by Michael Weiss/
A nice sociological experiment would be to ask any child of average intelligence what he thinks a fit occupation is for a man who believes all at once that Jews are a subspecies who somehow maintain a monopoly on America’s sources of information, that commercial aircraft piloted by al-Qaeda agents did not destroy the Twin Towers on 9/11, and that everything one needs to learn about life is encoded in the original “Planet of the Apes” film. I might question your sample pool if your responses varied far beyond “squeegie-wielder” or perhaps “syndicated AM radio talk show host.” Yet it is remarkable the ease with which a whole intellectual-industrial complex has sprung up crediting the fitness of such a person for the presidency of the most populous Arab country.
In the last month, we have learned that Mohammed Morsi thought, as few as two years ago, that Jews, or “Zionists” as he likes to call them, are “bloodsuckers” and “descendants of apes and pigs”; that Egyptians ought to “nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred” of them; and that a boycott was in order of all countries that support Israel, including the United States, which only provides Egypt with $1.5 billion in annual subsidies. When confronted with these comments from his not-so-distant past by a delegation of discomfited US senators, Morsi clarified that this was all a big misunderstanding, or rather a willful misinterpretation of what he’d intended. As one senator summarized the Egyptian president’s clarification, “Well, I think we all know that the media in the United States has made a big deal of this, and we know the media of the United States is controlled by certain forces and they don’t view me favorably.”
As a certain force in the media that doesn’t view him favorably, I think I know what Morsi meant by this. What I don’t know is what the New York Times meant in its editorial on the subject, wherein it claimed that such statements, which were revealed after Morsi had arrogated to himself dictatorial powers leading to mass riots in Egypt, “raise serious doubts about whether he can ever be the force for moderation and stability that is needed.” What would confirm those doubts for the Times? And why is the presumption of “moderation” still bestowed on a man and an ideological organization that have worked overtime to prove the opposite about themselves, much as excuses are still made on their behalf?
The original definition of an intellectual was someone who grappled with the Jewish Question and came out on the right side. Today, it seems, that definition has widened to encompass defenders of those who don’t even know or care that such a question ever existed. Yet “apes and pigs” isn’t the half of it. Decades of tracts, sermons and observed behavior did little to prompt a serious investigation into the totalitarian nature of the Muslim Brotherhood by a truly impressive array of policymakers, journalists and academics, some of whom continue to resist the dawning of a new consensus by resorting to pure silliness: comparing Morsi to Abraham Lincoln, or reading in his “constitutional declaration” of November 22 – in which he obliterated judicial review of his executive powers and declared himself the sole steward of the Egyptian revolution – the lineaments of a committed democrat.
Consider first that becoming a Muslim Brother takes as long as becoming a fully licensed medical doctor or reaching Tom Cruise’s stature in the Church of Scientology – surely a sign of some discipline and ideological rigidity. Loyalty to the organization is absolute, with adherents giving an oath to “listen and obey.” Universities are considered fertile recruitment grounds, and those who do the recruiting like to initially avoid identifying themselves as members of the Brotherhood – until, that is, they feel they can trust their quarry well enough on first principles. (I’d pay good money to see campus evangelicals or Young Republicans try to dissimulate as anything but themselves.) Even those who seek out membership in the Brotherhood are severely vetted for the requisite religiosity.
There is a five-step process that starts by joining an usra, or “family,” which monitors your indoctrination and scrutinizes your private life for any sign of waywardness. The second stage involves rote memorization of swathes of the Quran and the texts of Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna. The third stage involves donating a portion of your income (usually between five and eight percent, admittedly below the going L. Ron Hubbard rate) to the organization. The fourth stage entails memorization of the entire Quran and the hadith and having your fealty tested with questions, the “wrong” answers to which might lead to your expulsion. The fifth and final stage gives you voting rights within the organization.
The whole process can take between five and eight years. Joining the German Christian Democrats takes five to eight minutes.
The height of the Brotherhood hierarchy is a Politburo-like Guidance Office (Maktab al-Irshad) consisting of 15 senior-ranking Brothers, of which Morsi was one, and headed by a Supreme Guide. These members are put in charge of various departments ranging from education to recruitment to political policy, and the officers are elected by a Central Committee-like Shura Council of 100 Brothers.
If this structure seems inhospitable to dissent and self-criticism, then it’s because it is. One Brotherhood youth group that disagreed with the creation of the Freedom and Justice Party, believing that the organization was better suited to social and cultural outreach, was purged when it formed its own unaffiliated party. Voluntary resignation from the Brotherhood can lead to worse consequences, as 38-year-old Abdel Jailil el-Sharnoubi, an old acquaintance of Morsi and the former editor-in-chief of Ikhwan Online, discovered when men in masks shot up his car with submachine guns.
For Bolsheviks, the highest obligation was to the surety and intellectual correctness of the Party (the Russians called it Partiinost). For the Brotherhood, though the party or organization is the vehicle through which Islamization will be implemented, it is society (Gama’a) that matters most. This leaves the Brotherhood with a canonical flexibility that allows for the justification of any action, however contradictory or nullifying of a previous one, so long as it is said to strengthen the Gama’a. But of course, doing that is rarely different from advancing the interests of the Brotherhood.
So, for instance, the organization formerly believed in a parliamentary system for the post-Mubarak order, arguing that a too-strong presidency would mean a return to the authoritarianism of the ancien regime. But that was before the Egyptian judiciary dissolved parliament and the first constituent assembly and ruled that Brotherhood candidate Khairat El Shater could not stand for president. (Never mind the prior organizational vow, also reversed, not to stand a candidate for the executive power at all, and its expulsion of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who changed his mind before the Brotherhood changed its own.) The wholesale abandonment of the parliamentary preference in favor of the presidential was a tacit acknowledgement that yesterday’s vice had become today’s virtue.
“What is new in totalitarianism is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable,” wrote Orwell. “They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand, they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.” The inventor of doublethink’s preferred term for what resulted was “schizophrenia,” which can easily be glimpsed in the Brotherhood’s will-it-or-won’t-it vacillations. Its acceptance of Egyptian-Israeli peace and Morsi’s friendly overtures to Shimon Peres compete with draft “revisions” of the Camp David Accords and decades of rhetorical and written endorsements of armed “resistance.”
Similarly, a doctrinal rejection of violence in Egypt doesn’t necessarily mean that the Brotherhood won’t resort to violence in Egypt. Last month, Islamist supporters of Morsi, in the words of a non-editorialist at the New York Times, “detained and beat dozens of his political opponents…holding them for hours with their hands bound on the pavement outside the presidential palace while pressuring them to confess that they had accepted money to use violence in protests against him.” Inside the presidential palace, meanwhile, a “Muslim Brotherhood torture chamber” was being administered, according to independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.
Nor has the Brotherhood ever really disclaimed terrorism abroad. As Eric Trager has demonstrated, in addition to seeking an all-out fight with its neighbor to the north, the organization has declared as legitimate holy battlefields Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya and Iraq. When Osama bin Laden was killed, Brotherhood leaders denounced the United States and mourned al-Qaeda commander as an honored “sheikh.”
Cancelled presidential candidate El Shater has said: “[O]ur main and overall mission as Muslim Brothers is to empower God’s Religion on Earth, to organize our life and the lives of people on the basis of Islam, to establish the Nahda of the Ummah and its civilization on the basis of Islam, and to the subjugation of people to God on Earth.” This is the PG-13 preview of hardcore Salafism, but it has the same R-rated ending. By El Shater’s own admission: first the establishment of an “Islamic government” in Egypt, then a “global Islamic state.”
Yet apologists for the Brotherhood emphasize that the organization is the only viable alternative to the Salafists, the larger and more dangerous rival for Islamist dominance in Egypt. This is like arguing that it’s better to be mauled by a pit bull than by a Rottweiler. Evidence thus far points to how the tension between the Brotherhood and the Salafists plays out: either it leads to a more reactionary tilt by the former in order to minimize or undercut political gains by the latter, or it leads to the total capitulation by the former to demands made by the latter. In neither case will liberalism or anything approximating moderation prevail.
Scholar Samuel Tadros recently made a close examination of the Brotherhood-Salafist wrangle over the new jackhammered-in Egyptian constitution. He concluded that the resulting document “represents an almost complete Salaﬁ victory.” The old definition of Egyptian citizenship was redefined, or rather expunged altogether, in favor of a polity that now belongs to “Islamic Nation,” creating an inherent inequality between Egypt’s Muslims and Christians. Al-Azhar was given interpretive primacy in deciding all matters of Sharia – itself a compromise that satisfied the Salafist demand that the “principles” of Sharia be decided by a nationally endowed clerical body lest the law be interpreted out of the legal picture entirely. Moreover, in further deference to the Salafists, the Sharia principles now include the “accepted sources according to the doctrines of Sunnis,” which adds an anti-Shiite sectarian gloss to the constitution. Shura (“consultation”) was esteemed above the word “democracy.” A blasphemy clause was instituted. Egyptian media was censored by, among other things, the insistence that it must help shape “the basic principles of the State and society.” Religion was confined to the three Abrahamic faiths, though the state had power to determine everything from the number of Christian churches to their finances (the better to control Christian influence). International treaties on everything from women’s rights to the rights of children were deemed permissible only so long as they did not violate the Sharia premise of the constitution, which is to say, they were rendered negligible. And discrimination was no longer proscribed, as in the old constitution, “on the basis of sex, origin, religion and creed.”
There’s a whole school of literature devoted to the psychological and intellectual contortions that ideologues and fellow travelers had to make in the 20th century to justify horrible crimes. For most, it was an understanding of what Communism was, wedded to the belief that it represented the future, not just for Russia but for everyone, and sacrifices had to be made – or that they simply weren’t made at all. Few in the West would argue that Islamism will or should have much purchase beyond the Middle East – only that it’s alright for that part of the world (itself a revealing disclosure given the many non-Islamists now being heard from in Egypt) – or that it’s more recognizable and palatable to a Western audience than you’d think. The folly here is easier to account for. As Trager put it to me, “They paid far too much attention to what Brotherhood leaders had to say about democracy without checking under the hood.”