PLOT TWIST Chapter Four: What is the Muslim Brotherhood?

In Chapter Three we saw how Operation Cyclone benefited bin Laden, helping him to transform Makhtab al Khadimat (MAK) into al Qaeda. 

As mentioned above, MAK was founded in 1984 by a religious Palestinian scholar named Sheik Abdullah Azzam, along with Osama bin Laden and others, to recruit an Islamic army to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Between 16,000 and 35,000 Muslim volunteers are estimated to have rallied to the cause.

MAK maintained close ties to Pakistan’s intelligence service, (ISI), through which the intelligence agency of Saudi Arabia, Al Mukhabarat Al A’amah, funnelled money to the Mujahideen. 

In 1988 bin Laden, Azzam and others founded al-Qaeda (The Base) as a transnational extremist militant organization.

In early 1989, the Soviet army began to withdraw from Afghanistan, and with its disengagement, the need to recruit fighters to Afghanistan dwindled. 

Azzam appears to have had intended MAK, and possibly al-Qaeda to be defensive in nature and nationalist in their focus. In 1979 Azzam had delivered a fatwa: Defence of the Muslim Lands, the First Obligation after Iman (Faith) declaring both the Afghan and Palestinian struggles as jihads which required the killing of those deemed to be occupying Muslim lands.

Bin Laden, on the other hand, who had already been associating with Islamists such as Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, wanted to take the movement worldwide. 

In November 1989 Azzam was killed in a car bomb, and a struggle broke out over who would take control of MAK: those who wanted, like Azzam, to limit their activities to defensive jihad, and those, like bin Laden, who wanted a global jihad. The more extremist faction won.  

Given what we know about foreign intelligence interference in the region, the triumph of the global jihadis over their relatively more moderate counterparts seems unlikely to have been accidental, particularly given bin Laden’s links to Islamic Jihad. More moderate Afghani freedom fighters, who were also engaged in the battle against the Soviets, were likewise overlooked by the CIA in favour of the extremist bin Laden and al-Qaeda. 

And again, this is a repeating pattern. 

According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Egyptian Islamic Jihad were “a militant Islamist group which emerged in the 1970s […] originally bent on installing a religious government in Egypt,” which is now “largely absorbed into al-Qaeda.”

The group was responsible for the assassination, in 1981, of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Some members fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan and in Yemen’s civil war.

CFR notes that “some EIJ members were once members of the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, but broke with that group over its commitment to non-violence,” adding “The Brotherhood, for instance, denounced the Sadat assassination.” 

A now-deleted article published on the CFR’s website on April 5, 2005, questions whether the Muslim Brotherhood has ties to terrorism. The question, it said, was unclear. 

“At various times in its history, the group has used or supported violence and has been repeatedly banned in Egypt for attempting to overthrow Cairo’s secular government.” Since the 1970s the Brotherhood in Egypt has adopted a more peaceful line, but the article notes that “the Egyptian government mistrusts the Brotherhood’s pledge of non-violence and continues to ban the organization.”

The article continues: “One reason the Brotherhood’s commitment to non-violence is unclear: The original Egyptian organization has spawned branches in 70 countries. These organizations bear the Brotherhood name, but their connections to the founding group vary and some of them may provide financial, logistical, or other support to terrorist organizations. Some terrorist groups—including Hamas, Jamaat al-Islamiyya, and al-Qaeda—have historic and ideological affiliations with the Egyptian Brotherhood. In addition, some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists were once Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members, including Osama bin Laden’s top deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. The organization is like “stepping stone,” says Evan Kohlmann, an international terrorism consultant. “[For] someone who is interested in dedicating their lives to a radical Islamist cause, it can be a pathway up…to a more serious dealing with Islam.”  

So what is the Muslim Brotherhood, and why does it matter? 

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna. He was born in northern Egypt in 1906, and was assassinated in 1949.

Al-Banna had an ambition to merge Islam with the doctrines of his day – the 1920s and 30s – and drew inspiration from two predecessors who had been attempting a similar feat in the late 19th Century: an Iranian Islamic reformer named Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and his Egyptian disciple, Muhammad Abduh. The two had published a magazine calling for a fusion between reason and faith, modernity and tradition, in line with the European enlightenment movement. Their goal was to return to the seventh-century roots of Islam while fostering a spirit of innovation to rival the West.

In addition to these two inspirational figures, al-Banna borrowed fashionable ideas of the time from the likes of Maria Montessori, the educator whose schools are still popular with liberals across the West. 

When his fledgling organisation at first failed to gain much attention, he looked to Ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, and to Adolf Hitler as examples of men who had overcome small beginnings to rise to glory.

By 1936 the Muslim Brotherhood had 800 members. That year, the Arab Revolt broke out in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, against the Jewish Zionists and British rulers. The most violent and intransigent Arab leader in the region was the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Al-Banna pledged solidarity, and his group grew, over the next two years, to become a political force of 200,000 members.

Like other fascist movements of its time, the Brotherhood was not only political. It placed an emphasis on pious religious observance, on intellectualism, on education, and on athletics, drawing direct inspiration from the Boy Scout movement.

According to author Paul Berman, in his book ‘The Flight of Intellectuals,’ which examines the European left’s ongoing intellectual defence of al-Banna’s grandson, Tariq Ramadan (who shares many of his grandfather’s ideas), the movement was, like so many movements of the 20s and 30s, authoritarian in nature, emphasising “social solidarity between ruler and ruled, in both custodianship and obedience.”

In short, Berman says, “the Brotherhood was a revolutionary movement on the grandest of scales.”

Berman quotes two intellectuals who have noted the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and other totalitarian movements of its time. Firstly he cites Bassam Tibi who, in an online debate regarding Ramadan, said: “In my research, I come to the conclusion that al-Banna is the spiritual and political source of Jihad Islamism, which represents totalitarianism in its latest manifestation.”

Similarly, the Iranian scholars Ladan and Roya Boroumand, in an anthology titled Islam and Democracy in the Middle East, noted: “The man who did more than any other to lend an Islamic cast to totalitarian ideology was an Egyptian schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna.”

That fascistic strain within Islamism has shaped the Middle East we know today.  

Berman writes this: “A larger conflict between Jews and Arabs, something on a regional scale, came into being only at the moment when al-Banna and his followers and allies launched their solidarity campaign for Amin al-Husseini, and the boycotts and riots against the Jews broke out in Cairo and other places. Even then, in the late 1930s, the conflict within Palestine itself continued to reflect the peculiarities of a local battle: the extreme bitterness of the face-to-face, but also the lurking possibility of compromise, neighbour to neighbour. Some of the Arab leaders and intellectuals, not just in Palestine, did speak about compromises with the Zionists, and more than compromises — about a future life of mutual benefits and business opportunities for Arabs and Jews alike. The Islamist movement itself appears to have contained an alternative strain, for a while. Tariq Ramadan devotes a section of The Roots of the Muslim Renewal to extolling the Islamist philosopher Rashid Rida, one of al-Banna’s predecessors, a venerated figure within the movement — and Rida, back in the 1920s, went so far as to express respect for the Zionist settlers.”

Al-Husseini and the European totalitarians found in each other a common ally, and so in the 1940s they began to work together. Al-Husseini met with Mussolini at the start of the decade, proposing to the Italian fascist leader the creation of “an Arab state of a Fascist nature, including Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Trans-Jordan.”

The Mufti then travelled on to Germany, where he met the key figures in the Nazi regime: Ribbentrop, Himmler, and Hitler himself. Between 1941 and 1945, al-Husseini, supported by a substantial Arab staff, worked with three German government departments: Ribbentrop’s Foreign Ministry, Goebbels’ Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and Himmler’s SS, to advance their mutual cause.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Mufti helped to create a Muslim division of the Waffen SS, however, the main focus of the Arab department was the creation of Arabic langage propaganda, both in print and via radio, to disseminate Nazi propaganda to the Arabic-speaking world. 

The alliance with the Nazis initially pitched the Islamists into conflict with the Communists, who, after all, had fought against the Nazis during the war. However, Berman goes on to describe how, after initially clashing with left wing totalitarian movements, by the 70s and 80s the broader left had begun to embrace Islamism as one of their own.

“Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamist revolution in Iran came to power in 1979 by striking up an alliance with the pro-Soviet Marxist factions of Iran,” he writes, “and the communist leaders in Moscow duly directed their fraternal parties around the world to look on Iran’s Islamists as a progressive development. The Islamic revolution: a blow against imperialism and a blow for social justice, even if, from an ideological standpoint, something about Khomeini’s doctrine might have seemed a little troubling. The French Communist Party followed the Soviet line more ardently than any of the other large communist parties in the Western countries, and the French communists took to marching through Paris in their May Day parade together with, as Ladan Boroumand has pointed out, an Iranian delegation called Hezbollah.”

By 2003, the alliance between the socialists and Islam was so deeply embedded that, when a large rally against the Iraq war was organised in London by a coalition of socialists and the Muslim Brotherhood, it barely raised a mention. 

As Berman explains: “A coalition called Stop the War organised the march and a good many subsequent demonstrations — and the Stop the War coalition was visibly dominated by the tiny Socialist Workers Party, in alliance with Britain’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim Association of Britain. Trotskyists and Islamists: “an odd marriage,” as The Economist put it. Millions of non-Trotskyists and non-Islamists nonetheless took their place in the coalition’s march, quite as if everyone felt confident that, no matter what might come of the big demonstration, the Socialist Workers Party could reasonably be ignored (a safe assumption) or even regarded with irritable fondness; and quite as if Britain’s Islamists, whom nobody could ignore, authentically represented the oppressed and the downtrodden, and therefore lent majesty to the march. Such was the implication. Nothing like a Trotsko-Islamist alliance could possibly have mobilized millions of Britons in the past.”

As already noted, even as Brzezinski vocally opposed the Soviet Union he was pledging allegiance to Marxism – an ideology whose followers have always been characterised by holding stronger allegiance to what they deem to be Marxism than to any nationalist struggle. Brzezinski was searching for a way to keep the Middle East perpetually tied up in warfare to ensure American dominance in the region, and ultimately, globally, to roll out his Marxist dreams of creating a utopia – and in the Muslim Brotherhood, which shared so many of his totalitarian ideals, he found the perfect vehicle to keep the war machine rolling. 

And roll it has, all the way across the Levant and down into the Maghreb, where in 2011 it became known as “The Arab Spring.”