This post was written by Katie Welsford and Emma Pearson
It was originally published on http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/katie-welsford/muslim-brotherhood_b_5544238.html
Since their removal from power this time last year, the Muslim Brotherhood has constantly been the focus of Egyptian headlines. But when, in early April, Downing Street ordered an inquiry into the group’s ‘philosophy, origins and activities’, it entered the UK domestic political scene too. With the date now passed for submitting evidence, we now wait to hear the results of the review from Cameron himself – expected before July recess.
Emerging on the heels of the Egyptian regime’s branding of the group as a ‘terrorist’ organisation following the Mansoura bomb (an attack actually claimed by Sinai-based militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis), the review has sparked considerable concern amongst politicians, academics and activists in the UK. Central to this is not just the fact that the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia – Sir John Jenkins – is authoring the review (worrying given Saudi Arabia’s virulent opposition to the Brotherhood), but that, with Cameron stating that the aim of the review is to determine “what its beliefs are in terms of both extremism and violent extremism”, it is illustrative of a trend towards the blanket condemnation of Islamist groups despite their diversity.
Condemned by the likes of al-Zawahiri for taking Muslims away from the path of jihad and towards the path of politics, the Muslim Brotherhood is far from being part and parcel with the likes of al-Qaeda. Whilst it is true that many radical jihadists began life in the group, and one of its thinkers – Sayyid Qutb – provided the basis for the cult of violent jihad, the Brotherhood has long rejected violence and emphasised its commitment to the democratic process. For decades it has opted for involvement in student unions, trade unions and syndicates, participating in elections in coalitions or as independents, whilst other Islamist groups took up arms against the state. Even as it was clamped down on by authorities, it took every opportunity to engage politically rather than violently, attracting young, educated recruits who were frustrated with the social and political stagnation within the country.
It is undoubtedly true that, as Cameron said, the more we know about the nature of the group, the better we will be able to form policy about it – and indeed the Brotherhood is cooperating fully with the review. But an overt emphasis on extremism in the Brotherhood (where it does not exist) is questionable, detracting attention from the myriad of legitimate concerns stemming from Egypt today. Prominent among these is the deteriorating human rights situation in the country – over which the UK government has remained relatively silent.
With over 3,000 killed since last July, thousands of Brotherhood members are facing lengthy sentences whilst hundreds of others have been condemned to death by hanging, following farcical mass trials. And it is not just the Brotherhood which is being targeted – the military regime is carefully working to suppress all forms of opposition. “The situation is turning into a witch hunt,” says Dr Barbara Zollner, lecturer and Brotherhood expert at Birkbeck College, London. As of November 2013, freedom of assembly has been restricted, with prominent activists such as Alaa Abdel Fattah, Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel imprisoned for supposedly violating the new law. Freedom of speech has also been curbed – with several TV stations shut down, journalists arrested and detained, individuals seized from the streets for holding banners with anti-military slogans, and academics arrested for tweeting their opinions.
Remaining silent on this crackdown serves simply to condone al-Sisi’s autocratic behaviour, sending a message that democracy will never work and feeding straight into the rhetoric of extremist groups such as al-Qaeda. “Just rolling in with the troops like that…it leaves the youth disillusioned, convinced that democracy doesn’t work and that violence is the only answer,” says Dr Zollner. At a high level meeting discussing the Syrian crisis last week, a member of the group affiliated with the Syrian opposition commented on this very issue, stressing his fears that events in Egypt had persuaded ordinary Syrians that negotiations and politics could never solve the crisis, pushing them towards gun-wielding militants. In an unstable region where radicalisation is all too possible – and in many places, already all too real – we need to work to stop the word ‘democracy’ falling on deaf ears.
With the moderate ideological makeup of today’s Muslim Brotherhood agreed on by academics and experts throughout the world, we should be very wary of feeding the false narrative championed by Egyptian and Saudi elites. As ISIS marches across Iraq with breath-taking speed, al Shebaab orchestrates attacks in Kenya and Boko Haram wages war on the Nigerian state, it is crucial that we learn to acknowledge the pluralism within the Islamist scene, and recognise those groups with whom we can ‘do business’. Treating Islamism as a homogenous category and remaining silent about the Egyptian government’s increasingly autocratic tendencies will have dangerous side effects. Not only do we betray our own democratic values, but we play straight into the hands of radical elements, quashing those who provide a bulwark against them.