Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Sticks With Bin Laden

The Islamist political party has made devout moderation a cornerstone of their post-Mubarak strategy, but the group's statement after the death of Osama bin Laden suggests they may not be so moderate


Most of yesterday's headlines proclaiming the death of Osama bin Laden used epithets like "terror mastermind" or "bastard" to refer to the internationally feared mass murderer. (That latter headline is from the New York Post.) But in its first public statement on the killing of bin Laden, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood used the honorific term "sheikh" to refer to the al-Qaeda leader. It also accused Western governments of linking Islam and terrorism, and defended "resistance" against the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan as "legitimate."

The Muslim Brotherhood's response to bin Laden's death may finally end the mythology -- espoused frequently in the U.S. -- that the organization is moderate or, at the very least, could moderate once in power. This is, after all, precisely how Muslim Brothers describe their creed -- "moderate," as opposed to al-Qaeda, which is radical. "Moderate Islam means not using violence, denouncing terrorism, and not working with jihadists," said Muslim Brotherhood youth activist Khaled Hamza, for whom the organization's embrace of "moderate Islam" was the primary reason he joined.

Yet the Muslim Brotherhood's promise that its "moderation" means rejecting violence includes a gaping exception: the organization endorses violence against military occupations, which its leaders have told me include Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, and Palestine -- in other words, nearly every major conflict on the Eurasian continent. "I never fought in Afghanistan," Mehdi Akef, the former Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, told me in January, just before the revolt. "But I encouraged them and sent money to Bosnia and Palestine until now." Muslim Brotherhood leaders have endorsed attacks on Israeli civilians as an exception to their no-violence-except-against-occupation exception, viewing all of Israel as an occupation. "Zionism is gangs," said Akef. "It's not a country. So we will resist them until they don't have a country."

The attacks of September 11, 2001, however, created a real problem for the Muslim Brotherhood's paradigms, since it was a violent attack against civilians on territory that could not be considered occupied. Rather than denounce the attacks, however, the organization chose to argue, outrageously, that Islamists were not responsible.

In some cases, Muslim Brothers have simply expressed doubts about the "theory" that al-Qaeda was behind the attacks. "I don't believe it was jihadists. It was too big an operation," said Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Office who is often touted as one of the organization's reformers. "This was done by a country, not individuals. It's not a conspiracy theory -- it's just logical. They didn't bring this crime before the U.S. justice system until now. Why? Because it's part of a conspiracy."

More frequently, Muslim Brotherhood leaders blame a more predictable target. "The Jews and the Zionist lobby," Muslim Brotherhood legal thinker and former parliamentarian Sobhi Saleh declared to me one March afternoon in his Cairo office, when I asked him who was responsible for the attacks. "And this study is well-known in America and it's on the Internet. And a Christian preacher in Lebanon gave me a book on this at a conference. And it was a scientific research."

Now in their most recent statement on the death of bin Laden, the Muslim Brotherhood has gone a step further. "The whole world, and especially the Muslims, have lived with a fierce media campaign to brand Islam as terrorism and describe the Muslims as violent by blaming the September 11th incident on al-Qaeda." It then notes that "Sheikh Osama bin Laden" was assassinated alongside "a woman and one of his sons and with a number of his companions," going on to issue a rejection of violence and assassinations. It goes on to ominously declare that the Muslim Brotherhood supports "legitimate resistance against foreign occupation for any country, which is the legitimate right guaranteed by divine laws and international agreements," and demands that the U.S., the European Union, and NATO quickly "end the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people." It closes by demanding that the U.S. "stop its intelligence operations against those who differ with it, and cease its interference in the internal affairs of any Arab or Muslim country."

In a way, the Muslim Brotherhood's statement is vintage bin Laden: it's Muslim lands, not America, that are under attack; it's Muslims, not American civilians, who are the ultimate victims; and, despite two American presidents' genuine, effusive promises to the contrary, Islam is the target. It's an important indicator that despite its increased responsibility in post-Mubarak Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood may well remain deeply hostile toward even the one of the most basic and defensible of American interests in the Middle East -- that of securing Americans from terrorism.

Mohamed Badie, the leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, talks during a news conference in Cairo on November 30, 2010. The banner in the background reads: "Islam is the solution." By Amr Dalsh/Reuters