The rise of 'Ikhwanophobia': Fear of the Muslim Brotherhood

By Dr. Mohsen Saleh


Fear of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwanal-Muslimoon), the leading Islamist movement, has gained unprecedented international prominence since the beginning of the Arab uprisings. Outside official institutions this fear is most commonly found among liberal or ‘leftist’ figures. Western media also reflect common concerns about the Brotherhood that have been expressed by politicians in both Israel and the United States.


Concerns regarding Islamists heightened especially after it was realised that the Muslim Brotherhood or an associated organisation was involved in the protest movements in Egypt, Yemen and Jordan; and had also assumed significant roles in the uprisings in Libya and Syria. One of the key origins of this newfound “Ikhwanophobia” is the role played by Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that was formerly the Muslim Brotherhood.

These fears are based on a depiction of the Brotherhood as a terrorist or extremist group, a label commonly associated in the international media with Islamist groups. The Brotherhood has been characterised as backward, obscure, opposed to civil freedoms and women's rights or as a symbol of theocracy and dictatorship in the name of religion. Local and religious groups have, on the other hand, accused the Brotherhood of opportunism, collaboration with foreign forces, failing to understand the reality on the ground, and an inability to produce genuine programmes for running the state, society and foreign relations.

According to secular, social and political theory, if these accusations are accurate they would suffice to transform the Brotherhood into a marginal movement which would not attract much attention. Yet, eighty years after its establishment, this organisation still enjoys wide support in countries across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and recently in other societies that are eager for change, liberation, democracy and prosperity. This fact makes these accusations and fears questionable – unless there is a move to re-evaluate the broader social and political theories of the day.


There are a number of reasons for the emergence of Ikhwanophobia, the most important of which is ignorance of the organisation’s ideology. Most of the literature regarding the Muslim Brotherhood and most of the commentary in the media by ‘experts’ do not reflect a depth of knowledge of what has been written by Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the organisation, or books and readings approved by the organisation.

There is confusion, whether in good or bad faith, between partial readings of what have been written by Brotherhood members and what is attributed to them by opponents or those within the movement who have misrepresented their personal views as that of the organisation. The outcome is a stereotypical image of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is then not given the opportunity to set the record straight and clarify its ideas and convictions.

Of the numerous senior and respected leaders of the Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb is the most popularly quoted in western media and academia. He is usually presented as the father of takfir(labelling Muslims as apostates) without his accusers considering the objective circumstances or political context which prevailed at the time of his writing.

A careful, objective reading of Qutb’s writings shows that, even when he used strong language to describe the regimes of his day and the need to change them, he did not intend to accuse individuals or any particular society of apostasy. Rather, he encouraged mixing, diversity and dealing with people in a spirit of compassion, understanding and mercy. When Qutb talked about ‘emotional isolation’ he did not call for abandoning people but for preserving Islamic morals and conduct within a non-Islamic environment.

In order to gain a fair appreciation Sayyid Qutb’s works, his writings must be read in their entirety – especially FiZilalal-Qur'an(In the Shade of the Qur’an), Afrahal-Ruh (Joys of the Spirit) and Al-Adalaal-Ijtimaiyyafil-Islam (Social Justice in Islam), instead of only selective and non-nuanced readings of excerpts from Ma'alimfil-Tariq (Milestones) as is often the case. Furthermore, a number of Brotherhood leaders, thinkers and writers have played significant roles in clarifying any extremist ideas attributed to Sayyid Qutb, and have emphasised the moderate nature of this Sunni group.


Most modern states in the Arab and western worlds have adopted a secular system which separates politics from religion. In fact, some of these states – based on nationalist, socialist or liberal ideologies – are hostile to religion. This is the second reason for the emergence of Ikhwanophobia.

It needs to be understood that in circumstances where traditional religious streams have been absorbed into the modern state, ‘activist’ Islamic trends spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood challenged these orthodoxies. They provided alternative visions for change and reform, also based on Islamic principles, and provided the leadership required to fulfil people's aspirations. Regardless of their ability to implement their vision, the Brotherhood has realised widespread support from large segments of society.

A number of nationalist, leftist and liberal groups have aligned themselves with modernity and the institutions of the secular state as it emerged in the West. Accordingly, they perceived the ‘dynamic’ and ‘activist’ Islamic trends as discordant with secularism. In particular, they described this alternative religious trend that combines politics and religion as belonging to the so-called periods of theocracy and the times of ‘sultans and slaves’. Furthermore, modernist thought linked this Islamic trend with underdevelopment and obscurantism without realising (or the desire to realise) that this ‘dynamic’ Islamic movement has offered a critical reading of history and the regimes which ruled in the name of Islam. Moreover, this movement distinguishes between what it regards as a genuine, universal Islam and the practices which were exercised in the name of Islam in particularly ‘backward’ eras.


The third reason for fearing the Muslim Brotherhood is hostile propaganda which has targeted the movement over decades in various Arab countries. The Brotherhood was accused of collaboration and of opposing nationalism – especially during the rule of Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt from 1954 to 1970. Subsequently, the Brotherhood continued to suffer persecution, threats and various efforts to marginalise or liquidate them. The movement had hardly had any opportunity to defend itself or to explain its views. This was true over long periods of time in such countries as Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Libya.


The fourth reason is that over years of persecution the Muslim Brotherhood began increasingly to fear the deliberately negative and selective reading of its history and activities, especially in relation to its underground and military organisations. Incidents that were of particular concern included the association of the movement with the assassination of former Egyptian prime minister al-Naqrashi Pasha, and an attempt to assassinate Nasser. Not many voices questioned the Brotherhood’s liability for the latter incident, but several historians have cast doubt on the theory. Those who repeat the accusations do not mention, for example, that the ‘special system’ that was established by the Brotherhood in Egypt in 1940 aimed at expelling the British from Egypt and supporting the resistance movement in Palestine. Indeed, this is what the organisation strove for during the 1948 war and the Egyptian resistance to foreign control of the Suez Canal from 1951 to 1954.


A fifth reason is that Israeli and western concerns regarding ‘political dynamic Islam’ are based on a Zionist and western religious, cultural, historical and political background. The fear of the rise of this Islamist movement is based on the Brotherhood’s total rejection of the Zionist project in Palestine. The Brotherhood has also presented an alternative political view which in itself does not necessarily comply with the principles of the secular state as defined by western nations. The fear of the Muslim Brotherhood thus emanates from its rejection of western hegemony over the region and its calls for changing or reforming the corrupt authoritarian Arab regimes allied with the West.

These factors have caused western powers to reject the Brotherhood and to pursue hostile policies towards the organisation. These hostile policies have contributed to defaming the Brotherhood in the past few decades and have helped prevent them from assuming power. This was achieved through supporting (directly and indirectly) local regimes using subversive means such as dictatorship, suppression of freedoms, torture and rigging of elections – all of which are supposedly unacceptable in terms of western standards and norms.

Ironically, the ‘credentials’ offered to the West by some Arab rulers was their ability to hunt down Islamists and marginalise them. In addition, some regimes and intelligence services tried to win western confidence by intimidating the Muslim Brotherhood and exaggerating the potential dangers posed by the Brotherhood.


The sixth reason for this Ikhwanophobia is related to the Brotherhood itself. As with any large organisation, the Brotherhood is not a homogenous entity, nor is it necessarily unified on all matters. Some members do not present the desired image, and political competition and partisan interests sometimes leads them to assume hostile stances. Further, partisanship and other organisational affiliations have sometimes curbed the ability of the organisation to attract new competencies and energies.

Even worse, many of the Muslim Brotherhood’s younger members were reluctant to continue working at the organisation – especially after they had graduated. This reluctance was related to broader frustration with the organisation’s inability to meet their aspirations.

The expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world revealed differing capacities to deal with the ruling regimes and the political, economic and security conditions. Consequently, the behaviour of the Brotherhood oscillated between moderation and inflexibility, appeasement and confrontation, and between the ability to accommodate the needs of the public and the failure to understand the dynamics of political, social and economic work.

The organisational capacity and the wide recruitment potential might have increased the fear of the Brotherhood and its potential control of workspaces, and might have consequently prevented others from participating in and assuming responsibility. Additionally, the Muslim Brotherhood’s pursuit of underground work and its attempts to penetrate the military forces in some countries increased doubts about its programmes and real intentions.

The models for Islamic rule in Afghanistan, Iran and Sudan have been presented in the media as failed models that the West fears might be repeated by the Muslim Brotherhood. However, it should be noted that the Brotherhood argues for a vision for the reform process which is different from that presented by the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Shiite regime in Iran.

The Sudanese experience, in particular, has a Muslim Brotherhood background and should be revisited. Although the regime there has diverged from the general trend of the Muslim Brotherhood from the late 1970s, it remains an extension of this Islamist thought.

If the opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood refuse to acknowledge the responsibility of the leftist, liberal and nationalist movements for the ill practices of those corrupted leaders who had adopted their schools of thought, they should accept that the Brotherhood does not bear responsibility for the negative implementation of the Islamic model by others. Similarly, the Brotherhood should not be exempted from responsibility for any wrongs it has committed.


Ironically, a review of history reveals that the parties who warn against the Muslim Brotherhood, be they liberals, nationalists or leftists, belong to political movements that assumed power in the Arab world through force rather than free, democratic elections.

This applies to the Nasserite nationalist socialist trend in Egypt as well as to the Ba‘ath nationalists and socialists in Iraq and Syria. It is also true for the regimes that have claimed leftist and socialist policies such as that of the Numeiri regime in Sudan, the Houari Boumediene regime in Algeria and the Gaddafi regime in Libya. It also applies to the Wild Tayei regime in Mauritania and the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime in Yemen. The same is true for regimes that continued their authoritarian practices even after they appeared to divert towards liberal democratic policies and the ‘American house of obedience’. Although *** Bourguiba did not assume power by military force on Tunisia’s independence, he and his successor Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali would rule the country against the will of their people in the years that followed.

Hereditary regimes, for their part, have pursued liberal trends which excluded and marginalised the activist Islamic trend as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet some countries, such as Jordan and Kuwait, sometimes allow the Brotherhood involvement in political activities within certain strict parameters.

Liberalists, nationalists and leftists who have scared others away from the Muslim Brotherhood should reveal which Arab regimes bore their convictions and respected freedoms and human rights and a peaceful rotation of power. Arab regimes which depicted the Brotherhood and Islamists in general as problems are the same ones that suppressed freedoms, rigged elections, established undemocratic intelligence and security apparatuses and allowed corruption and injustice to flourish in their countries. Also, these regimes were hostile to the Brotherhood and to its members beyond the fear they imposed through the ballot box. In fact, they suppressed freedoms in the name of protecting freedoms, usurped power to prevent Islamists from ruling and established corrupt, despotic regimes under the pretence of preventing the ‘injustice’ of Islamists.

Thus, under the pretext of the fear of the ‘victim’, the executioner could torment and torture. This is what was witnessed in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and this discourse was even supported by many ‘liberal’ and ‘leftist’ intellectuals, media persons and academics.

It is noteworthy that in the Arab World most secular leftist, liberal and nationalist-dominated contexts have leaders who suppress party members, exclude them and prevent internal elections or any democratic national elections.

An objective comparison shows that the Muslim Brotherhood, despite its internal problems, has been ahead of the pack in its practice of internal democracy and in holding internal elections. This is one factor that allowed them to protect their existence and understand the changes taking place around them.

Arab regimes hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood have tried to influence people against the movement, calling it an enemy of freedom that uses democracy only once as a means to seize control of the state and then to suppress people in the name of religion. The Brotherhood and other Islamists owe people an explanation about these issues. However, Islamists are not usually allowed to defend themselves in public, while such accusations receive wide media coverage. Secular, liberal, nationalist and socialist ideologies were deliberately linked to national freedoms and human rights, while the Islamic approach to the state was said to be characterised by revulsion of democracy, freedoms and human rights. The Brotherhood (and Islamists in general) has always rejected this stereotyping. Ultimately, it perceives its Islamic vision as a response to the will of the nation, which has overwhelmingly chosen Islam as compatible with its psychological and cultural make-up and more capable of mobilising the masses in the battle for development and progress.

The truth is that the Islamist vision of governance is not entirely compatible with that of prevailing democratic systems. This is because it is based on different ideological and cultural foundations. It also incorporates criticism of the western system more broadly, particularly in terms of what it regards as the latter’s greedy capitalism and degradation of family and society. At the same time, many western democracies are subject to the influence of big business, corporations, Zionist and conservative Christian lobbies and owners of media networks. This results in a minority controlling major political and economic decision-making. However, Islamists in their entirety support free and fair elections and peaceful transfer of power. Additionally, they believe there is no coercion in religion. Thus, when people choose Islamists’ programme and vision, it is only fair to respect their will and choice.

On another level, dissuading support for the Muslim Brotherhood is usually accompanied with deliberately – and incorrectly – linking them to extremist movements in the Muslim world. The Brotherhood is thus accused of being part of or in support of these movements. This, despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has, in its books and publications, directly expressed its disagreement with extremist thought and blood-shedding. This can clearly be seen in the writings of Hassan al-Banna, Abdelqader Awda, Mustafa Sebai, Abdul Karim Zeidan, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Rachid Al-Ghanoushi, Fathi Yakan, Faisal Mawlawi and others. However, their opponents are determined to blame them for unpopular and hostile views that these writers have not adopted.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood opposed the ‘Takfeer wa al-Hijra’ group in Egypt in the 1960s, and rejected the thought of al-Qaida which targeted it in Iraq through assassinations and bombings, its enemies adamantly accused them of being extremists and of supporting terrorism. The Muslim Brotherhood is accountable for its members do and say, but cannot be held responsible for the conduct of members who deviate from the movement’s path and pursue other thought and practices and who ultimately oppose the Brotherhood and work against it.

The problem of extremism can partly be attributed to the Arab regimes. When corrupt Arab regimes were established on the basis of their alliance with the West, this alliance included, crucially, their acceptance of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. This was against the will of their people and, with foreign support, these regimes prevented reform or peaceful rotation of power. As a result, a violent and unbalanced reaction spread among the Arab societies living under these oppressive regimes. Had these regimes established an environment of freedom, extremism would not have flourished. In addition, the overwhelming trend amongst Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood continued to be that of moderation, even when the Brotherhood was repression which included imprisonment and death.

This moderate vision was aptly expressed in the book DuatlaQudhat(Preachers not Judges) by Hassan al-Hudhaibi, a former general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood who succeeded the founder Hassan al-Banna when the latter was imprisoned. Criticism of the Brotherhood is also based on its lack of a real programme for state management and for not providing solutions for various social problems. It is indeed the right of people to be assured about the ability of the Brotherhood to provide insights and genuine programmes. However, this accusation is outdated as it criticises the performance of the organisation thirty years ago. Currently, electoral programmes of the Brotherhood in different countries are comparatively comprehensive and attempt to address most concerns.

The Muslim Brotherhood has benefited recently from its strong presence in universities and professional syndicates and the skills of its cadres in various fields – including those of thousands of students who studied abroad. Although members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood comprise a large sector (the largest in some countries) in the Arab World, it has not been given a fair chance to participate in state institutions because of an exclusion policy pursued against it in many Arab countries.

After fifty years of the Muslim Brotherhood being victims of Arab regimes allied to the United States, some have recently accused it of being America’s new ally. This despite the fact that, against the wishes of the US and its allies, Brotherhood members participated in the uprisings in the past year which triggered transformational processes and caused the fall of regimes aligned to the US.

It is true that the Muslim Brotherhood represents a moderate Islam, believes in gradual reform and focuses on internal reform in the first stages. However, its hostility to and positions on US policy has cost it dearly. The US will seek to accommodate the new reality and re-arrange its policies in ways that best serve its interests. Sooner or later, however, it might have to face, or deal with, the clear Islamist ideology of the Brotherhood. The results of such an interaction will depend on the ability of the Brotherhood to adhere to its principles and withstand the seduction of power. It also depends on America’s determination to impose its will and policies in the region.

Vilifying the Muslim Brotherhood can no longer be acceptable in this era of Arab uprisings. The will of the people must be respected, and the Muslim Brotherhood should be allowed the opportunity to implement its vision. Ultimately, its success would be in the interests of the countries it operates in and the people of these countries.

It is necessary that the Muslim Brotherhood clarifies its positions, counters accusations against it, criticise its own experience and carries the responsibility for its mistakes. It should also accept that it is not infallible, does not have a monopoly on the truth, and would respect difference and diversity and put national interests before personal, partisan and factional interests. Further, it will need to provide its constituencies and those it seeks to govern with an integrated vision which goes beyond slogans and can be understood as serious programmes.

 *Dr Mohsen Salehisthe Director o fthe Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 13:12

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