With a Grain of Piquant Salt:
The Muslim Brotherhood is a much misunderstood and under-estimated force in today's political climate across the globe. Like the various communist parties globally, drawing sustenance from the same original thinkers such as Marx, Engle, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, etc but having very distinct local characteristics, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has similar antecedents through Al Banna and Qutb as their thinkers while having very local characteristics. The brotherhood is looked upon with suspicion by western governments, media, local governments, NGOs; you name it, with the exception of the general local country citizens and members. This MB has had different levels of successes and failures in different times in different countries but going forward, it is my belief that the MB will be an increasingly important force, one which cannot be ignored. The world's geo-political framework currently does not have space for either the ever evolving ideology or the political structure of the MB and the earlier people make the mental shift; the better it is for the world. Let us see the how's and why's of this rather interesting phenomena that is the MB.
My sister is vociferously against the brotherhood. She thinks their statements against the use of violence, jihad being more akin to struggle rather than violent means, and other niceties are nothing but a sham till they get into power through democratic means and then slam!!!, down comes the shutters and we will get to a Taliban state. And further to that, she also thinks that the current enthusiasm for veiling and being more pious than the other is being stupid and na've because as soon as the MB comes into power, women will be stopped from working, inside the veil, and no women's rights whatsoever. Her stories about the recent burst of piety and sickening self righteousness indeed make heavy reading across the Middle East. Curiously enough, this is not just her reading but also from most other liberal thought leaders, women's rights advocates and of course the rest of the conservative gang in the west etc.
But I have my doubts about this suspicion. Yes, quite a lot of the howling mob of terrorists has emerged from the MB, but think about this bit. When a person like Ayman Al Zawahiri (2nd in command of Al Qaeda) spends a good hour fulminating against Hamas in Palestine and the Ikhwan in Egypt for participating in such an evil, devilish thing such as elections, it definitely gives cause for comfort that the MB are not terrorists. In Al Qaeda's dream world, an ideal situation is one lead by the Mahdi, with a Khalifa, a shura council and no infidels dirtying up the place. The idea of a multi-party democracy which rests on the concept of sovereignty of humans instead of Allah is anathema to them.
But the MB generally has accepted this concept of democracy (for now). That 'for now' is very important because the MB have a very long history of being extremely pragmatic in shifting their ideological base and tactical moves to achieve power. What they are currently doing would make Hassan al Banna and Sayyid Qutb spin rapidly enough in their graves to power all of Gaza. They have indeed moved a long way from what their founders and chief ideologues have done (remember how the communists in say China and India have embraced capitalism and have even gone for SEZ's for private capital; Banna and Qutb share the same centrifuge with Marx, Lenin and Mao!).
When groups and parties from the extreme and radical wings want to move into power, they need to compromise, they need to appeal to the centre of society. And no society will ever tolerate too many restrictions on individual behavior or too much piety. So while it is ok for you to be nice and foaming, tub thumping, bellowing 'no surrender' and hold extreme positions, when you need to actually rule a country under democracy, you will need to have to move into a centrist position. See the lovely magic wonderland of Iran, a country which started off at the very edges of revolutionary thought is busy spending time worrying about fuel subsidies, industrial productivity, youth employment, availability of credit, scientific innovation, roads and and and'.. Do not get distracted by the pronouncements of their silly illiterate president and the nuclear issue; if you look at the Iranian official press or Al Jazeera or keep track of the Iranian blogs, you will see that the major concerns of the state, intelligentsia, clerics and others relate to pretty much bog standard matters. As I have frequently said in these pages, worrying about sewers does not leave you much time for worrying about revolution. After all, while Allah and faith can get people out to prayers, paying for and cleaning sewers requires a cool head, logic and consensus driven politics.
Having a cool head, logic and consensus driven politics are characteristics of the MB in every country they operate in. While they have all but abandoned the wild and woollier side of Qutb and Banna, they are steadfast in looking at the world with eyes that are pragmatic and in line with mainstream Sharia Muslim thought. For example, they have said that non-Muslims are equal to Muslims, that a woman can participate in public life, vote, do jobs, drive, you name it (with the exception of being a head of the state), that violence is not the way and all they want is a just and peaceful society.
If nothing else, the fact that the various despotic regimes in the Arab world hate the MB itself is a plus point in their favor. Almost every regime in the Arab world has tortured, imprisoned, discriminated, beat up and in general been horrid to the MB. Syria has killed 20,000 MB people in Hama, their families and friends in a town (and people know more about Sabra & Shatila but that's ok, Muslims killed by Muslims do not matter, what matters are Muslims killed by infidels but that's for another day!). Egypt has concentration camps full of MB people. At every election, they are kicked into jail, their supporters beaten, the women molested, their democratic rights taken away, false lawsuits launched against them, their votes stolen, laws made to stack the deck against them, etc. etc. In Jordan, the electoral laws are very carefully drafted so that the Islamic Action Front (the local MB party) (whose power base is in the urban areas) are either kept out of power or have very few votes. The Jordanian intelligence services frequently keeps a very close eye on these, not hesitating to shove them into jail or arrange for unexplained disappearances for jumped up MB's who might dare to ask for democratic rights or parliamentary representation. There are MB affiliated parties in Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, Tunisia, Kuwait, anywhere there is the slightest hint of democracy and everywhere they are kept down. But they are still the danger party; they are still the only organized political opposition to the motley, moth eaten, and despotic regimes in the Arab lands. Why?
Well, there are many reasons for their success. The first and foremost is that most of the current regimes are bonkers, utterly corrupt, totally un-representative, autocratic, filled with thieves, dictators, time servers and that's just the so-called elected lot of presidents, prime ministers and members of parliament. Let us not even talk about the various kings, emperors, emirs. So if I dress up a scarecrow in a coat and top hat on a straw head, he will score better in governance compared to these assorted gangsters, goons, thieves and robbers.
But that is not just it, there are more reasons behind their success. The MB's leaders in every country, the committee members and chairmen, the district leaders, the municipal councilors, the social network leaders and workers, are almost all very highly educated (compared to the general population). In almost every country, one of their main bases are the universities, colleges and educational institutions. This provides them with three very important advantages; it provides them with a highly intelligent, ever questioning, and intellectually strong ideology. The second advantage that it provides is a cadre of young, highly motivated students who are full of energy, enthusiasm and desirous of change. And the last one is that it provides them to lay long term seeds in the minds of fertile, excited, and eager to learn students.
Nobody can doubt their commitment, despite the repression, they have stuck to the desire to be part of the political process and help their fellow humans. So that gives them a huge advantage and that is that the citizens trust them to stick with their word even if the going gets tough unlike the other assorted liars that they see on TV. And since they have already proven to be pragmatic and ditch the wild side of their ideology, people trust them even more!
Plus their internal organizational discipline is legendary. They are internally cohesive, believe in consensual decision making even if the decision making process is not very transparent (ok, so don't push it, don't forget this is the Middle East!), internal elections take place and candidates/policy are followed in a disciplined manner. There is an organizational structure (even if it is not fully transparent) and the members have bought into this structure. This means that they can mobilize much faster than the corrupt, slow moving dead hand of the state. Their charitable and social networks are legendary in education, medicine, humanitarian assistance, employment etc., Witness their reactions to natural or geo-political events ranging from the Cairo Earthquake to new changes in election law in Jordan and Iraq, to new rulers in Morocco, war in Lebanon and Palestine etc.
They are also much less corrupt than the secular/nationalist/despotic lot who are the rulers. This is, in my opinion, primarily because they are more attuned to faith and religion than the others. They actually practice what they preach, instead of the hypocritical, corrupt, thieving lot like the Fatah in Palestine, NDP in Egypt, the Ba'ath party in Syria etc. When they speak of righteous and fair behavior, people see that they mean it and live by those words, unlike the others, which immediately leads them to be thought of as better.
The last item which I would point to is their strategy to join hands with other professional and political bodies. Whether you are talking about labor unions, architect associations, association of medical personnel or doctors, teachers associations and unions, journalist unions, etc. you will see some link there. This link ranges from either full control by the MB or participating in municipal, association, parliament, state or federal elections in conjunction with other parties. This causes them to be thought as people with whom you can do business with. And why are they so attractive? Well, they bring all the above advantages and generally the support of the citizenry along with them. So to conclude on the MB, they are powerful because they are disciplined, committed, intelligent, educated, consensual, democratic, non-violent, committed to social service, trustworthy, not corrupt. Before you think that I am saying that they are gods on earth, remember that I am comparing them to frankly garbage and filth in the form of the ruling parties and autocratic thieving potentates.
Now let me ask you, given this scenario, who do you think we in the west should support? Let me put this in another way, the MB have got the support of THEIR people, it is up to us to decide whether we are on the side of the thieves, torturers, autocrats, despots or on the side of the better guys. Do not let the antics of Osama Bin Laden and other assorted violent Islamists blind you to the future of the political landscape of the Middle East. Work with them and we will have a peaceful world, work against them and the clash of civilization will indeed come true with far bloodier circumstances than now.