Theater of Cruelty

The Muslim Brotherhood and the West

The Muslim Brotherhood and the West. A History of Enmity and Engagement
In her latest book, Martyn Frampton argues that The Muslim Brotherhood is a contradictory organization, but the contradictions are also part of the success it is experiencing.


At a roundtable conference on Islamism held in Paris in 2005, French professor Olivier Roy argued that Western leaders should consider how to integrate Islamists into the political system if they are genuinely interested in reform. He argued that attempts to rein in and marginalize Islamic groups in the Middle East until then had failed. This was four years after 9 / 11, and the world was as divided as it had always been. In October of that year, the then US President, George W. Bush, stated that "Islamic radicalism, like communism, carries contradictions that inevitably lead to a fall." Of course, this claim is debatable, and in a way that's exactly what Martyn Frampton is doing in her new book. As a lecturer in modern history at Queen Mary University in London, he embarks on describing the historical relationships the Egyptian Muslim brothers have been a part of, drawing a picture that is far removed from the monolithic impression we often have of contemporary Islamism. This is a movement with many elements, and yes, inherent contradictions are largely part of the picture, but in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, the contradictions are also part of the explanation of the organization's power and survivability.

A good political player

When Hassan al Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, he regarded secularism as the deadliest weapon ever developed by Europeans. He perceived it as a challenge to the Islamic core ideal tawhid - the oneness of life that reflected the nature of the divine. But al Banna was not anti-Western in and of itself; rather, he wanted to make use of the best of the "West," which he himself often identified with modernity, and to reconcile this with an Islamic attitude. He is known to have said that "haram [forbidden, according to Islam] film is haram, and halal [permitted, according to Islam] film is halal". His view of the world reflected what he saw around him in Egypt in his day. The country was under British rule, and al Banna was very conscious of the socio-economic, political and – not least – cultural Western influence on Egyptian society. His movement was a signal of waking up, an attempt to revive popular pride and self-awareness. For example, he was not opposed to modern technology, what that meant was contents.

When Hassan al Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, he regarded secularism as the deadliest weapon ever developed by Europeans.

The Muslim Brotherhood emerged as an accomplished political player, exhibiting a pragmatism that, for many in the West, seemed foreign to Islamic movements. Under the direction of Gamal Abdel Nasser and his strategic decisions related to the Cold War, the Muslim brothers largely favored the United States over the Soviet Union. This may seem strange at first glance, but for the Muslim brothers it was important not to have anything to do with the atheist Soviet. The Americans, on the other hand, were a "book people," and thus acceptable despite erroneous foreign policy attitudes toward Zionism and other regional issues.

When Anwar Sadat took over as Egyptian leader in 1970, he also saw the potential of his brotherhood and emerged as "the faithful president", although he had warm relations with the West. In this way, Sadat managed to harness the power of religion to strengthen his own position, and the Muslim brothers played along. In return, they were given a new constitution which stated that Islam was Egypt's official religion, and proclaimed Sharia as a source of legislation. This apparent coexistence with secularism came under pressure in the second half of the 1970s, when Saddam Hussein's process of "controlled liberalization" stopped. The events of 1977 proved to be crucial. The start of the year was characterized by revolts against rising food prices, which made Sadat even more determined to define his regime by foreign policy efforts. In November of that year, he traveled to Jerusalem, a journey that led to the peace agreement with the Israelis. In October 1981, however, Sadat was assassinated by Islamists.

Creates both fear and support

But the pendulum swung back. The new Egyptian president – Hosni Mubarak – broadly reinstated the unofficial agreement that had existed under Sadat, and the Muslim Brotherhood again gained more influence. But it was challenging times. 1979 can be said to be the most important single year in the recent history of the broad Islamic movement. The Iranian revolution changed a lot, and two other events – the revolt at the Great Mosque in Mecca and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan – had created new animosity between secularism and Islamism. The Muslim Brotherhood had established itself as a bastion for anti-establishment attitudes, and still adhered to its reformist nonviolence strategy. This allowed the leader of the Brotherhood's parliamentary group, Muhammad Morsi, to visit the US Embassy in Cairo in the wake of 9/11 to reiterate his rejection of terrorism, while other key players in the Brotherhood also condemned the Al Qaeda attacks.

Today's Western attention to fundamentalism can therefore strike two ways when it comes to the Muslim brothers.

Today's Western attention to fundamentalism can therefore strike two ways when it comes to the Muslim brothers. On the one hand, it stimulates fears of "crisis culture" and anti-Western attitudes; on the other, brotherhood can be regarded as the moderate impact of the larger fundamentalist wave. This can just be seen as the core message of this important book. 

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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