Foreign Policy Essay

Why the United States Should Be as Circumspect as the British about the Muslim Brotherhood

By Lorenzo Vidino
Sunday, February 12, 2017, 12:11 PM

Editor’s Note: The Muslim Brotherhood is a troubling organization for policymakers. Many terrorists passed through its ranks, and the Trump administration, spurred on by some in Congress and several U.S. allies, is even considering designating it a terrorist group.

Yet at the same time the Brotherhood has embraced peaceful politics and is cast as a barrier to radicalism. Lorenzo Vidino of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism places the Brotherhood somewhere in between. He calls for a more careful and nuanced approach that neither caricatures the group as a variant of the Islamic State nor whitewashes its many nasty aspects.


Over the next few weeks the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to feature at the center of Washington’s political debate. Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart and Senator Ted Cruz have recently introduced the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act and various indications point to the Trump administration’s inclination to take similar measures against the world’s oldest and largest Islamist group.

These moves have immediately sparked a heated debate. Their most visceral critics see the Brothers as the godfathers of modern terrorism and devious wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing engaged in the stealth subversions of the societies in which they operate. Their staunchest defenders see them simply as religiously conservative forces who have eschewed bullets for ballots—a source for stability in the Middle East, for integration of Muslims in the West, and a bulwark against jihadist wrath.

[The] United States, like all Western countries, has never adopted a consistent assessment, let alone policy, toward the Brotherhood; over time, Washington has swung erratically from embrace to rejection and back.

The real nature of the movement is obviously much more complex than these caricatured views, even though both, despite their symmetrical difference, do capture parts of its soul. It is therefore unsurprising that the United States, like all Western countries, has never adopted a consistent assessment, let alone policy, toward the Brotherhood; over time, Washington has swung erratically from embrace to rejection and back.

One of the most challenging issues is determining what exactly the Brotherhood is. The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 in Egypt but its ideas soon spread worldwide. Even though few publicly acknowledge themselves as Brothers, individuals and organizations with historical, ideological, operational, and financial links to the Brotherhood in Egypt and among themselves are active not just in virtually every Muslim-majority country, but also in the West, in Latin America, and in Sub-Saharan Africa. In each country the movement has taken different forms, adapting to local political conditions. In Middle Eastern countries where it is tolerated it exists as a political party; in those where it is persecuted it operates as an underground movement devoted to dawa (proselytizing) and, in some cases, to violence. In Palestine it took a peculiar turn and became Hamas, which, as the Hamas Charter states, is the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood (and has been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government since 1997). In the West it took locally familiar forms, such as civil rights groups and religious and lobbying organizations.

In each country, the Brothers have established a more or less extensive network of educational, charitable, and political entities, many of which are globally connected. The various national “branches” constitute an informal transnational network operating according to a common vision but, at the same time, in complete operational independence. An International Organization, established by the Egyptian branch as a global overseeing structure, does exist but it never went beyond a coordinating role. The lack of a “Brotherhood Comintern” entails that each decides how to best pursue its goals. There are consultations and constant communications, but each is free to operate as it deems appropriate. Therefore the international Muslim Brotherhood is today most properly identifiable not as a group, but as a loose federation (if not simply as an ideological movement) in which different branches choose their own tactics to achieve their short-term goals in complete independence. What binds them together is a deep belief in Islam as a comprehensive way of life that, in the long term, they hope to turn into a political system using different tactics in different times and places. Additional and more tangible connections are represented by the many operational, personal, organizational, and financial ties among Brotherhood organizations worldwide.

As with any movement that spans continents and has millions of affiliates, the global Muslim Brotherhood is hardly a monolithic block. Personal and ideological divisions are common. Divergences emerge on how the movement should try to achieve its goals and, in some cases, even on what those goals should actually be. If, for example, some parts of the Brotherhood in Yemen, al-Islah, have historically acted practically in unison with al-Qaeda (tellingly, the head of the Brotherhood in Yemen, Abdul Majeed al Zindani, was designated as a “Bin Laden loyalist” by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2004), after the Arab Spring the Tunisian branch of the movement, al-Nahda, has played a positive role in the country’s transition to democracy, governing without excesses when it won elections and accepting the outcome when it lost them.

Precisely identifying when an individual or an organization is part of the Muslim Brotherhood is therefore not always an easy feat. The challenge becomes particularly problematic when applied to a handful of American Muslim organizations that are clearly in the crosshairs of the various proponents of the designation. Historical and ideological links between some American Muslim groups, such as the Muslim American Society (MAS) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and the Muslim Brotherhood have been proved in congressional hearings and federal terrorism financing trials—and were even flaunted by those very same groups in the first years of their existence. But, over time, these organizations have evolved, partially shedding some of their past ties and ideas. Seeing them as clear-cut offshoots of the Brotherhood seems simplistic and misguided.

The legal elements of designating the Muslim Brotherhood also present complicated challenges, which have been explored by Benjamin Wittes, William McCants, and Ed Stein elsewhere on Lawfare. Because of these and many other complexities, though, it is arguable that any governmental process seeking to assess and craft policy towards the Brotherhood should be as extensive, nuanced, public, open to conflicting views, and apolitical as possible. It was with these criteria in mind that in 2014 the British government began a government-wide policy review on the Brotherhood. Despite its imperfections (chiefly in clearly communicating to the public its aims and methods from the beginning), it was the best attempt ever made by a Western government to come to a coherent and informed assessment and posture towards the group and political Islam more generally.

It did not recommend a terrorist designation of the Brotherhood. Yet that hardly meant an endorsement for the group.

The process, which lasted over a year, studied the activities and ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood worldwide and inside the United Kingdom and led to the formulation of policy recommendations. It did not recommend a terrorist designation of the Brotherhood. Yet that hardly meant an endorsement for the group. In fact, on whether the Brotherhood endorsed or shunned violence, a crucial and consequential issue that has always split analysts and policymakers, the review concluded that “for the most part, the Muslim Brotherhood have preferred non violent incremental change on the grounds of expediency, often on the basis that political opposition will disappear when the process of Islamisation is complete. But they are prepared to countenance violence—including, from time to time, terrorism—where gradualism is ineffective.”

It is exactly this kind of approach, searching for the grey on an issue where few aspects are black or white, that is advisable if Congress and the administration wish to consider designating the Brotherhood.