Sophistry And Defining The Muslim Brotherhood, Ctd

by Conor Friedersdorf

Over at Ricochet, Claire Berlinski takes exception to a post I wrote yesterday about the Muslim Brotherhood. Put briefly, I discussed efforts to inform Americans about the organization, and criticized what I regard as flaws in Andy McCarthy's work on the subject. I took particular exception to his statement that "Hamas is not merely colluding with the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is the Muslim Brotherhood."

When Ms. Berlinski has issues with something I've written I take notice. Since discovering her work I've been impressed by it: she is constantly trying to persuade her readers that it is important to understand foreign affairs, and although I sometimes disagree with her conclusions, I always feel as if she's doing her best to inform. That isn't just gut instinct. What I mean is that when I come across a passage in her work, find my curiosity piqued, and go out seeking more information, I usually conclude after having educated myself that her characterization was at least fair. It's for this reason that I value her stuff. Especially on the subject of foreign affairs – her specialty is Turkey, where she resides – the lay reader is in the writer's hands. There isn't time to check every assertion or to second guess all analysis.

In recent weeks, she and I have disagreed repeatedly about the quality of Mr. McCarthy's foreign affairs analysis. At issue are his book, "The Grand Jihad: How Islam And The Left Sabotage America," his pamphlet, "How Obama Embraces Islam's Sharia Agenda," and the blog posts linked above. Says Ms. Berlinski in yesterday's post, "Conor Friedersdorf, I don't know what your problem is with Andy McCarthy. But you've got better things to do with your time on a day like this than to denounce his 'sophistry' about the Muslim Brotherhood." Truly, I haven't anything against the guy personally. But I find his work deeply flawed. That's my problem: I object to his arguments. Since he is one of the right's leading voices on these issues, a bestselling book author, and a frequent contributor at National Review, speaking up now seems timely. And it isn't as if Dish readers were lacking for breaking Egypt content. Later in this post, I'll return to this most recent disagreement about Hamas and The Muslim Brotherhood. Before I do so, I want to briefly sketch my general disagreements with Mr. McCarthy, because if Ms. Berlinski isn't clear on what my problem is I haven't been nearly as clear as I'd thought.

Issue one: Mr. McCarthy asserts that President Obama is leading a Grand Jihad against America wherein the hard left and radical Islamists form an alliance against this country. As he tells Kathryn Jean Lopez:

I mean the Islamist movement which, though very mainstream among the world’s Muslims, is by no means representative of all Muslims. By “the Left,” I mean the modern hard Left led by President Obama I do not mean all people who would identify themselves as progressives or liberals. And when I say Islamists and leftists work together, I mean they have an alliance, not that they’ve merged.

In contrast, I think that President Obama's foremost loyalty is to the United States, and that rather than allying himself with Islamists, he is prosecuting two declared wars and various undeclared drone wars and special operations against the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and affiliated Islamist terrorist groups.

Issue two: In the exerpt of his book that is printed in The Washington Examiner, Mr. McCarthy makes assertions about President Obama's rhetoric that proved, once I checked up on them, to be demonstrably false. See here.

Issue three: In his writing on the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Mr. McCarthy seldom if ever acknowledges that demonstrably innocent people were held there. Instead he argues as if all the detainees were guilty. This is not so.

Issue four: I believe justice demands that a defendant in a judicial proceeding receives legal representation as he or she navigates an unfamiliar system – and that attorneys who provide this service are showing loyalty to the justice system, not any group with whom their client happens to be affiliated. Andy McCarthy believes that "many" of the American lawyers who volunteered to represent Gitmo detainees (often at the request of the United States government!) were "pro-Qaeda or, at the very least, pro-Islamist." He also argues that "the issue isn’t so much whether, in a vacuum, Leftist lawyers are pro-al Qaeda or pro-Islamist. It is where their sympathies lie as between two opponents: the United States as it is and Islamism,” implying that these lawyers are on the side of Islamism. (Links here).

Issue five: In the pamphlet titled, "How Obama Embraces Islam's Sharia Agenda," there actually isn't an argument that comes close to demonstrating that President Obama embraces sharia! (Hmm. I wonder why.) What is offered in place of persuasive arguments is worth briefly exploring, because it exemplifies McCarthy rhetorical tricks that I find odious. For example, he writes, "Equally troubling is the administration's promotion of sharia in our financial system." Wow, I thought, I haven't heard about that! If you read on, however, you discover that insurance giant AIG at some point developed a sort of financial instrument for Muslim customers that didn't transgress against Islamic law. Then for entirely unrelated reasons – that is to say, because of the financial crisis – the federal government took over AIG (including that small part of the business involving a type of insurance that doesn't trangress against Islamic law). If you're Andy McCarthy, a fair way to describe this is that the Obama Administration is promoting sharia in our finance system. (See here for more holes in his argument.) Which is why I don't tend to trust his characterizations – there are the ones that are inaccurate, and the ones that are perhaps true in a Clintonian sense.

Having clarified my problem with Mr. McCarthy, let's return to the matter at hand: The Muslim Brotherhood. The organization is currently the subject of wide disagreement. For our purposes, it's enough to know that there are some people who think they're wildly dangerous, and should never be dealt with or trusted; other people who think they can definitely be engaged and influenced politically; and a mix of folks who aren't sure or take some middle ground. I don't have a dog in this fight – or if you prefer, I am in the group that is uncertain, and open to arguments from either extreme. Mr. McCarthy and Ms. Berlinski share a belief that the Muslim Brotherhood is tremendously dangerous.

Is it possible that Ms. Berlinski judges Mr. McCarthy's big picture judgments about the Muslim Brotherhood to be sound, and as a result is less inclined to hone in on the sort of rhetoric I've outlined above? I ask that she entertain the possibility – and that she ask herself how many of the complaints outlined above she is willing to defend. I submit that Mr. McCarthy is engaged in similarly flawed rhetoric when he writes that, "Hamas is not merely colluding with the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is the Muslim Brotherhood." Put another way, I think the average reader presented with that sentence comes away more misled than informed – that although I acknowledge that one organization formed decades ago as an offshoot of the other, it is misleading at best to argue today that they're synonomous.

Ms. Berlinski writes:

Conor, you've directed your readers to me. And I have consistently said just what Andy McCarthy says about the Muslim Brotherhood. (Here's my higher-quality argument, Dish readers: Andy's right.) You've also directed them to Eli Lake. At minute 4:53, Eli makes precisely, but precisely, the point you're denouncing as simplistic, namely, that Hamas is the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood.

Strange as it is to say it, no, Claire, you haven't written the same thing – at least not in the passage I linked, or any other I've read by you. Pass along the relevant link that I missed if I'm wrong. As for Eli Lake, let's quote him from the conversation I linked:

I would point out, and it's something that I think is lost particularly in some of the commentary on the right – that there was a major split after 1966 when Nasser executed Sayyid Qutb who was a more radical Muslim Brotherhood leader. There were followers of Qutb who eventually formedEgyptian Islamic Jihad and murdered Anwar Sadat. And then there was a more moderate faction that Sadat allowed to organize the universities, and became a big part of regular Egyptian civil society. When I was living in Egypt I interviewed members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were the head or the equivalent of the American Medical Association for Egypt or the major newspaper editors.

But that said, the Muslim Brotherhood is not benign. They support Hamas. They support I think ultimately the decline or shrinking of any rights for women in Egypt... The really pregnant question is will they abide by the rules of competitive politics and civil society if they get power... It would be nice to lock in the Muslim Brotherhood in now for a deal where they agree to not do what Hezbollah does, which is to resort to militias and violence when they don't get what they want...

And here is 4:53, the passage where you claim he agrees with Andy McCarthy:

The Muslim Brotherhood chapter in Gaza is Hamas. And my view is that kind of maximalism isn't good for the Palestinians or the prospect of a two state solution. And if you have an Egyptian government that is openly supporting instead of having efforts underground to support Hamas that is going to be a major irritant. A likely scenario is that you would have open support for Hamas, that is officially at war with Israel, but not the abrogation of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. And so the cold peace will become colder and less stable. And that would be a real problem.

Let's be clear here. When Andy McCarthy says that The Muslim Brotherhood is Hamas, the point he's making is that we can anticipate how the group will act if it comes to power in Egypt, because we know how Hamas acts in Gaza, and the two groups are the same. In contrast, Eli Lake doesn't believe we can know how the Muslim Brotherhood will act in Egypt if it comes to power, he describes a moderate faction of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that is quite different from Hamas, and even in the clip you cite, he isn't arguing that The Muslim Brotherhood is Hamas – he is arguing that one of its chapters – the one in Gaza – is Hamas, and that an Egyptian government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood might strengthen the hand of Hamas in its ongoing conflict with Israel.

He goes on to speculate that if the Muslim Brotherhood ran Egypt, it would openly support Hamas, but maintain the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. If Hamas officials from the Gaza Strip were suddenly put in charge of Egypt, do you think they would maintain the peace treaty? If not, you apparently think there are distinctions worth making, and that the one's behavior isn't predictive of the other's behavior. Put yet another way, McCarthy writes, "Hamas is not merely colluding with the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is the Muslim Brotherhood." Lake says precisely that they'd collude with the Muslim Brotherhood, but that there would be a distinction between the stances taken by the two groups.

As I wrote yesterday, "Any analysis of the actual behavior of Hamas and The Muslim Brotherhood over the last couple decades shows that they're different organizations run by different personnel in different countries where they've made different things their main focus and evolved in unique ways, as is inevitable when taking an active role in the civic and political life of particular countries." Do they have a shared history and an overlapping ideology? Yes. Are they the same, so much so that one definitively predicts how the other will behave if it comes to power in a different country? Of course not.

So I reiterate my charge: Mr. McCarthy employs "a subtle, tricky, superficially plausible, but generally fallacious method of reasoning," also known as sophistry. Have I not made my case with the examples above? (Although to be fair, the notion that Obama is allied with our Islamist enemy isn't superficially plausible.)