I have been studying Islam and politics over many years, and have learned that this is a highly complex phenomenon. Given its informal character and the diffuse nature of its organization, labeling the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization is not as simple as it seems.
To understand the Muslim Brotherhood, we need to first know how it is structured, and what it represents ideologically.
The different groups
The Muslim Brotherhood exists both in the form of local organizations (in Egypt, Jordan and so on) and in the form of an international organization. The international Muslim Brotherhood has, however, little influence over any of the local organizations.
The point is that the term “Muslim Brotherhood” represents a broader ideological trend. There are numerous organizations and groups across the Muslim world that to a varying degree associate themselves with this current.
Some of them use the name of the Muslim Brotherhood, while others operate under different labels. One example is the National Islamic Front (NIF), that was established in the 1960 as the Sudanese Islamic Charter Front.
There are also a number of informal groups, such as the Ethiopian Intellectualist Movement, that rather selectively find inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood’s thinkers without appropriating the entirety of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology.
None of these groups could be characterized as branches of one unified Muslim Brotherhood. There does not exist any worldwide hierarchical structure. Nor are there any formal links between any of these organizations.
Most of them have produced independent thinkers and developed ideological profiles that focus more on local issues. All this makes it difficult to speak about a coherent Muslim Brotherhood ideology.
The origins and spread of the Brotherhood
The original Muslim Brotherhood was established in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, an Egyptian schoolteacher. Its initial activities were concentrated in the town of Ismailiyah, in northeastern Egypt. However, due to al-Banna’s charismatic personality and skills as a community organizer, the group grew rapidly into a mass organization throughout Egypt.
It is important to note that the Muslim Brotherhood was not a political movement in the beginning. Instead, it was devoted to education and social work. It was also focused on enhancing religious piety among Muslims and countering Western influences during the colonial period by building an Islamic identity.
Joining the opposition to the British colonizers, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership reluctantly decided to participate in Egypt’s parliamentary elections in the 1940s. Its anti-colonial attitudes also led the organization to support the coup in 1952 which eventually brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power as president.
However, the Muslim Brotherhood’s strong popular support soon led to an open conflict with Nasser, who responded by suppressing it. In addition to filling up Egyptian prisons, Nasser’s policy produced thousands of refugees who became instrumental in spreading the movement’s ideas across the Muslim world.
While the Muslim Brotherhood’s initial political engagement was within a democratic framework, a more militant and anti-democratic substream gradually emerged within the movement.
The key figure here was Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian writer and thinker, who wrote the seminal book “Milestones.” He claimed that contemporary secular politics was reminiscent of the pre-Islamic “Jahiliyyah” (age of ignorance), and moreover, that “Hakmiyyah” (God’s sovereignty) could be restored only through armed struggle.
His teaching later inspired groups such as al-Qaida, and caused serious frictions within the Egyptian Brotherhood.
The main leadership made significant efforts to renounce the use of violence and to portray the Muslim Brotherhood as a moderate reformist movement. This was evident in the Muslim Brotherhood’s struggle to participate in Egypt’s electoral politics. The authoritarian Egyptian regimes, however, blocked it from gaining much influence. Not until Mohamed Morsi became president of Egypt in 2012 did the Muslim Brotherhood ascend to power. That victory proved, however, to be short-lived.
Globally too the Muslim Brotherhood has been similarly ideologically diverse. For example, some local Muslim Brotherhood-associated organizations, such as those in Kuwait and Morocco, were initially influenced by Sayyid Qubt’s thinking. Later, however, they gradually abandoned such ideas. Others developed relatively pragmatic political programs.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, for example, did not challenge the local political authorities and developed rather cordial relationship with the Jordanian monarchy.
Islam and democracy
Ideologically, the Muslim Brotherhood as a current has commonly been categorized under the heading of “Islamism.” This ideology emphasizes control over the state as crucial for Islamization of state and society. There are different opinions, however, about what this means.
Various groups and individuals associated with the Muslim Brotherhood have over the last decades been engaged in elaborate discussions about their views on democracy and secularism.
However, there is still some ambiguity around certain issues. One part of this relates to the way the vast majority of Muslim Brotherhood organizations embrace Shari’a, or the Islamic law, as foundational for political and constitutional frameworks.
This relates to tensions between the belief in Shari’a as a divinely ordained authority and the acceptance of the popular will. Some tensions, for example, relate to the question whether Islamists would accept the outcome of a democratic election that does not necessarily correspond with their interpretation of Shari'a. Others are related to whether the Islamists would recognize the freedom of citizens to make individual choices in a state governed according to the Shari'a. Also, would they accommodate the rights of women and religious minorities?
The current situation
So what does this mean in assessing the current situation of the Muslim Brotherhood?
The Arab Spring, a 2011 democratic uprising that quickly spread in the Arab world, was viewed by many Muslim Brotherhood-associated groups as a moment to put their ideological programs into political action.
However, regional instability across the Middle East, political violence (in Libya and Syria) and the return of an authoritative regime in Egypt shattered such hopes. The political takeover by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi as the new president of Egypt in 2014 and the subsequent banning of the Muslim Brotherhood seriously weakened the organization.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule further blocked debates around Islam and politics. Developments in North Africa have added to the setbacks. The post-Islamist Tunisian Ennadha Party, for example, has been losing in national elections.
All this has exacerbated tensions over the future of the Muslim Brotherhood. These developments have created a space for the emergence of more militant groups such as the Islamic State, although one should be careful not to draw explicit causal links.
Indeed, designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a Foreign Terrorist Organization could have the effect of limiting the opportunities for those Muslims who are attracted by the Muslim Brotherhood’s moderate agenda to engage in politics.
It could even accelerate recruitment to terrorist outfits – a possibility that the Trump administration might seek to take into account.