During his short but impassioned inauguration address, Donald Trump listed just one specific foreign policy objective for his incoming administration: The battle against “radical Islamic terrorism”, which he pledged to “eradicate from the face of the Earth”.
To be sure, since George W Bush launched the War on Terror in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, US foreign policy has been largely shaped by the determination to confront militant violence across the Middle East and beyond.
In his last year in office, Barack Obama dropped more than 26,000 bombs – the vast majority of them over Muslim-majority countries.
However, what distinguishes the newly installed Trump team from past administrations is its empowerment of extremist figures who wish to expand the ideological component of this conflict by blurring the lines between militant groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, ostensibly the targets of the American anti-terror offensive, and more mainline Islamic movements that have attempted to influence their governments through non-violent means, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its regional offshoots.
Previous attempts to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation were largely limited to the most vociferously anti-Muslim voices in Washington. The bulk of the policymaking community understood the legal and political implications that come with such a label and the constraints it would place on American diplomacy in the Arab world.
Based on some early indications the Trump administration appears wholly unconcerned with such questions. In fact, the designation represents a cornerstone of its intent to pursue a scorched earth policy toward opposition movements in the Middle East.
Defining the Muslim Brotherhood
A central problem with efforts to add the Muslim Brotherhood to the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations is that, nearly 90 years after its founding in Egypt, it is unclear who or what is meant by “Muslim Brotherhood”.
Most calls to designate the Muslim Brotherhood are vague and indeterminate in their definitions, likely by design, as the ambiguity affords officials the flexibility to take action against any organisation, entity, or individual deemed to fit the label.
A loose enough definition would allow for the inclusion of the Justice and Development Party that won last year’s parliamentary elections in Morocco, or the Muslim Students Association that has chapters across hundreds of US colleges and universities.
To assess it more accurately, one must distinguish between the Muslim Brotherhood as an organisation, complete with bylaws, a rigid hierarchal structure, and strict membership requirements, and as a movement in society whose ideas have evolved and changed over time.
Founded in 1928 by a schoolteacher in the port town of Ismailia, the Society of the Muslim Brothers sought to shape the emerging political order following Egypt’s nominal independence from Britain.
Hasan al-Banna organised his movement around the basic principle that Islamic values should not be sacrificed during the process of modernisation. He called upon his fellow Egyptians to lead a more virtuous life but believed it was up to the ruler to enforce Islamic law.
Al-Banna directed his critiques toward the three institutions that governed the country during Egypt’s so-called “liberal experiment”, the Wafd Party-led parliament, the monarchy, and the British colonial authorities.
Fearing the breakdown of traditional religious institutions and systems of education, al-Banna developed a robust curriculum of Islamic instruction and organised his followers into study groups that formed the basis of the organisation’s membership. Members elected local leaders who made up a body of representatives that set the organisation’s agenda and executed the directives of the secretariat, led by the charismatic al-Banna, who became the group’s first general guide.
The 1930s witnessed the rise of global economic scarcity, social upheaval, and political turmoil, which spurred the rise of competing ideologies, from communism and fascism to liberalism and, in the case of the Muslim world, Islamism.
Al-Banna believed that the rich legacy of Islamic civilisation carried with it the necessary principles for overcoming the recent challenges of colonial rule, economic exploitation, national divisions, and political weakness.
He developed an organisational model that aimed to orient Egyptians toward fulfilling the tenets of their faith. Al-Banna envisioned the Muslim Brotherhood as an all-encompassing organisation, which he defined as “a Salafiyya message, a Sunni way, a Sufi truth, a political organisation, an athletic group, a cultural-educational union, an economic company and a social idea”.
By the late 1940s, the Muslim Brotherhood had more than a million members in Egypt, while establishing local branches in several neighbouring countries. But following World War II, Egyptian politics descended into a chaotic battle of competing forces aiming to displace British rule with their own vision for the future.
Like the liberals, communists, and fascists, the Muslim Brotherhood entered the fray through political contestation, social outreach, propaganda wars, and even violent street battles and assassinations.
Veterans of the volunteer corps that participated in the 1948 war in Palestine formed the basis of a “secret apparatus” of Muslim Brotherhood members who prepared for the possibility of military confrontation with other parties.
State security forces assassinated al-Banna in 1949, following the killing of a prominent Wafdist politician for which the Muslim Brotherhood’s secret apparatus was held responsible.
When a group of nationalist army officers overthrew the king and seized power in 1952, it was as much a move against Egypt’s disparate political factions as it was against a corrupt monarchy and exploitative foreign rule.
All independent political activity ceased after the rise of the military regime of the Free Officers. Although the Muslim Brotherhood initially welcomed the military’s intervention, and even attempted to partner with the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, it soon found itself the chief enemy of the state.
From one Muslim Brotherhood to many
It is at this point, following the repression of the 1950s and 1960s, that one can begin to make the distinction between the Muslim Brotherhood organisation and the broader movement inspired by its school of thought.
A consequence of Nasser’s crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood was the decimation of the group’s organisational structure. Its leaders were killed, imprisoned, or went into exile, while most low-level members attempted to blend back into society, denying any affiliation with the group.
But while the organisation was banned, its ideas remained. Following the failure of the Nasserist project, especially in the aftermath of Egypt’s defeat at the hands of Israel in the June 1967 War, many disillusioned Egyptians once again took up the Muslim Brotherhood’s call for a state built on Islamic values.
But al-Banna’s original mission, which arose at a drastically different era in Egypt’s modern history, seemed inapplicable in the current moment of military rule and radical Arab nationalism.
In the absence of an obvious leader, various intellectual currents developed within the movement, led most prominently by Sayyid Qutb, the liberal literary critic turned Muslim Brotherhood ideologue.
Borne out of Nasser’s torture chambers was a radical new approach to the question of how to achieve the Muslim Brotherhood’s aims. In his writings, Qutb shunned al-Banna’s gradualist mission in favour of a more confrontational approach with a regime he deemed to be illegitimate.
In theological terms, Qutb declared that Nasser’s secular dictatorship had restored the pre-Islamic “age of ignorance” or Jahiliyyah, requiring a far different tactic from the public preaching and political participation that al-Banna pursued.
Qutb’s teachings found resonance among a small contingent of bright-eyed activists who were too young to have ever been members of the Muslim Brotherhood or recall its past prominence.
When they interpreted Qutb’s writings to sanction militant confrontation with the regime, Hasan al-Hudaybi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s imprisoned leader, put forward a rebuttal that renounced calls for violence and reaffirmed Banna’s reformist message.
For his trouble, Qutb was executed by Nasser in 1966.
Upon succeeding Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat sought to legitimise his rule in part by liberalising Egypt’s economy and reintegrating political prisoners back into Egyptian society. I have written extensively on the reconstitution of the Muslim Brotherhood during the 1970s, a period distinguished by three important features.
First, because the Muslim Brotherhood remained outlawed under Sadat, attempts to reorganise occurred largely underground.
Even as they recruited tens of thousands of young student activists to join the ranks of the revived organisation, the few remaining elders believed in the importance of secrecy to avoid another confrontation with the state, at one point even demanding that new Muslim Brotherhood members swear allegiance to a general guide whose identity remained hidden.
Secondly, in this period it became clear that the Muslim Brotherhood organisation no longer held a monopoly on the ideology of its own movement.
The marketplace of ideas became far more crowded with religious currents that borrowed aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood’s traditional school of thought that they either incorporated into other intellectual influences or adapted to meet present needs.
These included the Salafi movement, led in part by former Muslim Brotherhood figures that had recently returned from exile in the Gulf. It also included underground jihadist groups that rejected the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to non-violent change.
Years before he emerged as Osama bin Laden’s deputy in al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri authored a scathing critique of the Muslim Brotherhood.
A third feature of this era was the fractionalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood along national lines. As a result of the Nasser era crackdown, local branches of the Muslim Brotherhood went their separate ways and, by the time the organisation was revived in Egypt during the late 1970s, few of those branches were interested in rejoining the mother movement.
Muslim Brotherhood chapters in Sudan, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, and elsewhere became far more entrenched in their national contexts and received little guidance or support from their Egyptian comrades. Some chapters abandoned the name altogether, such as the Islamic Charter Front (later the National Islamic Front) led by Hassan al-Turabi in Sudan.
Others maintained only tangential links to the Muslim Brotherhood but relied on its organisational model and its school of thought in the indoctrination of its members, as with the Movement of Islamic Tendency, the forerunner to the Ennahda Party in Tunisia.
Some Arab immigrants to Europe and North America maintained intellectual ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and established institutions in keeping with the needs of the growing community in their adopted homeland, from mosques and student associations to charitable and civic organisations.
Whatever structural links existed during the early period faded over time with the community’s assimilation into their broader societies.
Attempts to establish an international Muslim Brotherhood organisation were largely unsuccessful beyond offering an occasional forum for the exchange of views and the sharing of experiences.
Reformers, not revolutionaries
Indeed, from the 1980s onward, the various Muslim Brotherhood organisations throughout the Arab world charted their own paths irrespective of one another.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood entered into a violent confrontation with the Assad regime in 1982 that resulted in the movement’s brutal suppression and exile. Strangely enough, some Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leaders found refuge in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, even as the dictator was targeting the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood for elimination.
In the wake of the first Intifada in 1987, the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood underwent considerable internal reorganisation, adopted armed resistance as a path to ending the occupation, and with it a new name, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas).
In Kuwait, the Muslim Brotherhood endorsed the US-led coalition to expel the Iraqi occupation in 1991, even as other Muslim Brotherhood branches condemned American intervention in the region.
In Sudan, Turabi allied his movement with the 1989 coup led by Omar al-Bashir and enjoyed an extended if turbulent partnership with the military regime.
In Jordan and Morocco, movement leaders sought accommodation with their respective monarchies, in part by adopting a far more limited agenda that sought to reform the existing political system, not replace it entirely.
Meanwhile, in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood’s younger leaders focused on re-engaging with the broader society, developing an extensive network of charitable and educational institutions, assuming the leadership of professional syndicates, and grooming its members to run for parliamentary seats during Hosni Mubarak’s limited political opening.
Old-guard leaders continued to stress internal discipline and organisational uniformity in the face of renewed waves of state repression.
In the years preceding the 2011 uprising that brought down Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood enjoyed a period of relative peaceful co-existence with the state, culminating in its successful participation in the 2005 parliamentary elections, presumably in exchange for its acquiescence to the regime’s plans to pass the presidency on from the ageing Mubarak to his son, Gamal.
Despite these divergent priorities and approaches, there is one thing that binds the various Muslim Brotherhoods, whether before, during, or after the Arab Spring.
It is not a revolutionary movement nor has it displayed any inclinations toward pursuing radical change.
In a sharp contrast to the armed groups currently operating in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, over the course of the past half-century the Muslim Brotherhood deeply internalised its belief in working within the existing political and socioeconomic structures, at times to its own detriment.
That commitment resulted in the failure of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated parties to deliver on the promises of the Arab revolutions and ultimately resulted in their marginalisation at the hands of a system in which they have invested so much of their intellectual and organisational capacities.
The recent decision on the part of the Tunisian Ennahda party to sever its political party from its religious proselytisation and provision of social services represents an awareness of the challenges of maintaining ideological purity while in the trenches of political contestation.
Other Muslim Brotherhood parties are under pressure to follow suit if they are to survive the existential threat that seeks to eradicate their presence not only as a political actor, but as an intellectual current within their societies.
Banning the Brotherhood
So how does all of this affect the Trump administration’s plans to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation?
As earlier attempts by the region’s despots to ban it have proven, the organisation’s absence from society removes a crucial outlet for religious-based activism, one that expresses itself through existing political and social institutions.
After the 2013 military coup that brought Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power in Egypt, the massive crackdown on the organisation and the subsequent rise of militant opposition have shown that the Muslim Brotherhood has played a moderating role on Islamic activism.
Attempts to further marginalise the Muslim Brotherhood will not only embolden militant currents within the broader Islamic movement, but it will also diminish the prospects for the emergence of representative rule.
Tired debates about the compatibility of Islam and democracy will swing in favour of those on the fringes who argue that the Arab world deserves neither, preferring the perceived “stability” that only secular authoritarians can provide.
Even when examined from the narrow perspective of US interests, the designation would severely inhibit American diplomatic initiatives in a region where political parties with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood participate regularly in governments from Morocco to Yemen.
By outlawing it, the US government would be banning a crucial ally in its occupation of Iraq. The Iraqi Islamic Party helped to stabilise an interim government beset with violent opposition from all sides.
Similarly, two US allies in the Kuwaiti and Bahraini monarchies rely on the backing of Muslim Brotherhood parties in their efforts to neutralise the Shia opposition in their countries.
The designation is also likely to cut off access to vital information by inhibiting engagement between Western scholars, journalists, international observers and human rights workers and civil society organisations throughout the Arab world.
Trump’s one-size-fits-all approach to confronting the problem of political Islam is sure to erode the concerted efforts by researchers and policymakers alike to become better informed about the role that these movements play in shaping their societies.
Indeed, creating a virtual black hole of information would be a fitting result for a policy initiative that already reflects a total failure to understand the historical complexities of the Muslim Brotherhood’s emergence and evolution.