Abroad and at home, on campus and off, the Muslim Brotherhood is an increasingly visible, yet enigmatic, presence in the world. “The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest and most influential Islamist movement,” Lorenzo Vidino, author of The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West, said in a speech in Philadelphia on May 19, 2011. “It was founded in Egypt in 1928. And, like most of the grassroots movements that appeared in Egypt at the time, it was strongly opposed to colonial rule and advocated Egyptian independence. But while most of the movements that opposed British colonialism at the time in Egypt took from Western ideologies, the Brotherhood based its discourse on Islam.”
Moreover, from the start, the Brotherhood tried to marry its vision of Islam to the latest political strategies. “In its ideology, the Brotherhood was looking at a mythical past as a solution for its current problems,” Vidino said in the Templeton lecture which he gave in May. “Yet its modus operandi was very modern, and used many methods of modern political movements to both spread its ideas and mobilize support.”
“The Brotherhood sought bottom-up Islamization of society for the creation of an Islamic state, through proselytizing, spreading the ideas of the group, and convincing people to buy into this interpretation of Islamism.” Yet and still, making the case that this particular strain of Islam is a peaceful one would be difficult given the Muslim Brotherhood’s past, or, for that matter, present.
“If grassroots Islamization was the main method that the Brotherhood used from the beginning, it must also be said that violence was part of the original equation,” Vidino avers. “From the 1930s and 1940s, the Brotherhood used violence against its opponents, whether the British, the Jewish community or the Egyptian government.”
Flash forward to 2011. “Today, groups in more than 80 countries trace their origins to the Muslim Brotherhood and have adopted different forms and tactics according to the environment in which they operate,” Vidino claims. Hamas and Hezbollah are two of these.
“There is a global Muslim Brotherhood in which organizations work according to a common vision but with operational independence,” Vidino asserts. Nevertheless, they usually start the same way.
“The formation of these networks in the United States, as in most Western countries, follows a similar pattern,” Vidino explains. “The small number of Brotherhood refugees who escaped persecution in Egypt and Syria, and other countries, and came to the West started interacting with more students from upper-middle class of their home countries.”
Oddly, while the youth division of a political movement is usually the last link in the food chain, the Muslim Brotherhood reversed the process in America. “In the United States, the nucleus that started with the Muslim Student Association in the 1960s spawned a myriad of organizations like the Islamic Association of North America (ISNA) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR),” Vidino relates. “Each has its own magazine, website, annual conference, and regional branches. But their unity is shown by common financial sources, interlocking board of directors, and occasional participation in common initiatives. The few hundred individuals who run them form a small social network united by family, business and most importantly ideological ties.”
Back to the Brotherhood, from when the FBI was still keeping tabs on it. “Some of the most interesting documents come from a meeting at a Marriott Hotel, close to the Philadelphia International Airport,” Vidino observed. “There, about 20 top Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood officials met in 1993.”
“This was right after the Oslo Agreements had been signed.”
“The Oslo Accords (officially the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements) were signed by Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Washington, DC, on September 13, 1993, after months of secret negotiations,” the U. S. State Department historian claims. “This agreement established an important new approach for achieving a peaceful resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by initiating open, direct talks between Israel and the PLO.”
“We don’t want the children of the American-Muslim community, who are raised here in our Islamic schools, to grow up surrendering to the issue of peace with the Jews,” one participant at the 1993 Philadelphia meeting said. Another participant urged attendees to pretty up their image: “This can be achieved by infiltrating the American media outlets, universities, and research centers, by working with Islamic political organizations and the sympathetic ones.”
“I swear by Allah that war is deception,” another agreed. “Deceive, camouflage, pretend that you’re leaving while you’re walking that way.”
“Let’s not hoist a large Islamic flag,” yet another agreed.
The strategy seems to be paying off. The last Republican president started bankrolling the Palestinian Authority and relying on CAIR’s expertise in matters Islamic.
Meanwhile the current occupant of the White House has adopted a more full-throated endorsement of the Brotherhood, in a figurative and literal sense. Vidino, who has spent a good part of his life studying the Brotherhood, in places like the U. S. Institute for Peace, an official government agency, rejects this approach but does not think it wise to reverse course 180 degrees.
His suggestion: “Engage but don’t empower.”
Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
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