President Barack Obama believes that lending American prestige to the Muslim Brotherhood will not pave the way for an eventual Islamist takeover of Egypt. “There are a whole bunch of secular folks in Egypt, there are a whole bunch of educators and civil society in Egypt that wants to come to the fore as well,” the president told Bill O’Reilly in a Super Bowl Sunday interview.
According to the president, the way to empower America’s friends is to “get all the groups together in Egypt for an orderly transition and the one that is a meaningful transition.” As if Egypt’s liberal current isn’t weak enough already, Obama believes that the best way to ensure the sharks don’t come out on top is to throw a whole bunch of liberal guppies into the tank as well.
While the parallels between Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2011 can be overdrawn, it is foolish to pretend that they are not there. Cairo doesn’t have to literally become a Sunni version of Tehran to do terrible damage to U.S. interests and prestige in the Middle East—and to the hopes and dreams of its own people. And the Egyptians already have their own prospective Khomeini: Yussuf al-Qaradawi, the Qatar-based Muslim Brotherhood preacher who exiled himself from Egypt in 1961.
Assertions that the Muslim Brotherhood and its leadership are too disorganized and uncharismatic to gain a hold on power in Egypt unaccountably ignore the world’s most popular and authoritative Sunni cleric—an Egyptian by birth and member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood whose son currently lives in Egypt. Where the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the Iranian revolution, made radio broadcasts in exile from Paris, Qaradawi hosts one of the region’s most famous talk-shows on Al Jazeera, Sharia and Life. Qaradawi has cultivated among some American analysts a reputation for moderation with his fatwas, permitting masturbation and condemning Sept. 11 (while supporting suicide bombers in Israel). But in the Middle East his popularity resides in his stringent criticism of Arab regimes. His public support for violence, combined with the fact that he is a principal shareholder in and adviser to the al-Qaida-associated Bank al-Taqwa in Switzerland, led to him being banned from entering the United States in 1999 and from Great Britain in 2008.
What makes Qaradawi most worth watching is the fact that the Egyptian party system is badly decayed, and no credible opposition figures have stepped up to fill the gap. Mohammed ElBaradei is entirely a creation of Western opinion leaders and has no constituency in Egypt. Amr Moussa has some popular appeal, but his job as general secretary of the Arab League is not a position that showcases an ability to get things done. Moreover, as Mubarak’s former foreign minister he has deep ties to the old regime. The local Muslim Brotherhood was slow out of the gate, and its 68-year-old leader, Muhammad Badie, is not exactly charismatic.
As a media personality with a presence on TV and the Internet—and who is far out of reach of Egyptian internal security and free from Egyptian censors—Qaradawi is perfectly positioned to play the role of Muslim Brotherhood publicist or even kingmaker over the coming months. Nor is there any particular reason to think that Qaradawi’s willingness to embrace facets of modernity while promoting violence and hatred makes him less than dangerous to the dream of a future liberal society in Egypt and to Western interests in the region. The idea that Qaradawi is a moderate because he favors a relatively liberal interpretation of the status of women within Islam, for example, disregards his belief that homosexuality is a crime that should be punished by death and his embrace of the Holocaust as a divine punishment of the Jews that will hopefully be repeated soon.
Here, for example, is Qaradawi speaking about the Holocaust to the audience of his popular Al Jazeera television show on January 30, 2009:
Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them—even though they exaggerated this issue—he managed to put them in their place. This was divine punishment for them. Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers.
Of course, many foreign and Egyptian observers contend that Egyptians, a moderate people by nature, don’t want anything like the Iranian regime running their country. That may be true, but the only real evidence we have, aside from questionable polling, suggests something different. After all, supposedly secular and moderate Palestinian voters were not impressed with the regional failure of Islamist politics—they voted for Hamas, the Gaza branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Or consider Lebanon, where at least 30 percent of the Christian community has aligned itself with the Khomeinist project in their country via Christian leader Michel Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah. Presumably Middle Eastern Christians are among the last people who want to live under an Islamist regime, but what they fear and despise most now is the country’s Sunni community. That is to say, there are many reasons that people might choose to go with an Islamist party, many—but not all of which—are irrational. Mubarak’s departure will almost inevitably leave the ruling National Democratic Party’s organizational structure in shambles, which means that the best-organized political party in Egypt will be the Brotherhood.
And it would be strange if, given free elections, the Brotherhood did not eventually rule Egypt, for it has not only been a pillar of Cairo’s political, cultural, and intellectual life since its founding in 1928; it is also the flower of Arab political modernity, which began with Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt.
Napoleon’s conquest left Muslim intellectuals and activists in a bind: If the ummah was, as the prophet of Islam said, the best of all people, then why had it been overrun so easily by the infidels? The answer, said the 19th-century Egyptian intellectual Muhammad Abduh—the one-time mufti of Egypt and rector of Al Azhar, a traditional seat of authority in Sunni Islam—is that Muslims had veered away from the true faith. By the end of the 19th century, Abduh believed, Islam had become riddled with fatalism and superstition; therefore, since Islam was the lifeblood of the Muslims, it was hardly surprising that the ummah was weak. The answer, Abduh argued, was to purge Islam of its non-Islamic excesses—particularly Sufi practices like the veneration of saints and other beliefs associated with traditional Egyptian folklore—and return Islam to the way it had been practiced by the prophet Muhammad, his companions and his earliest followers, collectively known as al-salaf, or the righteous forebears. Thus Abduh and his followers were known as the salafis, and their movement was the precursor of Islamism, or political Islam. Abduh’s biographer was Rashid Rida, the godfather of the Islamist movement, whose most famous disciple was Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, who in turn inspired Yusef al-Qaradawi.
The fact is that the movement Abduh pioneered is now in the mainstream of Muslim belief, if not always practice. It was Abduh who said Muslims needed to adopt the science and technology of the West, while not abandoning their faith, as Christendom had forsaken their own beliefs for secularism. And this is precisely how the Muslim Middle East has engaged with modernity for more than a century—to take the West’s technology, arms, and consumer goods, but eschew the values, such as freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech, that made those products possible.
No one embodies this cultural schizophrenia better than Qaradawi, a media mogul who has risen to fame on the back of information technology and yet whose information is essentially medieval. Qaradawi approves of wife-beating, he defends female genital mutilation and signs off on female suicide bombers, and he attacks Shia for trying to subvert Sunni nations. To the Iranians, Qaradawi is perhaps not the ideal voice of Sunni Islamism, but insofar as he rises and the Americans suffer, Tehran will make its accommodations.
Yes, it is possible that even though Egypt gave birth to the Islamist movement that is synonymous with Muslim political modernity, maybe the Muslim Brotherhood would find itself thwarted at the polls. It’s a big decision for U.S. policymakers and the president. After all, what right do Americans have to tell the Egyptians who they can and cannot vote for? It is the height of hypocrisy for a liberal democracy to stand in the way of the freely won aspirations of another country. Egyptians have the right to choose their own government and their own future, just as we have the right to call them our friends or not on the basis of the policies that their government adopts.
However, the other argument is that it is not the job of the American president to promote the natural rights of others. Rather, it is his task to protect and preserve U.S. interests around the world, and peace in the Eastern Mediterranean is an important U.S. interest, as is preventing a larger regional war that might ensue from conflict between Egypt and its neighbor Israel. We might as well face the fact that the more political power that the Muslim Brotherhood wields will make that war much more likely—a war that would be not only bad for U.S. interests but also potentially catastrophic for our ally Israel, as well as to our ally Egypt.
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).