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Britain's misconceptions of the Muslim Brotherhood

The British review on the Muslim Brotherhood is another stratum in a long history of misunderstanding of the movement

On 17 December 2015, British Prime Minister David Cameron submitted to parliament a summary of the conclusions of a review, which he himself ordered in April 2014, about the Muslim Brotherhood. The committee, which conducted the review, was chaired by former UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia Sir John Jenkins and included diplomats and security and intelligence officials.

The committee is believed to have finished its work several months ago. However, pressures from within the British government as well as from Arab states that are allied with the UK led to postponing the publication of the report until last Thursday.

The British Guardian newspaper, which covered news of the review since the very beginning, described the conclusions by saying they turned out to be tougher than what had been expected. There are a number of important issues pertaining to the background of this report, to the context of the work conducted on it and to the conclusions emanating from it. 

The first issue has to do with a good number of media reports that rely on verified documents and no less important leaks from British official circles about the role played by two Arab Gulf states - the UAE and Saudi Arabia - in pushing Cameron to adopt the idea of conducting a review about the Muslim Brotherhood. In other words there was no real British justification for such a weird political exercise.

Unlike the crusade waged by one or two Arab states against the Muslim Brotherhood, none of the Western countries ever accused the Muslim Brotherhood of terrorism or even of aiding terrorism. This is a group that has an unhidden Islamic inclination and that has been active within as well as without the Islamic world for many decades. Just like all other political forces in the Arab Islamic east, the group underwent continuous development in its thoughts and political vision.

Why, then, should the British government, for that matter any Western government, set up a wide ranging commission and incur the cost of the work conducted by such a commission over a period of many months, so as to prepare a review about the Brotherhood? Why doesn't Britain form a committee to investigate Jamaat-e Islam (The Islamic Group) in Pakistan, which is quite influential among British Muslims whose origins are from the Indian sub-continent?

Or what about the Hindu Bahartia Janata Party, which has followers among British Indians, and which is known for its racist and violent record? And since the British government has begun reviewing political currents in the world, why not form a committee to investigate the intellectual and political background of the Nazi right in Britain and Europe? 

The fact is there are numerous studies published on the Muslim Brotherhood by academics who specialise in the field of Middle East Studies and in the modern history of Islam. These studies dealt with the various aspects of the thought, history, policies and contradictions of the Muslim Brotherhood whether inside Egypt or outside it. It is also well known that the Brotherhood, as the main Islamic political current in Egypt and in a number of other Arab states, has been the focus of huge interest on the part of British diplomats and intelligence officials.

To sum up, the British government was not in need of this review. What generated this review was the surrender of Cameron's government to foreign economic blackmail and its attempt to escape Arab Gulf pressures that demanded the proscription of the Brotherhood in Britain. Realising that he could not order the banning of the Brotherhood, Cameron resorted to the idea of the review as an escape from the pressures he came under and as a means of appeasing his Arab allies at the same time.

Contradictory conclusions

Since the approach has, right from the start, been shrouded in contradictions, it is not surprising that the review came up with extremely contradictory conclusions. Upon commissioning the review, David Cameron claimed that the objective of the project was to provide a better understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood. But it is obvious from the summary made public by Cameron, and what is likely to be based upon it of policies, that the report represents nothing apart from a new chapter to the gross misunderstanding that plagues the relationship between the main Western countries and the world's Muslims.

For some reason, it would seem that the authors of the report endeavoured to write it using a social science language, perhaps with the purpose of imparting some sense of neutrality and credibility on its outcomes. However, any novice researcher in the field of Middle East studies would know that the report's reading of Sayyid Qutb's legacy and influence on the Brotherhood or on violent groups is absolutely erroneous.

Irrespective of the debate about Sayyid Qutb's claims, there is no doubt that the Brotherhood, as early as the mid-1970s, were the first to endeavour to formulate a response to the radical interpretations of Qutb's thinking, to some of his claims that may have conflicting implications as far as the mainstream interpretation of the Sunni intellectual heritage.

The Brotherhood was the first to disown these claims. It is obvious, however, that neither Cameron nor his glorious committee ever heard of Hasan al-Hudaybi's book entitled Preachers not Judges, or of the abundant studies conducted in British universities on the book and the context in which it was written. 

In an astonishing remark, the report's authors said that belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood might be a possible indicator of extremism. The fact, of course, is that the number of Muslim Brotherhood members who deserted the group and joined the ranks of armed Islamic groups in order to carry arms since the start of the wave of Islamic violence in the aftermath of aborting the process of transition to democracy in Algeria in the early 1990s is negligible.

If Al-Qaeda and ISIS are the ones who are indicated by the word "extremism", it is highly probable that neither of the two organisations managed to recruit any number worth mentioning from amongst the affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood whether from within the countries of the Muslim world or elsewhere. Yet, the claim itself, and despite having been constructed in a rather cautious English language, seems extremely odd.

Would it not be possible then to claim, relaying on the same logic used by the report's authors, that the Western style of living may itself be a possible indicator of extremism, since an increasing number of young men and women from Western countries has been joining ISIS and its likes? However, the elephant in the room with regard to the logic of the phrase "possible indicator of extremism" has been the shameful absence in the report of any mention of the wars, such as the rather stupid Anglo-American war on Iraq, and of the despotic regimes across the Arab and Muslim worlds, such as those that pressed the British government so as to commission this review.

Jihadi-Salafism, and all the violent organisations that came out of its womb, were the invention of the coup in Algeria, of the regimes of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Iraq's Nuri al-Maliki, and of the coup against democracy and against the will of the people in Egypt, with whom Britain continues to maintain close links. 

The report, as expected, could not find a single case of a Muslim Brotherhood armed organisation apart from Hamas, which was referred to repeatedly in the summary made public by Prime Minister Cameron. However, even in this case, the report's authors failed to place matters within their actual context.

There is in Palestine a national liberation movement in which the Palestinian people are engaged resorting to weapons or to other means. This struggle has been going on for nearly a century and Hamas was not the first to ever carry arms, nor is it the sole Palestinian organisation that carries arms today. As part of their long-term existential struggle, Palestinians of all inclinations, nationalist, patriotic, Marxist as well as Islamist like Hamas, carried arms.

Casting doubt upon the Muslim Brotherhood because one of its wings carried arms as part of the struggle against a foreign expansionist and settlement occupation project is just like casting doubt upon the Indian Congress Party for its struggle against the British occupation of India or against the African National Congress for its struggle against the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

What should have been focused on in the case of Hamas is the national liberation background of the movement and not its Brotherhood background. The report authors should have asked themselves: why of the various Muslim Brotherhood branches, the Palestinian Brotherhood chapter was the only one that was compelled to carry arms?

The British prime minister did well when he announced that his government would not ban the Muslim Brotherhood. It is not clear how he managed to justify such a decision to those Arabs who pushed him down that road. However, his announcement that his government would tighten control and observation of Muslim Brotherhood activities within Britain as well as outside it is a statement that in the least can be described as incomprehensible.

How can the British government pledge to impose a control regime over an Islamic group that is leading the movement of transition toward democracy and liberty and that is so ubiquitous and is sympathised with by millions of Muslims all over the Arab and Islamic East? Has the British government become a trustee over the mode of living and thinking of Muslims? 

- Basheer Nafi is a senior research fellow at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: British Prime Minister David Cameron (R) reacts during a joint press conference with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi following their meeting inside 10 Downing Street in central London on 5 November, 2015 (AFP).

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