The Muslim Brotherhood Movement: A Glance at its History and Ideology

Paper read at a conference

Arlington (Virginia), 2006

First published at

July 23, 2012

The West has enemies, and these enemies have declared war on us. Our enemies have no difficulty at all in identifying us, but we, on the contrary, have great difficulty in identifying them. It is with good reason that we hesitate to identify them, because if one of the great world religions is our sworn enemy, we are in for a difficult period. However, life has been difficult before, and as you all know the free world managed to survive both Nazism and Communism.

However, Europe on its own could never have survived the Nazis, or the Communists. American involvement in these struggles has been essential for the survival of Europe, and the same is true for the present battle. If the US does not participate in the present battle with all resources that are needed, especially its intellectual resources, the battle we are in will eventually be lost. Then Europe will fall. The fall of Europe may have long term consequences for the US. It is better not to speculate about these consequences.

The US war effort, any war effort, has to be directed against an enemy who can be named and identified. It is obvious that this is a political necessity because as you all know wars have to be supported by public opinion, but there is more to it. Without an identified and named enemy all war efforts are wasted. Without a named and identified enemy the war effort is not a war effort, but it is an exercise, and probably even an exercise in futility. The hesitation by the US authorities and media to name and define our present enemy undermines the security of the US, and hence the security of the rest of the world. In Europe, the situation in this respect is of course much, much worse.

The program of today’s conference suggests that we are not at war with Islam, or the majority of the Muslims, but with the Muslim Brotherhood. This organization was founded in the late twenties in Egypt, by a primary-school teacher who was at that point in time 23 years old. His name was Hasan al‑Banna. The first pamphlet al‑Banna wrote has not been included in any collection of his works. It is an undated pamphlet, but internal evidence suggests it was written in May 1929, and published not much later, probably in June 1929. The pamphlet is an attack on the Egyptian educational system, which is interesting, but even more interesting is that the pamphlet contains long paragraphs full of praise for the Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. If there ever was any doubt that European fascism played the role of midwife at the birth of modern Muslim radicalism, this pamphlet will take all your doubts away.

The movement which Al‑Banna founded was definitely not stillborn. Let us take a look at the numbers. A successful new religious movement, like the Mormons, if for clarity’s sake I may use that popular appellation, normally expands by a forty percent in ten years. Al‑Banna’s movement, on the contrary, grew by one hundred percent each year. This incredible but reliably documented percentage means that the Muslim Brotherhood was not your average new religious movement that had to struggle to win over the hearts and minds of the people who crossed its path. The Muslim Brotherhood did not have to convince people of new truths; it was a movement that preached to the converted. Muslims who came into contact with the Brotherhood soon realized that they agreed with the slogans of the Brotherhood, of which the most important are al‑qur’aan dusturnaa wa‑l‑jihaad sabiiluna, the Koran is our law and jihaad is our way. I suggest we take these slogans seriously.

First, something about ‘the Koran is our law’, al‑qur’aan dusturnaa. The Koran is a difficult book that contains dozens of passages that even the initiated and the heavily bearded do not understand. But a few things are remarkably clear. For instance in 9:30 the Koran talks about people who believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the son of God. Now to believe that Jesus is the son of God is a perfectly respectable belief that has been held by millions of respectable people for the past two millennia. If, however, the Koran were to be the law of the land, there would be a problem for these people, because the Koran explicitly curses and damns these people (9:30), and the Koran even expresses the wish that people who believe that Christ is the son of God shall be killed in battle, qaatalahumullaah. May I remind you: The Brotherhood wants this document, the Koran, to be the law, and this document, the Koran, contains many, many more passages that are similar, or worse, or much worse.

Second, something about Jihad, the ‘way’ of the Brotherhood, according to their own slogan. Friends of Islam often argue that Jihad is a rich concept that may have a whole lot of positive connotations, and that it certainly is not something as crude as a holy war. It is true that Jihad is not war, because war has a beginning and an end. Jihad, on the contrary, does not have an end. It does have a beginning, in the days of Muhammad, in the seventh century AD. According to sayings of Muhammad and countless Muslim leaders, Jihad will go on until the Last Day, the Day of Judgment. Jihad, according to Muslim doctrine, never comes to an end.

In practice, though not in theory, Jihad means keeping up the military pressure on the non-Muslim world, in order to expand the domain of Islam by whatever means possible. In happier days, the duty to wage Jihad was carried out exclusively by Muslim states and Muslim governments. This type of Jihad, carried out by states, came to an end on September 11, 1683, when the Turkish siege of Vienna was lifted by the Polish army. Sayyid Qutb refers to this millennium of Muslim military supremacy as ‘the first round’ (al‑gawla al‑uulaa, Zilaal 3, 1.560, Sura 8). Jihad against the West was, however, resumed on September 11, 2001, with a spectacular but senseless attack on America. However — and this is an important distinction — in this the ‘second round’ Jihad has become a private affair for which no sane government in the world wanted to be held responsible — even if they secretly were.

All over the Muslim world, the organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, which preaches that Jihad is its way, and the Koran its law, doubled its membership annually for years and years. What does this tell us about the nature of such an organization and the nature of the audiences amongst which the Brotherhood could be so spectacularly successful? It tells us that Muslim audiences, with few, very few, individual exceptions, agree with the message of the Brotherhood.

Governments, organizations and individuals in the Muslim world agree, with remarkably few exceptions, that anything that harms or weakens the USA contributes to the return of the old glory of Islam. This nostalgia for the return of the ancient glory of Islam is translated politically into a multitude of actions, some of which do look extremely innocent. The political translation of this cultural nostalgia may, however, also include participation in actions that we regard as terrorism.

Is the message of the Brotherhood movements social, political, or religious? I would call it religious, perhaps because I am a student of religion, but it does not bother me at all when others call it social or political. Within the limits of a Western intellectual framework we could probably say that the Brotherhood movement has a dual or double nature. It is both fully religion, and at the same time fully political.

If I were forced to choose between these different characterizations, I would nevertheless vote for ‘religious’, because the vocabulary and the imagery which the movement uses are all derived from a religion, Islam. I vote for ‘religious’ also because many Brotherhood members are willing to kill and to die for their essentially religious aspirations. In day‑to‑day social and political movements such an ardor for murder and martyrdom is rather rare.

The Brotherhood ideology is protean, but it starts from the axiom that man has to live in accordance with the will of God. Secondly, the will of God as far as human behavior is concerned, is known to man, thanks to the revelations to the Prophet Muhammad. This has an important consequence: Legislation ought not to differ from the divine laws as enshrined in the Muslim sources, i.e. Koran, Tradition and Sharia. If it does, this implies an attempt by the secular legislator to place himself on God’s throne, because God is the only legitimate lawgiver, al‑shaari<. A ruler who aspires to promulgate his own laws, by this very fact, betrays that he is an enemy of God, and hence guilty of apostasy. (Islam punishes apostasy with death). In practice, and probably also in theory, the Brotherhood ideology condemns to death every Muslim ruler in the Middle East. They have all committed apostasy from Islam by promulgating their own laws.

The divine laws of Islam, the sharia, have to be enforced in their entirety. This idea of tatbiiq as-sharii<a, application of the sharia, is an aspiration met with in all forms of Brotherhood thinking. Outsiders usually do not think that the application of the sharia in all its details is a good idea, since the rules of the sharia are in stark conflict with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) on a large number of issues. Rejection of the sharia by the West is not, as the friends of Islam argue, a form of racism of Islamophobia, but a human rights issue.

Apologists for Islam will of course see this differently. Apologists for Islam will also deny that the application of the sharia will have serious effects on the lives of non‑Muslims. On the contrary, they will boast that the sharia is a rich, flexible and lenient system that can be interpreted in many ways. We can only wish that they were right. What they see as something positive, the many interpretations of the sharia possible, and its flexibility, is actually one of the most threatening aspects of the sharia. The Western principle of nulla poena sine lege, no punishment without law, has been superseded by the noble character of the sharia, so to say.

The leading ideologue of the Brotherhood Movements has without doubt been Sayyid Qutb, executed by hanging in Cairo in August 1966. His books are found in bookshops all over the Muslim world, in Arabic or in translation. These translations often have been financed by Saudi Arabia. Qutb became a member of the Brotherhood in the early fifties, and he has been the main source of inspiration for all those ‘Muslim fundamentalists’, like Sadat’s assassins, who fought their own apostate governments in the Middle East in the second half of the 20th century.

The fundamentalists from that period had Messianic expectations of the changes and improvements that the introduction of the sharia would bring about. However, after half a century of persecution and excitement they realized that — apart from the Islamic Revolution in Iran — they had failed to produce successes or concrete results. Nevertheless, their struggles contained a strong positive element. They wanted to introduce something good (the sharia) into the modern world; they expected to produce a world in which the grass would be greener than it is today, and in which prices would go down and wages up. It is only human that after half a century they lost patience and hope. Hence, in the early 1990s Western observers openly spoke of the failure of political Islam.

Then, something changed. Osama bin Laden, and a number of others as well, explained that the struggle against the un‑Islamic governments in the capitals of the Islamic world had been in vain because these governments were not really in charge; they were only the puppets of the US. If we want to really change things, the argument went, we have to put an end to the power of the United States. Only then can Islam retake with dignity its position of global hegemony that it enjoyed for a thousand years, from the age of Muhammad till the 17th/18th century. In order to create the circumstances necessary for Islam to take back this old position of glory and dominance, the West has to be weakened by all means possible.

As you will have noticed, this new form of the ideology is not positive in any way. It is negative and destructive. It is a novel lethal collective Muslim phantasy about Muslim power, Muslim omnipotence, and Western humiliation. Muslim activists envy the West, which they are utterly unable to join or to dominate. They cannot join the West because they are bound by the limitations that intellectual submission to Islam imposes. They cannot dominate the West because they are not clever enough to do so. But they are capable of destroying some of its symbols and murdering a number of its citizens.

By the nature of things, these dreams of destruction are an anti‑democratic phantasy. Once the dominance of the West has ended, by a miracle or otherwise, Islam will be on top, and the sharia will be introduced. Once the sharia reigns there is simply no need for democracy. Decisions are taken by those who know Islamic law best. Who knows Islamic Law better than the professionally trained Muslim Ulema and their students? So, to decide and to rule is theirs, and unbelievers, Christians, Jews and lax Muslims will be sidelined, or worse.

In such an anti‑democratic phantasy of anti‑American destructiveness the use of terrorism is, of course legitimate in the eyes of the Muslim activists. There can be no reason for excluding terrorism or diplomacy as a method to gain power. Moreover, already medieval Muslim theologians have written long pages about the collateral damage of Jihad. The place which Israel occupies in these Muslim dreams of global supremacy and superiority is comparatively modest. Israel and the Jews of course possess demonic powers that they use permanently in order to harm Islam and the Muslims; this is generally known, but in the end Israel is just one of the many states that will have to make way for the triumph of Islam.

Ladies and Gentleman, on May 10, 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands. Nevertheless, most Germans were simply at home that day, doing the dishes, or whatever Germans do at home. September 11, 2001, Islam attacked the United States. Nevertheless, most Muslims were simply at home that day, doing the dishes, or whatever. In the 1940s, the best of the Germans came over to our side, Marlene Dietrich, Alfred Einstein, and many others. We needed them, because we needed everything and everybody in order to win that war. Again we are in the position that we need the moderate and rational Muslims, because without them and their help, we may be facing a battle we are going to lose.