Ausgabe 27/2007

Dancing with the Devil Charting the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood

Part 2: 'Time Is Working in our Favor'

Zaki bin Rashid is a 50-year-old engineer with a carefully trimmed full beard and brown callus on his forehead. The spot is a symbol of his piety, since he got it from bending over and putting his head to the floor in prayer. Rashid is the secretary general of the Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. He lives in a clean new building in the center of Amman. The party’s flag on his desk shows two joined hands and his computer’s screensaver is a picture of a sword and the Koran.

Jordan is an exception. The Muslim Brotherhood has been tolerated here for almost 60 years. The small Hashemite kingdom has chosen to pursue dialogue and understanding with the Islamists. “We don’t want install a theocracy like in Iran. We are moderate Islamists,” says Rashid.

In countries where the Brotherhood is well established like in Jordan, the foundations usually go back to the 1970s and 80s. Backed by the West during the Cold War, many autocratic Arab regimes specifically catered to the Islamists in the hope they would provide a counterweight to the communists. In the end, though, it turned out to be a miscalculation of historical proportions.

Egypt was the first to discover what the militant spin off of political Islam was capable of: During a parade on Oct. 6, 1981 in Cairo members of the group Islamic Jihad stormed the stands to murder President Anwar Sadat.

Al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al Zawahari: The text book example of a member of the Muslim Bortherhood turned terrorist

Al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al Zawahari: The text book example of a member of the Muslim Bortherhood turned terrorist

One of the leading figures of Islamic Jihad, the Egyptian doctor Ayman al Zawahiri, is now considered the textbook example of a member of the Muslim Brotherhood turned terrorist. Once the talented scion of a bourgeois family, as a student he was enthralled by the fiery writings of Muslim Brotherhood ideologist Sayyid Qutb, which would lead him to later become a mujahedeen in Afghanistan and the trusted lieutenant of Osama bin Laden. Zawahiri’s path has inspired al-Qaida supporters all the way from the Middle East to Europe and is simultaneously concrete proof for the security forces of the Arab world of just how dangerous the Brotherhood is.

But it was al-Qaida’s most successful operation that also led to a split within the political Islam movement. Despite Zawahiri’s recent plea for Muslim solidarity with Hamas, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 caused a rift between the jihadists and the reformists. Zawahiri complained that the Brotherhood was luring "thousands of young Muslim men to voting booths instead of recruiting them for holy war."

A Safety Valve for Moderate Islam?

And that’s exactly what many of the Brotherhood’s leaders claim is their main duty. “Without us most of the youth of this age would have chosen the path of violence,” says Essam al Eriyan of Egypt. "The Brotherhood has become a safety valve for moderate Islam."

But are statements like that worth anything? Is the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world truly determined to follow the example of the Turkish Islamists and become a part of the democratic process? Or is what the Cairo weekly Rosa al Yousef wrote last week true? "For the Brotherhood democracy is nothing but a dance with the devil," the paper wrote. "It is the means to come to power. Afterwards they will whip democracy and behead it with the sword."

Political Islam has many faces -- one wears modest makeup and brown headscarf and a matching brown silk outfit. Devout while still chic, Nadia Yassine is the 48-year-old spokeswoman of the illegal but tolerated Justice and Welfare association and the face of Morocco’s Islamists, who have so far been kept out of parliament.

Whoever wishes to speak to her must travel to Salé, Rabat’s nearby sister city. The slums there are an Islamist stronghold. A car with darkened windows is parked in front of her apartment. “I’m under surveillance,” she says apologetically while offering sweet peppermint tea and pastries.

Across the Maghreb, it’s small extremist groups that have been particularly active in recent years, including carrying out terrorist attacks in Casablanca in May 2003 that killed 45 people. After Morocco’s King Mohammed VI responded by announcing an “end of the laxity,” Justice and Welfare had to move quickly to avoid being equated with the bombers. “We are a violence-free, a spiritual movement,” says Nadia Yassine, the daughter of a prominent Sufi sheikh.

Yassine, who studied political science and cultural studies, could one day follow in her father’s footsteps -- which would certainly be unique in the Arab world. For her part, Yassine doesn't see any contradiction in being what a self-described feminist and Islamist. "Our religion is very much friendly to women," she says, "but the men, these little machos ... it's their fault that the whole world believes the opposite." Would she get rid of the country’s growing democracy if an Islamic state was created according to her conditions? “We demand a Muslim pact that includes all social groups,” she says. Otherwise it will be impossible to rule out further attacks or even a coup d’état -- in Morocco or other Arab countries. The West will have the choice of whom it supports in the future.

Egyptian Amr Hamzawy admits he’s become more cautious with his judgments over the past two years. The renowned political scientist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. is an expert on Islamists movements in the Arab world. Two years ago he was still optimistic. "The moderate Islamists have embraced democratic procedures and have shown a strong commitment to the rule of law," he wrote back then. Europe and the United States would be well advised to engage these “grassroots Islamists” and talk autocratic regimes out of pursuing repressive measures against them.

"Islamists Will never Use the Word Secular"

But these days he’s a bit more reticent. There are “gray areas” where the Islamists need to make clarifications on where they stand: for example, their understanding of sharia, or Islamic law, as well as their take on women’s rights, religious minorities and violence. But Hamzawy also says the West has to get use to the fact that Islamism uses a different vocabulary than Western political discourse: “Islamists will never use the word secular to describe the impartiality of civil institutions. And one shouldn’t expect them to give up their emphasis of Islamic teachings as the foundation for all actions.”

The Muslim Brotherhood’s success over the years can be attributed to two things: the failings of Arab governments and the charitable deeds they have done for the poor, ill and disenfranchised. Whether they can continue to do so in the Gaza Strip under increasing pressure from the West remains to be seen.

Hamas is already trying to move forward with its agenda. In addition to watching over the new traffic cops, Hamas's paramilitary police force -- decked out in blue trousers and black t-shirts -- has also carried out drug and alcohol raids and confiscated weapons. They’ve now stopped wearing their balaclavas, or face masks, so that the public won't perceive them as a danger or threat.

“First we gave the people security again,” says Hamas leader Abu Leila, who then goes on to explain that the next step is to restore law and order in the Palestinian Authority.

"We will need more time before installing sharia," he says, "but time is working in our favor."



© DER SPIEGEL 27/2007
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