What’s so scary about the Muslim Brotherhood?
A year has passed since Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates severed relations with Qatar over its support for groups that these countries deem to be “terrorists”, chiefly the Muslim Brotherhood.
Probably because it is the world’s best-known and oldest Islamist group, the Brotherhood has been at the centre of the discussion around terrorism, despite the fact that there is no proof the Brotherhood ever ordered any terrorist attacks. Some authors have pointed out that dubbing the Brotherhood a terrorist group would be akin to illegally banning an ideology.
So where does the fear come from?
In my book, Rentier Islamism: The Influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gulf Monarchies, I trace the origins of Brotherhood groups in Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE. We don’t often think of places such as Qatar or the UAE as hotbeds of Islamist mobilisation, largely due to the fact that such states do not require the service provision for which the Muslim Brotherhood is known in Egypt and Jordan.
Instead, governments of these states, dubbed rentiers due to their impressive income derived from oil rents, provide welfare for their citizens, ranging from free education and healthcare to free housing. The scarcity of parliamentary elections in the Gulf removes another major function for which the Muslim Brotherhood is known elsewhere.
Groups such as the Brotherhood are actually the best-placed independent social movements in the Gulf, benefitting from ideological appeal in states where modernisation has been accompanied by secularisation and Westernisation
If the two main functions of the Brotherhood are essentially irrelevant and they have no real presence in Qatar or the UAE today, why are the Saudis and Emiratis so worried about this group and Qatar’s perceived support for it?
Groups such as the Brotherhood are actually the best-placed independent social movements in the Gulf, benefiting from ideological appeal in states where modernisation has been accompanied by secularisation and Westernisation.
Islamists can act within the social sphere and influence political opinions. Muslim Brotherhood affiliates are only politically active in Bahrain and Kuwait, where they openly contest parliamentary seats. The Bahraini ruling family, due to the fact that most opposition groups are Shia, has traditionally enjoyed good ties with the Brotherhood.
Due to the lack of institutionalised political space and the overarching relevance of Islam, the social and political spheres are strongly linked in Gulf states, leading to the oft-repeated but inaccurate refrain that these states lack politics.
Certainly, as elsewhere in the world, debates about culture and social values are highly politicised - and in the Gulf, where governments spend vast amounts of money to promote indigenous culture and religion as a means of boosting national identity, these issues become further politicised.
Far from functioning solely to advance political aims, local Brotherhood affiliates endorse social organisations, schools, charities and businesses. Their ideological appeal is spread through the informal sphere, yet affects the formal political sphere.
The presence of oil rents does not mitigate Islamist complaints, nor does it make such voices politically irrelevant.
In fact, the availability of capital often allows rulers of rentier states more opportunities to co-opt the religious sphere and attempt to impose their own ideologies, such as the “moderate Islam” generally espoused by, for example, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
The Brotherhood, therefore, can ask serious questions about the legitimacy and morality of secular Gulf rulers, even if they are able to provide materially for their citizens. It is no coincidence that three of the four states advocating the Qatar blockade (Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt) have housed Muslim Brotherhood affiliates that have in the past, at least to some capacity, worked with the broader political reform movement, leading these states to view them as particularly dangerous.
Lack of nuanced debate
While I fail to see the danger of the mere existence of Brotherhood groups in the Gulf, I cannot deny their resilience, due to the fact that their ideology holds appeal for many fed up with Vision 2030, the call for moderate Islam and further engagement with the West.
This resilience has driven policy among much of the US (and even British) right, who tend to conflate moderate Islamist organisations with violent terrorists. US Senator Ted Cruz introduced a bill in Congress last year calling for the designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist group, while in the UK, a parliamentary inquiry on political Islam concluded that an initial British report on the topic suffered from its lack of specificity - a problem that others have highlighted when discussing the potential for a Brotherhood ban.
The lack of nuanced debate and awareness of the local, rather than transnational, nature of the Muslim Brotherhood will perpetuate a continued short-sighted discussion on the group and its perceived allies.
- Courtney Freer is a research officer at LSE’s Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States. She recently completed her DPhil at University of Oxford and previously worked as a Research Assistant at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan lead a demonstration in Amman in November 2014 (AFP)