One on One: Out of Egypt

Why the Muslim Brotherhood is key to the 'Islamic universe'.

muslim brotherhood 63 (photo credit: )
muslim brotherhood 63
(photo credit: )
When asked how a "nice Jewish boy got mixed up in radical Islam," Hillel Fradkin laughs heartily, lights a cigarette - one of many he smokes during our hour-long interview - and tells the tale of the intellectual journey that led to his current position as the director of the Center on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C. "It all began with my interest in medieval Jewish thought," recounts Fradkin, here earlier this month on his annual pilgrimage to the Herzliya Conference. "You know, Maimonides and Judah Halevi. And since some of their works were in Arabic, I had to learn Arabic." One thing led to another, says Fradkin, who ended up doing his doctorate in Islamic studies, after serving in the American military from 1969 to 1972 as an Arabic and Hebrew translator with the Fifth Special Forces Group. What shifted the focus of the now 60-year-old, married father of two to radical Islam, however, was the life story of one of his teachers at the University of Chicago. Fazlur Rahman, "an extremely pious and learned Muslim theologian," had "pitched up" in the US after having been driven out of Pakistan in 1972 by the gathering radical movement there - elements for whom "he had become an object of hatred and vilification." Prior to that, explains Fradkin, a member of the board of the American Islamic Congress, "radical Islam was around; some people followed it. But by and large in the Muslim world - certainly in the Arab Muslim world - the dominant political and social movement was nationalism." Fradkin's having "wound up, by accident in a way," with a mentor who had been a victim of the budding phenomenon contributed to shaping the course of his own history, which has included researching, writing, lecturing and commentating on Islamic affairs, and being a consultant to various branches of the American government and intelligence agencies. "Past glory, present ignominy" is how Fradkin - co-editor (with Husain Haqqani and Eric Brown) of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology - sums up the consciousness of contemporary radical Islamists. "It is a modern reaction to the enormous decline in the Muslim world's political, military and economic power - a decline stupendous when compared to the success it had in its first 1,000 years." It is Islam's future that Fradkin spends the bulk of his time concerned about these days, with an emphasis on Sunni-Shi'ite rivalry - particularly in Iran - and the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, Fradkin's center [] recently devoted a conference to the latter - something which to the layman might seem peculiar, considering it is one of so many jihad-oriented organizations whose names have become unfortunately familiar. What is so significant about the Muslim Brotherhood that you devoted an entire conference to it? The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest radical Muslim organization - founded in Egypt in 1928 - and the most widespread, with branches pretty much everywhere there are Muslims, including in the United States. So, it's a very important aspect of the Islamist universe. But, ironically, because Americans' contact with radical Islam came in the form of 9/11 and al-Qaida - and secondarily in the form of Wahhabism - the Muslim Brotherhood is relatively unknown. Our conference was designed to inform the American public, government and policy community. The fact is that practically all radical Muslim organizations, including al-Qaida, presuppose the prior existence and history of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is the "granddaddy" of all radical Muslim organizations. And even though organizations like al-Qaida represent a defection from it, they presuppose the Brotherhood as the source from which they sprang. Is last week's breach in the Egypt-Gaza border significant with respect to the Brotherhood? Without a doubt, although its long-term implications necessarily remain unclear. The essential fact is that in Gaza the Brotherhood, or at least a branch of it, has come to power for the first time in its own right - that is constitutes, if only de facto, the government of a state which has the beginnings of an army. That is the net result of the Hamas takeover, in conjunction with its victory in the elections of 2006. Inasmuch as the Brotherhood has in general always looked forward to such a day - to the establishment of an "Islamic state" as it understands it - the new situation in Gaza represents for the Brotherhood as a whole an inspiring "achievement." However, until last week, the "state of Gaza" was limited in its access to the world, including to Egypt. The breach in the wall changed that. One might say that Gaza now, at least temporarily, has become linked to the Egyptian economy, and in this and other ways has become the responsibility of Egypt. It is almost as if Egypt now has a "Brotherhood province." One question that arises is how Egyptians will respond to the experience of a "Brotherhood state." I say "experience" because it is inevitable that some Egyptians will come into contact with it, at least through trade. Will they be attracted or repelled? This will be a rather important issue for the Egyptian government, not to mention for others. Is the Brotherhood, which is purportedly a threat to Hosni Mubarak's regime, the "common enemy" that enables Egypt to ally itself with the United States? The American government is of mixed minds with regard to Egypt. On the one hand, it continues to support the Mubarak regime. On the other hand, through the democracy initiative, it is pushing Mubarak to open the regime to wider political participation, which everyone knows will mean wider representation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian parliament. The way Hamas took over in Gaza as a result of the Palestinian Authority elections? Yes, but even assuming the Muslim Brotherhood has very wide support in Egypt - which is not necessarily a fair assumption - it might not completely take over, but could form a powerful bloc within the Egyptian legislature. This is why some in the American government say that, in such an event, the US would have to deal with the Brotherhood, so it might as well get to know them now. Others say it would be good for the Brotherhood to get involved in electoral politics, because doing so would represent a deviation from the strict jihadi hostility to electoral politics. The notion is that electoral participation is something which, over time, could become a vehicle for moderation. There was a famous - or infamous - article ["The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood," by Robert Leiken, director of the Immigration and National Security Program at the Nixon Center, and Nixon Center researcher Steven Brooke, Foreign Affairs March-April 2007] more or less arguing that in fact there was a lot of moderation to be found in the Muslim Brotherhood, and that we should engage with them, both in Egypt and in the rest of the Muslim world. In addition, there's a fair amount of interaction and sympathy with Muslim Brotherhood organizations within the US, although none precisely identifies itself as such. Front groups are a focus of [Investigative Project on Terrorism executive director] Steve Emerson's work. Who are they, and how are they allowed to carry on unimpeded? Various organizations were founded by Muslim Brothers who originally pitched up in the US, but who then settled there, established the Muslim Student Association, then the Islamic Society of North America, and eventually founded societies meant to support Hamas, such as the Islamic Association of Palestine (IAP). When the US declared Hamas a terrorist organization, the IAP turned itself into the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) - a particular close focus of Emerson's work. Various people in the government consider these to be the representatives of the American Muslim community, and as such, are the ones to talk to. Emerson's work focuses on cover-ups, assisted by US agencies which claim that the organizations are not Brotherhood fronts. What you are saying here is that there are those who acknowledge the Brotherhood connection, and say that because the group is representative of the American Muslim community, it needs to be engaged. Which is it? It's both. There are those who deny that these organizations are connected to the Brotherhood. Then there are those who realize the organizations are connected to the Brotherhood, assume that they represent the general Muslim population, and therefore support having dialogue with them. The normal method in the US is for the government to deal with the leaders of communities - and community leaders are usually identified by the fact that they head organizations. What is misleading about this is that these organizations - such as CAIR, for example - are not membership organizations, as are, say, Christian and Jewish organizations. About the latter, one can have some idea how many people they represent and their relative strength vis-a-vis other organizations. With American Muslim organizations, the situation is different. They have employees and some people who associate themselves with them, but they are self-appointed representatives. Furthermore, they are not mostly funded by American Muslims. Their money comes from the Gulf or Saudi Arabia. In other words, they represent Muslims outside of the US, not the American Muslim community. One of the problems caused by American institutions' blessing them by regarding them as the leadership is that alternative leadership within the American Muslim community becomes stifled. Does the Brotherhood have a stronghold in Europe? An enormous one. In Britain, it has a huge presence. In France, it has an official organization. It is a force in Germany, although somewhat less so, because the majority of German Muslims are Turkish, and until recently not particularly associated with its activities. It is powerful in Denmark, as well. In fact, it is the Muslim Brotherhood which was responsible for the Muhammad cartoon affair; it was the Brotherhood that pushed the rest of the Muslim world to take offense. It is around everywhere, with branches in many countries, in some places openly, and in others underground. In Syria, for example, it has been underground for many years, because the Assad regime suppressed it in 1982. This is why one of the perennial debates about it is whether it operates like the old Communist Party - whether all the branches coordinate with one another. Well, they don't really, but one might say generally that there is an international Brotherhood whose leading figure is [Egyptian Muslim scholar and preacher] Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Do the Americans and Europeans affiliated with the Brotherhood tend to be immigrants, or Muslims born in the West? In the US - with which I am most familiar - essentially there was no Muslim community prior to 1980, other than students from Muslim countries in American universities. Some of these students were members of the Muslim Brotherhood in their home countries. What they did eventually was establish the Muslim Students Association, and gave it a Muslim Brotherhood orientation. But today, students who join that organization will often be American-born. Not all Muslim students, by the way, are attracted by the Brotherhood. But, as a number of them have told me, on the American campus - owing, among other things, to multiculturalism - everyone is "something." Everyone has an association. The Chinese students have an association; the Japanese have an association; the Jews have an association; the Catholics have an association; and so forth. So, the Muslim students have an association, as well, and they tend to join it in the normal course of things. Does fear play any part in their joining student or other organizations affiliated with the Brotherhood? Yes. There have been incidents of intimidation. One American Muslim friend of mine said that the way in which local radicals tried to deal with him was to tell him that if he died, he would not be accorded a Muslim funeral. This is, of course, a big thing if you believe in the day of resurrection, and that to achieve resurrection you need to be buried in a proper Muslim fashion. So, there's all kinds of pressure which is brought to bear, either social pressure or nastier. On the flip side, there are also inducements in the form of money. Say you're an American Muslim and you're doing some research project, going around with your proverbial tin cup to foundations or individuals in search of funding. You might then be approached by somebody who has Brotherhood money at his disposal and told, "You know, we have this other project in mind for you, and you should come talk to the Brothers about it." Indeed, the Brotherhood has been very creative and energetic in creating organizations which would correspond to certain activities within American life, among them prison and military chaplaincies. The US military - and prison system - has chaplains for each religion. For years, the long-established religious groups in the country have had boards which certified chaplains. The Muslims didn't have such a board, so the Brotherhood set one up immediately. Why is there no outcry on the part of the larger Muslim American community about this? Is it due to fear or to the fact that most actually support Brotherhood ideology and theology? It's hard to know, but this is what I suspect: The vast majority of American Muslims immigrated to the US since 1980. Immigrant generations tend to be too busy getting themselves settled financially and otherwise acclimatized. Because of this, they are relatively passive politically. But there's something additional. A peculiarity of the American Muslim community as it stands today has to do with its relation to the mosque as an institution. One Pakistani Muslim told me that he and his friends hate their local mosque and won't take their children to it because of Brotherhood or Wahhabi indoctrination. So, I said to him, "You know, in the synagogue, when we can't stand the rabbi, we throw him out." And he said, "Well, we can't do that." This is because many, perhaps most. of the mosques in the US are governed by boards appointed by the North American Islamic Trust, which is funded from the Gulf and holds the mortgages on the mosques. So, while you'd think mosques would be the quintessential vehicle for Muslims within American life, they are actually funded from outside. When I asked this man why he and his friends don't establish their own mosque, he explained that he was new in the country, worked 24/7 and had neither the time nor the money for such an endeavor. What may be a problem in America, the way it has been in Western Europe, is that while the first generation is trying to get settled - and is therefore not active in forming its own institutions - others are capturing the minds of their children. Is there nobody monitoring the jihadi preachings in these mosques? Didn't 9/11 make the government more vigilant about cracking down on subversive Islamic activities? The United States is a country that believes in free speech and free exercise of religion. Even if that freedom involves calling on people to destroy the West in general and America in particular? Well, you know, such calls are made from some non-Muslims in America also [he laughs] - some of whom can be found in our finest universities. But seriously, one can try to create public indignation about it, which in turn might influence the American Muslim community to react. For example, Nina Shea - who runs the Hudson Institute's Center on Religious Freedom - collected materials distributed in mosques across the US. And it was what you would expect from literature produced by Wahhabi institutions: full of hatred for Christians and Jews and so on, which is repugnant to American liberal attitudes. So, exposing it created a certain amount of buzz. But at the end of the day, a mosque can't be shut down for this. The US doesn't have hate speech laws. Now, there are American Muslims who think this is not only terrible, but dangerous for Muslims, because the more radicalized they become, the more likely the Muslims as a whole are to become victims of Islamophobia. In the US - unlike in Europe - Muslims run up against people who take their own religions very seriously. Apropos of that, a trial that has been going on in Texas - which just ended in a mistrial, so it's not clear what the outcome will be - involved a so-called charity, the Holy Land Foundation. In the course of the trial, one particularly interesting document was revealed, written in 1991 and self-described as a strategy for the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States. Among other things, it outlined a strategy of establishing all these organizations and associations, because - as they put it - that's the way Americans conduct their public and private business. One substantive paragraph in the document says the following [here he quotes from the document]: "The process of settlement of [Islam in the US] is a civilization-jihadist process with all the word means. The Ikhwan [the Brothers] must understand that all their work in America is a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying Western civilization from within and sabotaging their miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God's religion is made victorious over all religions. Without this level of understanding we are not up to this challenge and have not prepared ourselves for jihad yet. It is a Muslim's destiny to perform jihad and work wherever he is and wherever he lands until the final hour comes and there is no escape from that destiny except for those who choose to slack." How much of a threat is this to the United States and its institutions, really? That's a good question, because there are about three million Muslims in a population of 300 million Americans. The answer is that the problem is really for the American Muslims themselves. If they embrace radicalism, they will make themselves repugnant to the rest of American society. That can't be happy for them. At the same time, it won't be happy for American society, either, which is inclusive. It does not like to feel there is some group it cannot embrace. Another way of putting it is that radical Islam poses an unusually severe problem for multiculturalism. Radical Islam is self-consciously hostile to liberal democracy, while at the same time demanding a place in American society. That's an obvious and difficult contradiction. Like that of the American communists siding with the Soviets? Yes, but it's similar in the following way: We never outlawed the Communist Party. We made a distinction between espousing views hostile to the American Constitution, and actions in service of foreign powers, particularly enemies. That will be the distinction we go on making.