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Getting the Muslim Brotherhood Wrong

Everybody got the Muslim Brotherhood wrong, including me, and starting with the Egyptian people themselves.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi won Egypt’s first free and fair election for its head of state. Picking him seemed like a good idea at the time to the typical Egyptian voter, but clearly it wasn’t since Egypt just vomited him and his party up into everyone’s lap.

I figured that would happen eventually, but I’m still astonished that it happened so quickly.

Genuine political liberals are thin on the ground in Egypt, but they do exist. I know several. Some are my friends. Most of them were wrong about the Brotherhood, too. They were right, of course, when they warned the rest of us that the Brothers would transform Egypt into a theocratic dictatorship, but they were wrong when they estimated how much support the Brotherhood had. Hardly any expected the Islamists to win most of the votes, though that’s exactly what happened.

American liberals made a different mistake. Despite warnings from secular Egyptians and former Islamists, the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate and democratic party became an article of faith here in the States, particularly among academics and journalists who should have known better. Even James Clapper—who, as the Director of National Intelligence, really should have known better—said the Muslim Brotherhood is “a largely secular organization.” Surely that ranks among the dumbest things ever said about the organization in all of its 85 years.

Look: the Muslim Brotherhood is not a mysterious new group that no one knows anything about. It was founded in 1928, for crying out loud, and its ideology has been documented exhaustively. Not for even five minutes has it been a democratic or moderate party. It has been struggling for theocracy since the day it was born, sometimes peaceably and sometimes by force. Every Sunni Islamist terrorist organization in the region is a spin-off of the Brotherhood or a spin-off of one of its spin-offs.  

Western liberals should have spent a lot more time listening to their Egyptian counterparts and no time at all swallowing the lies of faith-based gangsters with a Pharaonic complex. This whole business quite frankly baffles me. An American Christian equivalent of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood would be denounced as fascist by every Western-born liberal on earth. We’d hear no end of comparisons to the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, General Franco’s Falangists, and the Crusades. And yet so many Westerners proved incapable of applying the same political analytical skills to Egypt that they use every day in the US and Europe. I’ll leave it to them to explain how that happened once they figure it out.

American conservatives always understood that the Muslim Brotherhood was bad news. Many also seemed to sense instinctively that the Muslim Brotherhood would win the election in Egypt. They were right on both counts.

But then the narrative among some parts of the American right went off the rails. Many argued that radical Islamists were bound to triumph everywhere in the Middle East since they had just triumphed in Egypt, as if nearly everyone who self-identifies as a Muslim yearns for political Islam as a matter of course. This point of view regularly appears in my comments section.

It didn’t seem to register that non-Islamists and anti-Islamists frequently do well in elections in Muslim countries, even in Arab countries and even in the wake of the Arab Spring. Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda won less than fifty percent of the vote and was forced into a coalition government with secular parties that block it routinely. Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party lost big. In Lebanon, secular parties have won most of the votes since the nation’s founding, and, except for the Israelis, the Lebanese have held more elections in the region than anyone else. 

More recently, the citizens of Mali cheered the French as liberators when they invaded and routed Al Qaeda in the north. Mali, by the way, is not even close to being a largely atheist nation like the nominally Muslim countries of the former communist bloc.

Islamist victories happen sometimes, but they aren’t inevitable. Karl Marx cobbled together psuedo-scientific arguments for why socialism was destined to triumph over capitalism. He claimed history was teleological, that its endpoint could be delayed but not forever resisted, but that’s not how it worked out for communism, nor is it working that way for radical Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood slogan “Islam is the solution” is but one point of view among many. Sometimes its adherents win and sometimes they lose, just like the proponents of ideas everywhere else.

I got a few things wrong, too. Like Egypt’s liberals and America’s conservatives, I understood all along that the Muslim Brotherhood was theocratic and authoritarian. But I did not think they would win. I knew they’d do well—Egypt is the most Islamicized place I’ve ever been, after all—but I assumed they’d have a hard time breaking fifty percent.

Not only did the Muslim Brotherhood win, a huge percentage of Egyptians who voted against them went for the Salafists, the ideological brethren of Osama bin Laden. Egypt turned out to be even more politically Islamicized than I realized, and I knew it was bad.

Yet in the long sweep of Egyptian history, it lasted about as long as a hiccup.

I think it’s safe to say everyone, regardless of their political orientation and what they got right and wrong a year ago, was surprised by how quickly Egypt rejected the Brotherhood. The United States government has sound reasons for not describing what happened as a military coup, but that’s what it was. The rest of us shouldn’t kid ourselves. Yet it’s clear that the coup was a popular one. Morsi ended up more hated than Hosni Mubarak, and he achieved that dubious honor in one year instead of in thirty.

That ought to make American liberals rethink the notion that the Brotherhood is democratic and moderate. And it ought to show American conservatives that Muslims are perfectly capable of rejecting political Islam whether or not they’re secular Jeffersonian democrats. The Muslim Brotherhood might recover somewhat if the next government fails as badly as Morsi’s, but then again it might not.

No one can predict the future anywhere in the world. It’s even harder in the Middle East than in other places. History doesn’t move in straight lines over there. Sometimes it goes in circles. Other times it veers off in wild directions. Keen observers can figure out what’s happening now, but when it comes to the future, nobody really knows anything.  

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