The Muslim Brotherhood’s Patient Jihad
Mohamed Morsi’s recent election as president of Egypt has proved a matter of concern. A candidate from the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, many fear that Morsi’s victory, along with the Brotherhood’s parliamentary successes, will threaten Egyptian-Israeli peace. More generally, it is unclear whether the Brotherhood, now empowered in its native state, will prove a moderating or destabilizing force in the Arab world.
And so observers listened carefully to Morsi’s inauguration speech, in which he seemed to be addressing these two concerns. Part of his speech, widely interpreted as a reference to future relations with Israel, emphasized “the state of Egypt’s commitment to international treaties and agreements.” More broadly, he declared that “we carry a message of peace to the world.”
Encouraging as these statements may be, in fact they accord neatly with the Brotherhood’s sophisticated strategy for dealing with outsiders. That strategy is laid out comprehensively in Mustafa Mashhur’s Jihad is the Way. Mashhur, leader of the Brotherhood in Egypt from 1996 to 2002, explains the movement’s religious beliefs and aspirations in detail especially the role of violent jihad in bringing about a world under a unified Islamic Caliphate. It gives reason to doubt Morsi’s reassurances.
Jihad is the Way defines Israel and Israelis as “the criminal, thieving gangs of Zion,” and Mashhur stresses that the notion of Israel’s foundation on stolen land is not an opening position for negotiations, but a non-negotiable article of “faith and religion.” Further, the land was stolen not only from Palestinian Arabs but from Islam: “Know that the problems of the Islamic world, such as Palestine… are not issues of territories and nations, but of faith and religion. They are problems of Islam and the Muslims, and they can be resolved neither by negotiation nor by recognizing the enemy’s right to the Islamic land he stole.”
How can Morsi commit to keeping his country’s treaty with Israel when his religious beliefs preclude it?
As for the Brotherhood’s impending effect on the wider Arab world, Morsi’s “message of peace” is also not what it seems. Mashhur explains: “Jihad and preparation for jihad are not only for the purpose of fending-off assaults and attacks against Muslims by Allah’s enemies, but are also for the purpose of realizing the great task of establishing an Islamic state, strengthening the religion, and spreading it around the world.”
“Martyrdom for Allah,” Mashhur writes, “is our most exalted wish.” Jihad is indeed the way, and not only has Morsi never rejected this ideology he is now its most senior political representative in Egypt.
So how are these contradictions to be understood? Why does Morsi talk peace when he explicitly adheres to an ideology of war?
The answer lies in the fundamental principles of the Muslim Brotherhood principles largely overlooked in the West. As opposed to the ideology of Al-Qaeda, which preaches continuous confrontation and attacks on infidels regardless of the immediate political costs, the Brotherhood places the highest priority on careful preparation and the strategic timing of political and military activity. Jihad is the Way stresses the necessity of timing the eventual jihad prudently; as a prooftext, it cites a Quranic passage in which Muhammad does not rush to fight until the timing is right:
“When the Muslims were a persecuted minority, the Prophet Muhammad did not instruct the Muslims to retaliate. Instead, he taught them “Sabr,” patience and resolve… and when the conditions were right, permission was given to fight in the words of Allah…”
Timing, therefore, is an integral part of the Brotherhood’s political and military decisions:
“When the Brotherhood sends their youth to jihad at the appropriate time, they are not pushing them towards destruction. Rather, abstaining from jihad at its appropriate time is destruction . . . Similarly, it is not necessary for the Muslims to repel every attack or damage caused by the enemies of Allah immediately, rather [this is required] when ability and the circumstances allow for it.”
In this context, Morsi’s statements look more like stratagems. Standing by Egypt’s international commitments now does not preclude war later; and assurances of peaceful intent do not jettison jihad from the agenda in fact, as far as the Brotherhood is concerned, they advance it. Morsi does not have to change his opinions, nor does he have to reject the Brotherhood’s fundamental beliefs when he speaks of peace. Since nullifying its treaty with Israel might isolate Egypt politically and bring it economic ruin, Morsi can instead apply the Brotherhood’s principle, as learned from Muhammad: “‘Sabr’ patience and resolve.” The necessity to strengthen and stabilize Egyptian society is an adequate priority now it is, moreover, the very means by which to prepare Egypt to lead the Islamic world and to fulfill Islam’s global destiny.
Peaceful statements released from Egypt over the next few years should not deceive observers into believing that the Brotherhood has abandoned its religious ideology and its comprehensive Islamic vision. Talking peace, while preparing for Jihad, is an integral part of Jihad.
So when will Egypt break its treaty with “the criminal, thieving gangs of Zion”? Morsi will make the same calculation as Muhammad: when conditions are right.