The Genesis of Salafi-Jihadism

Salafi Jihadi Surur

Did you know that not all Salafis are jihadis?

Often in popular understanding they of the long beard are the chief perpetrators of religious violence and terrorism.

Many are, but it does not have to be so. Another popular version of Salafism adopts political quietism, believing Islam commands them to obey the ruler — almost no matter what.

The ‘almost’ is because the ruler is required to allow the practice of prayer, and in some fashion implement sharia. If he willingly flaunts this, he forfeits his rule.

But they also believe that Islam teaches that the chaos of rebellion far outweighs the chance that a revolution against defects might possibly be successful.

But where is the sharia line to be drawn, and what calculation of chance might animate a Salafi toward jihad?

Meet Muhammad Surur, a Syrian recently deceased and commemorated in the National as the one who normalized extremism.

Surur was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria until the 1960s. He broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood and moved to Saudi Arabia, where he was influenced by Salafism there.

A decade later, he left Saudi Arabia for Kuwait. In the 1970s, he was part of a leaderless and unorganised religious movement that combined traditional and revolutionary ideas, dubbed the Islamic awakening.

The Sahwa, as the movement was known in Arabic, led to the transmutation of Salafism from a traditional school of thought (dawa) to an activist one (haraki), through the foreign influence of political revolutionaries such as Surur.

In short, political quietism met political Islam.

Still, this doesn’t mean his movement was bloodthirsty. The author notes jihadis and anti-jihadis both hurl insults against one another in Surur’s name.

Even so, Surur believed the Shia were not true Muslims, says the author, and praised himself for anticipating the intra-Muslim divides characterizing the post-Iranian revolution Middle East.

Surur also embraced the Syrian uprising, and was eulogized by the Syrian National Coalition, the political arm of the Syrian Islamic Council.

“He focused in his work on activism and traditionalism, rejecting apathy and passivity, and established a current that combines intellectual work with political activism, in addition to religious knowledge.”

The coalition’s statement is an example of the dangerous tendency to misconceive of the man’s legacy. The political body ignores the impact Surur had on the kind of extremism that sweeps his country five decades after he left it.

Praise for his movement shows the rampant normalisation of extremist ideas prevalent not only by the opposition’s bodies but also by watchers of the conflict.

The article is noteworthy for highlighting an individual who nuances our understandings.

But I find it lacking in one way: Why did the Salafism side of the equation produce such wanton violence?

Traditional political Islamic groups have a more nebulous approach, sometimes embracing non-violence or defined, forceful actions for revolutionary goals. Perhaps I’m being too generous.

Salafi-jihadis have been shaken into political activism, certainly, but where then does the violence come from?

Salafis esteem the earliest Muslim ages and seek to replicate as much as possible. Does the new revolutionary fervor spark imitation of early Islamic wars?

Or does the Salafi tendency to reject the other and the modern world simply explode when driven to an activist cause?

Political Islamists might utilize violence, or pursue insurrection, but there is something very different about Salafi-Jihadis. Why?

Surur himself is not enough to explain this, however much he may have set it in motion. The author does well to bring us his example, but the article is too short to articulate everything.

But everything is what we need to know, to properly understand and appreciate the other.

Inasmuch as that is impossible, let us try within the space we have. For now, just realize that not all Salafis are violent, even if many have long beards.



Islamists Elsewhere

Islamism Asia

The Atlantic has an insightful piece on the history of American engagement with political Islam. It is written by authors previously recommended as scholars of the movement.

The whole is worth reading, but here is an excerpt describing non-Arab Islamist success — outside of the political process.

It is often assumed politics and governance is the standard of judgment. But is that the case?

Pakistan’s Islamists provide an intriguing counterpoint to the Moroccan “model.” Yet it is a counterpoint that very few Moroccans—or Arab Islamists anywhere—seem much interested in.

Jamaat e-Islami, Pakistan’s Muslim Brotherhood analog, usually wins only a handful of parliamentary seats, yet, as Spiegel points out, the movement may very well be more influential than its Moroccan counterpart, in terms of “influencing judicial appointments, religious tradition, educational mores, and societal norms writ large.” There are other ways of winning besides, well, winning.

In Southeast Asia, Islamist parties, while gaining a significant share of the vote, have not been able to win outright on the national level.

They have, however, helped “Islamism” spread throughout society and become normalized, with even ostensibly secular parties embracing the idea that Islam—and even explicit sharia ordinances—have an important role to play in public life. The lesson here may appear counterintuitive.

The worse Islamists do in elections, the less of a threat they pose to their non-Islamist competitors, who, in turn, seem to have less of a problem appropriating Islamist styles for their own electoral purposes.

Of course, the causal relationships become complicated: One of the reasons that Islamists don’t do as well in South and Southeast Asia is because they’re less distinctive, since these societies seem to have coalesced around a relatively uncontroversial conservative “middle.”

Democracy empowers and encourages all parties, Islamist or otherwise, to seek the center, wherever that may be. As the center shifts rightward, Islamist groups are further emboldened, particularly in polarized societies where candidates pay little price for their radicalism.

It is little surprise, then, that Indonesia, the largest Muslim democracy in the world, has seen a sectarian upsurge. (In May 2017, a Muslim candidate who had developed a reputation as a young “moderate” played on hardline conservative sentiment to unseat the governor of Jakarta, a Christian, who was subsequently imprisoned for blasphemy.)

People often say that Islamism has already conquered Egypt, even if the Brotherhood lost. There is a conservatism to society that wasn’t always here, at least as judged by photos of teachers and students from the 1950s and earlier.

Cairo University Islamism
Cairo University, 1959.

There is also this interesting nugget on Islamists at home:

By the time the Arab uprisings toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011, the United States had already begun thinking about a new approach toward Islamists.

In 2010, the National Security Council began work on a Presidential Study Directive focused on the question of what a push for genuine political reform in the Middle East would look like—including the normalization of Islamists as political actors.

The immediate challenge after the revolutions of 2011 was therefore not one of deciding whether to increase engagement with Islamists—the Obama administration had already come around on that issue—but rather the question of how and to what extent to undertake such a shift.

I either didn’t know or had forgotten this data point. With all the Egyptian accusations that the US was plotting the Muslim Brotherhood takeover of the nation, it would have been poignant consideration at the time — and now.


Is the Muslim Brotherhood Linked to Violence?

Muslim Brotherhood Violence
A Muslim Brotherhood flag from Jordan, via the National Review. Credit: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty. Translation: It is a Holy Quran; God is Great, to God be Praise; Prepare [see Quran 8:60]; The Muslim Brotherhood.
The link between the Muslim Brotherhood and the ongoing terrorism in Egypt is a controversial question.

The government says yes, the MB leadership says no, and Western analysts appear split on the issue. Some see the Brotherhood as the fount of all Islamist violence, others note decades of proclaimed nonviolence in a gradualist strategy to transform Egypt.

But not many have done the exhaustive investigative work of Mokhtar Awad, writing here for the Small Arms Survey of the Security Assessment in North Africa Project.

His 16 page report details the emergence of two allegedly MB-linked violent actors, Liwaa al-Thawra and Hassm. Here are his conclusions:

Perhaps the most explicit and significant indication of a connection between the MB and Liwaa al-Thawra is found in the latter’s statement of responsibility for the assassination of Brigadier General Raga’i.

In it, the group says that the operation was in part revenge for the security forces’ killing of MB leader Mohamed Kamal (Liwaa al-Thawra, 2016c).

In the group’s follow-up video after claiming responsibility for the attack, it eulogized slain MB leaders by showing their pictures, including that of Kamal (Liwaa al-Thawra, 2016d).

Read Awad’s full report about Kamal, who served in the upper echelon of Brotherhood leadership and was responsible for mainland Egypt after many others fled abroad.

As for Hassm, there are also indications of connections between the group and the MB.

The one known leader of Hassm who was killed by the authorities, Mohamed Ashour Dashisha, was an Arabic teacher and graduate from the prestigious Dar al-Ulum college at Cairo University. An examination of Dashisha’s social media profiles indicates that he was at least a supporter of the MB and likely a member as well (Awad, 2017b).

More importantly, in November 2016 the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior released a video statement claiming the arrest of several Hassm members. The arrested members’ confessions alleged a direct operational link to the MB (Egyptian Ministry of the Interior, 2016).

Interestingly, the MB admitted that the persons arrested by the government were MB members, but said that they were simply ‘rights activists’ (MB, 2016a).

Notably, neither of the two rival MB factions has yet released any statement explicitly condemning Hassm or Liwaa al-Thawra, or any of their attacks.

Is this enough evidence to establish a Brotherhood connection? Is such establishment even possible?

Certainly, aside from evidence presented by the Egyptian government of such connections, there is little independent, verifiable, and open-source information that sheds light on potential operational connections.

This will likely continue to be the case unless and until an MB leader explicitly admits to a connection on the record. Such a scenario seems unlikely, however, because the violence allegedly used by the MB and Ikhwani jihadi groups serves a specific political purpose.

Unlike Salafi jihadi groups, the MB does not see violence as its sole tactic, nor does it see benefit in claiming responsibility for attacks that would diminish its international standing.

Without a leak or verified interception of official communications, open-source research cannot easily identify or provide definitive confirmation of any linkages between MB and Hassm or Liwaa al-Thawra, or penetrate a clandestine operation that would reveal such a connection.

Regardless of the degree of connection to the MB as an organization, there is little doubt that Hassm and Liwaa al-Thawra have in their ranks and among their supporters either current or former members of the MB and allied Islamist groups. The political context in which they operate makes this all but a certainty (Awad, 2017b).

For your evaluation. Any thoughts?

Postscript: Read also this investigative report from Mada Masr, on how the prosecutor-general was assassinated.


The Muslim Brotherhood’s Fatal Mistake

Brotherhood's Fatal Mistake
(via the Washington Post)

In his recent article for Foreign Affairs, Eric Trager says the Brotherhood miscalculated at Rabaa, and in post-Morsi policy in general.

It certainly hasn’t worked out well for them, but I have one small quibble, perhaps:

Indeed, from the moment of Morsi’s July 3 overthrow, the Brotherhood’s leaders understood that they were in a kill-or-be-killed struggle with the new military-backed government.

A ‘be-killed’ moment, maybe. There were extensive negotiations going on at the time, between both international and domestic forces. The official discourse held that there was a way for continued Brotherhood political participation.

Trager outlines the pre-Rabaa violence against Brotherhood protests, though. Many, perhaps including the Brotherhood, didn’t really believe the official discourse.

But the possible quibble is with ‘kill’. Did the Brotherhood realize success depended on their violence? That was not part of their official discourse, nor did it seem an underlying reality, as Trager notes:

Although the Brotherhood mobilized violence against its opponents multiple times during Morsi’s presidency, its leaders called for nonviolence following Morsi’s overthrow, with Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie infamously proclaiming, “Our peacefulness is stronger than bullets.”

The article is full of great quotes, with links. But why is this ‘infamous’? It seems honorable. The Brotherhood was certainly willing to ‘be-killed’:

“If they want to disperse the [Cairo] sit-in, they’ll have to kill 100,000 protesters,” Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el-Haddad told journalist Maged Atef two weeks before the massacre. “And they can’t do it [because] we’re willing to offer one hundred thousand martyrs.”

If honorable, it was still tragic, and tragically wrong. Several hundred died, thousands more jailed. But tens of thousands were not willing to pay the price boldly promised.

And it is honorable to risk so much blood? Maybe. Many senior leaders are in prison, but others fled to safety abroad. A good number had family members killed. They bet their organization, and perhaps the prize was worth it.

But Trager shows some were willing to bet more, perhaps undoing my quibble:

From the younger Brothers’ perspective, this was a dangerously naïve strategy, leaving them and their comrades defenseless during the assault that followed.

“Our dear brothers were saying, ‘we are peaceful,’” Amr Farrag, a prominent Brotherhood youth based in Istanbul, later lamented in a Facebook post. “‘Our peacefulness is stronger than bullets.’ Fine, so we got smacked on our necks.”

Another prominent Brotherhood youth, Ahmed El Moghir, later revealed that the Cairo demonstration site was “sufficiently armed to repel the Interior Ministry and possibly the army as well,” but that most of these arms were removed only days before the massacre due to senior Brotherhood leaders’ “betrayal.”

So maybe the ‘kill’ is appropriate to go with ‘be-killed’. Take all testimony with a grain of salt.

A good number of policemen died clearing the square. The great majority of protestors were not armed. When the Interior Ministry displayed weapons captured after the operation, they were not that many.

But is that because they were removed? Why? Cold feet? Conscience? Facilitation of martyrdom and political sympathy?

Much more is needed to understand, but the quote is clear.

The Brotherhood is complicated. But they also miscalculated. What next?

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Cairo Church Attack Kills 25 at Center of Egyptian Christianity


This article was first published by Christianity Today, on December 11, 2016.

At least 25 people were killed and 49 injured when a bomb exploded around 10 a.m. this morning during a worship service at the spiritual center of Christianity in Egypt.

It is the worst terrorist attack on Copts since the New Year’s bombing of a church in Alexandria in 2011 that killed 23 people.

A worship service of mostly women was targeted in the St. Peter and St. Paul church, adjacent to the St. Mark’s Cathedral and papal residence of Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox community in Egypt and worldwide.

Tawadros was traveling in Greece at the time of the attack. He will cut short his visit and lead funeral prayers tomorrow in the Nasr City district of Cairo.

So far, there has been no claim of responsibility for the attack.

“This is an unbelievable act against Egypt first and Christians second,” Andrea Zaki, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, told Christianity Today.

Please click here to read the full story at Christianity Today.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Turf


Flag Cross Quran


Men will always defend their turf. But doing so can shake the whole.

Make Egypt more than the sum of her parts. Being her together in consensus with all.

The state has proposed an agricultural investment project in the underdeveloped areas of the south.

But doing so sells off the land of the marginalized Nubians. Displaced by construction of the High Dam, the constitution guarantees their right of return.

They now protest against further loss of turf.

The state is prosecuting violations of the protest law, among them journalists who demonstrated against the ceding of two Red Sea islands.

They took refuge in their syndicate, which was eventually stormed by police.

Now the head of the syndicate is also arrested, and the general body is studying how best to protect their turf.

The state has imprisoned many Brotherhood members for participation in violence and betrayal of the nation. Court cases resulted in rapid convictions, some of which have been confirmed.

But higher courts have overturned others, ordering a retrial. The Brotherhood struggles to fight for survival. But the judiciary also has its own turf.

God, guide Egypt in each issue.

Develop the economy, in cooperation with the people. Ensure necessary stability, with guarantee of rights. Weigh justice judicially, with due process on every charge.

Bless those who strive honestly for all they believe to be their right. But guard against partisanship and selfish insistence.

Bless those who struggle in defense of their kin. But temper the strong who may press upon the small.

Make Egypt united in support of her turf.

But remind Egypt also that all turf is yours.




Friday Prayers for Egypt: Normalizing Ties?

Flag Cross Quran


You desire good relations. But politics is often about particular interests, and sometimes relationships go sour. Sometimes they are damaged beyond repair. Perhaps in some cases, an outright break is necessary and best.

So with Israel, Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhood, God, help Egypt arrange her affairs properly. Feelers have gone out that perhaps a thaw is in the offering.

Egypt has had longstanding peace with Israel, but it has usually been cold. Formal relations were handled by the intelligence and security sectors, but recently the foreign minister visited Tel Aviv.

Diplomatic relations carry more normalcy, which is controversial in Egypt. But use his effort to further peace between Israel and Palestine, God. And shape policies and attitudes among peoples, so that warm relations will be possible also with Cairo.

Turkey, also, has been mending fences with Israel, and Russia beside. Egyptian ties severed after Morsi was removed from power, and both sides continue to criticize each other.

But there are also hints that maybe things can change. Interests, justice, and legitimacies are sometimes hard to reconcile on the international stage, God. But Egypt and Turkey are regional powers; coordination is preferred to conflict.

God, may Egypt, Israel, and Turkey bless the region and the world. Much must change to experience your ideal. Forgive and be merciful when your ways are neglected.

At heart, this is a mark of the Egypt-Brotherhood relationship. Both sides accuse the other of bloody and traitorous conspiring. Though the Brotherhood is less than a nation, it is more than a person. And their members belong to Egypt, no matter the legitimacy or substance of mutual acrimony.

But does their ideology? God, give both sides great wisdom. Rule justly between them; may every crime find proper punishment.

Help member, group, government, and nation to come to terms. The issues are too disputed to pray simply for reconciliation, when some pray for retribution and others eradication. Many on both sides would see normalization as a terrible compromise, even a defeat.

Even so, it seems some are trying cautiously. If from good and righteous intention, God, bless them. Bless also those who from similar moral clarity are strident to apply justice.

Sideline those of selfish ambition, but for all others scrub away their every impurity. May good men lead the nation well.

Give Egypt discernment, God, at home and abroad. May all true ties be strengthened. May peace, in place of struggle, soon become normal.


Biola Middle East Published Articles

The Struggle for Enemy Love in the Arab Christian World

This article first appeared at The Table. For more articles featuring thoughtful Christian perspectives on the the nature and embodiment of love, growing through suffering, and acquiring humility, click here.

Love Your Enemies Arabic
Translation: Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you, and whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also


I have long taken pride in the distinctive teaching of Christianity to love your enemy. It was not until I began learning Arabic I better appreciated what this called for.

Perhaps like many American Christians my pride was an identity marker more than a mark of Christ. I had never suffered for my faith, nor had any enemies to speak of. But in a pluralistic world of competing religious claims, widespread political polarization, and far-flung military adventures, ‘love your enemy’ became a mantra to lift me out of the morass and place my feet firmly on the moral high ground.

Only Jesus commands this, I thought; my Christian religion is different. I had always believed it was true. This was confirmation it was better.

The Sermon on the Mount allows us to cherish our ideals, with full admittance of the still mostly philosophical difficulties. Who has ever forced us to walk a mile? And beggars? They’re all in the big city. Turning the other cheek would be hard, but the envisioned moral strength? Powerful.

One morning years later I awoke surrounded by posters of smiling Arab pop stars. During vacation break from language school in Jordan I arranged for an immersion experience in the ancient city of al-Karak, home to a 12th century Crusader castle. One-quarter of the population remains Christian; one local family took me in and displaced their preteen daughter from her room.

But there at the door by the light switch a prominently placed sticker served as a reminder each morning as she left the room. Ahibbu ‘adakum. Love your enemies.

I went to the Arab world imagining a place where this command might be more practical. Muslims were not essential enemies, of course, and Jordan was well known as a place of coexistence. But perhaps they were theological enemies? In any case the region was characterized with tales of persecuted Christians. How would ordinary believers live the Sermon?

Ihsanu illa mubghideekum, the sticker continued. I was less familiar with this injunction. Baariku la’aneekum. Perhaps like many American Christians, Jesus taught me from the mountain. What I would come to learn is that Arab Christians quoted his Sermon on the Plain. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those that curse you.

The family I stayed with in al-Karak was well respected with no known enemies. But every morning their daughter entered a Muslim culture armed with instructions that have buoyed Arab Christians for 1400 years. Whether jizyah and jihad, or colleagues and citizens, they have been the minority ‘other’. American Christians, white-skinned at least, have little idea what this entails.

Going to Egypt, later still, I saw the results first hand.

I wished eagerly to explore the context. Both Matthew’s and Luke’s account end with the command to pray for those who treat you wrong, and more than other places in the Arab world, Egypt was understood to be a place of Coptic suffering. ‘It takes a presidential decree to fix a church doorknob,’ I was told. ‘Christians get attacked in their villages, and they are the ones put in prison.’ Over time I would learn that the reality is quite nuanced, but the sentiment is telling both for visceral incidents of suffering as well as the ethos they produce. Many have suspected that Christians of the region had bought a modicum of peace in exchange for evangelistic mission, beaten down by the task of communal preservation. I experienced Copts as simultaneously integrated in society and withdrawn into their churches. They would speak of Muslims as friends, but whisper of Islam as an enemy ideology.

But what of the celebrated Sermon on the Plain? How would they not just love, but also bless? Specifically and practically, how would they do good?

In one city south of Cairo I interviewed a man who provided a commendable, if telling example. Due to government difficulties in extending services to underdeveloped areas, Muslims and Christians have learned to take care of their own. Until recently Islamist groups had long provided a safety net for the majority, while the Orthodox Church ensured care for Christian widows and the Coptic poor. Neither group would profess denying help to the religious other, but both mirrored the reality of increasing emphasis on religious identity.

This man worked with a Christian agency that aimed to break the dichotomy and serve all. Unaffiliated with the church, Muslims were the employed majority as well as present on the board of trustees. By no means were they an enemy, but Christ’s love to the other was clearly among his motivations.

A jovial and cheerful man, he turned deadly serious on my next question: ‘To better reach your community, would you consider partnering with a Muslim organization?’ It seemed innocuous enough but touched a deeply sensitive nerve. ‘I swear by the Messiah,’ he answered angrily, ‘there is not one Islamic organization that also takes care of the Christians!’

He may be right; he was certainly the expert. But from the heart, the mouth speaks. Here was one of the best examples of a Christian doing good to people who many in his community would internally generalize as a sort of enemy. But despite his charity, he ultimately demonstrated an uncharitable spirit. Let there be little condemnation, but the question is fair though terribly hard: As I Corinthians 13 warns, did he risk becoming a resounding gong?

Nuance is necessary, for the other is not the enemy unless they press against you. For most Arab Christians the ordinary Muslim is an ordinary person, though the Islamist can be a threat in the desire to set his creed as the organizing principle of society. In a region with much religious conservatism, the line between Muslim and Islamist can be difficult to draw. This man railed against the latter, and perhaps with good reason. But it was clear his love for the other did not extend to love for the enemy. Instead of doing them good, whatever that could have meant practically, he was in existential competition.

In the years that followed Islamists rode a revolutionary wave into the presidential palace. Despite their conciliatory discourse with Western audiences, in Arabic some of their members and supporters uttered vile and vitriolic threats against their opponents, Christians included. One year later as Copts joined the masses that turned against the new political elite, they paid the price as their churches were burned throughout the country. Christians were praised for their patience, and rallied behind the military and millions of Muslims to oppose the Islamist enemy. In this case the term is at least rhetorically appropriate; once chosen as legislators and government ministers, they were now rejected as terrorists and an internationalist cabal.

Western opinion is divided over the veracity of this accusation, but as concerns local Christians it is largely irrelevant. Certainly they suffered; certainly they ascribed to widespread public messaging. But in the vanquishing of their enemy almost no voices of love were offered. These need not be in dissent; they might only be in pleas for due process or care for the relatives of the justly imprisoned. During Islamist rule many Christians worried and some chose to emigrate. Some, probably many, prayed for their new president. But if a few have since sought to bless the fallen Islamists who curse them still, their example has not moved the needle of Coptic opinion, where nary a tear has been shed.

How then is this spirit present in a ten-year-old girl who lost everything?

If Islamists in Egypt were a challenge, even a disaster, in Syria and Iraq they were a catastrophe. When the so-called Islamic State overran Mosul in July 2014, thousands of Christians left their homes and fled to Kurdistan. Among them was Myriam, who with her family lived in a half-built shopping mall. Interviewed a year later by the Christian satellite network SAT-7, her testimony went viral.

‘I will only ask God to forgive them,’ she said when asked how she felt about those who caused this tragedy. ‘Why should they be killed?’ Contrast her with the opinion of some Americans, who wonder why we have not yet bombed ISIS into oblivion.

Perhaps it is the depth of the loss that summons the breadth of compassion. Perhaps children are not chiseled as rigidly as adults. Beautiful testimonies of forgiveness have been offered by Egyptian Christians as well, whose family members were martyred by ISIS in Libya. Unjust suffering recalls a crucified Jesus, whose dying prayer to God was that sin not be accounted to his tormentors. From afar we recoil, and demand justice. Likewise, Egyptian Christians felt vindication when their government bombarded ISIS in Libya the next day.

Let them not be blamed on account of ‘love your enemy’. The children of Israel broke into song when Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea. David prayed for deliverance from his enemies and a psalm of exile wished their children smashed against the rocks. Romans established the role of government in the preservation of order and punishment of the wrongdoer. And one day, Christ himself will wield the rod of iron as his enemies are fashioned into a footstool. Outcry against suffering is natural and must be voiced for emotional health. Justice is real, necessary, and must never become the antonym of love.

But mercy triumphs over judgment, and love covers over a multitude of sins. The Christian ideal keeps no record of wrongs, and hopes all things. This seems impossible when facing an enemy of any caliber, let alone the Islamic State. It almost seems perverse. The higher calling of love must uphold the lower calling of justice, and demands great discernment in weighing Jesus’ instruction to be wise as serpents yet innocent as doves.

Arab Christians are in an unenviable position. The Egyptian church must navigate this wisdom-innocence paradigm with the utmost care. The Syrian-Iraqi church has been scattered. If they have not yet lived up to the fullness of ‘love your enemy’ it only serves to remind us how far we are from what they endure. That God has kept them from abject loathing is sign enough of the Spirit’s power. That they fill up in their flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions is reason enough to humbly bow and support them in prayer.

Unfortunately, my proximity has not enabled the vision of practical suggestion. Lord willing, the eyes of a foreigner have helped some see afresh the demands of the gospel. Ultimately, application is up to them.

But over the years I have come to see the Sermon on the Plain as a better template than the Sermon on the Mount, especially if read in reverse.

Pray for those who mistreat you. If persecution is rare, mistreatment is not. If love if ethereal, prayer is grounding. With an act of the will I can choose to place my enemy before God. Perhaps I even begin with the imprecatory psalms. But rather than grumble or plot revenge, I turn the matter over to him.

Bless those who curse you. Once in God’s hands the prayer can change, even with rising of the nature of offense. No matter how difficult in our power, the Spirit’s power enables our will to progress further. The step is tangible, but nothing is yet asked of the heart. With gritted teeth I seek God’s grace not only for my hurt, but for the ultimate well-being of my enemy.

Do good to those who hate you. But again, God pushes the envelope as the severity of opposition increases. Anyone might curse me in a moment of frustration. Hatred takes time. But in answer to a decision that hardens a heart, my decision is to loosen my own. In asking God to bless my enemy, he transforms me to do it myself.

Love your enemies. Whatever practical action results, something mystical occurs. At least, I can only trust God that it will. Somehow, and whatever it means and feels like, love happens.

It is this love that is the hallmark of Christianity, not my initial congratulatory pat on the back that I was born into and believed in a superior faith. This is the love that can transform conflict. But it is also the love that can get trampled underfoot.

Why has the latter been the trend for Arab Christians over the past 1400 years, as their numbers have dwindled to near extinction? Have they not loved enough? Have they not stood for justice? Have they compromised too readily? Have they allowed their hearts to harden?

We cannot know, and we dare not judge. Bear well that the sermon passage ends with a plea: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Look upon them with sympathy, and upon the region. They are brothers in sisters in faith, within brothers and sisters in humanity. Surely among them are the ungrateful and wicked, but as sons and daughters of the Most High, in imitation we are commanded to be kind.

And remember, the Sermon on the Plain places the Golden Rule smack within the section on loving your enemies. It is among the most beautiful verses in Arabic: Kama tureedun an yafal al-nas bikum, afalu antum aydan bihum hakatha. Do not let the foreignness of the language exaggerate further the foreignness of the concept. Enemies need love even more than the rest of us. Invite Arab Christians to help us learn.


Is the Brotherhood ‘Rethinking’?

Rethinking Political Islam
(from Brookings)

When Brookings released a new paper from a young Muslim Brotherhood member based in Istanbul within the context of an ongoing series on political Islamism, prominent analyst Eric Trager had a poignant reply on Twitter:

“Brookings’ “Rethinking Islamism” series jumps the shark, features MB who, of course, doesn’t rethink anything.”

I laughed, but upon reading the analysis of Ammar Fayed I also noticed some sections where the group does appear to have reviewed its current situation and its year in power. I will highlight a few sections below.

But Trager also tweeted a comment that rings somewhat true:

“Islamists on Islamism – By casting MBs as research analysts, Brookings is allowing itself to become Ikhwanweb.”

Much of the article is simply a restatement of the Muslim Brotherhood internal narrative. There is no mention of the Turkey-based satellite incitements to violence, and only token mention of the ‘blurry’ line between revolutionary protest and violent means. That the people turned against Morsi is attributed solely to state-controlled media, and current divisions in the group are downplayed against an inherent unity asserted without refuting current outside analysis.

As an insider, Fayed is in a good position to know, and the paper on this count is still very valuable. But perhaps Brooking miscasts it; it is less an analysis than the presentation of one particular trend within the organization.

Unfortunately, it also seems somewhat contradictory. The overall theme is that the Muslim Brotherhood has not turned to wholescale violence because it would contradict the longstanding traditions that favor a social outreach over revolutionary change.

Fayed provides a very useful insider’s view of Brotherhood history, and contrasts the group with more violent actors:

This “model” [of the MB] carries out social services through official institutions subject to the law and operates under the authority of the state. The other carries out social services only to further the direct replacement of an absent or failed state with “Islamic rule.”

I think this is true, but toward his conclusion he says that the group is starting to change in its understanding of its enemy:

The conflict has shifted from a political conflict between the Brotherhood as an opposition group and the ruling regime into a conflict between the Brotherhood and the idea of the Egyptian state itself.

I agree with the author that the Brotherhood has not turned to violence in large swaths. But in contrast to his intended point that this will not likely happen, this point opens up that the MB is warming to a position he cast earlier as the domain of extremists. Within it he also takes a swipe at the Coptic Orthodox Church, stating “in the view of many” they are “abettors to the killings and ongoing repression”.

Earlier, Fayed relates how this state apparatus framed the Brotherhood:

By the end of June 2013, the state succeeded in “factionalizing the Brotherhood,” by portraying them as fifth-columnists separate from the rest of the population with self-serving goals. The message was clear, that the Brotherhood doesn’t have Egypt’s best interests at heart, only its own.

Certainly this was a message mobilizing against the Brotherhood. The author spends much of the paper describing the group’s attitude toward social services, showing how it serves the good of society at large.

But at the start of the paper, describing the Brotherhood founder’s somewhat nebulous and shifting attitudes toward politics, he wrote:

In the opening of the first issue of al-Natheer magazine in May 1938, Hassan al-Banna clearly stated “Until now, brothers, you have not opposed any party or organization, nor have you joined them… but today you will strongly oppose all of them, in power and outside of it, if they do not acquiesce and adopt the teachings of Islam as a model that they will abide by and work for…There shall be either loyalty or animosity.”

Clearly, this us-versus-them mentality is deeply ingrained in the Brotherhood ethos. The ‘loyalty or animosity’ theme is also a hallmark of Islamic extremism.

But this leads to one of the author’s points of reflection. The Brotherhood needs to better cooperate with others:

As long as the Brotherhood’s political imagination is unable to overcome the mindset of “coup versus legitimacy” and develop an alternative political discourse that meets the demands of the disaffected social segments that ignited the January revolution, then the Brotherhood itself may be an obstacle in its efforts to build a new culture of protest.

And in Fayed’s final conclusion, he makes an appeal:

Until now, the group has not formed a clear political vision. Nor does it have the tools to remove the military from its political calculus. Therefore, the group must work with other forces that reject the policies of the current regime.

Such an alliance, he believes, can form a broad national front whose goals and programs are based on the priorities of the revolution at large. This national front could also delineate pragmatic plans to coexist with the political and economic influence of the military for the foreseeable future.

The strategy is sensible, but he fails to state one of the most significant reasons this is not happening. Early on, the national front forces he describes felt betrayed as the Brotherhood collaborated with the military against the revolution. Yet even in this appeal to them now he does the same – imagining pragmatic plans to coexist with the military.

In a sense, this may help prove his point. The Muslim Brotherhood is not a very revolutionary organization. In fact the author’s semi-solution is to consider abandoning the political project and return to its comprehensive social role. If out of politics, he posits, the group could be a powerful force to marshal the populace to push non-Brotherhood politicians toward Islam-inspired positions.

Here is where Fayed’s most powerful rethink takes place:

The Brotherhood’s brief experience of being in power and its subsequent removal by military coup has served to strengthen the idea of separating the Brotherhood’s role as a social institution from its role as a political force …

In hindsight, it appears that the Brotherhood’s direct participation in competitive politics has done substantial damage to decades of social and religious institution building.

But since this social institution building project has been dismantled, as he acknowledges, where can the Brotherhood go now? He doesn’t see the group diving into violence, but acknowledges there is no space for reconciliation with the regime as long as Sisi is in power.

In short, there is a deep impasse in which the Brotherhood can only hope that current conditions deteriorate until the people rise again in revolt. Whatever authority comes next, it seems, might be able to work out an arrangement to restore the group.

In history this has been seen before. After Nasser, Sadat gave an opening. It may be wise to wait. Without stating it so clearly, this may be his real analysis on why the Brotherhood has not resorted to violence.

Of course he also mentions the many Brotherhood members in prison, which makes a difference also. But instead of his focus on internal Brotherhood dynamics, I would propose a different reason:

Army unity did not break, Egypt is demographically homogenous, and the people do not like violence.

For consider, the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine believes in armed struggle. The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria believes in armed struggle. Every situation is different, of course, but there is nothing intrinsic to the Brotherhood that believes in nonviolence. In Egypt, they made practical decisions on the best way to pursue their objectives within the scope of the possible.

In a vastly more constricted setting, they do the same today.

Had a division of the army broken off, should we imagine the Brotherhood would not have rallied behind it? Had they seized a portion of Upper Egypt, for example, would they not be fighting to defend it?

It is true the Brotherhood has not run off into Sinai, but an insurgency does not control Sinai, it only plagues it. Furthermore, the Brotherhood was never strong there, it would be unfamiliar terrain.

So why are not thousands of Brotherhood members committing individual terrorist acts? I would suggest it takes quite a bit to turn a frustrated political activist into a wanton killer, especially if there is no well-defined endgame. The Egyptian people do not like violence; Brotherhood members are drawn from the people. Besides, there is already a long history of Islamist insurgency from a few decades ago that only served to alienate the masses.

No matter how difficult the situation, they hold to the calculated decision that violence is still not the winning option. Give them at least some credit for this, but not necessarily the honor of principle. They have always been willing to fight, and the Brotherhood has never denied it. Their comprehensive vision of Islam does not sideline the use of force, only regulate it. The Brotherhood are pragmatists.

So what is Ammar Fayed? A very particular viewpoint within the Brotherhood that has won pride of place at an esteemed think tank. It may or may not be their dominant viewpoint, but it is insight into their world, provided the analysis is viewed within the possibility of propaganda.

In this Brookings is providing a very valuable service. It is allowing Islamists to speak into the academic discussion about Islamism. As long as it is properly introduced, I hope there will be more.


Antonin Scalia and Sharia Law

Antonin Scalia

As President Obama puts forward Judge Merrick Garland as a nominee for the Supreme Court and Republicans balk at a shift to the left, it is interesting to speculate if the recently deceased conservative Antonin Scalia might have been embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood.

I am not a legal scholar, so I am not able to fully consider the weight of Antonin Scalia’s argument cross-culturally. But in an obituary written by Christianity Today I found a particular statement very interesting, especially in consideration of religious rights in the Muslim world.

To begin contrarily, Scalia was clear that his legal interpretation was based solely on the Constitution, not his personal Catholic moral code. Though firmly opposed to abortion, for example, he did not base his vote on scripture.

“I’m a worldly judge,” he said in a 1996 speech at a Catholic university in Rome. “I just do what the Constitution tells me to do.” The only one of the Ten Commandments relevant to the judge’s role, he said, was the command to tell the truth.

This stance bothered some pro-life advocates. For them the opposition to abortion centers in the inalienable right to life, given by the Creator. Yet the logic is consistent with the American heritage of caution concerning religion and state, and Scalia was nonetheless heralded by both religious and judicial conservatives for his powerful judgment.

But here is the statement over which I am still puzzling. It is sensible, but it does not seem right.

“The whole theory of democracy,” he said, “is that the majority rules. You protect minorities only because the majority determines that there are certain minorities or certain minority positions that deserve protection” through a constitution or a statute.

My mind immediately went to Islam and sharia law. As interpreted by some, Christians and Jews (and perhaps others) are given very clear protections within a Muslim state. But as interpreted by others, these protections fall short of the modern conception of human rights as articulated by United Nations declarations and even, perhaps, the US Constitution.

I have heard Scalia’s argument over and over again from Muslims in the Middle East, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular argued in terms of a majoritarian conception of democracy. Putting aside the question of the proper understanding of religious freedom in Islam, many expressed their shock that Arab Christians did not appreciate the status they had in the sharia. To them, protection grounded in God’s word was far stronger than that determined by man’s consensus.

But Islamist Muslims — and perhaps others beside — stated that as we have demonstrated ourselves to be the majority through elections, we have the right to legislate according to our orientation. For them this meant the implementation of sharia law, within the Egyptian Constitution and legal code, variously defined. Liberal Muslims and their efforts to afford citizenship rights on the basis of positive law simply lost out.

How would Scalia respond?

A key difference, of course, is that the US Constitution does not base legislation on any particular moral code. As much as many of the Founding Fathers were infused by Christian values, Scalia was right to adjudicate based on the text itself, without reference to any higher text. In America, there is none.

But in many constitutions of the Muslim world, there is. To various degrees Islam is written in as a source of legislation and the religion of the state. This affords their jurists the chance to appeal to their understanding of sharia law, if they so choose. This understanding can be either liberal or conservative, but it is not controversial in itself.

Would Scalia approve if a national referendum passed an amendment to mandate, say, a Christian religious test for public office? Any state or national law would be in clear violation of the constitution, but in this scenario the democratic majority would succeed in altering our nation’s charter, complicating also the Bill of Rights.

Under the United States system of government, and under his own logic, perhaps he would be powerless to resist. But even within current First Amendment protections, it appears that minority religious rights can be restricted by popular opinion. Scalia would be clear that our constitution guards them to a great degree, and he would be among the first in defense. But within the system, perhaps, they can be degraded.

What does this speak to the situation of Christian minorities in the Middle East? Are they hostage to popular demagoguery that might threaten to subject them to second class status?

Perhaps. Civil constitutions in sovereign nation-states govern most of the Muslim world. Many of these grant citizenship rights broadly consistent with UN understandings, but also give leeway to avoid contradiction with a left-undefined sharia. The details are left to interpretation.

But in taking an issue like blasphemy law, clear majorities favor the prosecution of statements deemed offensive to religious sensibility. Freedom of religion and freedom of expression take a backseat, even when guaranteed protection in the constitution.

I do not know how to properly understand Scalia’s remark, but his advice might be clear: Campaign, lobby, and get yourself a majority. Otherwise, be thankful for the God-inspired civil and sharia protections the constitution does grant.

Legal scholars are invited to correct these impressions, but would Scalia fit well in the Muslim Brotherhood? It would be a strange cross-cultural legacy indeed.



New Developments in Brotherhood Rhetoric

Muslim Brotherhood Child
(from Getty Images; the picture is from Jordan)

The Muslim Brotherhood once had a militant wing. It then spent decades rejecting the use of violence, but continuing to embrace its most strident ideologues.

After the fall of Morsi the Brotherhood must again navigate this heritage, with an old guard that is cautious and concerned about international opinion, and a youth movement that is passionate and concerned about the situation on the ground.

In his recent article for Foreign Affairs, Mokhtar Awad describes the most recent developments with each.

The old guard has made some strides, however, by controlling the Brotherhood’s international financing, which became far more important following Sisi’s severe crackdown on the group’s domestic financial operations.

With the money inside Egypt reportedly dwindling, there were fewer resources available to finance violent operations. Indeed, since the fall of 2015, there has been a noticeable dip in violence perpetrated by these new violent groups in the Egyptian mainland, which is only starting to pick up again.

These new violent groups do need authorization, however, to be sharia-compliant.

Still, the seeds for a radicalized Muslim Brotherhood, a sort of Brotherhood jihadism, have been planted. During the height of the revolutionary wing’s influence in early 2015, some of its leaders, as it is believed, informally commissioned a group of Islamic scholars to write a sharia-based manual on the question of violence.

The result was a 93-page book titled The Jurisprudence of Popular Resistance to the Coup. It was an obvious attempt at ijtihad, or legal reasoning, by non-Salafi jihadist scholars to reconcile Brotherhood creed with a methodology of violence.

These scholars declared that neither Sisi nor his government were apostates but were instead ahl baghy, or seditionists,who had turned against the religiously legitimate leader: Mohamed Morsi.

And since Sisi and his government had used violence against Muslim believers, they were considered enemy combatants who should be slain, according to sharia law.

But even these radicals still feel compunction to stay within the mainstream Brotherhood heritage.

This theoretical dance around the issue of apostasy is an attempt by the authors to reconcile Brotherhood teachings with violence without inviting damaging comparisons to Salafi jihadism.

Egyptians, and most Islamists, in fact, hold very negative views toward those who declare other Muslims apostates, or takfiris. The authors of the book are so careful that the text does not once mention Sayyid Qutb, the infamous Brotherhood ideologue whose takfirist ideas helped inspire modern-day jihadism.

Instead, the authors reference the Brotherhood founder Imam Hassan al-Banna and use his selection of two swords in the group’s logo, as well as his talk of “strength,” as a justification for violence against the state.

Read the full article for greater context, but here is one anecdote that shows how convoluted this heritage can be. It is difficult to esteem both swords and non-violence.

It warns against kidnapping and sexual assault of the women and children of security officers, but says there is no harm in threatening to do such things to scare them.




Concerning Islamism: Hands On or Off?


Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute is an insightful analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. Of Islamists in particular, he notes they often moderate under moderate repression, as witnessed under Mubarak. But intrinsically he finds them to be ‘illiberal’ in terms of Western values, though there is a strong undercurrent in his writing that the values of democracy demand they must be allowed to govern anyway.

Writing in the Atlantic, he chides President Obama’s ‘do-nothing’ foreign policy for main of the region’s ills, including allowing Egypt’s military remove the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi in a coup d’etat that eventually resulted in hundreds dead during the bloody suppression of the sit-in protest at Rabaa.

America’s relative silence was no accident. To offer a strong, coherent response to the killings would have required a strategy, which would have required more, not less, involvement. This, however, would have been at cross-purposes with the entire thrust of the administration’s policy.

Obama was engaged in a concerted effort to reduce its footprint in the Middle East. The phrase “leading from behind” quickly became a pejorative for Obama’s foreign-policy doctrine, but it captured a very real shift in America’s posture.

It is a fine argument, though others have praised Obama for the wisdom of his foreign policy in a messy region. But beyond not criticizing the removal of Morsi, Hamid chides America for not holding Morsi himself accountable to a more liberal paradigm:

America’s unwillingness to play such a role increased the likelihood that the Muslim Brotherhood, empowered by its conservative base and pressured by its Salafi competitors, would veer rightward and overreach, alienating old and new allies in the process. As demonstrated in Egypt, the governance failures of Islamist parties can have devastating effects on the course of a country’s democratic transition.

Hamid appears to extend the ‘moderate repression’ argument to the realm of international politics. He highlights Turkey as an example:

After coming to power in 2002, the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) passed a series of consequential democratic reforms. The prospect of membership in the European Union helped incentivize the AKP to revise the penal code, ease restrictions on freedom of expression, rein in the power of the military, and expand rights for the country’s Kurdish minority. But when the threat of a military coup receded, and negotiations with the EU faltered, the AKP government seemed to lose interest in democratization, increasingly adopting illiberal and undemocratic practices.

His essay highlights that what Islamist believe and what they can accommodate pragmatically are often in stark contrast:

In 2006, the Brotherhood’s general guide, Mahdi Akef, told me angrily that “of course” the Brotherhood would cancel Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel if it ever had the chance.

Of course, Morsi did not cancel the peace treaty, though Hamid notes he once called Jews ‘the descendants of apes and pigs’. The Muslim Brotherhood realized its red lines, and even played a functional role in helping broker peace between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, he says.

But I not sure what is his overall argument, or philosophy. He notes Obama’s hands-off strategy, but earlier in the article he criticizes the hands-on support given to the region’s dictators. There is no either-or, of course, and it appears his preference is for the democratizing pressure from the Bush administration circa 2005, that opened up political space in the region, including Egypt, and gave Islamist entities – among others – wider space to operate.

But concerning that ‘illiberal’ nature of Islamism, is his solution altogether continual moderate repression? Whether from domestic or international agents, that seems open to criticism as well. Hamid levels it himself at the Egyptian military [SCAF] after the revolution and through the beginnings of Morsi’s presidency.

SCAF, though, grew increasingly autocratic, culminating in one very bad week in June 2012 when the military and its allies dissolved parliament, reinstated martial law, and decreed a constitutional addendum stripping the presidency of many of its powers.

Hamid calls these ‘egregious violations of the democratic process’, and there is little argument. But it can also be said they were among the few means left of moderate repression to constrain Brotherhood illiberalism. As already noted above, without international pressure from the US the Brotherhood went headlong into the arms of Salafis.

Modern world peace is based strongly on the idea of national sovereignty. Domestic repression is not healthy, while all sorts of pressure exist legitimately in the realm of international relations. Hamid alludes to it as ‘dependency’.

As long as Arab countries are dependent on Western powers for economic and political survival, there will be limits to how far elected governments, Islamist or otherwise, can go.

(If that dependency were to weaken in the long run, Islamists would likely pursue a more ideological, assertive foreign policy. Ideology, to express itself, needs to be freed of its various constraints.)

But if this is his belief, given all that Islamists have said about both domestic and international ideology, should they be given an opening at all? Why risk their partial empowerment? If their moderation came only from modes of repression, will not a true nature reveal itself when no longer constrained?

These are not comfortable questions to ask, let alone answer. But I am curious about Hamid’s answer.

(Note: Hamid’s book, Temptations of Power, likely addresses these issues.)

UPDATE: Hamid has been gracious to respond by Twitter. Below are his comments.


Fear and Islamism in Egypt

MB England EgyptIs the Muslim Brotherhood really Qutbist? Are frustrated members inclined toward the Islamic State? In an interview with Ahram Online, political commentator Wahid Abdel Maguid both reconsiders assumptions and reminds of reality:

Abdel-Meguid, a member of the Constituency Assembly of Egypt since 2012, is reluctant to endorse alarm concerning a supposed nationwide infiltration of militant Islamist movements. Nor is he willing to corroborate “exaggerated accounts” suggesting militant Islamist groups like ISIS are finding ready recruits in the Brotherhood ranks.

“That is an overblown story. I don’t deny that there’s a sympathy there, or that some young and angry members have defected to ISIS. But their numbers are limited,” Abdel-Meguid says.

Abdel-Meguid says the Brotherhood has not been under the sway of Sayyid Qutb’s radical thinking. Qutb was an early Brotherhood leader with some violent ideas…

“That is security jargon – this Qutbi thinking. It’s popular in security circles and promoted by security-aligned media, in part to excuse the McCarthyism practiced against the Muslim Brotherhood,” Abdel-Meguid opines.

Under the three-decade rule of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, Abdel-Meguid says, the state continued the short-sighted and undemocratic scheme of using the Muslim Brotherhood to serve a political agenda.

Mubarak, however, did not aim to use Islamists groups to defeat other political movements, but rather to present moderate Islamist groups like the Brotherhood as an unsavory option – “the Islamist alternative” to his rule.

“The state allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to function across the social sphere. First within universities then within syndicates and then by establishing some 2000 NGOs – which are now being taken over by the state one-by-one in a McCarthyist campaign,” he says…

For the most part, Islamists tangoed. The Brotherhood continued to act across the social spectrum, contesting parliamentary elections and criticising the regime, “short of criticising Mubarak himself”.

“This was the situation when they started taking part in the slow surge of political activities that started around 2005, but once the demonstrators started to use slogans directly slamming Mubarak they [the Brotherhood] would step back. This was the case until the early hours of the 25 January Revolution,” says the long-time politcal commentator.

The landslide success of all kinds of Islamist candidates at the 2011 parliamentary elections tempted the Brotherhood to go back on that agreement and to fall prey to the “arrogance of power”, says Abdel-Meguid.

This arrogance set off a series of misguided political choices that eventually reminded society of its fear of “the Islamist alternative”, an alternative that had now become reality.

“This explains the attitude of those who were very supportive of the Islamists in 2011 and were subsequently very supportive of the military in 2013,” when elected president Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood member, was ousted.

The Islamists’ failure to grasp the political inclinations of society was highlighted when Morsi invited to 6 October celebrations one of the militants convicted of being involved in Sadat’s assassination at the same celebrations just 30 years before.

“What they did was suicidal and it will be a very long time before the damage is rectified, especially with the terrifying expansion of groups like ISIS scaring Egyptians and the wider world,” Abdel-Meguid concluded.


Two Wings of the Brotherhood

Rabaa Red and YellowThe text has 75 footnotes. Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute has dutifully followed the internal power struggle consuming the Muslim Brotherhood since the fall of Morsi. It is a long read, but he ties the strands together in a compelling narrative.

The thrust is that there are two competing wings, an old guard that wants to protect the principle of peacefulness — if only to maintain a longstanding international reputation. Beneath their leadership are the youth bent on revenge for the sufferings of Rabaa and continued demonstrations.

The latter, he writes, have been imbued with a heavy dose of ‘revolutionary Salafism’, pushing conflict with the regime. And with so many leaders imprisoned, it is very difficult to maintain the traditional system of cohesiveness and obedience. The split has not taken place, but it is brewing.

So here is Tadros’ summary of the two sides. It very important to keep in mind when listening to these talking points repeated in media discourse about Egypt:

At the heart of the Brotherhood crisis sit two competing visions. Neither side can claim a coherent strategy. The old guard believes that the Egyptian regime should be given a chance to implode on its own.

In this view, a combination of economic decline, security failure, and growing discontent will lead either to self-destruction, an internal coup, or Western intervention by pressuring for reconciliation.58 To maintain momentum, demonstrations need to continue even if they do not produce immediate results.

Simultaneously, the Brotherhood needs to keep the pressure on the West by warning that the fate of Iraq and Syria awaits Egypt if they don’t move. By maintaining a semblance of non-violence, the Brotherhood can continue to claim that it is the moderate alternative to the Islamic State. It is betting on time and changing regional dynamics, especially a rapprochement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia under King Salman.59

On the opposite side, the new leadership, and behind it the Brotherhood’s rank and file, believes that only by bleeding the regime can it be brought to its knees. 

A regional deal is precisely what they fear as it would mean that all their sacrifices would have been in vain and their tormentors would not be punished. Their war with the regime is no longer about Morsi and the coup; in fact, Sisi’s removal would solve nothing for them. Instead, the struggle is an ideological one between Islam and apostasy, between right and wrong, between them and the “Army of Camp David” and its “Zionist masters.” Such a struggle stems from a worldview that allows no compromise.

From well informed research, Tadros puts forward speculation that is well fitting within the reputation of the Brotherhood. Perhaps the leadership is ok with this division.

Earlier in his text he wrote of the discourse during the sit-in at Rabaa:

The mixing of Islamists had an effect on the speeches. Speakers, in English, portrayed the struggle as one of democracy against a coup while others, in Arabic, cast the struggle in the language of jihad. This was not merely the Brotherhood’s famous two discourses in two languages, but the result of genuine confusion and disorientation.

In order to maintain the organization of the Brotherhood, but perhaps also in strategy, they tried to hold the two wings together:

Besides, the leadership could have it both ways. Officially, the Brotherhood would not claim violent acts and maintain its pledge to nonviolence; in reality, the special units would bleed the regime to death. The new slogan, “All that is below bullets is peacefulness,” replaced the old slogan, “Our peacefulness is stronger than bullets.”

After all, as a Brotherhood member lamented, “our peacefulness is not stronger than bullets.”38 Allowing the special units to conduct these attacks would hurt the regime without committing the whole group to the path of violence. 39 The calculation would prove mistaken as violence spiraled out of control.

But does he know this was a calculation? It is fitting and logical, but toward the conclusion where he speculates, ‘The Brotherhood may still hope to have it both ways,’ he provides evidence that seems more like an organization in confusion:

Before the clash, the Brotherhood’s statement endorsing jihad in Arabic on January 27 was removed from its website; and the group issued a statement three days later, in English, denouncing violence.63

On May 17, Mohamed Montaser called for a revolution to cut heads. Following his statement committing to the revolutionary path on May 28, he seemed to backtrack on June 25 by calling on the Brotherhood youth to be careful not to slip into a cycle of violence.64

His shift was in response to the horror of the Revolutionary Punishment’s assassination of a civilian which it accused of cooperating with the regime,65 and a realization that such acts would tie the Brotherhood to violence and end any prospect of the Brotherhood regaining public support.

The shift was short-lived, however. Following the regime’s liquidation of nine Brotherhood leaders on July 1, Montaser released a statement that declared “the Muslim Brotherhood affirms that the assassination of its leaders is a turning point that has ramifications and by which the criminal, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, founded a new phase in which there cannot be control on the anger of the oppressed segments that will not accept to die in their homes and between their families.”66

An organization in confusion also fits with Tadros’ thesis. But to what degree is Brotherhood leadership — to the extent it exists — engaging in conscious Machiavellian politics?

Other analysts follow the same footnoted evidence and conclude that the youth can no longer be controlled by a leadership that remains peaceful and moderate. Tadros also writes that the Brotherhood pyramid has been inverted, with the base dragging leaders along. But advocates of ‘reconciliation’ who believe that inclusion of Brotherhood-style political Islam is necessary for the stability of Egypt seem to grab this fact in hope that the situation can be redeemed. They lament the ‘coup’ and the failure not only of the Arab Spring, but also of their analysis of integration. Consider this section of a long essay by Marc Lynch, compellingly defending the foreign policy of President Obama:

Obama came to office intending to defeat al Qaeda with a lighter footprint, through drone strikes, partnerships with local allies, and the cultivation of more moderate Islamist groups. He understood the nuances of intra-Islamist politics and seized the opportunity to divide the mainstream of Islamism from al Qaeda and stop the spiral toward a clash of civilizations.

Obama’s willingness to work with the Muslim Brotherhood following Mubarak’s fall was a departure from decades of U.S. policy and the strongest signal Obama ever sent that the United States believes in democracy regardless of who wins. By early 2012, Obama’s policies on Islamism were proving successful.

Lynch then blames the coup and anti-Brotherhood Gulf propaganda as being the primary catalysts of current Islamist violence. Surely there is a contributing effect.

But Brotherhood literature has long imbued adherents with the worldview of ‘a clash of civilizations’ — just not now. And as Tadros’ essay details, even in 2012 the Brotherhood’s primary allies were Salafis, whose strident ideology is now convincing the ideologically vacuous Brotherhood that the priority of pragmatism — and with it the adoption of peacefulness — was a wrongheaded betrayal of the principle of jihad, to which they paid only lip service.

Lynch’s analysis is astute, but does he understand the nature of the Brotherhood? Or only of part of it, the part he hopes can be peacefully integrated into the world system providing an escape from instability, autocracy, and the ever present call for the US to re-intervene militarily. Who would not want such an outcome, and the Brotherhood seemed to promise it.

Only as time is now telling, as Tadros seems to suggest, that only part of the Brotherhood promised it. Let there be all sympathy for the Brotherhood in their trial. They are under tremendous pressure. It is amazing how their organization is still holding together, and a testament to their belief and commitment.

But it is only when a man is tested that his true colors show. And for a very large section of the Brotherhood, they witness that peacefulness was a means to an end. Under pressure, they strike back. Very natural, of course. But also very ugly. Just watch their satellite programming.

Have they suffered human rights abuses? Most certainly. Have they been cheated? Of course. At the least they were outmaneuvered.

But all their appeals in English lose sympathy when the Arabic is read. But is this their internal decision and strategy, or the flailings of an organization in chaos? Even after reading Tadros, I’m not sure. Even he is cautious between deductions and assertions.

Do the talking points meet in a coherent conspiracy-theory whole? As one wing warns of state collapse and a Syria scenario, is the other wing working to make the threat real?

You be the judge, but let 75 footnotes guide you along the way.


The Duel of Drawing Egypt’s Future

What will Egypt one day look like? Declaring this future, and drawing it visually, is one way to secure authority. This is a view put forward by Mada Masr, discussing the plans for the new Egyptian capital to replace Cairo.

via Mada Masr
via Mada Masr
via Mada Masr
via Mada Masr
via Mada Masr
via Mada Masr

The presentation thus stands not only for a city, but for a whole world — and  not merely a better or a greener world, but also a world that is ultra-organized, a world where everything on both the macro- and micro-scale follows a single abstract plan that blatantly encompasses everything.

During the presentation, however, very little was said about the viability of this world. Questions of whether it’s financially feasible, or whether it’s actually going to be functional, or even liked by those who are going to inhabit it, were not addressed. There were only speculative abstract graphics, but they were enough to convince the audience of the achievability of this imaginary world, give it a material existence, and make it somehow immediately graspable.

The maps and images had such a potent make-believe effect that the value of properties located within several dozen kilometers of the proposed city spiked out of proportion just a few minutes after the press release was issued.

The article goes on to show a similar promotional effort in the 1970s to create Sadat City. Between Cairo and Alexandria, at the time it was also designed to be a new administrative capital. Sadat City exists, but in pale reality to the original promise.

Mada Masr is worried the new capital city project is more of the same.

The government’s growing interest photoshopped maps, architectural visualizations, video promos and professional presentations might simply be good PR campaigning, but it’s also part of a ruling paradigm. These plans, drawings, maps, images, videos, presentations and other visual media about grand schemes for a new Egypt are in fact some of the ways in which the authority produces itself, rather than being a mere product of the regime.

If so, the same effort to inspire and hold morale is witnessed in the Muslim Brotherhood. Here, the visual future is in the form of a grand museum to honor the hundreds killed while dispersing the pro-Morsi sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo.

Also from Mada Masr:

The Rabaa Story website is sleek and glossy, with infographics detailing the number of people who died during the dispersal (though without clearly identifying sources), pictures of victims, videos promoting the second year anniversary and blurbs telling people to mobilize “on the street” and make videos promoting awareness of the anniversary, and even plans for a museum.

But both the website and the Ikhwanweb twitter account appear to be reaching out and appealing to an international audience. Almost all the promotional material is in English, even the hashtag representing the campaign, and none of the promotional material is religious in nature — instead, it focuses on human rights violations.

When it comes to how the public side of the Muslim Brotherhood remembers Rabaa, the focus appears to be on getting the notice of the international English-speaking community — a community which, as shown by recent condemnatory statements from foreign rights groups, has already proven sympathetic to their narrative.

Image projection is powerful. Mada Masr finds that both sides in the standoff realize this, and are — in these examples — appealing to the hopes of a core constituency.



The Brotherhood Admits Mistakes?

One mistake, some say now, was in allying with Egyptians like these. Photo: Getty Images
One mistake, some say now, was in allying with Egyptians like these. Photo: Getty Images

Writing in Carnegie, Nathan Brown and Michelle Dunne say that the Muslim Brotherhood has survived the crackdown and reconstituted itself both inside and outside of Egypt.

Though severely weakened, opportunity has emerged for a new, more youthful generation of leadership that has conducted an internal review of policies during the revolutionary period.

Both before but especially after Morsi’s fall, Brotherhood leaders would admit ‘mistakes’, but not say what they were specifically. Now, there appears to be a list. It surfaces from private conversations the authors have had, so perhaps it is not yet official. But it mirrors the critique consistently directed to the Brotherhood by their one-time non-Islamist partners in revolution:

The substance of the self-critique within the Brotherhood, put forward assertively by younger members, is simply this: the leadership failed to recognize that 2011 was a real revolution in Egyptian society and to act accordingly.

Brotherhood leaders did not make common cause with those who wanted real change, and instead they opted to gain entry to the Egyptian state through rapid elections (agreed upon with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that held control after Mubarak) and then tried to bring about modest reforms—a plan that failed abysmally. “We failed to build on the profound values that emerged during the revolution,” said one young Islamist, “Instead of taking needed time with the transition, we went for superficial political solutions.”

Another added, “It was a problem to move toward elections so quickly, as many parts of the revolution were not represented in the political process.” Youth leaders spoke with regret of compatriots from other parts of the ideological spectrum who were left in the dust as the Brotherhood rushed to reap the reward of elections, only to come up against the immoveable object of the Egyptian state.

The revolution was “not Islamic” and “nonideological,” older and younger interlocutors agreed. One senior Brotherhood member noted with regret that “the Brotherhood had a certain project for a century and tried to implement it after 2011, failing to realize that it was no longer suitable for a nation in revolution.”

The Brotherhood was unable to adapt quickly enough to this need for “broad platforms based on values,” said the senior member, which would have required abandoning a long-standing dogma that the movement was responsible for “carrying the load on behalf of the nation.”

Brotherhood leaders look back at their decision, when Morsi faced increasing, vociferous secular challenges, to tack right and ally with Salafists against secular forces in the parliament elected in early 2012 as a disaster; “This was not what the revolution wanted,” said one. The more revolutionary path would have taken on serious restructuring of powerful institutions—for example, reforming the security sector and civilian bureaucracy—but the Brotherhood opted to placate them.

The Carnegie article is long but worth reading — a walk-through of the last few years. At times it seems overly charitable to the Brotherhood, downplaying Beltagi’s comment about terrorist violence in Sinai, and treating as somewhat marginal the violent rhetoric on Turkey-based satellite channels connected to or sympathetic with the Brotherhood.

But it is an analysis that is well-informed from authors who do their homework. As to what to make of the Brotherhood’s self-critique, and what it means for the movement’s, and Egypt’s, future:

As one of the oldest and most influential Islamist groups in the world, the Muslim Brotherhood bears close watching as it, and Egypt, hurtle toward an uncertain future whose shock waves will be felt throughout the Middle East, Africa, and the Islamic world.

That is, unless, things stay calm. The shock waves then might be in the world of Islamism, but the authors seem to assume there are greater surprises to come.

Update: It is obvious the authors have spoken with many sources in the Brotherhood, and the reputation of the authors gives credibility that, though not mentioned by name or position, these sources are indicative of the group’s main streams.

But is it really true the Brotherhood now sees it as a mistake to have allied with the Salafis at the expense of original liberal revolutionary leaders? If they see the revolution as non-Islamic and nonideological, why do so many of their voices clamor for jihad and paint retribution in Islamic terms? Why did they bring in Wagdy Ghoneim, of all people, to support their Egypt Call project?

Brown and Dunne are established scholars. Brown in particular has tracked the Brotherhood incendiary discourse. Why do they believe these voices over the others?

The Brotherhood needs allies. Whatever self-critique it is engaging in, I suspect it is substantial. But I do not imagine they call a mistake their use of targeted language to targeted audiences. It continues all the same.


How Morsi Could Still be President

Catherine Ashton meets with President Morsi © EU
Catherine Ashton meets with President Morsi © EU

This article from Reuters details a deal that was in place, brokered by the EU with the opposition, that was spurned by Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, two months before he was pushed from power:

Under a compromise crafted in months of shuttle diplomacy by EU envoy Bernardino Leon, six secular opposition parties would have recognized Mursi’s legitimacy and agreed to participate in parliamentary elections they had threatened to boycott.

In return, Mursi would have agreed to replace Prime Minister Hisham Kandil and five key ministers to form a technocratic national unity cabinet, sack a disputed prosecutor general and amend the election law to satisfy Egypt’s constitutional court.

The article does not mention the ‘five key ministers’, but the guess is that they were the Brotherhood appointees in charge of influential posts in education, information, supply, and the like. The former prosecutor general was fired and the new one appointed in a process contrary to the constitution Morsi swore to uphold.

But the negotiations didn’t work:

People familiar with the talks said Saad el-Katatni, leader of the Brotherhood’s political wing, helped negotiate the deal but could not sell it to Mursi and key Brotherhood leaders.

A very important caveat:

Mursi, Katatni and senior aides are detained by the army at unknown locations and cannot tell their side of the story.

However, right until the moment the military toppled him on July 3, the president went on proclaiming his electoral legitimacy and showed no signs of willingness to share power.

Of course by right he did not need to. But this report indicates opposition efforts to work with Morsi were not just cover for an eventual ‘coup’:

On that trip, Ashton also met armed forces commander General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the man who led the military intervention to oust Mursi. Participants said Sisi had also supported the EU initiative, saying the army did not want to intervene in politics and would welcome a broader national consensus.

“Contrary to what the Brotherhood is saying now, the army did its best to keep Mursi in office,” one participant said.

The full story is yet to be written, but if accurate this report provides important details from behind the scenes.


Brotherhood: Avoid the Mistakes of Syria – But How?

A fighter from the Nureddine al-Zinki unit, a moderate Syrian opposition faction affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and made up of former Syrian Free Army fighters at odds with the radical Islamic State jihadists, checks a WWII soviet-era Mosin Nagant sniper rifle at the Sakhur frontline, near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on 11 September 2014 (AFP) - See more at:
A fighter from the Nureddine al-Zinki unit, a moderate Syrian opposition faction affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and made up of former Syrian Free Army fighters, 11 September 2014 (AFP) – See more at:

If you read this headline you might hope they intend it to lead in one of two directions. First, as a call to the government to stop persecuting peaceful movements. Second, as a call to their own violent wing, to keep Egypt from such a scenario.

Unfortunately, you would be wrong, according to this voice – unnamed – in a recent analysis by Sada on the post-pacifist Brotherhood.

The way many Brotherhood leaders are framing this is that if there is a war between society and the state, and if the society has taken a stance, the Muslim Brotherhood should not hinder society’s fight for freedom.

“We should not stand silent in this battle,” said an Istanbul-based consultant for the newly-elected executive bureau. “The vacuum should be filled by a powerful organization, and we will not repeat the mistakes of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB),” he added.

The consultant was referring to the fact that the SMB lost their support in Syria because they distanced themselves from the chaos during the early stages of the revolution.

Whoever this voice is, he appears well-placed and influential. And potentially, a menace.

In 2012 the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood issued a covenant and charter in which they laid out their post-Assad vision. Early on they were politically influential.

But they also joined in the violence. Apparently, they weren’t good enough at it. After suffering considerable losses they now appear to be a negligible force on the ground.

The Egyptian Brotherhood, according to this consultant, might be seeking to get ahead in the game. That is, it seems, to become influential in insurrection.

The Muslim Brotherhood appears to be an organization in flux and much internal dissent. The unnamed consultant’s open-ended phrasing should not be taken as definitive. But it is terribly disconcerting. For the record, Yehia Hamed, former investment minister under Morsi, denies there is a trend within the Brotherhood that wishes to arm the revolution.

But according to this article in Carnegie, there is indeed a trend though in substantial minority status:

In addition, the proportion of members within the Brotherhood who want to bear arms appears to be relatively small. In a survey held at a meeting of the Brotherhood’s youth cadres in one of the Egyptian governorates, less than 30 out of 300 members who attended the meeting were in favor of armed action. The others preferred to continue their work on the ground using nonviolent means.

Egypt’s current difficulties are the fault of many. But until now Egypt has avoided the fate of its neighbors in Syria, Libya, and Iraq. The Brotherhood, even here, does not seem to be wishing to turn Egypt into a quagmire. Their argued justification might be that if it can be in the forefront of a militant rebellion, it can keep it from transforming into an Islamic State nightmare.

But that they would even take a step in this direction betrays all the rhetoric of ‘peacefulness’ issued from the start of the revolution. It shows it as a tactic, not a conviction. It wants to lead, and at least as this consultant is concerned, it is willing to lead in violence if necessary.

Many Egyptian anti-Islamists have long argued this is the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. But their pacifistic political participation has been the norm for decades. I don’t think the West and the academic community was wrong to discount it out of hand.

But perhaps their behavior in Syria spoke otherwise, and no one was listening.


The Blow to the Brotherhood’s International Reputation

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, May 2013
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, May 2013

Opinions on the Muslim Brotherhood tend to diverge into relatively hardline camps. One says they are an extremist organization willing to utilize violence. They other says they are a reformist organization willing to utilize democracy.

Academic public opinion in the West tends to lean toward the latter. The Egyptian government is aggressively pushing the former. The Egyptian public is notoriously hard to measure, but it is quite clear the Brotherhood has lost much of their soft, sympathetic support after a failed year in power.

Which makes continued Western support all the more important to Brotherhood survival. Michael Wahid Hanna, writing for the Century Foundation, says that due to Brotherhood choices even this is now at risk.

With leaders abroad or in prison, he writes, the youth are radicalizing and the organization must adapt to maintain its coherence:

The Brothers have spent decades normalizing their domestic and international political standing, largely overcoming their past endorsements and employment of political violence. This reputation is now clearly at risk, despite their oft-repeated mantra that “our peacefulness is stronger than their bullets.”

As Morsi was threatened to be removed as president, the Brotherhood risked all, betting on both popular and international support. While core domestic support remains strong, it was not enough to overcome both massive protests and the machinations of state apparatus. And whatever international support the Brotherhood possessed was not able to intervene directly to prevent events as witnessed today.

But still the Brotherhood bet continues, and here is the consequence:

Instead, the Brotherhood’s public statements have explicitly endorsed the legitimacy of all forms of resistance against the repression of the regime, opening the door to further radicalization. A unilateral, sectarian, and radicalizing challenge to the state is out of step with the national mood.

This is particularly so as the Brotherhood strategy proceeds in parallel to the actions of more militant actors and appears to understand such violence as a necessary ingredient to their efforts to bring about regime failure. In this sense, the Muslim Brotherhood will be tainted by militant actions, even if they are not the responsible party.

Both sides are now tied to a destructive dance that will be hard to pull back from. One Brotherhood leader, Ashraf Abdel Ghaffar, recently claimed on air that blowing up electricity pylons is part of the ‘peaceful’ struggle.

On the other hand, the Brotherhood’s Gamal Abdel Sattar said that their group is a ‘safety valve’, without which there would be outright civil war.

But then again, their Gamal Heshmat urged Egyptians not to fulfill their mandatory national military service, saying the army kills its own people. There was no comment on how a depleted army would resist terrorism.

So beyond what these statements will do to their domestic standing, for Hanna, here is the rub:

For the Brothers, however, these steps threaten to undermine their international reputation and bona fides as a legitimate political actor.

All sides have questions to ask themselves, but for the Brotherhood, is this the outcome they desire? Or, is one of the two choices above correct in actuality? What do you think?


Friday Prayers for Egypt: A Bad Week

Flag Cross QuranGod,

Many are dead, with increasing sophistication. Have mercy on Egypt, and let this pass.

A remotely detonated bomb killed the public prosecutor, the first high official assassinated in two decades.

A terrorist offensive in the Sinai was ultimately driven back by the army, but not before several hours of bloody conflict.

A Muslim Brotherhood meeting was raided with nine casualties. Whether armed and plotting attacks or gunned down in cold blood, it was just one more escalation in a terrible week of death.

God, thank you that so much is calm. For millions life continues on as normal, though anxiety has increased. Restore security, restore the economy, and protect all that is working.

But God, how do you change those bent toward violence?

Comfort the families of all who have died. Give them a supernatural spirit of forgiveness. Let justice be demanded where it is required, and let it be fulfilled in accordance with law and order.

Give courage and resolve to other high officials. Protect them from threats. Guard them in the performance of their duty. May none shrink back from fear.

Defeat the non-state menace operating in the desert. Isolate them from all who supply, outfit, and train. Give wisdom to the residents caught in the middle. And develop their region, that it might soon prosper.

And God, of the Brotherhood, there is too much to pray. You know what they are; many others are convinced they also know. Maybe they are right.

Guide them or confuse them. Restore them or imprison them. Let them lead, or rid Egypt of them. In the context of this week, and the last few years, there seems little in between.

So let us pray: Deal with them in justice, in full account of the law. Sort it out as you will, in accordance with your principles, with all care for their individual souls.

Also for the state: May it justly administer the authority you have granted it. Strengthen its hand, also in self-discipline. Protect the hearts of its human agents, to act in accordance with your principles, seeking what is best for the nation.

Cleanse Egypt of the desire for revenge and retribution. Transform this natural inclination into a firm commitment toward justice and righteousness.

And may all self-reflect. It has been a bad week. Worse may come, but it is not inevitable. Have mercy on Egypt, and let this pass.