The Brotherhood that splits the Muslim world

The Brotherhood that splits the Muslim world

A 59-name blacklist that the countries led by Saudi Arabia announced on June 9 further escalated tension between themselves and Qatar. 

It also shows that the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhvani Muslimin) plays a crucial role in this split, at least as important as their stances regarding armed organizations linked to Iran or al-Qaeda. The fact that the list targets the Brotherhood’s 90-year-old spiritual leader Yousuf al-Qaradawi can certainly be seen as an indication that the Brotherhood, which says it aims to unite all Muslims, is put forward by the Saudi-led Arab coalition as a major reason of the split.

The ultimatum given to Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates on June 5 to stop courting with Iran and stop supporting the al-Qaeda linked organizations did not explicitly name the support given by the gas-rich Gulf country to the Brotherhood, or Ikhvan. But subsequent developments have made it clear just how disturbed those countries are by the assistance made to the Islamist movement by Qatar.
Al-Qaradawi, who is from the generation that personally met and worked with the Egyptian Islamist scholar and ideologue Hassan al-Banna, who had established the Ikhvan back in 1928. Al-Qaradawi has a popular TV show called “Sharia and Life” on the Doha-based TV Qatari channel Al Jazeera, and attracts a regular audience of 60 million to watch his promotion of a hardline version of Sunni Islam. Other important Ikhvan names are believed to live in Qatar, such as Khaled Mashal of Hamas, the militant group that rules the Gaza Strip and is believed to be the Palestinian extension of the Ikhvan ideology. 

The Ikhvan problem was recently put back on the agenda by the UAE and Saudi Arabia after U.S. President Donald Trump mentioned it as a terror organization, together with the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan reacted against that categorization, saying he did not see the Ikhvan as a terrorist organization but rather as an ideological movement. Actually the Brotherhood is not yet designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., though Russia designated it as such in 2003 because of its activities aiming to establish an Islamic state in the Russian north Caucasus.

The Brotherhood is a fairly loosely organized formation, often encouraging its followers to get involved in democratic life and to try to inject Islamic principles into daily life and politics. Because no terrorist action has been claimed on behalf of Ikhvan, (despite prominent figures, including al-Qaradawi, occasionally praising terrorist actions by the likes of al-Qaeda), there is an ongoing debate in the U.S. about whether it would be right to denounce the Ikhvan as a terrorist group. 

Such a move would alienate millions of Ikhvan’s followers from democratic life and institutions. The group actually has a jihadist ideology which on paper is little different from al-Qaeda, but crucially it tries to promote it through legitimate democratic institutions rather than through terrorist campaigns, (at least since the Second World War). It has for many years been the main - though unrecognized - opposition movement in Egypt and Syria. Back in 1982, then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad ordered a purge campaign against Ikhvan, which resulted in the killing of between 20,000 and 40,000 people in the cities of Hama and Homs. 
The backbone of the Syrian revolt in 2011 was made up of the Brotherhood, as was also true in Egypt. But when Egypt’s Ikhvan-backed leader Mohamed Morsi was toppled by his chief of staff Abdel Fettah al-Sisi in a Saudi-backed coup in 2013, the Syrian Ikhvan also disintegrated, with many of its younger grassroots members joining even more radical and terrorist movements like al-Nusra, the Syria extension of al-Qaeda and ISIL.

Egypt and Syria declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization as recently as 2012, while Saudi Arabia, Bahrein and the UAE did so in 2014.

The Egyptian example in 2012 when the Ikhvan-backed Morsi came into power through general elections, rang alarm bells for autocratic Arab rulers as a bad example for their kingdoms, sheikhdoms and emirates. After all, coming to power through democratic means is not a relief if the regime you want to establish is an oppressive one. However, the regimes that fight against Ikhvan themselves do not really promote a better, more democratic or more just world.

So the regional split caused by the presence of Ikhvan is not likely to go away with blacklists or bans on certain key names. Indeed, it is most likely to remain a major problem between various Arab and Muslim-majority countries.