Tuesday, February 1, 2011

WaPo's Richard Cohen Bashes the Brothers

Appearing on-line this evening (and in tomorrow's paper edition) is a reflective, worried piece from WaPo columnist Richard Cohen, whose take on what's happening in Egypt (as has been his usual take on anything happening in the Middle East) reflects his customary Israel-centric perspective.  As have several other commentators (including Leslie Gelb, and several Israeli observers), Cohen worries that the coming ouster of Hosni Mubarak (which virtually everyone sees as inevitable) spells trouble for Israel, especially if the Muslim Brotherhood - by far the best-organized (and a very popular) opposition group in Egyptian politics - ends up playing a significant role in a new government.  If that new government is to have any pretense to representing the democratic will of the Egyptian people, the Brotherhood will need to be included.  That's a given.)

The Muslim Brotherhood is not entirely dissimilar from the AKP, the Islamist political party that currently leads the government of the emerging regional power, Turkey.  Both parties view Islam as an important source for structuring social and political values.  Because of the secular underpinnings that Mustapha Kemal, the founding father of the Republic of Turkey,  established at that country's birth , the AKP has committed itself to upholding those secularist principles. Indeed, most observers see Turkey as the model for a modern Islamic democratic state.  In recent decades, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, though hardly secular in its orientation, has for the most part been working to reform Egyptian society, not to overturn it and forcibly reshape it through revolution a la Iran in 1979.  At present, its leaders appear to be working alongside Egypt's other opposition forces and leaders in the attempt to remove Mubarak and institute a more democratic, inclusive political society - the kind of society that the Brotherhood's members, along with other groups, were prevented from developing by the repressive tactics and blatant election-rigging of the Mubarak regime over the last 30 years.

Cohen, however, seizes upon the writings and career of Sayyid Qutb as representing what the Brotherhood is all about, and what they have in store for Egypt - and for Israel.    Qutb was a mid-20th century leading intellectual figure of the Muslim Brotherhood, a proponent of salafism (a version of "fundamentalist" Islam that looked to the example of the first Muslim community at Medina as its inspiration) and of resorting to political violence to overthrow un-Islamic regimes  - which, in his day, the secular Arab-nationalist regime of Gamal Abdul Nasser certainly was in Egypt.  Nasser had Qutb executed in 1966, but his writings have remained a source of inspiration to extremist groups who oppose Israel and the US.

This, by the way, is not the first time that Cohen has tried to paint the entire Brotherhood as marching in lock-step with Qutb's ideas.  There certainly are appalling elements in Qutb's thinking - including an obvious anti-Semitism.  But what Cohen does here is to create fear of the new pro-democracy movement in Egypt by conjuring the specter of a second Holocaust, to be perpetrated by an Egypt that the Brotherhood is dying to launch once it sets up an Iran-style theocracy in Egypt.  Cohen, again, is the not the only current commentator to try to stir up what one observer has referred to as "Ikhwanophobia" (from the Arabic word for "brotherhood").  But, among them, he's perched upon the tallest soapbox - which makes his fear-mongering that much more unfortunate.

As at least a partial corrective, I recommend two recent essays - one posted to the Foreign Policy website by Prof. Nathan Brown and the other posted to the Carnegie Endowment's Arab Reform Bulletin by Hussam Tammam  (Either of these men likely has forgotten more about the Brotherhood than Cohen will ever know.)  Both of them note the continuing influence of Sayyid Qutb's thought within the Muslim Brotherhood - not as a prod to violence, but instead in its call for an elite vanguard to prepare itself to install a properly Muslim society - a call that some of the more conservative elements in the Brotherhood had recently begun to hearken to after the Mubarak regime had effectively shut the door to political participation.  Although they find this development worrisome, they also note that the Brotherhood's mainstream abjured Qutb's call to violent revolution long ago.  As Tammam notes: 

  the group’s major strategic choices—renouncing violence as a tool, participating in politics, and adopting a gradualist approach—are unlikely to shift suddenly. The Brotherhood made those choices over the course of three decades; all factions of the movement were involved, and the group’s social base supports them. The Brotherhood has long been known for its pragmatism and steadiness . . .

Likewise, Brown:

For decades, the Brotherhood has consistently and insistently distanced itself from any call for revolution, violence, and "changing with the hand"; its leaders describe such steps as "not how we do things" and a violation of the peaceful, patient, persuasive, and gradualist method that inspires the group's actions. To be sure, violent resistance is viewed as a legitimate tool for societies under foreign occupation (and the Brotherhood regards both Palestine and Iraq as falling in this category). The Brotherhood regards Egypt's current political system as stultifying, corrupt, and oppressive, but hardly on the level of foreign occupation. Reform, rather than revolution, is the antidote. If a hothead within the ranks suggests otherwise, movement leaders say they gently correct him and if that fails, remove the offending member from the organization.

It's not impossible that, in the current turbulent climate, more conservative elements within the Brotherhood might try to assert themselves.  But for Cohen to seize on the example of Sayyid Qutb to imply that Egypt's future lies with extremism, and that Mubarak's fall spells doom for Israel, is unwarranted and unhelpful, and perhaps irresponsible.

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