political purposes by the organization finally paid off. The Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates in Tunisia and Morocco won elections and were able to form governments for the first time in their history. Nevertheless, the post-uprisings experience in power, particularly in Egypt, was short-lived and disastrous. Due to its intellectual shallowness, lack of competence, and polarizing policies towards other political parties and religious minorities, the Brotherhood was ousted from power in Egypt in just one year after its victory in parliamentary and presidential elections.
In his writings, Hassan Al Banna heavily criticized what he saw as Western cultural and political hegemony in Egypt, especially among the educated elite and their growing tendency to adopt “secular” Western values to the detriment of Islamic practices. In the face of this, Al Banna concluded that Islam was under threat, particularly following the abolition of the Ottoman Islamic Caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1924, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic. The solution to the decline of Islamic virtues in Egypt and the Muslim world, Al Banna concluded, was a return to “true Islam” both at the individual and the collective levels. This required a political ideologization of Islam, capable of purifying society from Western cultural “invasion” and existing “non-Islamic” practices.
Al Banna’s ideological framework not only emphasized a religious revival of society but also, importantly, turning Islam into a political ideology. In his understanding, Islam was the necessary foundation of state and society, and a comprehensive, self-sufficient system incorporating solutions to political, economic, cultural and social issues. This concept – the comprehensiveness of Islam – became the slogan of most Islamist organizations and groups in the Muslim world.
Although Al Banna was the first to build the organization’s extremist political and religious thought, Qutb played a crucial role in theorizing jihad and militancy to establish the ‘true’ Islamic society. Most jihadist movements in the past 40 years derived their ideological inspiration from Qutb. Qutb believed there were only two kinds of societies: the Islamic and the non-Islamic. In his understanding, the label ‘Muslim’ should only be given to those who follow Islam, not only in belief and way of worship, but also championing the restoration of Islamic law in all aspects of life. Thus, for Qutb, there was no middle ground and Muslims who accepted to live in or embrace other political, societal, cultural and economic systems were living in Jahiliya and Kufr (state of disbelief).
In the post uprising era in the region, political parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood were unable to address the most pressing political and economic challenges facing some Arab societies. While in power in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, the lack of political knowledge, vision and experience of the organization’s members significantly damaged their popularity and eventually ended the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief experience in power.
Most importantly, the use of religion for political aims backfired. The organization’s core belief that the ‘religiosity’ of its members would make them highly capable of swiftly addressing the complex socio-economic issues was proved wrong. In addition, despite being in power, the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in Egypt, refused to undertake the necessary ideological transformation away from its extremist political and religious beliefs. In fact, the group thought that its electoral wins in a critical transitional period gave it the right to change the nature of the state and the society through political maneuvers. But this could have undermined the very foundations of the state and society and potentially turn polarization between different political actors into an armed conflict.
As a result, the Brotherhood will continue to struggle to regain political and religious influence, especially, following the disastrous security, human and political ramifications caused as a result of the proliferation of Islamist groups in the region between 2011 and 2017.
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