How well did Middle East studies professors at American universities interpret the Egyptian uprising, particularly the risk of the Muslim Brotherhood gaining power? Among fifteen prominent professors who commented publicly on the uprising before and immediately after Mubarak’s ouster, fully thirteen believed that overthrowing Mubarak would lead to democracy in Egypt and that the Muslim Brotherhood would play a constructive role. Instead of explaining the Brotherhood’s Islamist agenda to the American public, they naively discounted it.
UC Irvine professor Mark LeVine predicted “real democracy” and a new, more just world order. Fawaz Gerges (Sarah Lawrence College and London School of Economics) expected “a new game of politics that focuses on democracy, on pluralism.” Ian Lustick (Penn) likened the Muslim Brotherhood to European Christian Democratic parties. Mark Tessler (Michigan) compared the Brotherhood to American social conservatives. Carrie Rosefsky Wickham (Emory) said the Brotherhood “has earned a place at the table, and no transition to a democratic process can occur without it.” And Bruce Rutherford (Colgate) wrote, “In political documents and myriad interviews over the past fifteen years, the Brotherhood’s leadership has expressed a commitment to democracy and human rights.”
Oddly, Rutherford, author of the 2008 book Egypt after Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab World, discussed restrictions placed on presidential candidates in the Brotherhood’s 2007 platform, but he seemed unaware that the same document also sought to enshrine Shariah (Islamic law) as the sole source of legislation and proposed establishing a clerical council above the legislative and executive branches of government. And shortly after Mubarak fell, the Brothers sought the authority to appoint clergy, which would give them direct control over such a council. Furthermore, it’s hard to discern a commitment to human rights in the words of Muslim Brotherhood spiritual guide Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who favors mutilating the genitals of young girls and exterminating world Jewry. Rutherford conceded that other Egyptians mistrust the Brotherhood, and even helpfully suggested ways it might reassure the wary Coptic Christians. Perhaps those Egyptians know something about the Muslim Brotherhood that Rutherford doesn’t.
While the Brothers’ ultimate goal is a universal Islamic caliphate governed by Shariah, they subscribe to a doctrine of stages, of which stage two, da’wa, or peaceful outreach, must precede conquest. Therefore, we cannot extrapolate their circumspection under Mubarak into a future when they might judge conditions ripe for seizing power. Gerges, LeVine, and Wickham all made this error.
Wickham, author of the excellent 2002 book Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt, has a more nuanced view of the Muslim Brotherhood than her peers, but seems to wear rose-tinted glasses. Writing in early February for CNN.com and Foreign Affairs, she focused on reformers, most of whom—by her own account—have left the Brotherhood. At the same time, she overlooked the Brotherhood’s official policies, which show these reformers have not succeeded in changing the organization, and she dismissed as mere “rhetoric” the leaders’ statements. She also whitewashed the Brotherhood’s early history, which included terrorizing Egyptian Jews and Christians and collaborating with the Nazis.
Of the fifteen professors, only one, Jamsheed Choksy (Indiana University), strongly opposed empowering the Muslim Brotherhood. Not coincidentally, he was the only one who considered American strategic interests. By contrast, Rashid Khalidi (Columbia) explicitly opposed interfering with a Brotherhood ascendency, even if it hurt our geopolitical standing. Opining about foreign policy in a strategic vacuum is nonsensical, so Jamsheed Choksy stood out as an exemplary public intellectual.
Choksy viewed the Arab upheaval as the beginning of a new power struggle between secular democracy and Iranian theocracy. In his writings, he argues that both the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Iran advocate creating Islamic states, acquiring atomic bombs, ending the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, and curbing Western influence in the Middle East. Iran covertly funds the Brotherhood and formed ties with Tunisian Islamist Ghannouchi during his long exile. And shortly after long-time American ally Hosni Mubarak fell, Brotherhood leader Kamal al-Hilbawi flew to Iran for an Islamic unity conference, where he declared his wish to emulate Iran. Because of the dangers of a potential Iranian nuclear umbrella and Iran’s skill at co-opting unrest among its neighbors, Choksy urged Western countries to take a proactive role in supporting democratic elements versus Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood.
In stark contrast to Choksy, Juan Cole (Michigan), Gerges, and Lustick promoted the ruling Turkish Islamist AKP party as a model for the Muslim Brotherhood. But the AKP is a poor example on both strategic and democratic grounds. Since its 2002 election victory, the AKP has reoriented Turkey away from the United States and Israel and towards Iran. It refused to let the U.S. attack Iraq from Turkish soil in 2003, and the Turkish government participated in the sordid Mavi Marmara affair. Domestically, the AKP has systematically eroded democracy by disarming checks and balances and arresting journalists, military officers, and others they accuse of being involved in the apocryphal Ergenekon and Balyoz conspiracies. Turkey currently holds more journalists in prison than any other country, and between 700 and 1,000 Turkish journalists face legal proceedings. AKP Prime Minister Erdogan famously commented, “Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off,” and he seems to be living up to his ideals.
Regrettably, most Middle East studies professors failed to elucidate the ideology and goals of the Muslim Brotherhood and explain why they are incompatible with both liberal democracy and a stable world order. The Arab upheaval presents both opportunities and dangers, and it is crucial that we understand what’s at stake. Each country is different. While we hope in time the burgeoning new spirit of democracy will bear fruit, in Egypt, early elections will favor the Brotherhood over the poorly-organized and leaderless demonstrators. The military, which remains in power, seems closer ideologically to the Brothers than the democrats. And because of their oligopolistic business interests, the military officers are particularly unsuited to solve Egypt’s severe economic problems, so another round of revolution may be in order, with unknown results. What is long overdue is a revolution at American universities – in the struggle against the entrenched apologists for radical Islam, the first cries for freedom have barely been heard.