The Muslim Brotherhood: The Organization and Policies of a Global Islamist Movement

24 May 2010 by CST

Today's Open Democracy features an interview with Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, by Manuela Paraipan. Paraipan introduces the interview by describing the development of Hamas in this way:

Hamas began life as a paramilitary group. That had some temporary appeal but was bound to be a short to medium term plan of action. Rockets sent into Israel may boost some egos, but what do you do when the people you claim you represent become targets because of your actions? Is there any cogent  strategy behind sporadic attacks against an entity that is many times your military superior ? Further more, what can be accomplished by a party for its followers if it offers nothing but violence?

Had they continued down that sole path, Hamas would hardly have distinguished itself from any Islamist group that has a street, maybe two, or ten streets in its clutches, and a self-declared Emir to rule over them. Aside from being a dangerous pastime, that is not the way to become an influential power, able to represent your interest as a group and convince others that your agenda is good for them too. Hamas seem to have understood that they needed to do less to become more. Less attacks, more political involvement and hopefully more responsibility.

This is completely wrong: Hamas began life as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and still belongs very much to the Brotherhood  school. Article 2 of the Hamas charter includes this as a statement of fact:

The Islamic Resistance Movement is the branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine . The Muslim Brotherhood is a global organization and the largest Islamic movement in modern times. It excels in profound understanding and has an exact, fully comprehensive perception of all Islamic concepts in all areas of life: understanding and thought, politics and economics, education and social affairs, law and government, spreading Islam and teaching, art and the media, by that which is hidden and by martyrdom and in the other areas of life.

This is apparent not just from the Hamas charter, but from the way Hamas has developed a range of activities, violent and non-violent, since its formation in 1988. The Brotherhood is a tactically flexible movement that operates differently in the different countries where it exists, depending on the local conditions. Terrorism has always been just one facet of Hamas's approach, and Hamas itself is just one representation of how the Muslim Brotherhood operates. A new book, The Muslim Brotherhood: The Organization and Policies of a Global Islamist Movement, edited by Professor Barry Rubin and with a contribution from Dave Rich of the CST, compares for the first time how the Muslim Brotherhood operates in different countries in the Middle East, Europe and North America.

book cover small

To mark the publication of this book, we are publishing extracts from Dave Rich's chapter, which looks at how the Muslim Brotherhood operates in the United Kingdom. The first extract describes their efforts to influence the political thinking of British Muslims at the beginning of the 1990s, after the fall of the Communist bloc and with victory proclaimed in the Afghan jihad:


The start of a new decade provoked a bout of this new thinking in the Federation Of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) magazine, The Muslim [January-March 1990]. Titled “Islamic Work 1990’s: A Decade of Challenge,” the opening article set the scene:

While capitalism and communism are now setting suns, a historical turning point is about to knock on the door of the world. This ageing world is poised to embark upon a new era under the leadership of an entirely new civilization dawning on the horizon. Indeed for that matter, any ideological system which is able to offer hope and the required leadership will eventually lead mankind to the path. Could it be Islam? This is a challenge.

The article went on to warn that the Muslim world was still beset by too many internal problems and divisions to achieve this goal. The plan for how to overcome these obstacles and meet the challenge, however, was set out by another article in that issue by the leading MB theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Islamic work, he explained, means “the organized collective work which seeks to attain a certain status for Islam by virtue of which it becomes the director of life as a whole and as a leader of society in all aspects.” For this, he clarified for his British Muslim audience:

Islamic workers [need] to understand that the future is theirs, that the future belongs to this religion, and that Islam will inherit all these civilizations. These civilizations may have reached the moon but they have certainly failed to provide humanity with happiness.

In a work plan that consciously echoed Communist strategy, al-Qaradawi identified “laborers” and women as key groups to target for “Islamic awakening,” in addition to identifying and training an elite vanguard “culturally, spiritually, militarily, socially and politically …. Islamists must pay special attention to the preparation of competent cadres.”

The development of “competent cadres” was a problem for the MB in Britain that was beginning to be solved by this time. By the late 1980s, the phenomenon that later came to be known as “Londonistan,” whereby Britain gave refuge to Islamists from across the Arab and Muslim world, was under way. Both violent jihadists and nonviolent Islamists settled in London and other British cities. There, they were able to continue their opposition to Arab regimes from under the shelter of British democracy. Many of these activists were senior MB figures from the Arab world, and their presence in the United Kingdom quickly led to the formation of Islamist political, propaganda, and fundraising activities in Britain.

The attitude of the British government was that so long as the focus of the Islamist exiles remained their home countries, and they did not plan to set off bombs in the United Kingdom, they were free to continue their activities unmolested by the British authorities. Many of the exiles had arrived via France, where the authorities were much less tolerant of Islamist political work, a difference between Britain and France that endures to this day.

British governmental neglect was compounded by a naive curiosity within civil society about Islamism. Many of the new arrivals sat alongside British policy-makers to hear Rashid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Tunisian al-Nahdhah party and one of the more important MB-aligned Islamist scholars in the United Kingdom, address the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House in 1995. Ghannouchi expressed his wonder at “The scene of a fundamentalist, who prefers to be described as an Islamist, addressing an audience of prominent political thinkers and policymakers in the United Kingdom.” Yet, few of those thinkers and policy-makers possessed, at that time, the critical tools to understand or challenge the global vision of Ghannouchi and his Islamist comrades, still less their local impact on the politics of the British Muslim community.

Two decades later, the MB had moved from the margins to build relationships with political figures of national importance. This extract describes their organisation of Islam Expo, political and cultural events in London that attracted tens of thousands of people:

By 2004, the [MB-linked] Muslim Assocation of Britain (MAB) was already moving away from Respect and into the orbit of a far more powerful figure of the British left: the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. A relationship that would eventually do a great deal of damage to both parties first came to public attention in July 2004, when the City Hall hosted the MAB-arranged visit to London of Yusuf al-Qaradawi. When Livingstone came under attack for this, his stubborn defense of al-Qaradawi as a moderate—despite the latter’s homophobia, anti-semitism, theological justification for suicide bombings, support for female genital mutilation, and other views—appalled not just many of Livingstone’s political allies on the left, particularly gay rights’ groups, but also much of the London electorate in general.
Although the MB has failed to exert political influence in terms of votes, it has been much more successful in influencing opinion, both inside and outside the Muslim community. In October 2004, Muhammad Sawalha, then a director of the MAB, established Islam Expo, a project to create a combined political conference and Islamic cultural festival on a massive scale. The first Islam Expo event took place in summer 2006, by which time Sawalha and the other organizers had left the MAB to form the British Muslim Initiative (BMI). A second Islam Expo was held in summer 2008. Both drew tens of thousands of Muslims, attracted as much by the cultural attractions as the religious and political speeches. While the Islam Expo website for 2008 concentrated on the cultural and educational purpose of the event, the goals of those behind Islam Expo, listed in Companies House documents, include the overtly political purpose: “To change the perception of key decisionmakers from the world of politics, media and commerce about Islam.”

At the 2008 event, this took the form of a seminar on “Understanding Political Islam,” which featured a host of MB and other Islamist speakers. The seminar was co-organized by several groups, including BMI and the left-leaning think tank Demos and was a clear expression of the MB’s new political position: after the London subway bombing, and with a growing terrorist threat from home-grown Salafist-jihadist networks, the MB are the Islamists with whom you can do business. The seminar included non-Muslim advocates of cooperation with the MB: Robert Leiken was one speaker, while the seminar was co-organized by Alistair Crooke’s Conflicts Forum.
The scale of Islam Expo certainly impressed many. Tens of thousands of people, mostly but not exclusively Muslims, passed through the doors of the event in both 2006 and 2008. The 2008 event was even promoted via advertisements on the sides of London buses. However, this was not a reflection of any increased grassroots capacity of the MB in Britain; rather, it was a consequence of their political organization and their ability to access funding that is rarely available to moderate, non-Islamist groups.

The 2006 Islam Expo cost over £1.1 million to produce, which was paid for entirely by grants from the following: the Qatari National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage (£967,442), in reality, an arm of the government of Qatar; and the Greater London Authority (£200,000), then under the control of Ken Livingstone. The 2008 event was paid for by a second Qatari grant of £2 million. Similar grants have been given by the Scottish government to the BMI’s equivalent in Scotland, the Scottish Islamic Foundation, to hold similar events in Scotland. This external funding is the reason why the BMI, a political clique with no membership beyond its core activist group, can organize an event in London that attracts tens of thousands of British Muslims. Similarly, the activities of the [MB-linked bodies] the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe (FIOE) and the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR) are funded by Middle Eastern money, mainly from Dubai and Kuwait. There is much resistance in the British Muslim community to the idea that the British government should use its patronage to try to shape the future of British Islam; meanwhile, there are foreign governments pouring huge amounts of money into doing just that.

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