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Myths and the Muslim Brotherhood

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With the first of Rep. Peter King's (R-NY) hearings on the radicalization of Islam scheduled to occur this week, on Sunday Lorenzo Vidino of the Rand Corporation took to the pages of the Washington Post to detail what he tabs as "five myths about the Muslim Brotherhood." Yet in reading the piece, it's hard to imagine this was the title Vidino chose - each "myth" is more of a "yes, but" contextual clarification; far short of factual inaccuracy.

Is it fair to say that the Brotherhood is a global organization? That just depends on what your definition of "organization" is - perhaps "alliance of like-minded collaborators who share money, information, and resources across more than eighty nation-states" is not your definition of a "global organization." How close and how recent do ties to al-Qaeda have to be to raise concerns? Portions like "This is not far-fetched, yet ..." and "Historically, yes. But ..." are a good sign that it's simply unfair to call items such as "The Brotherhood seeks to impose a draconian version of sharia law" myths - in Egypt, at least, that is simply a fact.

One myth which I'd suggest Vidino's piece persists in deploying is a typical view of the generational divide between old and new guard on questions of radical Islam. In reality, the differences are more complex, and the young voices for radicalism are often the most violent - a piece about Alexandria in the 1960s in this weekend's Wall Street Journal drives the point home:

Colette Frege Haggar remembers how, in the 1960s, she would slip on a bikini and walk down Alexandria's streets to join the other bikini-clad women at her local beach.

Now, women in this Egyptian city almost universally wear head coverings - and increasingly, Ms. Frege and others say, they wear niqabs, the black shroud-like garments with slits for the eyes. If women go to a public beach, they usually do so in head-to-toe dress.

Ms. Frege, a 56-year-old Catholic of Lebanese-Italian descent, has watched her city morph from the Middle East's most cosmopolitan city to one of its Islamist strongholds. The question is what comes next: a return to the more liberal polity of her youth or a fundamentalist entrenchment.

Of course, for as much as some counseled against the upheaval costs of pushing against Hosni Mubarak, the fact is that his regime's crackdown may have helped foster the kind of pent-up religious radicalism we've seen in other arenas. But that is a larger debate. Back to the reminiscing:

Ms. Frege is among those who recall when Alexandria was known as Little Paris, home to a vast community of Europeans and Jews, described by novelist Lawrence Durrell as the city of "five races, five languages, a dozen creeds."

Today, the vast majority of foreigners have left. Egypt's second city is now a bastion of the country's Muslim Brotherhood, along with Salafists, who adhere to an austere Saudi Arabian brand of Islam. Alcohol, once sold widely, has largely been relegated to hotels. Women say they wouldn't dare wear a bikini at the beach, nor a short skirt on the city's streets. The town is a parable for what Egypt has become in recent years: the world's most religious nation, according to a 2009 Gallup poll.

Read the whole thing, but note particularly a passage quoting a 32-year-old store manager who claims the more stringent version of Islam "'rescued' the city from its cosmopolitan past and would have to step in again if it returned. Muslim moderates are not found based on their age. The young are not necessarily more progressive than the old, and the societal context can make a great difference in outlook. I've cited in the past the words of one of the leading voices for moderation in the Muslim world, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak - age 57 - who just last week spoke in Istanbul about the terms on which the Brotherhood can participate in the political dialogue:

Since the beginning of the uprising in Egypt and the expected power shift in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic world has rallied around the Brotherhood and demanded that the West engage with them. But a crack in that unity appeared today when Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak said that the Muslim Brotherhood “shouldn’t be part of the process as long as they don’t reject violence and extremism.”

“Anyone who wants to be part of the political process should adopt values that are compatible with democracy,” Najib said in an interview in Istanbul, where he is speaking at a conference on moderation. “It’s not just about having a vote and choosing your leaders; it’s also part of imparting the right values for democracy to work, because there are failed democracies as well.”

Najib said he has “some concerns, deep concerns” about Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader. Those concerns center on Qaradawi’s support and justification for terrorism, which carries a great deal of weight given Qaradawi’s credibility as an Islamic scholar. It is exactly that type of Muslim leader that has led the Middle East astray, according to Najib. “We have lost a lot of ground to the extremists in the Middle East.”

This is wise counsel. Najib's call needs to be the basis for legitimate political participation on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and around the globe. We're far past the point where we can pretend that violence and extremism is part of a set of myths about the Brotherhood. Indeed, it needs to become a myth, or the future in Egypt and elsewhere may not be bright.

(AP Photo)