Who is the Muslim Brotherhood?

Israel's leading expert on Islam answers questions on the Muslim Brotherhood, its mission, and its growing influence in the Islamic world.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh In Cairo  (photo credit: Reuters)
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh In Cairo
(photo credit: Reuters)
In recent weeks, Egypt has been holding its first national elections since the fall of the Mubarak regime one year ago, and the Muslim Brotherhood is now poised to assume effective control of the lower house of the next parliament in Cairo. This will mark the first time since the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in the 1920s that it will be in charge of an Arab country, and its rise to power is being watched closely by Western leaders.
This month The Christian Edition takes a closer look at the Muslim Brotherhood. What are its goals and beliefs? For answers, we turned to Prof. Moshe Sharon, Israel’s leading expert on Islam and a former policy adviser to several Israeli prime ministers. He is currently professor emeritus in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Can you first give us some background on when the Muslim Brotherhood was founded, by whom, in what historical context, and with what original aims?
The Muslim Brotherhood was formed in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the abolishment of the caliphate. The Brotherhood believes that the solution to all the problems of the Islamic world is Islam itself – namely, going back to strict Islam as it is represented by the Koran and by the traditions ascribed to the prophet Muhammad. They believe that they can establish a society and a state based on the strict laws of Islam, and that they must restore the caliphate.
Since the 1930s, they have had tremendous influence on rural society in Egypt, and they are probably the most organized movement in Egypt today. In fact, organized movements of the Islamic Brotherhood exist in almost every single Arab country in the Middle East. You can find chapters in Syria, in Jordan, a small one in Lebanon, and in the Palestinian areas it is known as Hamas.
Isn’t the government in Turkey also basically a chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood?
The government in Turkey is not exactly the Muslim Brotherhood, as it is also primarily an Arab movement, an Arab-speaking movement. But in Turkey we have something similar… That is, a demand to return to Islam, to abolish the changes created when Turkey became a normal, Westernized country dividing between state and religion, one of the most important principles of Kemal Ataturk, who established modern Turkey…
At the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood, wasn’t there also the context that the British were ruling in Cairo at the time, and it was established as a reaction to British influence, to Western and Christian influence on Egypt?
Definitely, yes! Let’s not forget that since the end of the 18th century, Egypt, of all the countries under Ottoman rule, was the first to be exposed to Western influence. This influence meant to be lax as far as Islam is concerned. Especially in the 20th century, women could walk around uncovered, in modern dress. Egyptians went to Europe and came back educated in European languages… So all this was a challenge to Islam, and the Islamic Brotherhood wanted to answer this challenge…
Banna was just a school teacher, but he had tremendous organizing powers, and within a very short time he created basically an underground movement which came to the fore only now. They were there all the time, but the government of Egypt was able to suppress them, despite their apparent popularity. Now that there are “free elections,” you have not only the Muslim Brotherhood, but you have an even more conservative group called the Salafists. They want to not only return to Islam but to return to the times of the prophet, to go back as far as possible, in many ways to the 7th century, by saying that’s how the Prophet Muhammad behaved, and that’s how we have to behave…
So what does the Muslim Brotherhood mean by the concept of restoring the caliphate?
It means that in order for Islam to be what it is intended to be, namely a triumphant religion and triumphant culture, it needs to have a leader, and the leader is being defined from the early time of Islam as the caliph. The caliph ruled, so to speak, the entire Islamic world, at least spiritually, not like a pope of course. We should not compare it, but at least by title he was the head, the titular head of Islam. There are a few things that cannot be done by Islam unless you have a recognized caliph. For instance, war and peace in general, or calling for jihad, holy war. You need a head of Islam in order to create a situation of general war between the Islamic world and the rest of the world and the Christian world… So creating the caliphate is something that is very much on the agenda of the Islamic Brotherhood.
Isn’t this the real danger, as the Muslim Brotherhood is about to take over in Egypt?
Do they feel they are getting closer and are they ready to anoint someone as caliph? No, I don’t think they will be able to anoint someone as a caliph yet. But what is important is that they are on their way to controlling the biggest and strongest Arab country in the Middle East. This is no small thing, because Egypt has many international agreements – like the peace treaty with Israel – and we don’t know how they are going to react to it. They might say the peace with Israel was against Islam, which we cannot keep. It might very well happen, and this might bring us nearer to a new war between Israel and Egypt, which I think nobody wants. But this can develop first of all from declarations and then to actions.
How do you view reports that the Obama administration has engaged in a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood and received assurances that they are not going to ditch the Israel-Egypt peace treaty?
Well, first of all, the Islamic Brotherhood is not in government yet, so what kind of assurances and with whom did they speak? I am not so sure that the Americans actually understand the gravity of the situation. It is a grave situation, and I think it was started by Obama’s speech which he made in Cairo, in which he did not stop commending Islam… The Muslims could have felt from his speech that he has never seen a better movement than the culture of Islam. So this was something which was very encouraging to the Muslim Brotherhood…
By securing a real stronghold in Egypt, do you think the Muslim Brotherhood is now positioned to wield influence in Jordan, in Syria and the Palestinian areas?
 One has to look at each of these countries in different ways. In Syria, definitely the Sunnis are interested in coming back to power in place of the Alawite minority that has been ruling the country for the last 35 years. But Assad is not going to go away so quickly… and if he goes, it means we are talking about a bloodbath in Syria.
In Jordan, the king is very well established, and he is trying to maneuver himself in order to show that he is doing something for the Muslims. The most important thing is that he is all of a sudden working with Abbas.
As far as Abbas is concerned, yes, the Islamic Brotherhood is very strong in Gaza and also in Judea and Samaria, the so-called West Bank. And if there are free elections, the Muslim candidates will be victorious. But let’s not forget that in Gaza, there is already a Palestinian state with its own borders, own parliament, own government. This is in fact the outstretched arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.