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April 4, 2019 8:25 am

The Muslim Brotherhood Is Challenged at Georgetown University Event

avatar by Andrew E. Harrod


Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Jordanian capital, Amman, chanting pro-Palestinian slogans in April 2018. Photo: Reuters/Muhammad Hamed.

A recent presentation by noted Muslim Brotherhood (MB) researcher Mohamed-Ali Adraoui before an audience of about 30 people at Georgetown University’s Saudi-funded Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU) was unusually balanced for ACMCU, typically a bastion of pro-Islamist and anti-Western views.

Adraoui is a visiting researcher from France, who is on a European Union fellowship at Georgetown. ACMCU director Jonathan Brown moderated the event, while his colleague John Voll and Georgetown’s Muslim chaplain Yahya Hendi attended. The audience also included regular ACMCU event attendees, such as anti-Israel former Foreign Service Officer Benjamin Tua and foreign policy commentator Stanley Kober, a Georgetown alumnus.

Adraoui described recurring patterns among American officials of neglecting the religion’s role in modern life, and the resulting dilemma of dealing with Islamism. American policymakers have recognized that Middle Eastern Islamists “are part of their societies, they are powerful, they are influential, [and] they have some role to play.” Thus, US officials wonder whether they can use Islamists “in order to tame, let’s say, their dark side, in our interest.”

Yet, he says, for “years this issue was almost inexistent [sic]” in American policy concerns. The first State Department report on the MB appeared in 1944, in response to an MB letter to the American embassy in Cairo urging American opposition to colonialism and Zionism in the Middle East. The report misidentified the MB’s founding year as 1938, not 1928, and the letter, written in Arabic, prompted the embassy to hire its first Arabic speaker.

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Although the State Department report warned against the MB’s “fanatical principles” that Egypt “should be governed by Quranic law” and that “everything non-Muslim should be detested,” American diplomats later disregarded such advice. After Egyptian military officers overthrew Egypt’s monarchy in 1952 and began aligning with the Soviet Union, American officials speculated about making the MB a Cold War ally. They met with MB leaders, such as Said Ramadan, son-in-law of MB founder Hassan al-Banna and father of the stealth Islamist Tariq Ramadan, and asked “are you in favor of the values we have been defending” and “could you basically be our partner?”

Such naïveté towards Islamism reflected an overriding American focus on Cold War communism. Adraoui recalled one American diplomat explaining in an interview that around the time of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s assassination, there was “no real interest for this radical extremist political ideology.” He noted that American policymakers viewed Sadat’s jihadist assassins as mere Soviet proxies, as they had mistakenly believed “there was no independent Islamist action outside of the Cold War framework.”

Adraoui said that a key shift in American policymakers’ thinking can be seen in Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Djerejian’s June 2, 1992 Meridian House address in Washington, DC.

Algeria was in the early stages of a bloody civil war between various Islamists after the military seized power in January 1992 (before elections would have brought Islamists to power). Djerejian’s speech indicated that “for the very first time, at the highest political and diplomatic level in US leadership, a new possible threat [of Islamism] is clearly acknowledged.” It was, Adraoui observed, a “paradigm shift in the US global strategy.”

Nonetheless, President George W. Bush courted some Islamists that he believed supported freedom as a “potential ally against the systematically violent transnational jihadists,” Adraoui noted. For example, Bush welcomed Hezbollah’s participation in 2006 Lebanese elections, believing the group would be more interested in repairing potholes than jihadi terrorism. Bush later came to condemn Hezbollah for its brutal and terrorist tactics after the election.

Likewise, President Barack Obama thought democratization would better serve American interests and Middle Eastern stability, as his June 4, 2009 Cairo speech demonstrated. Adraoui described the belief that the MB’s “revolutionary potential could be tamed” as a “key component” of Obama’s policies during Egypt’s 2011 “Arab Spring.” Later, when the MB won the Egyptian elections, America’s ambassador to Egypt at the time, Anne Patterson, told Adraoui in an interview that the MB seemed much more moderate than the Islamists she had encountered as ambassador to Pakistan.

Meanwhile, longtime State Department Middle East envoy Dennis Ross warned Adraoui in an interview that the MB “may reject the use of violence, but not as a principle.” Reflecting upon Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party and the radical background of Ennahda leader Rashid Ghannoushi, Adraoui raised the question, “Can you be an Islamist and a democrat?”

During the question and answer period, audience member Voll expressed his agreement with Adraoui regarding Islamism’s significance, despite scholarly neglect.

Given Islamism’s vital importance, Adraoui’s willingness to survey a broad variety of views on the subject is commendable, although completely out of character for ACMCU’s pro-Islamist biases. While ACMCU and the wider world of Middle East studies often degenerate into rank radical propaganda, Adraoui’s presentation gave opposing views a respectful hearing. If only more Middle East studies academics would follow suit.

Andrew E. Harrod is a Campus Watch Fellow, freelance researcher, and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project. Follow him on Twitter @AEHarrod.

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