Why the U.S. Should Engage the Muslim Brotherhood

As democracy empowers Islamist political groups, al-Qaeda will only become weaker


The current unrest throughout the Middle East and North Africa raises a basic question about U.S. foreign policy in the region that has confounded this country for years now. At the heart of our democratic experiment is freedom of choice at the ballot box, a freedom that has led to more than two centuries of democratic experimentation. History shows that we haven't always made good choices -- Jim Crow laws and Prohibition come to mind, for example -- but we've stuck with this democratic experiment. Will we see that dedication through in a democratic, Arab, Muslim Middle East? Democracies are often imperfect. But our interest in supporting democracy in a country like Egypt should be about more than just ideology -- it could be a boon for counterterrorism as well.

We are struggling to accommodate our democratic views with the Islamist movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which are poised to gain power, or at least influence, in a democratic Arab world. If they win elections, we ask, are they inherently antidemocratic enough to stifle secularists? Will they prove anti-Israeli, even anti-Semitic? These are fair questions, but the facts are that in an increasing number of states where the people are making choices in some semblance of a democratic process -- the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, possibly Egypt -- we find ourselves uncomfortable with the prospect of accepting leaders who reflect the will of their people but violate some of our fundamental policy interests.

Polling numbers highlight the uphill, perhaps unwinnable battle we would face in opposing either the Brotherhood's involvement in government or Islam's role in politics. In Egypt, for example, a Pew Research poll from the Spring of 2010 shows 40 percent of respondents with a positive view of Hamas, contrasted with 20 percent positive for al-Qaeda. Even more telling, 95 percent of respondents support a major role for religion in politics. And the Egyptians are not isolated: 60 percent of Jordanians have positive views of Hamas, and 53 percent support a major role for religion in government. We can feel uncomfortable with both the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood role and a mix of religion and government, but we would be unrealistic in believing that we will find great support for our version of democracy and secularism.

Regarding the Brotherhood, many in the U.S. worry about its anti-Israeli views and its suspicion not only of secular governments but of the entire proposition of the separation of church and state. However, the Brotherhood's role in our now decade-long campaign against al-Qaeda and its affiliates doesn't appear prominently in the U.S. debate. It should, especially for those who accept the maxim that the enemy of an enemy is a friend. If we're looking for friends, especially Arab friends, to help us fight al-Qaeda on the ideological front that has been our most significant shortfall, we might look to the Brotherhood.

In the U.S., we are apt to wrongly conflate Islamist movements. Some overlap among movements is clear: al-Qaeda and the Brotherhood have common roots going back to the evolution of the Islamist movement in Egypt almost 90 years ago. They both abhor the state of Israel and the rise of Brotherhood influence in Arab governments could reduce support for a two-state solution.

But lost in this simple mixing of Islamist strains is the fact that these two versions of Islamism are at each other's throats, openly and frequently. Al-Qaeda is fundamentally more than just a terrorist group. It is a movement of nihilistic, violent Islamists who want to spark a revolution through the tactical use of terrorism. The presence of undemocratic, repressive regimes in the Middle East has given the group fertile territory from which to recruit, and the Brotherhood, sidelined by regimes for years, has struggled to match al-Qaeda's draw among disaffected youth.

Al-Qaeda's leadership openly discusses its split with the Brotherhood over participation in political processes, especially elections. In an Internet interview in 2008, for example, al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri, himself Egyptian, took a question about Hamas. He said in his response:

I took a gradual approach with them [Hamas], but they didn't heed the opinion of their brothers and continued in what they had plunged into, from their entering the elections in compliance with the secular constitutions to their abandonment of their brothers in Chechnya and finishing up with their abandonment of four-fifths of Palestine in Makkah ... I always differentiated in my messages between the political leaders of Hamas and the Mujahideen of Hamas and the rest of the Mujahideen in Palestine. I criticized the leaders of Hamas and will continue to criticize them as long as they adhere to the secular Palestinian constitution and as long as they don't declare their abandonment of the Makkah accord.

We should remember, as we consider how to engage the Brotherhood, that they want to participate in elections, an act that is anathema to al-Qaeda. The group's leaders, for their part, vilify the Brotherhood for just that: rather than supporting the fuzzy goal of a stateless Caliphate spreading across the Islamic world, this Brotherhood participation in elections reinforces modern states that will never rejoin a renewed Caliphate. The Brotherhood-linked parties then, in an al-Qaeda view, stand in the way of a more profound return to a stateless brotherhood of an Islam without nationalism.

And then there's Israel. Any possibility of negotiations with Israel is impossible for al-Qaeda, and any scent that Brotherhood-linked parties, such as Hamas, might talk to Israel is unacceptable in the eyes of al-Qaeda's doctrinaire idealists. The statement by Egypt's interim leadership about maintaining support for international agreements will not sit well with al-Qaeda, another explanation for the chasm that divides these groups.

The al-Qaeda leaders watching events unfold in the Middle East can't be very comfortable. How can they continue to champion their plan to overthrow corrupt, apostate regimes, when those regimes are on the way out? How to appeal to youth by promising a return to an idealized Islamist past, when the Islamists closer to political focal points such as Tahrir Square, and closer to potential youth recruits, are moving into positions of real political influence?

The rise of Muslim Brotherhood activists is an opportunity for the U.S. As we debate how to best respond to this islamist wave, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Brotherhood's could curb the spread of al-Qaeda's violent extremism. We are effective at opposing al-Qaeda the terrorist group, but we little credibility or ability to effectively oppose its revolutionary ideology. Political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood can.

The U.S. has some difficult judgments to make. We must decide whether Egyptians' embrace of the Brotherhood reflects a wave of populist democracy or a long goodbye to the prospect of secular democracy. Will democratic participation temper Brotherhood rhetoric on Israel or simply mark the beginning of a long hiatus in the dream of a long-term two-state solution? For the U.S., is democratic idealism at risk of becoming less compelling than the desire for the status quo of a secure Middle East?

Finally, we must ask whether it is worth alienating or isolating the Muslm Brotherhood, the rise of which could kill the popularity of al-Qaeda's ideology. Our previous policies of siding against the will of the people -- in the Philippines, Iran, Haiti, and elsewhere -- didn't turn out well. We might consider that history as we weigh whether those who now represent the will of the people, the Brotherhood, is an arms-length adversary or a newfound opportunity.

Image: AFP/Getty