CST Blog

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

25 May 2010

In this extract from The Muslim Brotherhood: The Organization and Policies of a Global Islamist Movement, Dave Rich looks at the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and parts of the far left in Britain:

In April 2002, with the second intifada at its height, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) organized a demonstration and rally against Israel in central London. This brought a level of public anti-Israel and even antisemitic sentiment onto the streets of Britain that had rarely been seen before. Many demonstrators carried the flags of Hizballah, Hamas, and the MB itself; some even dressed as suicide bombers or carried placards equating the Star of David with the swastika. Muslim Brotherhood (MB) speakers including Azzam Tamimi—a former spokesman for the MB in Jordan and now the most vocal supporter of Hamas in Britain — and Kamal Helbawy joined speakers from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and other left-wing organizations.

The MB flavor of the event was summed up at the end, when Rashid Ghannouchi led prayers for the whole demonstration. The MAB’s claim to have drawn 100,000 demonstrators from around the country left an impression on many inside and outside the Muslim community, including the senior officers from the Stop the War Coalition (STWC), a new organization formed to oppose the war in Afghanistan and the impending war in Iraq, who spoke at the event.

The main constituent part of the STWC was the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a Trotskyite group that dominates most far-left activity in Britain. While the SWP normally manages to outmaneuver other far-left factions, they met their match in the MAB. After initially refusing an invitation to affiliate with the STWC, the MAB proposed instead an equal partnership, on the MAB’s terms. According to one MAB leader, Anas al-Tikriti:

 MAB “spoke to Stop the War and we said to them, we will join you; however we will not become part of your coalition, we will be a separate and independent entity but we will work together with you on a national basis as part of the anti-war movement.” This reassured MAB that it would not “melt into that big coalition” that was known to be “led by the Left.” They would remain a distinct and autonomous bloc, able to shape the agenda.

This equal partnership meant that MAB could ensure that the previously secular environment of a far-left political campaign now made faith-sensitive accommodations, such as gender-segregated meetings and halal food. They also stipulated their limits on who could join the STWC. Although they were now in partnership with far-left groups with whom they disagreed on most fundamental issues, and with whose comrades they had at times been in violent conflict in their own countries, they made their limits clear: “While they could overcome misgivings about sharing platforms with some groups (such as socialists and atheists), they could never do so with others (Zionists and Israelis in particular).”

For the anti-Zionist SWP this would not be a problem. One question over which the MAB differed with their new partners in the STWC was whether Iraq or Palestine should be the dominant issue of their campaigns. It is an indication of the importance that this issue played in the worldview of the MAB that for their demonstration in September 2002, they viewed the dual slogan of “no war in Iraq, justice for Palestine” as a compromise, distracting from the centrality of Palestine as “the cause of all problems in the Middle East.” At the demonstration itself, the MAB leaflets placed “Freedom for Palestine” above “Stop the war in Iraq,” while the STWC leaflets had the slogans in the opposite order. Despite these differences of emphasis, anti-Zionism and opposition to Western foreign policy were the founding principles of the left-Islamist alliance and remains its energizing core.

Both sides of this alliance have been influenced by the analysis, prescriptions, and language of the other. This is not just another example of the political opportunism and adaptability common to both Islamists and the far left. Many Islamist participants in the antiwar movement were profoundly affected by their collaboration with non-Muslims from leftist, Christian, and other groups. Salma Yaqoob, a close political ally of MP George Galloway and Soumaya Ghannouchi, daughter of Rashid Ghannouchi, are two British-based Islamists who have merged the language of leftist anti-imperialism with their own Islamist outlook. Yaqoob speaks for many when she argues that this offers a new pathway for Muslim political engagement:

The dominant character of Muslim radicalization in Britain today points not towards terrorism or religious extremism, but in the opposite direction: towards political engagement in new, radical and progressive coalitions that seek to unite Muslim with non-Muslim in parliamentary and extra-parliamentary strategies to effect change. What is unique about British Muslim radicalism in the European context is the degree to which it has overlapped, intertwined and engaged with indigenous non-Muslim radicalism post-9/11 … [a] sea [of] change … has taken place in the transformation of Muslim ideas of citizenship through participation in the anti-war movement.

Despite their common ground, the relationship between Islamists and the left has not always been an easy one. Tariq Ramadan—Said Ramadan’s son and Hasan al-Banna’s grandson—is perhaps the most prominent Islamist in the European anti-globalist movement. He has been, at times, wary of the way the old left has approached this relationship:

Convinced that they are progressive, they give themselves the arbitrary right to proclaim the definitively reactionary nature of religions, and if liberation theology has contradicted this conclusion, the possibility that Islam could engender resistance is not even imagined … unless it’s to modernity. In the end, only a handful of “Muslims-who-think-like-us” are accepted, while the others are denied the possibility of being genuinely progressive fighters armed with their own set of values.

This is an extract from The Muslim Brotherhood: The Organization and Policies of a Global Islamist Movement, edited by Professor Barry Rubin and published by Palgrave Macmillan. Part one of this blog series can be read here.

Read More