Oh brother…

As someone who has been focusing on Egypt and the Middle East for quite some time, I have gotten used to the fact that it is not everyone’s cup of tea. Sure, people at cocktail parties had questions and opinions, but I wasn’t used to it receiving the level of attention that it has gotten this week. The fact that the word “Tahrir” had become commonspeak is shocking, and overhearing couples chat about Mubarak’s options at brunch is slightly startling. Granted, I live in Washington, DC, but this is still unusual.

Waffles always taste better with Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak

I welcome this new found subject of conversation. As Frank Rich points out in this astute article, Americans have long been too ignorant about a region in which we are extremely involved. I am glad to hear that Americans are now concerned about exactly where and for what purpose this 1.3 billion dollars in military aid is going, annually. It’s great to hear that people are asking questions and wanting to learn more about a complex and important country.

Unfortunately, there is an evil twin of this phenomenon. I call it “lots of opinion and little fact.” This bad recipe is best manifested by the current chatter on the Muslim Brotherhood, and I am deeply troubled by how prevalent it is becoming in our country’s discussions on the future of Egypt. I don’t expect Glenn Beck to know anything about the complex history of Islamist movements, and I am fairly confident that he is not one to speak authoritatively on the subject. Then why does he? It is simply astounding what people simply assume about this important movement, and the adjectives that they throw around without feeling the need to support. Ross Douthat erroneously calls them “dangerous” in his otherwise well-written analysis of Obama’s foreign policy. Several Republican leaders, who I can’t imagine have done much research into the history of the movement, have qualified the Brotherhood as “radical” and “jihadist” in nature.

I am by no means an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood, but my research and experiences have taught me a few things. Glenn Beck, if you are reading, I present to you the Top Seven Things to Know about the Muslim Brotherhood:

7. The Muslim Brotherhood can be described as an Islamist movement, meaning its members believe that a return to religion and spirituality is the best way to combat the ailments that plague society. Islamism does not mean a return to the past. In fact, it is a modern concept, born of modern times in which the new threats of western colonialism led many in the Muslim world to question how best to defeat European imperialism. Like the American Right, Islamists believe that laws and government should be influenced by religious principles and practices. While Islamism has been around since the mid 20th century, it has gained popularity in recent years due to the “failure” of other -isms (pan-Arabism, Baathism, socialism, etc.)

6. Like most Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood supports the implementation of sharia law, but that essentially tells us nothing. Sharia is simply a type of law (influenced by Islamic principles and practice). Sharia law is quite complex, and one application can look completely different than another. Islamic scholars and jurists have debated for centuries as to what should be included in sharia law and what is excluded. If someone says “they want to apply sharia law” this tells you about as much as if someone says “they want a law that stays in line with Christian principles.” As you can guess, this tells us nothing about how such a person would feel about, say the death penalty (both advocated and condemned by Christians).

5. The Muslim Brotherhood has been knocked around. Of all the groups that have felt the iron fist of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood definitely takes the cake for being the most beat up. As a result of the government crack downs, torture, and illegal detainment of members, the Muslim Brotherhood has become one of the loudest proponents of human rights, political reform, and civil liberties in Egypt.

4. Torture can also have an adverse effect, and the Brotherhood has had to deal with the radicalization of some members. The most famous case is the radicalization of one of the original leaders of the Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb. While Qutb was always a conservative Islamist, he never espoused the use of violence and “takfeer” principle (accusing someone of apostasy and therefore sanctioning violence against them) until he was mercilessly tortured in Nasser’s prisons. Qutb’s twisted, and quite unorthodox thinking came to influence jihadists, but does not represent mainstream Islamist thought. The Muslim Brotherhood has renounced violence and has worked to distance themselves from Qutb.

3. Like many Islamist movements, the Muslim Brotherhood garners a lot of support from women voters and activists. As someone who has dabbled in the role of women in Islamist movements, I have found that women are attracted to such movements due to their emphasis on family values, fighting corruption, and social services. Do not assume that Islamist women are simply brainwashed by the men in their lives. Just as conservative American women have had to fight to claim the right to their opinions on abortion (which pro-choice feminists claim as being “anti-woman”) Islamist women are accused of being meek lemmings. Quite the contrary, most of the Islamist women I met in Egypt and Palestine were articulate, passionate, and empowered viragos.

2. Leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood have been known to make anti-Semitic and/or anti-Zionist statements. While the Brotherhood does take a harder line on Israel than the current Egyptian government, it is an unfortunate reality that their disturbing statements on Jews and/or Israelis don’t really differ from the rhetoric you hear from secular corners in Egypt. I would argue that fighting persistent anti-Semitism in Egypt–and the Arab world–is a problem bigger than the Muslim Brotherhood, and such statements are less of a reflection of party line than they are of Egyptian society.

1. While the actual strength of the Muslim Brotherhood is hard to measure, there is no denying that they are a political reality in Egypt and that they will need to be included in any dialogue about the future of the country. Any party that agrees to abide by the rules of democracy must be allowed to play, no matter how much you dislike them (even if their name rhymes with Parah Salin).

Wouldn't want to point any fingers...

For further reading on the Brothers (and Sisters) check out this article in Salon, this guest blog post from Juan Cole’s site, and this article in Foreign Affairs.

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