James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Guest Post: Messages to Americans from the Muslim Brotherhood

by James M. Lindsay
March 29, 2011

A banner hung in Cairo by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood calling for a "yes" vote on the referendum.

A banner hung in Cairo by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood calling for a "yes" vote on the referendum, seen on March 18, 2011. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/courtesy Reuters)

My colleague Ed Husain just got back from a research visit to Egypt. Ed has been one of the most prominent and eloquent voices in the West seeking to understand the rise of Islamic extremist violence and what can be done to prevent it. You might have seen the piece he wrote for the Financial Times at the height of the political turmoil in Egypt about the Muslim Brotherhood. Given all that is happening in Egypt, and all the speculation it has spawned back here in the United States, I asked Ed if he could tell us what he saw on the ground. Here’s what he had to say:

I’ve just returned to Washington after taking the temperature of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, the oldest, most organized, and potentially most powerful political party in Egypt. One thing’s for sure: the Brotherhood is in a buoyant mood. I will publish a longer article elsewhere about the dynamics inside today’s Brotherhood, and the implications for Egyptian society. [TWE: I will post the link to Ed’s article once it’s published.] Before I left for Cairo, I asked Jim Lindsay what he would ask Brotherhood members. As it turned out, Jim’s question was thoughtful and an excellent point of entry: “I would be interested in knowing what they most want Americans to know.”

From the many meetings and interviews I conducted, here are three instructive responses:

“Just as most Americans cannot differentiate between the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist organizations, most Egyptians see the West as a monolith,” said a forty-something website manager.

“We still remember imperialism, economic exploitation and recent wars. But I know there are many Wests, and there are many positive aspects of the West, too. The West is not our enemy. Americans should know that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are not their enemy, either. We seek peace–do not be afraid of us.”

Interestingly, the same gentleman spoke about Iran’s government as “Islamo-fascist,” Bush-era language that has been adopted by Muslim Brotherhood members. But Bushisms were not useful for Israel, described by this Brotherhood leader of a major Egyptian region as “a deep wound on the Islamic conscience.”

I also met an organizer of the Brotherhood who leads several hundred students at al-Azhar seminary (established in 972 CE), the oldest surviving Muslim university in the world. In poetic, classical Arabic, the middle-aged sheikh explained that the Brotherhood wanted “musharikah, la mughalibah”–meaning participation, not domination of Egypt’s politics. And therefore Americans, he believed, should relax about Islamists in Egyptian politics.

Finally, it was a former member of parliament that provided a principles-led answer to Jim’s question. A 43-year-old medical doctor who served as an MP between 2005 and 2010 said:

Americans deeply misunderstand us. We are believers and advocates of complete pluralism, including religious, racial, political, and intellectual pluralism. We only seek to express ourselves as others do, such as communists, socialists and liberals. We believe in citizenship without discrimination based on color, race, religion or sex, but there are cultural and social differences between us and Americans. What’s most important is that there is joint cooperation, faith in one another, and we work for our mutual interests. This can be achieved without patronizing and keeping us at a distance.

The Brotherhood members I met had much more to say on a whole host of issues, some of their statements were worrying, others less so. Like much else in Egypt, the Brotherhood is in transition mode. Watch this space for a more detailed update.

Thank you, Ed. For more on Egypt, our colleague Isobel Coleman was also in Cairo recently. She published her thoughts at CNN.com.

UPDATE: Foreign Policy just published Ed’s analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood’s politics and his thoughts on how the U.S. might engage with this diverse movement.

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